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Career development: How to succeed at job interviews

Career development interview: Shutterstock

In a competitive job market, getting an interview is an achievement in itself. Now that you’ve got the employer’s attention, how can you ensure that you make the best impression in person? Matt Moody gathered some perspectives

1. Prepare for success

Preparation is the key to success for job interviews. Proper research will calm your nerves, help you answer questions confidently and enable you to impress the interviewer with pertinent questions. For planners, both preparation and research are aspects of the job itself, so it’s even more important to demonstrate them at interview.

How should you go about it? “Interviewers are impressed when candidates come armed with knowledge about the company,” says Lauren Edwards, planning management consultant with recruiter Oyster Partnership. “Very rarely will they expect you to memorise facts like when the company was founded, but it’s still good to know this information.”

For Greg Dowden, associate director at Indigo Planning, you need to go the extra mile to stand out. “Just memorising the website won’t impress us,” he stresses. “You’ll stand out for more if you’ve researched using secondary or tertiary sources – it shows a genuine interest in both planning and working for us.”

Knowing the company’s staff and what they do can give you an edge. “Planning is a small world. It’s worth scouring LinkedIn for either your interviewers or people on the team you’re hoping to join,” says Edwards.

“There’s a good chance you’ll have been on the same university course as someone at the company. If you trust them, sending them a message might reveal some inside information – but don’t get caught up in office politics.”

"Planning is a small world. It's worth scouting LinkedIn for your interviewees or people on the team you're hoping to join"

It’s important too to know what you’re applying for and why you want it. “For some local authority contracting roles, it could be as basic as a 10-minute ‘chat’ to make sure you’re the right fit for the team,” adds Edwards. But other interviews might involve competency exercises, or more commonly you could be asked to talk the interviewer through your CV.

“At junior level, employers might ask about university modules or why you want to get into town planning. For more senior consultancy positions you’ll be expected to talk specifically about things like fees, targets and business generation. If it’s a local authority position you’ll need to know the area. Know the role and what is expected of you.”

At some larger companies, interviews are designed to focus primarily on personal qualities. “Our initial interview days involve activities with role playing, teamwork and thinking on your feet,” Dowden explains. “We’re looking for leadership skills, your ability to interact with others, calmness under pressure and your sense of humour. These can’t be practised or prepared, so it’s important to get yourself into a positive ‘can do’ frame of mind beforehand.”

Easier said than done, perhaps. But, says Edwards: “Remember, you’ve been invited to interview for a reason.”

On a purely practical level, she says a timely arrival is important. “Try to enter the office around 10 minutes before your allotted time. Getting there an hour early won’t impress anyone, but absolutely do not be late!”

Essential tips:

  • Search Google News for the latest information on your potential employer.
  • Leave examples of your work with the interviewer – but make sure they’re not confidential.

2. Perform at interview

Take your cue from the interviewer, says Dowden. “The way they open and guide you through the interview will give you a good idea of how formal or informal they expect you to be.”

Before you even speak, your interviewer will assess you through non-verbal signals, says Edwards. “First impressions are really important, so make sure you make a strong introduction – smile, keep a good posture, have a solid handshake and make eye contact.”

Edwards also advocates a conversational approach to the interview, if the format allows. “Talking should be as close to a 50/50 split as possible. You should be trying to find out about the job just as much as the interviewer is finding out about you.”

Informal interviews can throw up unexpected questions that you may struggle to answer immediately. But you can use these to your advantage, says Dowden. “Stay calm, take a deep breath and give your best answer. How you deal with this is often just as important as the answer you give.”

"The questions section tells me just as much about you as the interview itself”

Asking questions shows that you are engaged and interested – they can also steer the interviewer towards your strong topics. In more formal interviews, however, you might be expected to wait until the end for questions. “There’s a good chance some of your questions will get answered during the interview, so keep making notes throughout so you don’t draw a blank at the end,” advises Edwards.

This is your “time to shine”, says Dowden, so it’s crucial to prepare questions that will impress. “The questions section tells me just as much about you as the interview itself,” he says. “I’m looking for intelligent questions that show you’re genuinely interested in working for us. But the roles are reversed. You can judge how interesting our answers are for yourself, and it’s prime time to fill in any gaps in your knowledge of the company.”

Essential tips:

  • Accept an offer of a drink – taking a sip can give you extra thinking time if you’re faced with a tough question.
  • Criticising your current company or colleagues is unprofessional – talk positively where you can.

3. Follow up

The French call it L’esprit de l’escalier – even if you feel the interview went perfectly, there’ll always be something you think of afterwards that you wish you’d said. Is there anything that can be done?

“It’s certainly acceptable to send an email afterwards with some extra thoughts – within reason,” says Edwards “Directors and heads of department have busy schedules, so don’t badger them. But a single email with a few questions, some extra thoughts or even examples of your work can be worthwhile.”

Dowden recommends a request for feedback. “[It] shows that you care about the result of the interview.” he says. “The real question when it comes to following up is ‘How soon is too soon?’. You should only ask when you know the outcome of the interview.”

Edwards agrees that following up too soon can seem “desperate and annoying”, but not that you should only follow up after the company’s decision. “It’s best to leave it two to three days. Even though some companies don’t provide feedback, you are entitled to ask for it.”

"A single email with a few questions, some extra thoughts or even examples of your work can be worthwhile"

If you’re offered the job – congratulations! The hard part is over, but the question of accepting and negotiating remains. “Make sure you accept or decline in a timely manner,” says Dowden. “Prolonging this process will come across as unprofessional.”

Edwards agrees: “Be considerate – bear in mind the company will almost definitely have a second choice candidate. It’s fine to ask for a few days to think about your decision, but you should agree a deadline and stick to it.”

Essential tips:

  • When negotiating salary, be honest about past earnings – your new employer will find out as soon as they receive your P45.
  • Always ask for feedback – if you don’t receive an offer you can use the advice to improve at your next interview.


Find planning career


The contributors

 Lauren Edwards is a planning management consultant at Oyster Partnership.







Greg Dowden is an associate director at Indigo Planning.



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