In the previous post, I talked about how to second guess what sort of questions to expect to come up in a museum interview, based on the personal specification and job description for the role. In this post I will talk about how to prepare answers for those questions, using the STAR technique, practicing, and what questions you should prepare for the panel.
When you have short-listed a selection of likely questions, you can start preparing your answers in earnest. In many ways, the interview process is similar to the application process. The panel will have prepared a set of questions about skills and experience which, like the criteria on a personal specification, you will have to demonstrate that you can meet. As you give your answer, the panel will take notes to help them assess how fully or not you meet their criteria. In parallel to the grading of application forms, your response to each question may also be scored from 0 (not at all met) to 3 or 4 (fully met or exceeded). To ensure success, you need to make sure that you score as highly as possible for each of the questions that you will be asked.
The STAR technique
To score highly, your answers must be full, direct, comprehensive and fully evidenced with concrete examples. Your answers must not be vague, wishy-washy or circumambulatory. One of the best ways to make sure that your answers are as full as they can possibly be is to use the much lauded ‘STAR’ technique. The Guardian has a short yet brilliant piece here on how to use STAR to shine at interviews.
Prepare a response to each of your likely-to-come-up questions using the STAR technique. Write it down. Several hundred words should be just about right. The interview, compared to the application form, will allow you to go into a lot more detail about your value as a candidate. Make sure you make the most of the opportunity to tell the panel just how great you are. In your answers, you should show yourself in the best possible light. Spin and polish, but never ever tell lies.
Now there’s a whole lot of hokum floating around the internet about using positive language, buzzwords, action words, and power words. There is some truth that avoiding an overly negative register can make an audience feel more positive about the speaker. Describing yourself, however, as a ‘dynamic and highly motivated, results-driven initiator with a confident and ambitious outlook’ is only so much hot air. It might get you ahead if you want to work in sales, recruitment or advertising – but in the heritage sector the only shit that really sticks is of wattle and daub variety.
The other important and related thing to bear in mind is the fact that the panel has to like you. You will be working closely with these people. They need to know that your personality and temperament will be a good match for their team. You need to be affable. When you give your answers, you need to be confident, but not cocky.
Take a break, have a rest. Review your answers after a few days. Start to learn them. Get your friends, family or partners to quiz you based on your prepared questions. Get them to mix up the wording of the questions so that you can prepare for all eventualities on the day. If you can, arrange a mock interview with someone you don’t know well. I did this with a friend of my family before my first heritage job interview, and it was very, very useful.
Do learn your answers, but remember that there is no need to rote learn them. Focus on the substance, and not on the precise phrasing. Your answers should, ideally, flow freely, and rote learning may make that difficult. Distil the substance into a number of key points, preferably no more than ten per answer, which you can recall with ease.
Continue to practice, but also condense the substance of your answers into notes – no more than two sides of A4 – which you can take with you into your interview. You must not read off these notes like a script, as your peepers will need to keep eye-contact with the panel. Instead, treat them as an aide-memoire, a glance at which will suffice to recall the substance of your answer in its totality. Make sure they are easy to read – use bullet points or a mind map format rather than dense prose. Even the best prepared candidates can forget to mention things when transfixed by the penetrating gaze of an interview panel – your notes are to make sure that does not happen. Yes, you are taking your notes with you into your interview. It’s completely fine to do so.
Questions for the panel
So much for preparing for the questions which the panel will ask of you – it is also crucial that you prepare a series of questions to ask the panel. While the questions you ask are unlikely to form any part of the formal interview assessment process, they can give the opportunity to show off any other skills, experience or knowledge that you might think would be relevant to the role. They can also, in a dead heat, tip things decisively your way. In fact, for at least one job I was offered, a panel member told me that it was my questions to the panel that had been the deciding factor.
There are good questions to ask, and there are not so good ones. Not so good ones are the boring stuff about holiday entitlement, salary or other benefits. Sure, they’re relevant questions – but they won’t give you much opportunity to shine. Similarly, try to avoid any questions that can be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
So what questions should you ask? Well, that all depends on the role and the organisation. But anything that demonstrates that you have thought critically about the position, and about the institution, and about the opportunities and challenges that might come with it, will probably impress the potential employer. Don’t ask anything that is easily answered by looking at the job advert. Do look at the organisation’s website and see if there is anything about the place and the collection which draws your curiosity. Examples of questions I’ve asked in the past at various interviews include:
- How accessible is the store from the main museum site?
- What challenges does the collection pose in terms of hazard management and the care of human remains?
- Are archival collections treated as part of the main object collection in terms of cataloguing, or are records held on a completely different system?
- What proportion of objects held by the museum are on loan to it from external bodies?
- How intensive is the loans-out schedule?
- What can I expect from the role in terms of support from qualified conservation staff?
- What progress has been made towards achieving the Museum’s stated aim of gaining Accreditation status?
The actual questions you ask will, of course, have to be your own choice.
Finally, a note on how many questions to prepare for the panel. Three or four may seem ample, but it is worth remembering that at least some of your questions will be answered in the main body of the interview or any preceding tour. I would therefore suggest preparing at least ten insightful and engaging questions for the panel.