Applying for internships and entry-level positions can be tricky. Interviewers want to hear you talk about your experiences and things you’ve done that prove you’re a good fit for the job. However given that you are applying for an entry-level role you likely don’t have much real world experience in this space. It’s a chicken and egg situation that everyone faces when they are first starting out or wanting to make a shift to a new area.
This week I helped conduct some interviews for a Marketing and Communications internship at Tech Exeter and want to give some general advice to anyone who is applying for entry-level roles and how you can overcome these hurdles.
1. Do your research
You’ve applied for a job at a company, make sure you’ve read up on what the company does. They will ask you for sure.
The interviewer isn’t going to expect you to be an expert in the company’s history, or how their business operates behind the scenes. They are going to want to hear you explain what the company does, mainly just to prove that you’ve taken the time to do some research.
Top tip: Try and find out something interesting and not obvious about the company. Something that would make the interviewer feel proud of where they work.
Take the time to Google about for a while. You can find out useful information on their website, blog, or in the news.
- Have they won any awards or competitions recently?
- Have they successfully raised money or taken on a big client?
- Have they moved to a nice new office?
Telling them information like this not only shows you’ve done your research but gives you a good opportunity to get excited about the thing you’ve read and show that you’re keen to join. If you pick a topic they are proud of and you show that you’re excited about it you will instantly build rapport.
2. Guess the questions ahead of time
To get this interview you probably filled in a job application. That application will have a list of criteria that the job requires. There will be at least one question for each thing on the list!
Sometimes you will be lucky and the criteria will be provided to you in a bullet point list. Sometimes you will have to read through the job advert and extract the key points yourself. Once you have the key points try and think what you would ask someone to find out if they knew about that topic.
Here are some examples that I’ve grabbed from a quick search for internships on Indeed:
Some can be easy to guess. If the advert calls for “Microsoft Office skills” then you will probably get a question like “Have you used Word and Excel before?”.
If the advert asks for something like “good team working abilities” you may get a question like “tell me about a time where you did something in a team that you wouldn’t have been able to do alone”.
However there may be tricker things like “A can-do attitude and willingness to leave your comfort zone”. To try and gauge this the interviewer may ask you something like “Tell me about a time when when you took on something beyond your abilities that you made into a success”.
There may also be very specific requirements for the role. One example from a Product Management internship could be “Appreciative of Product design stages from concept design, detail design through test into volume production”. If I were to test someone on this I’d probably ask it as a two part question.
I’d start with “Tell me about a product that you really like and think is well designed”. I wouldn’t really care too much about the actual answer you give to this question, I’m asking it to set myself up for “That was a good choice. Now can you tell me what you think the different product design stages were from concept to mass production for that product.”. Given that the criteria is that you are “Appreciative of Product design stages” I would be looking for a list of each stage with proof that you understand why each stage is important.
You won’t be able to perfectly predict all the questions you will be asked. But thinking about the possibilities ahead of time will get you in a good mental space.
Top tip: The interviewer is trying to tick a list of boxes, or rate your abilities against the criteria from the job advert. Help them out by matching their questions to the criteria in your head and then give the best answer you can to satisfy the criteria.
3. Prepare anecdotal evidence for each criteria
Now that we’ve thought through the questions you might be asked it is helpful to prepare an anecdote that gives evidence that you meet each criteria. Preparing an anecdote rather than an answer allows you to be flexible as the line of questioning will probably not be exactly what you’ve guessed ahead of time.
You may also have noticed that some of the questions above asked a direct question like “Can you use Microsoft Word? and some asked for an example “Tell me about a time you worked well in a team”. In either case responding with an anecdote is a great way to demonstrate that you have that ability.
It’s often tempting to respond to a direct question with a direct answer like “Yes I was taught how to use Microsoft Word in school”. However it is much more powerful to come back with an anecdote like “Yes I learned that at school, I used it recently to write an essay for my history class. I had to ensure the whole thing was double spaced using the formatting marks and included a table in the appendix with dates and references.”.
Providing specific cases where you demonstrated a skill proves that you understood what you were taught and allows you to go into a little more detail to back up your point. It also opens up more conversation with the interviewer, they can easily follow up with “That’s great! Did you also do X? Or have you tried Y before?”.
Top tip: Answering with an anecdote makes it easier for the interview to be a conversation rather than an interrogation.
To also pick on our longer and more complex question from before, if you get asked something like “Now can you tell me what you think the different product design stages were from concept to mass production for that product” you may find it easier to join an anecdote with the response to the question.
If you are applying for a Product Design role you have probably studied the subject to some level and likely have a portfolio of at least one product you designed yourself. So start by telling that story and hang your answers form it. “When I was in my first year of university I designed a widget. I started by drawing some concept sketches, so the designers of the product you asked about probably did the same. This was really useful in my project because it helped me visualize what the product would look like …”.
You will find it easier to draw on your own experiences and can use that to demonstrate the criteria. You will probably also be able to reuse anecdotes and examples for multiple questions.
4. Show willing
When experienced people are applying for jobs they will probably have past jobs they can talk about to demonstrate to the interviewer that they care about working in that sector. However when you are just starting you won’t have these experiences to talk about. So instead you need to talk about why you’re interested in the area. Talk about the research you’ve done in this area or share anecdotal evidence that this area drives you.
For example if you are applying for a communications role there may be some criteria like “video content production”, and you may be asked a question like “Do you have experience creating video content?”.
A well rounded answer to this could be “When I was in high school I was in the drama group and before our summer play we made a promotional video. We got our friends to film some of our rehearsals and everyone sent me the videos afterwards. I used the free iMovie app on my phone to put them all together and added titles and music. We then put it on social media and it got lots of likes. It was a great play and it sold out. I made a few other videos at school too but I’d love the opportunity to make some videos for your business.”.
This answer ticks a lot of boxes. You’ve demonstrated that you have the required skill by showing a time you’ve done it before. You’ve provided a positive outcome because you mentioned that the play sold out. This may or may not have been a result of the video, but hanging those things together reflects well on you. You’ve then finished up by acknowledging that you don’t have business experience, but demonstrated that you are keen and want to build your experience.
Top tip: Show you want to learn. If you get asked “can you use Photoshop” it’s fine to respond with “I haven’t, it’s quite expensive, but I’ve made a few things in Inkscape which is free and I think they are similar so I’m sure I could learn quickly!”
A great way to demonstrate that you’re passionate about something is when the interviewer gives you an opportunity to ask them questions. Experienced candidates will often use this section to ask general about the renumeration package, timescales, history of the team they are joining and fundamental questions about why the job is being created or filled. However when you’re starting out it is normal to struggle to think of questions at this point. One way you can take advantage of this is to pick one of the criteria and ask a question like “I especially enjoy doing X, how much of my time do you think I would be spending doing it?”. This not only backs up the point that you are capable of X, but it starts a conversation about the day to day work of the job which often gets overlooked in interviews.
5. Don’t skip the small stuff
When you’re talking to senior staff of an established company it’s easy to dismiss achievements you’ve made because they seem trivial in comparison to the job you’re applying for. Remember that the interviewer knows they are hiring for an entry level role, they aren’t going to expect you to have real world experience in that job, if you did you would be applying for a more senior job. So they are going to want to hear these small snippets of evidence because it will give them confidence that you can scale that up to the job you’re applying for.
If a job advert has a requirement like “Excellent time keeping skills” then be sure to show the punctuality awards you got in school. If it has a requirement like “A passion for helping others” don’t hesitate to tell them about the time your grandmother broke her leg and you took her groceries after school. Or even if you see something like “Prepare & send samples to accredited laboratories” you can tell them about the fact that you help your mother address and post all your family Christmas cards and letters every year.
Interviewers are going to be looking for general examples of your traits because they know you won’t have the real world experience. You’re not going to have evidence that you’ve held a job for a few years and always been on time, or have examples of working in retail and providing excellent customer support, or that you’ve worked in a pizza restaurant and handled orders and deliveries. But if you can demonstrate that you could be good at things using school or home life examples you will satisfy the requirements.
Organisations are also going to be on the lookout for “well rounded” people. We’ve talked a lot about the fact that the interviewer will have a list of criteria that they are trying to check off but they are also going to be looking for people who can show that they’ve had a wealth of experience and dealings in all aspects of life. You can really impress them by expanding on your passions beyond school and academic studies. Joining social societies, playing sports, volunteering and taking up hobbies + interests in your spare time can contribute to this. Don’t be afraid to geek out about what interests you!
Getting a foot on the job ladder can be tricky. The best ways to answer interview questions is with stories and anecdotes that contain evidence and examples, and at the beginning of your career you wont have as many of these to draw from.
Before you head off to your next entry-level interview read through the job application again. Think about some stories you can tell for each of the items on the job requirements. Think about the things you have done, in school, in your spare time or at home. Try to draw out good anecdotes from your experiences that hint at the amazing stories you will have to tell in the future.
And if you’re really struggling for examples then go and get yourself a volunteering job, join a club or society, attend free events in sectors you are interested in or even try and start a hobby business. These activities will help you build a collection of stories to keep in your pocket for your next interview.