Making mock interviews more effective

making mock interviews more effective

Mock interviews are a staple part of our careers provision; to best prepare students for an upcoming interview we ask them questions so they can practice and get feedback before the real thing. Students often tell us how helpful the experience of doing a mock (or ‘practice’) interview has been, that they feel more prepared and realise what they have been doing ‘wrong’. However, I’ve recently been finding out more about them and in what ways we could be making mock interviews more effective.

I started thinking about mock interviews in more depth after reading The Career Coaching Handbook by Julia Yates. I’ve written about this book before as it includes a great model on non-directive CV coaching. Julia’s chapter on employment interviews draws on research findings to inform ideas for best practice when working with clients. I thought I’d share what the research tells us about interviews and three ways Julia thinks we can improve our work with clients before their interviews.

What do we want mock interviews to achieve?

We run mock interviews for the primary reason of wanting students to be successful at the real thing, whether that means being offered a position or progressing to the next stage of the recruitment process. We also offer mock interviews for the additional benefits they provide such as increasing confidence, reducing anxiety or providing general feedback in a ‘safe’ environment. However, it’s important to realise that a mock interview is a simulation and there will always be some aspects of a real interview we are less able to help students prepare for.

The qualities interviews assess

To consider how effective our mock interviews are we first need to think about the purpose of interviews in general. Although there’s no limit to what an individual might get asked during an interview, research shows interviewers tend to assess the same kinds of qualities. In her book Julia draws on research from Huffcutt et al. (2001) into the traits most frequently judged in forty-seven employment interviews. Their analysis found conscientiousness to be the most evaluated quality, followed by interpersonal skills, mental capability, job knowledge and job-related skills. Julia suggests that taken together this means that interviews ask three main questions of their candidates:

‘Can you do the job?’ (mental capacity and job skills)

‘Will you do the job?’ (job knowledge and conscientiousness)

 ‘Will you fit in?’ (interpersonal skills)

Generally speaking, the purpose of an interview is to assess how well each candidate measures up in these three areas. When thinking about the effectiveness of our mock interviews it seems most logical to explore how well they simulate the environment in which an employer asks these broad questions.

What qualities can mock interviews assess?

‘Can you do the job?’ (mental capacity and job skills)

To try and assess these qualities in mock interviews we typically use the person specification provided for the position the student has applied for. We use this to identify what the employer is looking for and then frame questions around the skills, qualities and experience being sought. Although this gives the student an idea of the questions that might come up in the real interview, we can’t be sure what sorts of questions the employer will ask. Having said this, we can ascertain based on their answers how well the student evidences the competencies the employer has said they are looking for on paper.

Employers will ask questions about specific job skills or scenarios a candidate might face on the job. For jobs and industries we know more about we are better able to assess a student’s performance. If a student is interviewing for a role we aren’t as familiar with, we can use our research skills to find out more about it but are often limited by our own interpretation of what we find online.

‘Will you do the job?’ (job knowledge and conscientiousness)

The first part of this area (job knowledge) is an aspect we can assess, at least to some extent. As advisers, we can make assumptions about the role using our caseload knowledge or by drawing on our research skills to find useful information. However, we won’t know as much about what the role entails as professionals working in that field. In other words, we can provide feedback on how well a student measures up to our ‘standards’, but the job knowledge held by the employer will of course be more detailed and specific.

Conscientiousness is probably not something we directly assess during mock interviews, but is something we might develop a sense of through the different questions we ask and our overall sense of how prepared and ‘keen’ the student is. Furthermore, it’s not often that we will provide feedback on how conscientious a student is coming across during a mock interview. This is perhaps something we should focus on more, as research demonstrates that conscientiousness can predict performance in job interviews. Candidates who score highly on the conscientiousness scale are more likely to put effort into preparing for an upcoming interview, which in turn leads to a better performance.

‘Will you fit in?’ (interpersonal skills)

This is perhaps the hardest area for us to objectively assess in a mock interview. Although we can provide feedback on how well a student ‘comes across’, when employers try to ascertain whether a candidate will be a good ‘fit’ they ask questions of the candidate from a position of knowing the culture and interpersonal dynamics of that organisation. Trying to give accurate feedback on whether a candidate will fit in is a tricky proposition; we are limited to commenting on how well their interpersonal skills would seem to ‘mesh’ with the position and industry they are applying for.

Summarising what mock interviews can do

With our mock interviews we can provide a student with experience of answering questions relevant to the position they are applying for. We can assess how well they do things like structuring their answers and how strong their examples are to evidence strengths, skills and experience. We can also assess how well someone has prepared and their overall knowledge of the role and industry in question. However, our analysis of their performance relies on our knowledge and assumptions about the role, industry and employer they have an interview for. This means that in general the mock interview experience, although a useful one, does not provide a wholly realistic simulation of the actual experience and assessment in a real interview. As Julia states in her chapter:

“Employers often prefer unstructured interviews, have their own favourite interview questions and prefer to reply on their instincts rather than the evidence they have gathered”. (p. 190)

Making mock interviews more effective

In terms of Huffcut et al.’s (2001) research it’s clear that mock interviews vary in their ability to provide useful feedback on the qualities that employers use interviews to assess. I think mock interviews provide a more objective measure of whether students ‘can do the job’, but are perhaps more subjective on the qualities relating to ‘will you do the job?’ and ‘will you fit in?’. Identifying this allows us to think about ways that we might improve the effectiveness of the mock interviews we provide.

One thing I particularly like about The Career Coaching Handbook is the balance it provides between examining research and offering advice for best practice. Julia makes some suggestions about how we can better support clients before an upcoming interview, and I thought it would be useful to go into detail on three of these.

making mock interviews more effective

1. “The client-centred principles that underpin our one-to-one work should be as core to an interview coaching session as to any other kind of coaching intervention.”

Julia promotes a non-directive approach when working with clients and argues that those of us who share her approach should also use it when doing mock interviews. However, perhaps the biggest barrier to using this approach is time. It’s not uncommon for practitioners to be limited to 45 minutes to both conduct a mock interview and then discuss how it went with the student and feed back areas for improvement.

Although time constraints do make being non-directive in a mock interview more challenging perhaps we should be taking this into account and providing more time to allow us to follow this principle. This is especially true given how we can’t know with certainty what the interviewer will be looking for, nor can we assess their responses objectively to many questions asked. I think that although it is tempting to ‘give students what they want’ when it comes to mock interviews, we would likely help more in the long run if we were to empower them to find their own answers.

2. “The very best way to get clients to become aware of their own behaviour within an interview session is to record a mock interview (preferably conducted by someone other than you), and then watch the recording together.”

Recording the mock interview and watching it back with our students provides one way for them to reflect on their actions and explore their own thoughts and opinions. By doing this we could encourage students to consider the conclusions an interviewer might have drawn from their response(s) and discuss alternative examples they could have used. Julia recommends advisers share their own expertise on the interview process to inform the discussion further. This could be as simple as explaining that research demonstrates how important the first few minutes of the interview are for the final outcome. The client could then evaluate this aspect in the context of his or her own mock interview.

Independent careers coaches often record their clients during mock interviews, but offering this in a university would be difficult given the limited time and resource available. I can understand how recording the session would result in a more meaningful and perhaps far less directive discussion, but I find it hard to see how it would fit into the 30-45-minute mock interview slots which many students are given in HE. Perhaps we should encourage all students to make an audio recording of their mock interview. However, an audio-recording would not allow students to analyse their own body language, non-verbal behaviour or all-important handshake.

3. “More specific skills training on how to convey enthusiasm, perfecting your handshake and making sure you look the part might have more of an impact”

Julia’s main point is that the complex interpersonal and organisational dynamics in which interviews take place and are assessed are hard for us as careers practitioners to replicate. She argues we should therefore focus on the areas in which we are able to make an impact. Skill training is an interesting idea, but my immediate reaction to this was that it almost seems like trying to ‘hack’ the interview. There is an ethical dilemma over whether we are truly empowering students with the skills they need or are just helping them succeed at ‘faking it’.

To help unpick this issue it’s important to consider the impact that knowing how to ‘manage’ an interview can have. Research by Barrick et al. (2009) has shown the importance that physical appearance and impression management has for interview outcomes. In other research both verbal and non-verbal skills have been linked to interview ratings and job offers. An individual’s pitch of voice, fluency, speech rate and volume have been shown to indicate favourable qualities such as charisma, competence, sociability and extraversion. When it comes to non-verbal cues, a firm handshake accompanied with good eye contact conveys sociability, friendliness and dominance whilst a weak handshake suggests introversion and shyness.

Rather than seeing ourselves as helping students come across as someone they are not, we should see our interview advice as ‘opening their eyes’. If students do not realise the impact that these things have on interview success, or that they have things they could improve on, then it is important to help them realise the impact that small changes can have. The majority of our mock interview feedback relates to the content of student responses to questions, and doing things like giving advice on clothing and image brings its own issues. Skills training in groups might make discussions around these topics less awkward and personal, but whatever approach we take we should remember that we are helping students be the best version of themselves, not encouraging them to pretend to be someone they are not.

Final thoughts

Given how common mock interviews are I expected there to have been some research looking at their effectiveness. Without any research to support the idea that mock interviews ‘work’ how do we know they are in any way successful? Recording whether a student is successful following a mock interview seems the logical approach, but it would be very difficult deciding how much of an impact their practice with us had when there are so many other factors at play.

The key thing I have taken away from writing this post is that we should recognise the limitations of mock interviews in simulating the complexity of real interview situations. While we shouldn’t expect too much from our mock interviews we shouldn’t forget the other aspects of interview preparation we can help students with. I think we tend to place too much of an emphasis on assessing the answers students give us in mock interviews, whereas more general advice on preparation and how to ‘manage’ the interview would be just as effective.

If you think about the last few job interviews you had, I’m sure they were all quite different – I know mine were! What this tells me is that ideally our aim should be to help students be effective in all interviews, whatever questions and circumstances they encounter, rather than just coaching them to be successful in an interview.

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  1. Some interesting points raised. I wonder whether we will see any patterns developing over time between the efficacy of mock interviews and those students who make use of resources such as Interview Stream, which affords them the opportunity to record and review their own video interviews? Perhaps encouraging them to do this before a mock interview might mean that the 1:2:1 mock might be more tailored to focus on questions of specific concern, thereby leaving more time in the appointment to discuss broader interview themes which will be of more benefit holistically, as you suggest?

  2. Thanks for the comment Jim. I think video interview software has the potential to really help students who are already clued up on what makes a ‘good’ response but not everyone can assess themselves objectively. I can see your point about freeing up more time though, that would certainly be beneficial!

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