Can you overprepare for an interview?

I see a lot of students for practice interviews at the Careers Centre. Some of them prepare a lot and some of them, well, don’t really prepare very much at all. What’s interesting is that over-preparation – or, more precisely, too much preparation of the wrong type – can cause as many problems as under-preparation.

Obviously I would never recommend showing up for an interview without preparing very carefully. You should always be really well-informed about the company or organisation you’re applying to, the role and the industry more broadly. Many interviews are competency-based which means you should also have thought of examples of situation in which you have demonstrated all the key competencies for the job (usually listed in the job description), and how you will put these examples in the STAR format.

But it’s crucial to think about what you will do with this information as you prepare.

Some students write and try to memorise detailed answers to the questions which might be asked.

This would be great if they were going into an exam and they had to write down what they’ve memorised. But an interview is a very different experience to an exam, and the memorisation technique is not always very successful because:

You can’t predict every single question. A student who comes into an interview with the idea of reciting or talking through what she’s pre-prepared will often freeze and panic when I ask a question that she hasn’t thought about before, or when I ask a familiar question in a slightly different way. Her body language, facial expressions and tone of voice will change noticeably when answering a question she hasn’t prepared for.

It is nearly impossible to guess every single question which will be asked. You can make some logical guesses. But if you focus on trying to work out exactly what will be asked, you will get anxious if unexpected questions come up. 

You might forget where you’re going. In the pressurised situation of an interview, when you really want to impress the interviewer, it is incredibly easy to lose the thread of your memorised answer.  

You might sound a bit robotic. Interviewers are not just listening to what you say. They’re also paying attention to the WAY you say it. When people are really engaged and interested in what they’re talking about, you can often tell by their tone of voice. But – even if you are really passionate – that passion is hard to convey when you’re concentrating so hard on remembering your lines. When students have memorised answers they often sound a bit robotic and drone-like. If you sound enthusiastic when you talk, the person you’re talking to is more likely to stay engaged and interested in your answer.

So what’s the alternative to the memorisation technique?

In the interview, you will be speaking not writing. It is the way in which you verbally convey the information you know that will be crucial and so it’s logical that this is what you really need to practice. Your aim is to be able to respond flexibly and spontaneously to what is actually being asked.

Here are some tips to help you do this:

  • The first step is always to learn about the role, the company and the industry and think of examples of times in which you have demonstrated the competencies required for the job.
  • But don’t write out exactly what you want to say. You might want to make notes or bullet points instead.
  • Most importantly, you should then practice speaking your answers out loud and off the cuff. Get a friend or family member to listen to you, record yourself on your phone or book a practice interview at the Careers Centre so that you have practiced talking in response to questions.

Practicing talking through your answers in this way means you will be less likely to panic if asked an unexpected question, because you will have become more used thinking on your feet. It also means you’ll be less likely to lose your train of thought. When you’re repeating something you’ve memorised, you focus on recalling and remembering the details. But when you talk off the top of your head, thinking about what you’re saying as you go, you always have to keep in mind where you’re going next. This ability to respond flexibly is a skill you can draw on whether you have predicted the interviewer’s question or not.

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