The psychology of the perfect interview

Jun 11, 2019

While we’ve all had good and bad experiences at interviews, most would agree that being prepared is the difference between a painful rejection and a positive offer.

So here we go back to basics with Richard Jenkins, a behavioural psychologist with a particular interest in stress and performance management, to explore how adapting our behaviours before and during interview can make us even stronger candidates.


Interviews are among some of the most stressful situations we experience. It’s easy to see why. There’s a huge amount of pressure to make a good impression. And there’s often a lot at stake. So how can we stay calm and make that critical positive first impression?

Overcoming interview nerves

Research the company - Many people arrive at an interview unprepared and with little knowledge about the business they’re looking to join. It’s easy to become flustered and unable to answer questions. Before you go make sure you’ve researched as much as you can about the company.

Preparing answers to potential questions - Look at the job specification in detail. This gives you a good idea of the potential questions you may be asked. Draft some potential questions and prepare your responses. For each question it’s a good idea to have at least 3 concrete examples you can refer to - rather than simply providing generic information.

The next step is to rehearse your answers, either in front of a mirror so you can hear how you sound, or with someone you trust. It might feel a little silly, but it will increase your confidence on the day.

Appearance - It might be obvious, but it’s surprising how many people can get this wrong. Research indicates that people make quick judgements based on a person’s appearance, and that they’ll try to gather evidence about the person based on these judgements. Therefore it’s very important to dress appropriately. When you aren’t sure of the dress code, it’s always better to be cautious and over-dress than run the risk of looking ‘scruffy’.

Take care of the little things - The practicalities of an interview can often be the most stressful part. Before your interview plan your journey, travel to the company and get to know the route. Find out about the available parking and take a little time to see who comes in and out of the building to get a feel for the dress code. If it’s a large company go inside to the reception and take a look around. Don’t be afraid to speak to the receptionist and explain that you’re coming for an interview here and wanted to have a look round.

Make sure you’ve eaten before your interview - a high carbohydrate or sugary snack is perfect for giving your brain a lift. Stay away from caffeine and keep yourself hydrated. Don’t be worried about taking a sip of water if your mouth becomes dry in an interview. Dehydration causes your body to produce stress hormones which contribute to panic.

Go to the toilet just before. Again, an obvious point, but it’s a good time to make a final check on your appearance.

While you’re waiting to be called in sit down. If there isn’t anywhere to sit, stand still and look out of the window and practice some breathing exercises. Pacing up and down sends a signal to your brain that there’s something to worry about. This makes your ‘fight or flight’ reflex kick in and your short term memory can suffer as a result.

Doing all of these things before the interview will contribute to you showing up in a calm and controlled state of mind - looking confident and competent.

Making a good first impression

Research indicates that you have about 3-7 seconds to create an impression and potentially win or lose the interview. Creating and maintaining a positive demeanour throughout the interview is very important to coming across well. When the interviewers first come in make sure you smile and say ‘good morning/afternoon’. If they haven’t mentioned your name, say it as you shake their hand, this personalises the interaction and immediately helps to build a relationship.

Questions are a major concern at interviews and knowing how to respond in advance is important. You should have prepared answers to potential questions beforehand, but if the interviewer asks a question that you aren’t sure about don’t be afraid to explain that it’s an interesting question and you need a couple of seconds to think of the answer. Similarly, if you don’t understand the question ask them to re-phrase it. And if you genuinely don’t know the answer to the question be honest and say. This creates a much better impression that getting flustered or answering incorrectly.

If you have gaps in your experience try and turn the negative into a positive - focusing on your transferable skills that can be applied. For example, refer to your qualifications and show that you’re a fast learner who can easily apply yourself to gain the skills necessary for the role.

At the end of an interview avoid questions relating to holiday and salary. And finish on a positive note. If you haven’t got any questions explain that your research and the interview have been very informative and you have all the information you need.

If you’re not successful

If you haven’t been successful in an interview try to get feedback. Typically candidates are informed 48-72 hours after an interview. If you haven’t heard anything after this time then contact them. If, after 14 days you still haven’t heard anything then contact them again. If they don’t respond to email then it’s a good idea to phone, or even go and see them. 

Sometimes the first person they offer the job to turns it down. By remaining visible you stand a better chance of being offered the position.

Do’s and don’ts in an interview

  • Don’t argue with the interviewer
  • Don’t criticise previous employers
  • Do stay focused and don’t get caught looking out of the window
  • Do stay positive
  • Don’t slouch
  • Do maintain good eye contact
  • Do have examples to back up your answers
  • Do be enthusiastic
  • Don’t gesture too heavily
Article reproduced with the kind permission of CABA, the organisation providing lifelong support to ICAEW members, ACA students and their close family around the world.