Job interview

Advice on interview preparation and tips on questions

Credit: John Thompson

If you have read our guide "How To: write a CV and covering letter" and been invited to interview, what must you do in order to get the job?

We spoke to editors and HR managers of the Guardian, the Telegraph, the BBC and financial specialist Money Marketing.

Do your homework

Several editors and HR managers said the most common interview error is a lack of research.

"That's the number one tip for interview. It's absolutely obvious but the number one mistake in probably nine out of 10 interviews is a lack of preparation," warned Daniell Morrisey, career writer and talent executive at the BBC.

Phil Hammond, head of recruitment for the Telegraph, said it is a frequent error made by journalists hoping to work at the national.

"If you have an interview for a role, say in sport or business journalism, you must be fully up to speed on what we are doing."

"If you are going for an interview with an employer, you must know what the company does," advised Morrisey. "It's so easy to research. Look at their website, Google the company. You absolutely need to know what that company does. If it is a publication, what is that publication about? Who is its target audience? What is their writing style? What areas do they cover? You need to know that stuff inside out.

"And while this seems such obvious advice, it's what the majority of people fail on in their interview. They come along to the interview and don't show any preparation in knowing what the company is about.

"Beyond that you need to know something about the key individuals. Who are the key players? Who are the people interviewing you and what are their backgrounds? Obviously don't come across as a stalker, just do a bit of research which can help you demonstrate a keen interest in working for them."

For Anne Eden-Russell, recruitment manager at the Guardian, a lack of preparation and opinion are the most common missed opportunities.

We expect an understanding of our editorial values, a knowledge of our platforms – and for interviewees to have an opinionAnne Eden-Russell, recruitment manager, the Guardian
"The main thing that still comes across is a lack of preparation. We expect an understanding of our editorial values, a knowledge of our platforms – and for interviewees to have an opinion. Candidates can be wary in giving their opinions, but that's really where we get that engagement, where ideas and creativity really come out."

Eden-Russell added: "We ask people what they know about our regular writers and I've lost count of people giving the example of Charlie Brooker and not going beyond."

The Guardian looks for a general understanding of current affairs and a knowledge about blogs and social networking, Eden-Russell explained.

She said the recruitment team at the Guardian does not go online to search for candidates on Twitter or LinkedIn.

"We are not going to make assumptions, that is why the leg work is in that initial application stage and you must make sure your CV and covering letter is absolutely spot on."

Enthusiasm is key for the Telegraph. Phil Hammond said the title likes to see "enthusiasm and a passion for wanting to come and work for us".

He added: "If you have that in abundance, that is a big plus."

And enthusiasm is crucial if you are a first jobber. "You get a sense of the hunger or eagerness to learn when interviewing those people fresh out of university," said Paul McMillan, editor, Money Marketing.

Give examples

Morrisey's second piece of advice is "you want to demonstrate your experience" by giving good examples.

He advises candidates to "re-visit the job description and use it as your base".

"The job description is going to tell you everything you need to know about the job interview.

"A job description will give you a list of core competencies. In a newsroom they might be working to deadlines in a pressurised environment, an eye for a story, coming up with creative ideas or it might be working as part of a team.

"Start thinking about how you have demonstrated all of those competencies. It might be through your studies at college, it might be through work experience, it might be through work.

We ask people what they know about our regular writers and I've lost count of people giving the example of Charlie Brooker and not going beyondAnne Eden-Russell
The Guardian also wants to hear about ideas and how you would execute them. "We have interviewed people who have fantastic ideas but the one question that then throws them is, 'what contacts would you go to?'."

Eden-Russell likes examples and "getting people to talk through what they have actually done and been accountable for".

"One of our bugbears is when people give examples such as 'when I was in this team we did this'. You don't get any sense of accountability or where they have found stories themselves.

"Candidates that talk hypothetically, particularly when they are nervous, can have a tendency to cause the interviewer to start to switch off."

Asked if interviewees should be cautious in offering any negative comment, Eden-Russell said: "It's that balance, ensuring you present it as a critique. You are going to rub someone up the wrong way if you pull apart the supplement they edit. Start with the positive and offer balance and have the nous to say 'this is what works and these are the ideas that I could bring'."

What impresses the Guardian are suggestions, Eden-Russell said.

"You want give examples such as 'if I were to work on this site, these are the things that you haven't covered from this angle and I could do it'. That's the Holy Grail if you can say 'this is what's missing and this is how I can fill that gap'."

The Guardian is also looking for diversity. "We want to hear different voices all the time, we want people with different opinions, from different backgrounds."

Interview check list - do:
  • Spend time doing your research.
  • Expect to be asked to give your opinion.
  • Think of examples of impressive stories you have worked on.
  • Come with ideas, including story ideas and angles.
  • Make sure you have some questions – but not too many.
  • Arrive on time and always turn up – it is amazing that people sometimes do not.
  • Have an idea about your expected salary. "If someone came to an interview and said 'it is going to cost me this amount in rent and travel', that would impress me," John Thompson, owner and managing director of said. "It shows this is a thinking person."
  • Demonstrate that you have considered your career path, advises Thompson. Do not say you want to be a sports journalist if going for a job in news, for example.
  • It is acceptable to pause and consider a response.
  • Take a notebook into the interview to act as a memory aid when giving examples.
  • Bring examples of your work. An impressive portfolio could get you the job.
  • Be smart, even if it's a casual office.
Interview check list - do not:
  • Ask for feedback at the end of the interview, advised Eden-Russell from the Guardian. "It's not a good thing to do. Putting interviewers on the spot rubs them up the wrong way. Editors have to go away and reflect."
  • Do not ask too many questions. "Ask your top three," advised Eden-Russell. "An editor won't appreciate it when an interviewer sees someone take out a note pad with a long list at the end of an interview."
What questions are likely to be asked in a journalism job interview?

Daniell Morrisey advises you to think of lots of examples to use in the interview.

"You want to get across your best examples of working in those situations. You know that a media organisation is going to ask you something about deadlines, something about creativity and coming up with ideas, something about working as a team, there's equally going to be something about working on your own. So just thinking about different areas of competency, what are your best examples?

"Questions might be 'tell me about a time that' or they may give you a hypothetical situation. It could be any way of asking you the question but your job is to try and get across those examples."

We asked the editors and HR managers what questions they ask and have compiled a list. We also asked journalists on Twitter about their most memorable job interview questions. You can read the long list of amusing anecdotes.
  • What did you do to prepare for this interview? That's the first question the BBC asks. Morrisey asks this to try to understand an applicant's motivation, something you need to get across.
  • What is in the news that is relevant to us?
  • What stories should we be covering?
  • What's the biggest story in the industry at the moment? That could be in fashion, pensions, cricket, or whatever area of journalism the job covers.
  • Who writes for us, why do you like them? This is a question that the Guardian asks and expects an answer that goes beyond Charlie Brooker (see above).
  • The Guardian also asks questions on current affairs and the day's news, plus opinions and thoughts on the future of newspapers and the rise of digital journalism, expecting interviewees to be aware of and have an opinion on the Guardian's digital first strategy.
  • You may be asked about your health so that the employer can accommodate you. Thompson warns against saying "I get a bit stressed. I'm on medication a stress makes it worse".
  • For a politics position, you may be asked a random politics question, Paul McMillan, editor of Money Marketing said.
  • Who are your contacts? Who would be the first three people to contact to stand up the story?
  • Which journalists to you admire?
  • Tell me about your best work.
  • When have you had to perform under pressure?
  • Give me an example of a time when you have come up with a great idea.
  • How do you handle deadlines?
  • When have you had to work as part of a team and when have you had to work alone?
  • Where do you want to be in five years?

For more interview tips read Daniell Morrisey's guide on how to prepare for that crucial interview.

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