Learn how to survive — and thrive — during a panel interview with these tips.
If you've never participated in a panel interview before, it can be an intimidating affair. However, with a little extra care and preparation, you'll be able to impress a whole table of stakeholders with confidence.
Q: What is a panel interview and how should I prepare for one?
How does a panel interview differ from a standard 1-on-1 job interview, and what should I do to prepare for one? — James B.
A panel interview (also known as a group interview) is a job interview in which a candidate meets with a group of employees at the company who have a vested interest in the hiring decision. Instead of meeting with, say, four separate individuals at the company on a one-on-one basis, a panel interview allows you, the candidate, to meet with all of them, all at once.
Some employers favor this type of interview format because it can speed up the hiring process, especially if the panel is able to dedicate an entire day to interview all of the applicants who are in consideration and come to a decision as to who will make it to the next round. In addition, panel job interviews are often used to reduce the risk of a bad hire. The idea is that a panel member will come with a different perspective and strengths, which will compensate for other team members' weaknesses and decrease the chances of hiring biases.
A panel interview is typically led by the hiring manager, though some companies prefer to have a recruiter or an HR manager to take on this role. The facilitator usually asks the candidate a set of predetermined panel interview questions. The other members of the panel interview will join in the conversation by asking follow-up questions. Each member of the panel will approach the interview a little differently based on how their role will interact with the one that's being filled. After the panel interview is complete, panel members will meet together to share their thoughts and determine if the candidate proceeds to the next round.
How to prepare for panel interviews
In many ways, preparing for a panel interview is not much different than preparing for your typical in-person interview. You'll want to complete your usual pre-interview checklist, such as researching the company and your panel interviewers, adapting your elevator pitch for the job at hand, practicing your responses to typical interview questions, and creating a list of questions to ask your interviewers. That said, there are some elements that will be slightly different or require special attention when job seekers are interviewing in front of panelists.
Research each interviewer
Once you know you'll be interviewing in front of a panel, ask your main contact at the company for the names and titles of who will be in attendance. Research each member of the panel interview: conduct an online search, check out their employee bios and social media profiles (especially LinkedIn), and talk to those in your network who are connected to each interviewer to get a better sense of how each person's position is related to the job being filled.
This research will help you accomplish two important goals. First, learning more about your interviewers and putting a face with the name will help to ease your interview anxiety. Second, once you have an idea of what each interviewer cares about when filling this position, it will be much easier to tailor your answers to their questions.
Bonus panel interview tip: Treat everyone in the panel interview the same. Address each person's question in the same manner, regardless of their background or title.
Prepare questions for the panel interview
When brainstorming a list of questions to ask during a panel interview, flag some that you intend to ask a specific person and others that you'd like to open up to the entire panel. For example, you may directly ask the hiring manager a question about how your performance will be measured (“What would you want to see me accomplish in the first six months?”) and save a question about the company culture for the entire interview panel (“How would you describe the company culture?”).
Remember, the best interview questions are ones that help you (1) determine whether the opportunity is right for you; (2) demonstrate your genuine interest in the opportunity, assuming that's the case; and (3) discover whether any of your interviewers have reservations about your candidacy.
Be mindful of your body language
When it comes to first impressions, studies have found that non-verbal cues have more than four times the impact as verbal ones. While your body language is one of many factors the panel will take into account, it's certainly an important one.
The key is to look your interviewers in the eye while giving the person who asked you the question a little extra attention. Focus on sitting up straight, as if there was a string tied from the top of your head to the ceiling. This posture is seen as a sign of intelligence, confidence, and credibility.
Slouching or leaning back in your chair, fidgeting, crossing your arms, or cramming your hands into your pockets can make you appear disinterested in the role or defensive — neither of which will help you land the job. Also, don't forget to maintain good eye contact and be sure to smile! Remember, employers want to hire someone they genuinely want to be around.
Unsure what messages your body language is sending? Request a mock interview with a trained professional to find out.
Build rapport with the entire panel
The better you connect with your interviewers, the more quickly they'll see you as a valuable addition to the team, rather than a costly line item on someone's budget. The trick with a panel interview is to engage with all of your interviewers, both as individuals and as a group.
One way to do this is to answer a question directly, but then further elaborate on your response to address the interests of the other interviewers on the panel. For instance, one interviewer could ask how you've previously managed projects with your team when there were competing priorities — but you know some of the other panel interview members are more interested in learning how you'll interact with their teams on cross-functional projects. This is a great opportunity to explain how you manage your team's work while explaining the steps you take to keep all teams in the loop on a cross-functional project.
Bonus panel interview tip: Jot down everyone's names, titles, and little things you learn about them during the interview process. This will make your follow-up easier later on.
Control the pace of the conversation
Some candidates find themselves caught in a rapid-fire of interviewing questioning where one interviewer is shooting off a question before you can fully answer the previous one. If your panel interview suddenly turns into a “firing-squad interview,” don't panic. There are steps you can take to get the interview back on track.
Before you answer a question, pause and take a deep breath — then deliver your response. Your answers should be succinct, but not rushed. If an interviewer cuts you off to ask another, unrelated question and you haven't finished your thought, do a gut check to determine if it's worth finishing before moving on to the next question. If the information isn't critical, let it go. If it is, politely respond, “Before I address your question, I'd like to share one final thought,” and then finish your previous answer before moving on.
Send a thank you note
It's important to send a unique post-interview thank you note for each member of the panel following your interview. Don't leave anyone out. Don't send the same generic thank you note to all your panelists. Do send it within a day or two of your interview.
As noted above, recording everyone's name and title will make your ability to follow up easier. If you are able to make notes about individuals, you can incorporate these notes into your thank you email to show that you were attentive during the interview. It's always possible that your interviewers will compare thank you notes, so your effort to personalize each one will go a long way.
Practice makes perfect! Learn how a professional interview coach can help you land the job sooner.
Amanda Augustine is a certified professional career coach (CPCC) and resume writer (CPRW) and the resident career expert for Talent Inc.'s suite of brands: TopResume, TopCV, and TopInterview. On a regular basis, she answers user questions like the one above. Have a question? Take a look at her career advice or ask a question on her Quora page.