Interviews: how to answer The Question

This is an article by Helen Parkinson.
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Helen Parkinson

The job interview: it’s right up there with putting the bins out and meeting the in-laws for the first time on the list of life’s necessary evils.

My naïve teenage self thought that all interviews involved a cantankerous Claude Littner on The Apprentice. Visions of my CV getting ripped to shreds – perhaps literally – and every claim being analysed with the ferocity of a police interrogator petrified me.

Thankfully, my first experience as an interviewee, in the running for a press officer role, was more pleasant than expected.

Until The Question.

 “Could you explain to us why you think you are qualified for this position?”

You see, that was the problem; I wasn’t qualified. Armed with little more than a degree in languages and boundless enthusiasm, I knew I’d be up against candidates with marketing and PR degrees, their studies solidified with experience from placement years.

So I didn’t answer with confidence or competence, and I didn’t get the job.

But what I did do was go back to the drawing board, and work out why, despite not having graduated in a related degree, I was just as qualified to work in PR.

At the risk of sounding like a clichéd UCAS personal statement, I’ve always known that I’ve wanted to work in a creative industry. However, I didn’t realise that industry would be public relations until my first year of university.

As a student of French and German, the typical career choices touted to us were teaching and translating; both appealing options, but I was more drawn to a newsroom than a classroom.

It was a careers masterclass organised by Cosmopolitan back in 2013 that sealed my fate. I went to the event, aimed at those interested in journalism or PR, hoping for an insight into working at a magazine, but it was the lively tales of press office life that had me hooked.

Three years and far too many all-nighters later, it was time for the stressful reality of graduate job hunting to pop my cosy campus bubble.

Entry level positions in the industry were scarcer than funds in my bank account, and most that I saw required a relevant qualification. I would apply nonetheless, mostly to receive demoralising rejections, until one day my perseverance was rewarded with an interview invitation.

While that first interview did not go to plan, after a few more closely-fought battles I was thrilled to secure my graduate job as a PR executive at a digital marketing agency.

So here are my top tips for interviews if you haven’t got a PR qualification. Spoiler alert: it’s not as difficult as it might seem!

  • Work experience is wonderful

This has probably been drilled into you by your uni – in which case, I apologise for nagging – but this can be the difference between getting a job or becoming another graduate unemployment statistic. That said, don’t worry too much if you can’t secure work experience at a PR agency, because a placement at a newspaper, media organisation or marketing agency can be equally valuable.

  • Make the most of student societies

UK universities are renowned for their various clubs and societies, from the ubiquitous football teams to those catering for more niche interests (I’m looking at you, St Andrews’ Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer Appreciation Society). Of course, the most obvious suggestion would be to join your uni’s marketing society – or, if you’re really lucky, a PR society. However, it’s also very useful to win the role of communications officer of the society of your choice, equipping you with a vital insight into your future career.

  • Read, read, read

You’re used to reading reams of textbooks for your course, but swap your Shakespeare for something more PR-focused. I’ve learnt loads from Alex Singleton’s the PR Masterclass, which is an excellent introduction. You could also subscribe to a trade publication such as PR Week to get to grips with some successful campaigns, which are useful to mention in interviews as having inspired you.

  • Find a career mentor

If your uni has a career mentor scheme already, then what’s stopping you? If not, get in touch with your department’s careers adviser, who should be able to put you in touch with alumni who work in your chosen field. Your career mentor will be able to help with job applications, interview practice and even finding work experience.

Helen Parkinson is a French and German Languages graduate now working as a PR executive for a digital agency


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