It can be your worst nightmare, your mouth dries up, your mind blanks and there is an unending silence from the interviewer who asked the question as (s)he waits for your answer. You desperately want to study this subject, but it’s oversubscribed and Uni need to choose who to offer a place to, so first you have to overcome this dreaded interview!

For those in year 13, many will already be having interviews and others can reasonably expect to have one or more in the new year. Equally those applying for some of the incredible apprenticeship vacancies locally can expect to reach an interview stage – so here’s a few tips to help you prepare to shine on the day!

Some of the questions will be subject-led

If you did your research and chose the course because it was a good match to you and your interests, your enthusiasm and commitment will come across in your personal statement, in your teacher’s reference and naturally at interview. This is therefore a great opportunity for you!

Others will check you are ready for Uni

The interviewer may also be checking to see that you can cope with the demands of the course and with Uni life itself to ensure that you will see it through to successful graduation.

An interview could therefore well include the dreaded question “Tell me about a time when …” – for example, “… you faced a difficult challenge that you had to overcome”!

Don’t panic!

When they ask this question, your interviewer(s) will be simply trying to draw out your transferable skills – the abilities and talents that you have which match to the ones they are looking for in their ideal students.

So, the question is designed to identify – and evidence – a list of your skills and attributes.

How to prepare

One effective way to prepare is to think of a situation that you have faced or a problem that you have had to overcome. Start with one and try to come up with more if possible; then you should have a mini-arsenal of topics to adapt to any angle the interviewer is taking.

Ideally, try and find things from the recent past – something that you had to deal with in the last year if possible, but make it good. How recently it happened is not as important as choosing a great example or two to talk about.

The most important thing is that it demonstrates the many skills that you have – and especially the ones that match to those they are looking for. The best examples are therefore relevant to the subject that you are applying for – extremely rare, but that’s life!

Ultimately, with your answer, you are providing evidence that you didn’t make up the skills mentioned in your personal statement. And ensuring that they are nodding and noting down how you match to their requirements and are the sort of person they are looking for.

So, to help you prepare in advance, let’s trial a few questions and how you might answer them. Note how we’ve prompted you with ‘why?’ at various times to show how you could build up the evidence in your example. You don’t want the interviewer to have to drag your skills list out of you in case they don’t try too hard.

Question (1) – what was the problem or situation?

Example: “I had to get help for a friend who had fallen off their bike last year.”

Question (2) – why was it a problem or challenge?

Example: “We had been cycling on isolated tracks off the beaten track so there were very few people around to ask for help, we couldn’t fix the puncture, my friend was limping, his phone was out of charge and I couldn’t get a signal to call for help!”

Question (3) – what did you do to resolve the situation?

Example: “I gave my jacket to my friend (why?) to keep warm, and found his water bottle which had rolled away on impact (why?) so he had something to drink. We waited ten minutes (why?) to see if anyone went past, but as no-one did, I retraced our journey back along the path (why?) to get to the first place where either I had a signal or could find someone to help us. I found a signal first and managed to contact my friend’s dad to come out to us. I also now had a GPS signal so could tell him exactly where we were. He came, we got back to my friend and between us got my friend back home.”

Question (4) – what did you learn from the experience?

Example: “We both learned to tell others exactly where we are going and what time to expect us back before we set off, we both now have puncture repair kits with us and a small first aid kit. We charge our phones fully and I have switched to a carrier who provides better coverage in the area in which we like to cycle. We also take an ordinance survey map in case we still cannot get GPS and ensure that we do not stray too far off the main paths.”

So, what transferable skills would the Uni have got from this example?

Here’s a few transferable skills which they may value highly in their ideal students:

Maturity – in learning from a past error of judgement.

Responsibility and Leadership – in handling the situation at the time to a successful conclusion.

Caring – in ensuring that your friend was comfortable before leaving them to seek help.

Ability to work independently – in setting off to try to resolve to situation alone.

Communication – by informing someone who was then able to successfully find them.

Teamwork and Working Collaboratively – both with the friend and then their father.

Problem Solving – throughout.

The interviewer may also be interested in the length of time it took you to resolve the problem, whether your challenging situation required a quick win or a more time-consuming solution, perhaps over many months?

And they may be curious to know what you might have done differently if faced with a similar situation again.

Practice by working on the above exercise: it should help you answer the “Tell me about a time when…” question and help you to recognise the transferable skills which add value to your application and interview.

There’s more general tips on applications, higher education and transferable skills on the website. Just scroll to the banner at the bottom of the screen.

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