Top Tips on How to Get Noticed by Employers and Ace the Interview

Here are the full notes of the talk given by Antonin Besse at the Magdalen College School and Headington School careers fair on 3rd March 2016.

Once upon a time

Here’s what we’re going to cover


  • The big takeaways
  • The qualities employers look for
  • What you can do to to get noticed and put yourself ahead of the game
  • Preparing personal statements and CVs
  • Acing the interview



Big takeaways


I’ll outline the big principles which you can apply to every application, be it for university, for internships or that first graduate job. We don’t have time to go into too much detail and if you really take those big principles to heart and apply them every step of the way, you’ll most likely get things right.


It boils down to 3 things:

  • Know yourself
  • Know where you’re going
  • Get out there and do it


Do you have a good story to tell?

A good story, well told, will stand out because it will be engaging, show authenticity and demonstrate strengths that make you employable. Read here for more advice on The Power of a Great Story
Find one thing you like doing and do it really well
Where do you want to go?

Think now about where you want to be after university
Plan how to get there
You may get somewhere else, but without the plan you won’t start the journey
Can you show you’re interested?

Employers want you to be interested in them. One of my former firm’s clients put it very simply: he wanted lawyers with listening skills, who understood the business, took a personal interest and made him feel valued as a person, with an ability to focus on the things that matter. The same can be said of future employers

– Be curious
– Reach out and ask
– Get involved

What do employers want?

Employers ask themselves 4 key questions:


  1. Do I like this person?
    Are they like me?
    Would I enjoy working with them? [Delayed plane test]
    Am I comfortable around them?
    Do I trust them?
  2. Can I put them in front of my clients?
    Employers are business, and the client comes first. So your client facing skills are key.
  3. Does this candidate really want the job?
    Employers want you to be motivated and hungry for the prize
    Combining the story, i.e. the personal anecdote about why you want the job with demonstrable curiosity about the sector and the organisation will give you the ability to answer this one both authentically and knowledgeably
  4. Does this person have potential?
    People starting out won’t have much of a work track record (if at all) so employers won’t be able to test professional competencies. Instead they’ll be looking for a set of qualities which show you have potential. What are these qualities?
    Before we answer that I should say that we all have different preferences for interacting with others, interests and thinking styles. We won’t all have all these qualities. But we can work on those we don’t have : fake it till you make it.


Potential (top dozen or so)


  • likeable, warm, engaging, open, enthusiastic, positive, sunny

Presents well

  • impeccable appearance, good body language


  • communicates well, succinctly, engagingly


  • able to write and talk about themselves well


  • shows self-belief and presence, control and appears “with it”


  • extracurricular interests, engages with the world, bothers to find out, moves outside comfort zone


  • Good problem solving mind, able to assimilate mass of detail and see the big picture and the connections


  • Innovative, sees things from different angles, original ideas, challenges


  • initiative, responsible (picks up the trash), has drive, ambition, courage


  • trustworthy, organised, invest themselves and have staying power


  • can talk about their strengths and blind spots


  • common sense, able to spot and understand what matters, make sensible risk/reward assessments

Leader and team player

  • good listener, sets goals, guides, selfless, persuasive, good people skills


And a word about:



  • These are important, more so in some professions (Bar, law) and less so in others (Accountancy). Trend by some employers to recruit “academics-blind” to ensure a level playing field
  • Remains true that for many jobs and industries, your academics will determine whether your application gets read

Commercial awareness

  • Means different things to different people
  • It’s not so much about reading the FT and the Economist as a state of mind: curiosity, common sense, analytical skills and engaging with the world [Watch video on Interview Advantage Resources page]
Getting ahead of the game

Plan what you want to do

  • Even if you don’t know, pick a shortlist and do some research


Secure a position of responsibility


Do something that really interests you

  • Writing or talking about something you love will come from the heart and really make you stand out
  • Pro bono work is good, as long as it’s something that you’re really keen on. Don’t do it just for the CV


Research potential employers and put yourself on their radar

  • Every organisation has its culture, its way of doing things. By researching this you’ll discover if they’re the right fit for you, and you’ll be able to write applications that show that you’re really interested in them and know about what they do. Just reading the website won’t give you that edge and insight.
  • Talk to people. Tap alumni networks as well as family friends. People love to help out and talk about themselves. It’ll get you close to understanding jobs and whether they fit you
  • Before applying to an organisation, have an in-depth chat with a least two people who work for the organisation, one senior and one junior. Get a feel for the way they do things. That will help you ask insightful questions
  • Sign up for open days and mini internships
  • Get to know the people in charge of graduate recruitment
  • Sign up to be campus ambassador
  • All this will build your knowledge, credibility and an invaluable network of contacts. It takes time, so the earlier you start, the further ahead of the game you’ll be

Work experience

  • This is vital. Employers see this as a good test of your ambition and ability to hustle
  • Work experience doesn’t always have to be in the sector you’re applying for. Professional services such as law firms value experience with any business that’s a client or potential client of theirs
  • Up to and including your first year devote your energies to researching sectors and potential employers, and doing the things I’ve mentioned above
  • In your second year you will be applying for internships. Make at least 20 applications. Practice writing and honing your applications. Get feedback from friends, family and others
  • Keep up with current affairs. Read and watch TED talks. That will give you things to talk about


Preparing your written application


Practice telling your story: writing and talking about yourself

  • What are the three proudest moments in my life?
  • What are the six words or phrases that best describe me?
  • Ask friends and family to contribute
  • Do it over and over
  • Builds self awareness, authenticity and the ability to demonstrate employability skills

Practice your writing skills

  • Your written style must be persuasive and accurate
  • Use plain language and short sentences
  • Write from the heart. Warmth and tone are important – you must come across as a likeable person
  • Give examples to back your claims. Refer to your CV where necessary
  • Paint a portrait of yourself as a person. If possible tell a story which is relevant to your application, and illustrates (for example) your motivation for wanting to be a commercial lawyer or for undertaking a particular extracurricular activity. Put the engaging stuff about yourself, your motivations and passions at the beginning of the application or covering letter.
  • Ask yourself: does this tell the world who I am and what makes me tick ?
  • Remember that you’re selling yourself. Don’t be overmodest or shy.
  • Have a friend read what you’ve written and critique it.
  • Check for typos. Any typos may mean automatic rejection. Read what you’ve written three times normally, and twice backwards (yes, really: you may find hidden typos that way)
Acing the interview


Research the employer

  • Find out as much as you can about the employer’s financial performance, the strategic pressures and trends which are relevant to the organisation, its clients, competition and culture
  • Talk to at least 2 people in the organisation, a senior and a junior. There may well be alumni of your school or university/college in the organisation, so use that as a way of find out who to contact. People are always keen to help alumni, so don’t be shy!

Work on your self awareness: employers test this

  • Prepare for questions about what you really enjoy by recalling moments when you were truly happy and engaged (during a sport, hobby or intellectual activity) and write down the key words that come to mind when you recall that activity
  • Prepare for questions about what motivates you : write down your personal drivers and list them in order of priority
  • Prepare for questions about strengths and weaknesses by thinking through your personal characteristics and identifying which you consider to be your strengths and which your weaknesses.
  • At interview you won’t be ‘marked down’ for admitting weaknesses if you show that you’re aware of them and have made efforts to address them. You can sometimes describe some weaknesses as excessive manifestations of your strengths, e.g. having high quality standards is a strength but over-perfectionism a weakness

Mental preparation and managing nerves

  • Calmness and positive thinking are the key to interview success
  • Work on calmness through meditation, breathing exercises and power poses (see the Amy Cuddy TED Talk)
  • Work on positive thinking by recalling moments when you have been successful and resourceful, then imagining each stage of the interview from the moment you walk into the room to the final handshake, followed by receiving the call with the job offer
  • Look at yourself in the mirror several times a day in the week before the interview, and tell yourself out loud that you will get the job

Prepare the predictable questions:

  • You should prepare your answers to the obvious questions, including:
    – Tell us about yourself?
    – Why do you want this job?
    – What are your strengths and weaknesses?
    – How would you deal with the challenges of this job?
    – Do you have any questions for us?
  • When answering interview questions and particularly this type of question, tell stories about yourself and use examples. These are very powerful
  • The “Is there anything you want to ask us?” question can always be answered by asking the interviewer about themselves, such as “How do you find working here?”

Practice your interview technique

  • Remember that an interview is a structured conversation, not an interrogation
  • Arrange for at least two mock interviews with professionals
  • Practice your answers in front of friends (this is especially useful for the self-awareness questions)
  • Video yourself using your smartphone and be ruthlessly self-critical
  • Practice your personal stories

Prepare your interview appearance

  • Dress like an employee of the organisation for the interview
  • Look immaculate from top to toe: you will be scrutinised and judged on your appearance

The first vital 30 seconds

  • Walk in confidently
  • Practice your handshake
  • Small talk is important
  • Your pose should convey confidence, not arrogance or a laid-back attitude
  • Smile
  • Maintain eye contact throughout the interview
  • Pay equal attention to each panel member


  • Plain language, plain thinking
  • Use a strong voice
  • No jargon, no slang
  • Don’t use modifiers (quite, fairly etc.)
  • Avoid verbal fillers (like, um or err)
  • Be engaging and project your personality
  • Appear confident
  • Appear enthusiastic
  • Don’t be shy, self deprecating or apologetic
  • Keep the flow of the interview moving – it’s OK to say you don’t know and move on
  • Don’t argue or contest
  • When a question is unclear, ask for it to be repeated
  • Take brief notes if necessary
  • Be honest
  • Be consistent