An interview is just a conversation — with a specific purpose. So feel free to pause before answering questions.

I’ve just completed a week of interviews, and, as always, it has been a learning experience. Being on the other side of the table allows you to observe and to some extent understand the anxieties and tensions that people bring into the room. It also provides the opportunity to reflect on one’s own expectations and assessments as an interviewer, as someone who has to make a decision that could change the course of the person’s life.

I find the process fascinating and, honestly, a bit daunting. I’ve come to see how people deal with questions, how they frame their answers, how they interpret the responses from across the table, and how they discern (or not) the nuances of the interaction.

So here are some things I’ve taken away from these interactions; these are by no means formulae for success. They are just points to consider as you get ready to walk through that door and subject yourself to scrutiny.

First, think about the real purpose of the interview. What are you here for? What do you want out of it? At the most superficial level, you could answer this by saying you want to get into a programme or into a certain job. But what the people on the other side want to hear about are your personal motivations. That is what sets you as an individual apart from the others who are lined up to appear for the same interview.

Sincerity matters

Considering this first question carefully will lead you to prepare a bit better. It also gives you greater clarity about your long-term goals, and your plans to achieve them.

Secondly, if you really want to get into a course, or into a job, you need to show that you are serious about it. How do you do this? By finding out as much as you can about it before you go in for an interview. Panelists will pay more attention to those who have taken the trouble to do their homework. There is enough information available in the public domain (on the Internet, from other people) to give you a sense of what you might be getting into. Avoid platitudes such as “because this is the best” (this belongs only in movie dialogue) or “it has a good reputation.” Even if your personal reasons seem trivial, they often make more sense than these broad general statements. I sometimes find my eyes glazing over and my sense of hearing receding when someone begins, “From my childhood….” I agree that some people are lucky enough to know exactly what they wanted from age five and then to go ahead and pursue it. But for the rest of us, the future holds uncertainty and doubt, and what we may have wanted at age five is completely different from what we want as teenagers or young adults. More importantly, it is completely okay to display uncertainty and doubt, but not okay to display insincerity.

Think on your feet

In general, interviewees seem uncomfortable with silences. Most people rush to fill in the gap with words, no matter how unsuitable they may be. So answers to questions come tumbling out with no particular structure or logic, often lacking meaning as well. Remember that it’s okay to pause after the interviewer poses a question. Take time to consider it carefully and see whether you’ve understood it or not before jumping into an answer that may not be appropriate. Even if you have a ready answer for the question, it could work better if you take a little while (a few seconds) to gather your thoughts before voicing them. It’s wrongly believed that pausing is a sign of indecision or ignorance. Instead, think about it as a way to show confidence and thoughtfulness. Most good conversations come with their share of pauses, which give the participants time to digest what they have spoken about and think a little about what they will speak about. And after all, most interviews are just conversations — with a specific purpose.

And here’s another little secret that could help you preserve balance in the interview room: those on the other side of the table are just as uncertain about the outcome of the interview as you are. You’re an unknown quantity as far as they are concerned, and usually, they are seeking to understand what drives you, what you know, and most importantly, whether you are a good fit with the institution or programme. In fact, they are the ones with the questions while you have the answers.

The author teaches at the University of Hyderabad and is editor of Teacher Plus magazine. Email: usha.raman@gmail.com