Job interviews are among the most daunting challenges you can face in the work environment, so planning is paramount.

While many candidates prepare for interviews by doing in-depth research into the role and the organisation they are applying to, they are sometimes caught on the hop by questions about themselves and often forget to plan for an interview panel asking whether they have any questions about the employer.

A survey of 100 UK business leaders, by recruitment website, reveals that respondents believe not sharing specific accomplishments (57%) and not asking good questions (51%) are the two biggest mistakes made by candidates at job interviews.

While some of the other faux pas made at interview cited by the survey – such as falling asleep, texting or keeping a crash helmet on – should be easy to avoid for most right-minded candidates, practising your responses is vital, according to Tony Roy, president of CareerBuilder’s Europe Middle East and Africa division.

"Job interviews are high-stress, high-pressure situations," he says. "It’s important to practice responses. Research the company and industry and prepare thoughtful questions about new developments and opportunities. Show enthusiasm and provide examples of what you can bring to the table for their organisation."

Martin Warnes, managing director of recruitment website, agrees that preparation is the key to a good interview.

“It is all too easy for your mind to go blank at an interview, or to come away kicking yourself about how weak your answers sounded simply because you hadn’t prepared anything,” he says. “So it is certainly worth working through a set of questions beforehand and thinking though your best answers.”

But, at the same time, when answers sound too rehearsed, interviewers get suspicious and can even start to think you might be making things up, warns Warnes. “So yes, it is important to prepare, but once you are in the interview itself try to relax and focus on listening to the actual questions the interviewer asks,” he says. “Answer each one directly, rather than just cramming in everything you have prepared whether it is relevant or not.”

Nowadays many employers for even the most technical of jobs are looking for candidates to illustrate specific “competencies” at interview, according to Warnes, who adds that, in many cases, every one of a candidate’s answers will be given a score based on whether or not they are thought to have demonstrated certain values or kinds of behaviour in their previous career.

“Interviewers want evidence, which means they are hoping to hear specific examples of actual things you have done – which you need to be able to expand on further if the interviewer probes for more information,” he says.

“This makes it even more important that you spend time thinking about your past experience,” Warnes adds. “ Take a couple of hours to recall details from a range of different times when you have made a difference, reacted well under pressure, or have gone the extra mile to succeed. If the job description says they are looking for particular attitudes or values, make sure you have an example which illustrates how your profile fits each one.”

This lesson also applies to questions about personality, according to Richard Clarke, director at recruitment website Redgoldfish Jobs.

“When you are asked ‘tell me about yourself’, don’t start rambling on about how much you love watching the Simpsons on the TV,” he says. “That isn’t what the interviewer is looking to hear. You will probably need to answer this question with a question. Perhaps you could try saying ‘What would you like to know about me?’ This then gives your interviewer the chance to get you to tell them exactly what information they are looking for.”

Just as all the seemingly hard questions are over, the interviewer will invariably ask the candidate whether they have any questions themselves – and this is often seen as important as the rest of the interview, according to Clarke.

“Not asking any questions at all should not be an option as an interviewer will take this as a sign of disinterest,” he says. “However, you can blow the interview completely by asking the wrong type of question. It is never a good idea to rush straight in and ask about holiday entitlement, length of tea breaks, lunch breaks etc. This will give the employer the sign of your priorities in the workplace and it won’t be a good one. I would go so far as to say that second to not asking anything at all, questions such as these could seal your fate completely.”

Clarke suggests asking questions about the role, the department, training, reporting lines and opportunities for promotion.
It is important to remember that the interview process is not adversarial – the interviewer needs to find the right person for the job, and is keen that you give them the evidence that will enable them to decide on you, Warnes says.

“While it may feel strange to prepare and practice in order to come across as spontaneous and authentic, that’s the name of the game,” he says. “You’ve usually only got an hour to impress someone that you are the person they want, so it is really worth putting in the time beforehand to help you make the most of every opportunity you have to impress.”

How to ace the interview

  • Prepare an "I’m fabulous” file. Make sure to incorporate examples of past successes and ways you have contributed to your previous employers into the discussion.
  • Stay positive. If you’ve been out of work for a while, don’t apologise. Employers know it’s a tough job market. What they’ll be looking for is how active you have been, did you volunteer, take a class, do something to grow professionally. Emphasise what you learned from the experience.
  • Come in with ideas. One of the best ways to stand out is to show that you’re already thinking like an employee.