Why All Interviews Are Secretly The Same

by Jerrold Soh | Dec 24, 2013 | 2280 views

Interviews are that pesky thing standing between you and, supposedly, living your dreams at your dream university. They're when you realize you’ve lived for 18 years with cruelly little to show for it – especially when trying to convince a skeptical, middle-aged professor about your ‘arduous passion’ for medicine or how you’d ‘indubitably value-add to the vibrancy of the school’s pedagogical association’. Whatever that means…

To help us all survive these rather interrogatory times, here’s a quick guide to tackling interviews. But before that...

What’s an interview, really?

Some say it’s a chat. To others it’s a trial. Some interviews are so intellectually intense they make A levels seem a piece of cake (Read: Oxbridge interviews). But despite the differences in how interviews are conducted, they really all have one simple aim: To choose the right and best person for the job.

That’s right - it’s a selection process (surprise surprise). In other words, the fundamental question every interview needs to you answer is: Why should we pick you? They’re not interested in how smart/charismatic/philanthropic/passionate you are, nor even whether you were a school councillor, chairman of 3 clubs simultaneously and did five thousand CIP hours – unless all these somehow goes to show why you’re the person they should pick out of the thousands of other hopefuls.

Therefore, when the interviewer says “introduce yourself”, he’s asking “who are you and why are you the best person for the job?” When he asks you to relate one instance where you demonstrated leadership and creativity, he’s asking, “are you creative enough for the job?” When he makes small talk with you and mentions the weather, he’s actually saying: “the right guy can converse intelligently even over mundane topics – can you?”

Are you Penguin enough?

And if we work backwards from this central question, there’re only two possible scenarios as to why people fail interviews, namely...

Scenario A: You’re not the right person

If A’s true, then congrats! Not getting something you’re not suited for is actually good for you. Just ask [insert name here], who went to [insert unsuitable university course here], totally regretted it, and ended up changing courses.

But wait…what kind of lousy interview guide tells you to be happy you failed an interview? Well technically, if you weren’t the right person for the job, not getting chosen actually means the interview succeeded by producing the right outcome. And they all lived happily ever after.

Except there are probably those of you who currently are not the right person but somehow still want it badly. Which, if you think about it, does not quite make sense, but today’s society where people ‘want’ things without really knowing why it’s a pretty common occurrence. If you happen to be one of these people, then what you really need to do is to become the right person, rather than focusing on interview skills and other related myths.

This means you have to actually develop an interest for whatever you need to be interested in, become skilled at whatever you need to be skilled in, and do whatever you need to have done. For example, if you’re applying to medicine, it sorta helps if you took H2 Chemistry. An Ivy League hopeful do well to be able to point out the university’s city and state on a world map. Avoid also applying to a Design or Arts school without having a design portfolio.

It may also help to be fireproof, bulletproof and well-versed in levitation.

A common mistake is to think being ‘interested’ in or having a ‘passion’ for something is an inherent personality trait that we have to be born with. It’s not. Let’s face it: at 18, we know close to negative infinity about accountancy, engineering, business…heck at that age I didn’t even know the difference between universities and colleges. Saying you have an interest in any university course is pretty much the same as telling people you’ve fallen in love with a girl/boy you’ve never ever met and now want to marry her/him. You have to really understand and have experienced something to be passionate about it. Sadly, that two week internship where you learnt how to use the photocopier probably wouldn’t make you fall in love with whatever you’re doing. But having actually done that mysterious thing known as actual work makes you infinitely more believable when you waltz into the interview room trying to convince interviewers you know what you’re signing up for.

The good news is, this means if you currently have zero interest for something, it doesn’t mean you will never be interested in it. I’d daresay you only think you wouldn’t like it because you don’t really understand it at all.  Granted it’s gonna take work, but as Randy Pausch awesomely reminded us, Brick walls are only there for us to prove how much we want something. If you wanna get through that interview that badly, you’d naturally not mind going through all that. If you do mind, then perhaps you don’t really want it that much.

And because here we always go the extra mile for service, here’s the best self-improvement guide I’ve ever read (warning, expletives used for greater self-improvement value).

Now that you’ve turned yourself into a square peg for that square interview, the only way you might still fail the interview is in…

Scenario B: You are the right person, but can’t quite show it.

Once again, congrats! Because you’ve gotten through the hardest part. Now all you really need to do is pray and with luck and some faerie dust you’ll somehow the find right answers to show how awesome you are the next time round.

At least, that’s how it always feels, since painfully few schools ever teach how to handle interviews. But what if I told you the A level syllabus actually did teach us how to properly answer interview questions, without intending to?

IF there is one thing you learn in GP, it’s how to answer questions. Heck, if there’s anything to be learnt from the entire A levels at all, it’s how to answer questions. With prepared, textbook, perfectly keyword spotting answers. If you’ve just finished A levels, you’re probably one of the best question answerers in the world right now. And why should interview questions be any different from written ones?

Behold the almighty PEEL format. The heavens themselves illuminate upon its hallowed descent, and somewhere in the distance, but not too far away, comes the angelic laughter of many a GP student whose essay had once been turned to pure gold by the PEEL’s midas touch. Presently it lands authoritatively into the realm of interview answers, and once again works its magic, reshaping incoherent, unfocused attempts-at-answers into critical, evidenced, interview-owning assertions.

Amidst cries of despair from all those non-believers

Because you probably have no idea what I just said. The PEEL format (which I totally dissed here) can be a really helpful way of organizing your interview answers to better show you’re the right guy for the job. What’s also great is after 2 years of mental jackhammering you should already know exactly how it works, so you can apply it easily. Of course, thinking in the PEEL format is not something the average person does. For illustration purposes, a here’s an interview question I actually encountered along with a PEEL-ed answer I wish I had thought of at that time. After I said I had just completed my BMT, the interviewer asked:

“Do you think the army is obsolete?”

And if I was Albert Einstein for 5 minutes, I would've responded:

P: While some of its training methods and equipment may be obsolete, I think the army itself is still very relevant today.

E: People usually identify the army’s disciplinarian practices and corporal punishments as a thing of the past. These have mostly remained unchanged for decades, and some say these should be replaced with modern teaching methods.

E: If military training methods really did not change since 1967, then they would really be ancient, but that’s not the case either, because nowadays even corporal punishments are highly regulated and administered in the context of supposedly ‘new’ training methods. They’re actually using laptops in BMT now. And considering how society is supposedly getting softer, actually corporal punishment may be getting more and more, not less and less, relevant.

If you’re talking about the army in general, then all the more it is not obsolete. People think there’s no danger of war and that means we don’t need an army. But it’s because we all have armies that’s why there’s no danger of war. Or at least that’s what they tell us in BMT.

L: So honestly I think the army is not obsolete and does not seeming to be becoming any more irrelevant.

For best results, recall that the entire point of an interview is to determine whether you’re the right person with the right interests, skills, and knowledge for the job. This means your answer, should aim towards trying to highlight the aspect you need to highlight. In the example above my answer was more inclined towards demonstrating the ability to hold opinions contrary to popular belief. This is also known as ‘critical thinking’, which is something they look out for in law programmes. If you’re getting interviewed for accountancy, your answer could aim towards demonstrating how meticulous or organized you are instead.

Sadly, none of us have close to half the brains Einstein had. Which brings me to my next point, that you should prepare certain answers and responses beforehand so you can organise them well. It’s impossible to foresee all questions, but because all interviewers invariably only want to know one thing, they really can’t stray far from certain questions like “tell me about yourself” or “relate one experience where…”

That’s where having thought through your life story is especially important, because even if the interview questions don’t directly ask for it, it’s very likely you’d be able to draw on your past experiences to support what you say. If you’re really proud of that one time you won the Math Olympiad, or think that student convention you organized really proves how amazing you are as a person, then prepare a short narration of the entire episode and practice saying it. 

One helpful guide to storytelling is the 2-5-1 rule, which simply put means to introduce the story and setting in 2 sentences, go through the entire body in 5, and reassert the point in 1. Note: I am not making this up. They teach it in Officer Cadet School #Reliable.

And again because we always go the extra mile, here’s an example of the 2-5-1 in action:

"In 2012, I organized the 56th Asia-Africa Model Conventional Student Leader United Sports Meet. This was an annual event where student leaders from across the two continents would compete and bond over sports.

As chairman of the organizing committee, I was responsible for the planning and execution of the entire event. This meant overseeing communications between the 52 participating schools, ensuring the logistics were ample yet still fell within the $50k budget, and taking care of the safety of the 5000 participants on the actual day. One major challenge my committee and I faced was overcoming the language and cultural barriers between the African and Asian participants and getting them to bond. After some brainstorming, we managed to solve the problem by getting everyone to play a warm up game in which Asian students would try to guess basic African words like ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ from the African students’ charades, and vice-versa.  The entire experience showed me how even the biggest events are invariably about people, relationships, and human interactions.

I believe with such experience I will be able to successfully organize and execute even larger scale events with the university."

Note: The above events are entirely fictitious. Any resemblence to people, characters and events is purely coincidental.

It’s not a hard and fast rule definitely, but the 2-5-1 works because it sounds just right, neither too long nor too short (like the proverbial miniskirt), and forces you to get to the heart of the story as fast and efficiently as possible. You’d also notice that in the given example I tried to boast without boasting (see 4th sentence) and include a little ‘problem’ in the story to make it more engaging (see 5th sentence).

And on this note, perhaps it makes sense to talk a little about...

Lying In Interviews

It says here you did 17521 CIP hours in JC?

You probably think everyone does it. I think so too. Then there’s that fine line between exaggeration and outright deceit, and presenting facts in a certain way sure isn’t as bad as making them up.

Thing is, you really only need to resort to such ‘interview techniques’ if you’re facing scenario A, not B. In other words, the only time you actually need to lie to get pass an interview is when you’re really not the right guy. You need to feed the system false information so it can produce the wrong outcome. This is also known as creating market failure, the negative effects of which I’ll assume you’re familiar with.

I’d hazard a bet that most of us only lie or embellish the truth in interviews because we think everyone else does it. So everyone does it because everyone does it. That doesn’t make any sense at all, because whether or not we should lie in an interview should depend on whether it would actually help us pass the interview, rather than on whether other people are is doing it. Fear Of Losing Out (ironically, “FOLO”) means we do it without realizing it may actually work against us.

For the vast majority of us who have consciences and eyes, it’s hard to be convincing when we’re lying. Add that to the typical skepticism that every interviewer (particularly if they’re academic professors) is bound to have, and you’re not going to get far with being unpersuasive. What you say is not as important as what the interviewers hear. It doesn’t pay off to go on an entire tirade about that one time you saved Rapunzel from the Pharoah of Langkawi if all it does is make the interviewer question everything else you said. In fact, if even 10% of what you say leaves an impression, you’ve probably already succeeded, so focus on getting a concrete, believable message across rather than writing a speeddating profile for yourself.

So you're telling me you actually thought of the iPhone before Apple?

To reiterate, interviews have only one purpose – to choose the right (read: best) person. If you’re not doing well in interviews you’re either not the right person or aren’t very good at showing you are. Depending on what exactly’s the problem, focus on doing, knowing, and saying what you need to do, know, and say to demonstrate and persuasively prove you really are the One. In the end, integrity pays, and getting rejected for something you’re not suited for may turn out to be the best thing that could happen anyway.

Good luck!

Disclaimer:  This article has necessarily been written in a generalized way to cater for the variety of interviews a potential reader may encounter. Some interviews may turn out to be entirely different, and owlcove takes no responsibility for any angered parents, lost dreams, death threats, or any other damages whatsoever arising from any use of or reliance on content herein.

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