Types of Interviews

There are many different types of interviews, from the traditional format in which the interviewer asks questions and you answer them to group or panel interviews with many interviewers or candidates. Interview formats also vary according to whether you are seeking a position in industry or in academia.


If you're not sure what type of career you want, or you aren't confident about your ability to present yourself professionally in an interview, you might consider advance preparation in the form of an informational interview or a mock interview.

Informational Interview

An informational interview is a brief (20–30-minute) meeting between someone who wants to learn more about a particular type of career and someone who is working in that field. The purpose of this interview is not to get a specific job but rather to find out if a certain career path might be a good fit for you. An informational interview offers you the benefit of a professional's own experiences and impressions.

Whom should you ask for an informational interview? Start with people you know (e.g., family or friends working in engineering positions, faculty members) or referrals from people you know. Email is usually the least intimidating way to make an initial contact. Then:

  • If the contact was a referral, introduce yourself briefly and indicate how you got the contact's name and information (e.g., from a mutual friend, colleague, or acquaintance).
  • Let the person know you are interested in learning more about their work and ask if you can schedule a short phone call or meeting (either virtual or in-person) to ask a few career-related questions.
  • Be clear about the fact that you are looking for information only.
  • Propose a few dates and times and let the person know how to get in touch with you to confirm the arrangements.

It's important to be well prepared for an informational interview. 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 workday?
  • What parts of your job do you like best? Least?
  • How often do you work past 6:00 p.m. or on weekends?
  • What types of courses do you think would be helpful for me to take before pursuing this career path?
  • Is a graduate degree important in this field?

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 or if you are concerned about your past interview performance and want to get some feedback on what you could be doing better.

If you are preparing for an industry interview, you can schedule a virtual or in-person mock interview through Penn State's central Career Services.

If you are preparing for an academic interview, talk to your faculty adviser and/or contact The Graduate School.

Industry Interviews

The following interview types are common in industry settings.

Traditional Interview

The traditional interview is the type most people think of first when they are invited to interview for a position. In a traditional interview, you are interviewed by one person at a time from a company or organization. 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.

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 on 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.

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! 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 class, in a group project, or with a roommate or classmate.

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 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 meet concurrently with prospective supervisors, HR personnel, and support staff from a company or organization. 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. Group interviews are more common in person than in on virtual platforms.

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—such as smiling—or a negative one such as eye-rolling or playing with hair. In a group interview setting, be aware of your body language. It's easy to make the wrong impression when you are nervous!

Panel Interview

In a panel (or committee) interview, you are interviewed by a group of individuals from the company or organization. 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 as they introduce themselves. During the interview, try to 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 are fielding questions from numerous people. However, from an employer's perspective, this type of interview is useful because it shows how you interact with a variety of people, and it provides an opportunity for all the interviewers to discuss their perspectives on your performance.

Academic Interviews

Some types of interviews are specific to academic positions, including conference interviews and campus interviews.

Conference Interview

Initial interviews for academic jobs often take place during academic conferences. Conference interviews are generally short—just 20–30 minutes—so it's important to be well-prepared.

If you have a conference interview scheduled:

  • Contact the department in advance to ask which faculty will be participating in the interview.
  • Review the department website and research those faculty and their research areas. Look also at information about the department as a whole, including departmental news and achievements.
  • Become familiar with the course catalog, especially the introductory courses.
  • Be ready to provide a brief verbal summary (no more than five minutes long) describing your educational background, dissertation topic, research interests, teaching philosophy if seeking a teaching position, and professional goals.

The interviewer(s) will also ask you a series of questions relevant to academic positions.

Campus Interview

If you've made it through a conference interview and perhaps one or more follow-up screening interviews, you might be invited to interview on-site at the institution.

The specific components of the campus interview may differ somewhat depending on the type of institution and the specific job you have applied for. However, in general, a campus interview will involve one or two days of planned activities, including:

  • One-on-one interviews with various faculty members from your prospective department and other similar departments
  • Meetings with departmental staff
  • Meetings with the Dean and other administrators
  • Meetings with groups of undergraduate and graduate students
  • One or more meals with faculty members
  • Tours of the campus and/or department/lab space

You will probably also give at least one presentation about your research and, if you have applied for a teaching position, you may be asked to guest-teach a class.

Campus interviews can be stressful. Here are some tips to help you prepare:

  • Do your research about the campus—number of students, rankings, course offerings, etc.—and the faculty in your prospective department and college, focusing especially on those who will be involved in your interview (if you know this in advance)
  • Be able to discuss your research in a way that non-academics or non-specialists in your area of study can understand.
  • Know how to answer common questions that you are likely to be asked.

Engineering Career Resources & Employer Relations

College of Engineering

117 Hammond Building

The Pennsylvania State University

University Park, PA 16802-4710

Phone: 814-863-1032