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When I found out that I had an interview for university, one thing that really had me worrying was that I had no idea what the interview would be like. I didn’t know how long it would be, what the process was, how many people would be interviewing me, or pretty much anything else I needed to know and my inquiring emails to the uni never got a response. My interview’s been and gone now (and I received an offer, so I must have done something right), but there are thousands of students out there who are in the same uneasy place I was. If that sounds like you, read on – this is my first-hand account, and hopefully some of my advice will apply to you.

Preparing

To be clear, I applied for Journalism at Salford University. That means that this advice may not apply to everyone at different universities and courses, though there are lots of things you should be thinking about that can apply to almost any interview format. One of these is preparation. I took a portfolio (a black a4 folder with plastic sleeves inside, £12.99 at Staples) with me on the day, filled with printouts of my articles from websites, as well as my photography and a bit of my Graphic Design work.

A good rule of thumb for a portfolio is to include anything you think will be relevant. Then include everything else. I’m not joking, the interviewer seemed really pleased that I had interests and skills other than Journalism – It shows that you are a rounded individual, rather than just a subject-tailored robot. Just make sure you put the most relevant stuff at the front, i.e. my articles for journalism were on the first few pages. If you’re applying for say, music, include some sheet music or something like that, on the very first page. Of course, some subjects and experience just can’t be compressed onto an A4 piece of paper, but it certainly would help.

Another important thing that I was worried about was what to wear. At my interview, outfits ranged from hoodies and sweats to dress shirt and jeans for both genders. The code is definitely smart casual. I wore a dark grey smart shirt (useful for hiding nervous sweat stains, should you suffer from them) dark blue jeans, and my converse. I didn’t feel out of place – If anything I felt better that the only other two guys were considerably more on the casual end of the scale. I felt like I had an edge, which is key in boosting confidence pre-interview. However, had I shown up in a suit, it would’ve completely made me feel out of place, and given my confidence a lethal hit.

The format

Universities are your friend. They want you to feel relaxed, comfortable and in a friendly environment, so they can get to know the real you before they rob you blind. That’s right; they’re like muggers that offer you a cup of tea before nicking your wallet. The truth is though, they actually do understand students. Heck, if anyone should, it’s them. The staff were friendly and knew that we would be nervous, and even amongst journalists there were no hard-hitting terrifying questions, so don’t worry about that yet. The whole thing lasted about 4 hours, with a break for lunch, and the interview was literally only 5 minutes of that.

About a dozen of us were led up to one of the rooms actually used on the course. We then had an introduction to two staff members who would be taking us for the rest of the day. We did a quick tour of the facility and for this part it was more like we were interviewing them, rather than the other way around. We were then split into two groups and both were given the same task to complete. I’m not going to say what the task was (it were specific to journalism anyway) because I’m positive that the results of the task weren’t even considered. Think about it; how can they judge you individually based on the work you did with 4 other people? What they are looking for is the input you make into your group. Are you good at communication? Do you give valuable ideas? Are you afraid to challenge people? Unfortunately I’m not amazing at any of those things, so I settled for making my group laugh. That’s actually a good backup technique. Who are the staff paying more attention to – the group sitting and mumbling at each other, or the group making lots of conversation and laughing?

The interview

Then came the interview itself. The two staff members split off to opposite sides of the room, and took a student each at a time for about five minutes. The order worked towards my side of the room from the other, which was incredibly valuable – I definitely advise being at the end of the queue in this scenario. When people came back, they gushed about the questions they were asked, and so I could prepare the perfect answers. This was a happy accident at the time, but it’s definitely something I’ll keep in mind next time. When it came to me, I went up, shook my interviewer’s hand (always good practice, I’m told) and was asked my first question: Why do you want to come to this university?

The important thing about these questions is that there’s no right answer. Almost every question relates to your personal opinions, and so as long as you have something to say, you’ll do fine. Also remember to take pauses. If you get stumped and keep stammering, take a pause and think. Your interviewer will appreciate it. Fortunately for me, I was never actually stumped, which brings me back to my portfolio. I spent 90% of the interview showing it off, and each page reminded me of something to talk about. It’s like taking a sheet of answers in with you, and your interviewer will be able to see hard evidence of your experience, that will hopefully do most of the talking for you!

Of course, there’s other general interview techniques, like having questions prepared and reading up on the subject – but most of these are painfully obvious anyway, as long as you’re prepared.

The test

We then took a break to go and get some lunch, and came back to a lovely test. Ugh. One and a half hours of proof reading and trivia questions about current events. There were even a couple of maths questions at the end, which completely stumped me – don’t worry about this too much (again, I got an offer regardless) but it definitely helps to have a basic recollection of what you spent your entire childhood learning. Which is a good rule for life, actually.

Then we asked any remaining questions and the interview was over. I got my response within about 4 days, which seems to be the standard – again, universities will understand your impatience as a student, so you shouldn’t be waiting too long. All in all the experience was relatively fun, confidence building, and definitely useful to practise job interview techniques in a more relaxed environment.

Again, I don’t know what will happen in your interview. I’m not an expert at all. Your interview could be 99% different than mine (speaking of which, if you’re interviewing for Oxbridge, ignore everything I’ve said – show up in an Armani suit and only bring a portfolio in if you can afford it to be diamond encrusted), but a meagre 1% may still be useful to you.

Was that too long for your feeble mind? Here are the key points again:

– Bring a portfolio; it’s better than a personality!

– Dress just a bit smarter than you think other people will. It’s like imagining your competition in their underwear, except they’re in tracksuit bottoms and a shirt that says ‘Marilize Legajuana’.

– Avoid being the first in for interviews if you can – treat your enemies as friends and they’ll expose which questions they were stumped by, allowing you to crush them.

– If you have nothing of value to offer the group, make them laugh and you’ll create the illusion of being a ‘team player’.

– Be prepared for a test – it also might be a good idea to hop on a treadmill beforehand, in case of an obstacle course.

– Remember to bring your winning smile! And a small bribe. Interviewers don’t get paid very well and they lack morals.