Q: I’ve been invited to interview at a company I would be thrilled to join. The problem? It’s a group interview—as in multiple interviewees at once. Is this common? How do I differentiate myself? Is this just a time-saving technique for the organization or are they looking for specific traits in potential candidates?
A: Group interviews are common. It’s not necessarily strictly employed as a time-saving technique for an organization, though it can save time. Companies will use group interviews when the role they’re hiring for requires certain traits that will be most readily displayed in a group setting—traits such as extemporaneous speaking skills, awareness of others and their surroundings, and the ability to interact with many people. They want to see people interacting to assess those traits and key qualifications for the position.
Group interviews are definitely challenging, more so for introverts than extroverts. As with most interviews, preparation is key. Make a list of the messages you want to convey about yourself and this specific role. Multiple examples will be needed to protect you from people ahead of you using all of your examples. Be prepared to expand upon what others say while also adding a new piece of information: “I want to echo Andrew’s comment and add that…” Making a conscious effort to mention people by name—both those on the panel, as well as the people being interviewed with you—will be a key differentiator as well. Jot those names down as people are introduced. Everyone matters—other candidates are just as important as those interviewing you in this interaction. Treat them collegially rather than competitively.
As with all types of interviews, do your research on the company. It sounds like common sense, but most people don’t do research on the company. When being interviewed as part of a group, being knowledgeable about the company gives you a great opportunity to stand out by mentioning things that you researched and asking good, pertinent questions.
Group interviewing does tend to be role and level specific. Five senior scientists won’t be interviewed this way because it doesn’t align with the environment they work in or convey the skills that would be indicators of success. But if the role requires a lot of presenting, interpersonal interaction, and socializing, then this process will be used. People interviewing for a position as a trainer may be asked to do a presentation in front of the organization’s hiring managers as well as the other candidates. A demo facilitation can be a twist on interviewing, but for roles like teachers, trainers, or faculty, it makes sense. Readiness to present in front of anybody or interact with a range of other people are important skills for many roles. At the more senior levels, interviewing also involves taking you and your spouse/partner to a meal, to see how you engage in conversation, how you treat, your partner, and of course, the wait staff. The driving factor behind “public” interviews is getting candidates in different situations to see how they behave.
A group interview might be a little more stressful, but the organization is getting valuable information based on your behavior in the setting. It’s been structured a certain way to elicit examples of skills that really matter in the role. They’re ultimately asking themselves, “Is this a person I want to put my company name on?” And remember, the interview starts as soon as you walk in the door—because everyone will ask the receptionist, “What did you think?”