How To Ace A Group Interview In 18 Immaculately Conceived Bullet Points

2013 January 14
by Kyle Bumpus
from → Career and Jobs

This article originated when one of my friends, Serendipity, was going in for a group interview and asked for some advice. Most articles I’ve seen on the web giving out group interview tips say things like “dress professionally” and “don’t be racist.” Duh. While it’s good to know blatant racism will tend to disqualify you from most jobs, if you didn’t know that you probably aren’t qualified to work in a professional setting anyway.

Group interviews are the norm in much of the tech industry. Having participated in quite a few group interviews on both sides, I feel pretty qualified to dole out some general advice. While group interviews are pretty cross-industry these days, keep in mind my experience applies directly to the tech industry, so my opinions may or may not apply well to your specific situation. Still, certain things are universal.

What Type Of Interview Is It?

The type of interview you’re going in for makes a difference in how you might want to approach it. In my experience, there are two main types.

  1. Panel interviews with multiple groups within the company – These types of panel interviews are usually reserved for the first round of interviews (there may or may not be a phone interview before this step). You’ll meet a group of representatives from a few different teams. The main goal of these interviews is generally to assess your general level of technical (or business, accounting, etc) knowledge and get a feel for what kind of work you’re most interested in doing. For example, where I work we have front-end positions, back-end positions, etc. Each group would prefer to hire somebody most interested in doing the kind of work they do. Nobody really wants to hire you if they’re your last choice.
  2. Group interviews with multiple members of the same team – This is usually the last interview before an offer is (or isn’t) made. If you’ve made it this far, you’ve probably already been vetted in terms of your specific domain knowledge. While you can expect a few domain-specific questions, this round tends to be as much about how you, your personality, and your work style fit in with the rest of the team as anything else.

General Group Interview Tips Applying To Both Types

Some advice is just universal. No matter the type of interview, the following applies.

  • Don’t BS us! - We can tell. If we’re in a position to be interviewing you, it probably means we’ve been around at least a little while. Rarely do people 8 months out of college get to sit in on panel interviews. So unless you are extremely senior with a ton of credentials, don’t even attempt to BS us. We’ll know. It happens a lot and yes, we do discuss it after you’re gone.
  • Be Confident - If you seem unsure of yourself, we’re going to assume it’s because you are. You could be the most qualified candidate we interview but if you can’t communicate it through  your demeanor, we may not draw that conclusion. If you aren’t confident, practice! You know your stuff. You know you know your stuff. Now show us you know your stuff. I know this can be difficult for shy or introverted people, but like it or not, a little confident self-promotion goes a long way.
  • Be Personable – Everybody likes a friendly person, and especially in the technical fields where introversion is the norm, the ability to relate well with others (especially non-technical business types) can go a looooong way. All else being equal, I’d rather work with somebody I like personally. Wouldn’t you?
  • Know what you’re talking about (i.e. don’t be an idiot) - I know “fake it til you make it” is big in some circles, and I don’t doubt it can be very effective in the right situation. But you know what’s better than faking it til you make it? Actually knowing your sh!t. Your interviewers will notice because again, they’re probably in the position they’re in because they, too, know their sh!t. So please do know what you’re talking about before even agreeing to an interview. People don’t like fakers.
  • Find a way to say “I don’t know” at least once – This may seem contrary to the “know what you’re talking about” bullet point above, but it’s not. When you admit you don’t know something, you gain credibility. Interviewers notice this and yes, they do bring it up after the interview, but usually in a positive way. Just make sure you don’t respond this way to a super basic question fundamental to the opening’s job description.
  • Do your homework! – Self-explanatory. At the very least, learn the company’s history, current competitive position, and preferably come up with one or two issues the industry is likely to face in the future. Busting out with “So how does your team intend to handle issue xyx in a few years” will score you some major brownie points.
  • Have questions! - Always have at least two or three questions prepared about the company, the culture, and/or the responsibilities of the position you’re interviewing for. Always. No exceptions.
  • Don’t be racist/sexist/xyz-ist – It’s sad I have to write it, but I’ve witnessed it personally. Once I was involved in a team interview when a candidate made some vaguely disparaging comment about women (I don’t remember exactly what it was). I’m sure he meant it as a joke, but one of the interviewers happened to be a woman. To be sure, we talked about him quite a bit after the interview but it wasn’t anything positive. Are you kidding me???
  • Don’t pick your nose - Yes, there’s nothing more satisfying than dislodging a huge gold nugget, but it’s unprofessional.

Multiple Groups Within The Company

As mentioned above, panel interviews with representatives from multiple teams within the company are often about assessing your general level of domain-specific knowledge. In tech circles, this usually means you’ll be peppered with technical questions and probably asked to solve one or two problems on a white board. Being asked to write an algorithm to accomplish some simple task is common for programming jobs, for example. Here are a few tips for this kind of interview.

  • Personality still matters – These kinds of interviews are usually more about domain-specific competency than team “fit,” but personality still matters. If somebody likes you, they are more likely to judge you as competent. Interviewers are only people, after all. Still, you don’t need to (and probably shouldn’t try too hard) to turn on the charm. Be personable, but don’t monopolize the conversation.
  • Do show your work for technical problems - If you’re asked to solve a technical problem on the white board or walk through a solution to some general business problem, do show your work. The goal of the exercise is to gain insight into how you go about solving a problem. We couldn’t care less if you come up with a solution in record time. Interviewers want to know how you think about a problem. If you just walk in there and scribble an answer on the white board in silence, we’re probably going to assume you got the answer to the question off the internet. And even if we don’t assume that, you won’t score any points. A mediocre solution with a good thought process can beat out a top-notch solution depending on what the interviewers are looking for.
  • Respond to the person who asked the question, but don’t exclude everybody else – One thing I’ve seen a lot of is that candidates will often hone in on the single interviewer who asked a specific question and exclude everybody else from the conversation. Bad move. Try to relate your answer back to something one of the other interviewers previously said about either themselves or their team. This obviously won’t work all the time, but it’s great when it does because it makes you seem like a “big picture” kind of person – somebody who can connect the dots. It also makes you seem more sociable.
  • Do express interest in what the person/their team does – People love to talk about themselves and what they do. Express genuine interest and they’ll think you’re awesome. Be careful not to fake it, though. The rule of thumb is that if you don’t think you would legitimately enjoy working on that kind of team, don’t bother pretending you would. Don’t be a jackass, but don’t lead them on, either.

Team Interviews (Multiple Members Of The Same Team)

A lot of people think these kinds of interviews are stressful, but I actually enjoy them. They’re a great chance to interact with the team and get a feel for how well you would fit in.

  • Do let your personality shine through – Be yourself. Even if you could get away with faking your personality to get a job, would you really want to? You have to spend 40 hours per week with these people. Note: this advice does not apply if you’re a dishonest, vindictive, petty troll of a person. If that’s the case then yeah, you should lie and pray nobody ever finds out.
  • Make a personal connection – If one of the interviewers mentions they like rock climbing and you climb three times a week, say so! Forging a personal connection with one or two of the interviewers can earn you a powerful ally when the team discusses whether or not to hire you later.
  • But don’t go overboard… – It’s probably best not to bond over that STD you and one of the interviewers both contracted last year. This is just an example. I’m sure that’s never happened in real life. Right?
  • Speak candidly – Saying “I’ll be honest with you: I haven’t written Java code in a year and a half but I plan to work on it every night for two hours after work and should be back up to speed within two or three weeks” will impress people.
  • Oh yeah, and don’t be racist
Did I miss anything? Please leave a note in the comments below with your own tips and experiences. Oh, and if you liked this post please do me a favor and share this post on your favorite social media site. You can use the buttons below. Quick and easy. Thanks!

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3 Responses
  1. 2013 January 14
    tom permalink

    I agree with all of these except for one small detail…

    Never say “To be honest with you…”. It implies that you have not been honest. I’ve heard stories of interviewers, in the middle of the interview, stop and say “wait, so are you telling me you have not been honest with us up to this point?”.

    It’s a bit of a douche move, but it’s a good point.

  2. 2013 January 14

    Good point. I doubt anybody means it that way, but people are going to assume what they’re going to assume.

  3. 2013 January 16

    I love the “I don’t know” point. That’s something I’ve worked on saying with clients (when appropriate) over the last few years. It’s hard for me to admit, but I’ve noticed a positive reaction when I say, “I don’t know, but I would be happy to look into it.”

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