Types of Interviews

Informational Interview

An informational interview is a brief (20–30-minute) meeting between someone who wants to learn more about a particular industry and someone who is working in that industry.  The purpose of this interview is not to get a specific job but rather to find out whether or not a position type or industry might be a good fit for you.  For this reason, an informational interview is a good idea if you are thinking about a career change.

Most people request informational interviews either by email or by phone; email is generally a less intimidating way to contact a stranger. However you make contact with the person, introduce yourself briefly, explaining who you are and how you got his or her name (feel free to name-drop if you got the person’s name from a mutual friend or acquaintance). Be clear that you are looking for information only and that you would like to schedule a short meeting to get a few career-related questions answered.  Propose a few dates and times and let your contact know the best way to get in touch with you to confirm.

Not sure what to ask?  Try some of these questions:

  • How did you choose this career path?
  • How did your undergraduate training help to prepare you for your career?
  • Could you describe a typical work day?
  • What parts of your job do you like best? Least?
  • How often do you work past 6:00 p.m. or on weekends?
  • Is a graduate degree important in this field/at this company?

Be sure to thank your contact for the time and information at the conclusion of the interview.

Mock Interview

A mock interview, like an informational interview, is not an interview for a "real" job. Instead, it is a practice interview, to help you get experience for—and learn what is expected in—an actual job interview.  A mock interview can be helpful if you have little to no interview experience, if you are returning to work after many years at home, or if you are concerned about your past interview performance and want to get some feedback on what you could be doing better.

The interviewer will typically try to make a mock interview seem as realistic as possible, asking you the same types of questions you would find in a traditional interview and/or a behavioral interview.

Phone or Skype Interview

Many employers will use phone or Skype interviews to do initial candidate screenings before inviting top candidates for in-person interviews. In some cases—especially with small companies that do not have a lot of money for the costs associated with in-person interviewing—phone or Skype interviews may be used exclusively, although this isn't common.

Phone and Skype interviews can present some special challenges both for you and for your interviewer. In a phone interview, the interviewer can’t tell whether or not you present a professional image; you can only use your voice to express enthusiasm or interest in a position since the interviewer can't see your body language. Skype can help to alleviate these challenges since you and your interviewer can see each other. However, there is still a certain amount of awkwardness involved in having a conversation with someone while you are both facing screens rather than each other.

In spite of their shortcomings, phone and Skype interviews still offer opportunities for you to make a good impression on your interviewer.  Here are some tips:

  • Use of a landline phone is still recommended if possible, since cell phone lines are often unclear and calls may be more easily dropped.
  • Dress as you would for an in-person interview, even for a phone interview. Professional attire will put you in a professional frame of mind.
  • Turn off call waiting on your phone, if possible, so your call won't be interrupted. If using Skype, silence the ringer on your cell phone to minimize distractions.
  • Plan to do the interview in a private room, with the door closed. If you live with other people, advise them that you will be interviewing during a particular timeframe and that you cannot be disturbed.
  • Have a printed copy of your résumé or CV to refer to, as needed, along with any prepared notes about your accomplishments that you want to emphasize.
  • Speak slowly and enunciate carefully in order to be understood. If your mouth is dry due to nerves, keep a glass of water nearby; don't chew gum.

Traditional Interview

In a traditional interview, you are interviewed by one person at a time.  If the interview is onsite, you may be interviewed by numerous individuals over the course of a day or two. Interviewers may be human resources representatives, managers, or potential future supervisors. The traditional interview is the type most people think of first when they are invited to interview for a position, although it is becoming less common than behavioral or case study interviews.

Traditional interviews may be structured, in which all candidates are asked the same set of questions in the same order, or unstructured, in which questions may differ by candidate. Most employers start out with a structured set of questions and then leave some flexibility to follow up with individual candidates depending upon their answers to those questions.

Unlike behavioral interview questions, which ask candidates how they have behaved in work situations in the past, traditional interview questions generally focus on candidates' beliefs, professional styles, and preferred ways of interacting in the workplace, although some of the questions asked may be more behavioral in nature.

Traditional interviews are often less intimidating than some other interview formats, as only one interviewer at a time is involved and the interview feels like a conversation. However, the main disadvantage to the traditional interview is that interviewers are not able to discuss specific candidates' answers in order to compare them since different interviewers often ask candidates different questions during their interviews.

Behavioral Interview

In a behavioral interview, the interviewer tries to find out how you have behaved in specific work situations in the past, assuming that past behavior predicts future performance. The interviewer's questions are intended to discover whether or not you have the skills that the employer is seeking.

Behavioral interview questions generally demand specific answers. For example:

  • Tell me how you handled a difficult situation with a co-worker.
  • Provide an example of how you have used logic to solve a problem in the workplace.
  • Give me an example of how you handle things when your schedule is interrupted.
  • Have you had to implement an unpopular policy in the workplace? If so, how did you do it?
  • Tell me about a time when you faced an ethical dilemma and how you dealt with it.

You won't be able to predict exactly what kinds of questions will be asked, so it's best to prepare answers to common interview questions (some of which you may be asked as well) and also to think about specific situations or projects you have been involved with in the past so you can use some of these to illustrate past behaviors.  Review the job posting to get a sense of the responsibilities of the position and the types of skills the interviewer will likely be seeking.

Behavioral interviews can be intimidating if you have little workplace experience from which to draw examples. Whatever you do, don't try to make up examples of situations that didn't actually happen! The interviewer will follow up with probing questions that will likely expose the fabrication, put you on the spot, and damage your credibility. If you don't have an example in response to a specific question, say so and then offer a similar example of something you actually did or experienced—for example, a situation that happened in a group project or with a roommate or colleague.

Case Study Interview

In a case study interview, the interviewer evaluates your analytical skills, creativity, and use of logic to determine how to deal with problems. Case study interviews were traditionally used by management consulting firms but are now used in many different types of settings.

The specific answers you give to an interviewer’s questions in a case study interview aren't as important as the analytical process you use to find the answers. The interviewer will be looking to see:

  • How you gather information, identify key details, and present conclusions
  • How well you are able to think under pressure
  • How you deal with unfamiliar situations or a lack of information

Case study interviewers may ask you what might seem like strange or irrelevant questions to see how you think through problems. Some of these questions might ask you to work through an estimate (e.g., "How many babies are born in a given year in the United States?"); some might be "brain teasers" (e.g., "How do you know whether or not the light is on inside a refrigerator?"); others might be either real or theoretical client questions (e.g., "What advice would you have for a business looking to create an online presence?"). 

Listen carefully to the questions and take notes.  Ask for clarification if necessary.  Describe what you think are the most important issues and talk through your strategy to help the interviewer understand your thought process.  Conclude by providing a summary of the case at the end of your answer.

Technical Interview

All interviews for technical positions are, to some extent, technical interviews. However, some types of interviews focus more than others on asking specific technical questions rather than general questions about you, your background, your goals, etc. Interviews that focus heavily on technical knowledge are most common in the fields of computer science, computer engineering, and information technology.

The technical interview will challenge you to incorporate your knowledge about specific technical programs, processes, and procedures into your answers. Here are some common technical interview questions:

  • Which development tools have you used?
  • Which programming languages have you used?
  • Which source control tools have you used?
  • Provide an example of how you have applied your technical knowledge in a practical way.
  • What elements are necessary for a successful team and why?
  • What are your technical certifications and what do you do to maintain them?

Technical interviews may also include "brain teaser" questions that require you to use your knowledge and experience to solve a technical problem, how-to questions that describe how to complete a technical process, or what-if questions that describe hypothetical situations to see how you would solve them.

Make sure you know exactly what the company or organization does and what types of technologies are being used so you can confidently discuss your technical skills in those areas. It’s also important to convey your ability to use your skills to solve real-world problems and to communicate your skills in ways that non-technical people can also understand.

Group Interview

In a group interview, a group of job candidates all meet together with prospective supervisors, HR personnel, and support staff. In addition to providing an efficient means of disseminating information to many candidates at once, the group interview gives interviewers an opportunity to see how the candidates handle themselves in a competitive setting and how they interact with each other.

There are several formats that a group interview might take:

  • An employer presentation about the company or organization, followed by a group question-and-answer session.
  • A problem-solving session, in which the employer provides a hypothetical situation and candidates must work together to come up with one or more solutions.
  • A group-oriented work-related task, which candidates must find a way to perform together.

Interviewers watch candidates closely for their communication skills, analytical skills, leadership skills (including the ability to influence and motivate others), interpersonal skills, and ability to handle stress.  They also look for non-verbal communications that make either a positive impression (e.g., smiling) or a negative one (e.g., eye-rolling or playing with hair).  Be aware of your body language. It's easy to make the wrong impression when you are nervous!

In a group interview, be an active participant in the group discussions but avoid dominating the conversation.  Acknowledge and be respectful of the contributions of others.

Panel Interview

In a panel (or committee) interview, you are interviewed by a group of individuals from the company or organization, usually around a conference table. For the sake of fairness, the interview is structured to ensure that the same questions are asked of all candidates by the same individuals. Interviewers are likely to be your potential supervisor(s), colleagues, and perhaps HR representatives. Panel interviews are most likely to be used in large companies or organizations.

At the beginning of the interview, write down the interviewers' names and job titles or request business cards as they introduce themselves.  During the interview, make eye contact with each person on the panel as you answer his or her question.  Always treat all interviewers' questions as equally important, whether the interviewer is a manager or a staff assistant.

A panel interview can be stressful because you may feel "put on the spot" by numerous people.  However, from an employer’s perspective, this type of interview is useful because it show how you interact with a variety of people and it provides an opportunity for all the interviewers to discuss their perspectives on your performance. 


Engineering Career Resources & Employer Relations

College of Engineering

117 Hammond Building

The Pennsylvania State University

University Park, PA 16802-4710

Phone: 814-863-1032