20 December 2017

Interview skills for LIS students and new grads: notes from an ALIA panel

I was a panellist at an ALIA Students and New Graduates Group workshop on interview skills in September.

Having had countless job interviews (some more successful than others!) and also having been a chair and member of quite a few interview panels, I can see things from both sides of the table and was happy to share some practical advice along with my other panellists.

Below are my raw notes prepared in advance for the session - not all of these were used on the day and they do reflect the sector I am most familiar with (academic libraries).

For other perspectives, you can also read a wrap-up of the event on the ALIA SNGG blog and view a recording of the panel session on their Facebook page.

What can I do to prepare myself for an interview?

How do I stop anxiety?

You can’t really! However, there are a few practical things that can help.
  • Get a good night’s sleep the night before
  • Don’t over-caffeinate
  • Remember to take some deep breaths while you are waiting and in between questions. 
As a panel member I expect you to be feeling a bit nervous and it is absolutely OK for you to acknowledge that you are feeling that way. It’s actually really uncomfortable for the panel too when someone is very nervous - we want interviews to be as positive as possible for everyone.

It is OK if you are feeling really out of control to ask for a moment to compose yourself. Take a deep breath, have a drink of water, then when you are feeling ready give the panel a smile and let them know you are OK to go on.

What do I wear?

I usually think about what might be standard for the role and go slightly more dressy than that.

It's important to choose something that you feel comfortable in - there is no need to add to your anxiety / discomfort, and for that reason, I would avoid wearing something that you haven’t worn before.

What should I bring?

Things to consider bringing include:
  • A copy of your CV and application (for your own use - the panel will already have copies of these)
  • Any notes that you think might help you. But remember, these should be prompts rather than written out answers - you are there to talk to the panel not read to them! 
  • A pen and a piece of paper to jot down any keywords from the question can be useful - writing a few notes can also give you a bit of breathing space if you get asked something tricky and need to gather your thoughts. 

What are the technicalities of a panel interview?

How do you rank candidates during the interview?

At my place of work, questions would usually be related to the selection criteria. We would also usually have an icebreaker / opener along the lines of “Tell us why you’ve applied for this job and what you think you would bring to it.”

Panellists will have a list of questions with some pointers from the chair about what to look for when scoring.

We use a 1-5 scale and also take a lot of notes so that we have information for panel discussions later on.

How do you formulate interview questions?

Questions would usually be based on the selection criteria and on behavioural interview principles.

Depending on the job and the level we might also include a work task of some kind. We would let people know beforehand what this is if it requires any preparation, or would at least give them a heads-up that a work test of some kind will be part of the interview.

What questions should I prepare to ask the panel?

The specific question doesn't matter so much to me, but what I am looking for would be:
  • Questions that demonstrate that you have done some research about the organisation
  • Questions that show you are genuinely interested in the position e.g. What would a typical day be like?, What types of activities would I be involved in during my first six months? 
You should also ask anything that you need to to convince yourself that you would take the job if offered it - it is a two-way street so if you have concerns this is your chance to air them.

What happens after the interview?

When do you call referees? What questions do you ask them?

I call referees as soon as possible after the interview, though it can sometimes take a few days to organise a phone call.

I ask questions based on the selection criteria and use the same behavioural style as for interviewees - I ask for specific examples of particular skills or experiences that we are after.

If there are any niggling concerns from the interview I might ask something specific about that.

I also ask these extra questions:
  • What do you think this person’s strengths are?
  • What areas do you think this person may need some coaching or professional development in to enable them to succeed in this role?
  • Would you employ / work with this person again?

How long does it take to decide on a candidate?

It usually does not long to make a decision once the referee checks have been done. However HR processes can take a really long time!

The chair of the panel will usually have to provide some documentations justifying the panel’s decision. Then there are likely to be different levels of approval in HR, Finance and other areas that have to be granted before an offer can be made.

On those "soft skills"...

Who should I address when talking to the panel?

The person who asked the question is a good place to start but it is good if you can make some eye contact and look around a bit if you can remember to do that.

What can I do to stop from showing how nervous I am?

See points made above about not over-caffeinating, getting enough sleep and remembering to breathe.

I get really shaky hands sometimes in interviews. If that happens, I try to keep them in my lap under the table.

What kind of body language should I demonstrate in the interview?

A nice firm handshake and a friendly smile goes a long way when you first enter the room. Making as much eye contact as you are comfortable with is also good.

Don't wear anything that is going to encourage you to fidget with clothes, hair and jewellery. It's really distracting for the panel!

Try to have an open posture. Sit up straight with your shoulders back - this helps with breathing too.

How do you select interview candidates?

Masters or diploma qualification, does it matter?

It will depend on the position but usually having an undergraduate or postgraduate degree is less important to me in my assessment than your responses to the selection criteria.

Visas, English as a second language

The rules around visas are usually dictated by legislation and workplace policies - the supervisor usually does not have much say in this.

For me, it is not your English language skills per se but the ability to communicate well to a variety of audiences that is really important. I work in a technical back-of-house function but we still have to communicate with other parts of IT, with clients, and with vendors all the time. We also need to be able to produce very clear written documentation for different audiences.

Years of experience vs "new graduate" willing to learn

Experience is really important. In addressing selection criteria, you will do better if you can provide specific examples of how you would be able to do the job or learn how to do the job. This is what you generally get from the workplace, which is why I would encourage people to make the most of their placements, well-chosen volunteer opportunities, and any short-term work that you can get while you are studying.

Internal vs external staff 

Panels who are doing their jobs properly should be interviewing candidates on their own merits. It should not be the case that internal candidates get special treatment. I have employed an external candidate over an internal candidate who had been acting in the role.

However what you must realise is that if you are up against someone who has already got experience in a particular job that will enable them to supply really good stories in their written applications and interviews. So that is why they have an edge.


Again, panels should be as neutral as possible in assessing candidates against the criteria. However at the final stages then fit with the organisation and longer term planning can definitely come into it. It is very expensive to recruit someone and induct them into the organisation and then have them leave and have to do it all over it again.

I have personally employed someone over-qualified who I believe could use a job as a stepping stone to something else. I don’t have a problem with that as long as the expectations are clear that I would expect a high performance from that person while they are in the job.

What are your top tips for a candidate during an interview?

I would encourage you to think very clearly about the first impressions that you will make and in particular how you will respond to the first question you will be asked, which is usually about why you have applied for the job and what you will bring to it.

This is often really badly answered. People waffle on for ages, repeat what’s already in their written application, or focus only on themselves (e.g. I am ready for a challenge, I want to take the next step in my career).

My advice is, put yourself in the shoes of the panel. We want the best outcome for our organisation and going through recruitment is a time consuming and highly stressful process for us as well. We are not there to solve your problem of not having a job or sufficient career progression. We are there to solve our problem which is that we have a gap in our organisation that we need to fill with the right person for the job.

If we’re interviewing you then you are likely very close to being that right person. You can make our jobs easier for us by focusing not just on why the job would be a good thing for you, but why having you in the job would be a great thing for us.