Acing the Group Interview | The Ultimate Guide
It’s you, the interviewers, and a bunch of other candidates in the same room. No pressure. Elizabeth Magill brings you the advice and tips you need to stand out from the crowd.
The group interview is a different breed in the interviewing animal kingdom. It’s kind of like a real-life version of that reality show “The Apprentice” (without Donald Trump).
The reality of going through such a non-traditional interviewing format is unnerving for many job candidates. But despite the fact that group interviews rattle many candidates, many employers find them appealing.
To embrace the group interview process as an opportunity to really differentiate yourself and stand out from the crowd, it helps to understand the what’s, where’s and why’s of group interviews.
What is a Group Interview?
Group interviews involve bringing you into an interview with several other candidates who are vying for the same position. All candidates in the group are interviewed simultaneously.
The interviewers in these situations are interested in how you respond and react to other candidates, as well as how you respond to questions directed at you. For example, are you supportive of other team members or are you going to throw them under the bus (figuratively, we hope)?
In a group interview setting, interviewers often pose hypothetical problems or situations to the group as a whole and allow the group to engage in activities to solve or address the issue.
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) notes that these companies are assessing “soft” skills such as:
Problem solving skills
Interpersonal communication skills
Group interviews can be more stressful than one-on-one interviews, so they also give potential employers better insight into how you will function in the stressful situations that crop up frequently on the job.
Where Are Group Interviews Used?
In most situations, group interviews are reserved for:
• high-stress fast-paced careers,
• positions that require working in a team environment to accomplish department or company goals,
• and jobs that necessitate heavy customer interaction.
Group interviews are also used when a company has a number of similar positions to fill. For example, many companies use group interviews when selecting candidates for management training or rotational programs. I have seen other organizations hold group interviews to staff up a new sales team or expand a customer service team — both scenarios with 5-10 open positions with the same requirements.
However, any company can decide to employ a group interview at any time during the hiring process.
Why Do Companies Use Group Interviews?
SHRM reveals that group interviews are common in jobs that require dealing with the public and heavy customer interaction because of their highly stressful nature, and the fact that they require candidates to have the ability to think fast on their feet, keep their cool, and solve problems.
That doesn’t mean that other types of industries cannot benefit from group interviews. In fact, more businesses and industries are beginning to adopt at least some degree of group interviews for the following reasons.
1) It’s cost effective. Group interviews can be more cost effective than one-on-one interviews. Interviewing 15 candidates in the amount of time it would normally take to interview five saves companies, especially larger organizations, big dollars.
2) It’s fast. Interviewing candidates in groups is faster than conducting one-on-one interviews. By interviewing multiple candidates at once, businesses focus on growing their business, rather than sifting through applications and conducting individual interviews that interrupt the workflow.
3) It streamlines the process. Large scale group interviews make it possible for companies who need to hire large numbers of employees quickly to streamline the interview process.
4) It enables job mimicking. Interviewing in groups enables employers to view candidates in an environment that closely mimics the job environment they’ll be working in before they get the job.
5) It provides comparison. Group settings allow for easier comparisons of applicants.
Brian Pfeiffer, former manager at Rural Metro Medical Services in New York, says that his company used the group interview format as a “standard hiring practice.” He reveals that his company found the group interview as the best approach particularly because the traditional one-on-one interview may not afford a strong connection, good fit, or vibe between a particular interviewer and applicant, through no fault of the candidate.
Types of Group Interview Formats
Two main types of group interview formats involve discussions and activities.
1) Group Activities – Activities usually involve groups of five or fewer candidates who are tasked with a specific problem to solve. The goal is to see how you handle conflict and how well you work together even though you are competing for the same job.
2) Group Discussion – With group discussions, the groups may involve three to seven people and the interviewer asks questions of each candidate present. Everyone takes turns and your mission in this interview process is to make yourself memorable to the person conducting the interview.
3) Group Followed by Individual Interview — Some organizations will conduct the group activity and/or discussion and then meet with candidates individually to ask additional questions.
Company Examples of Group Interview Formats
Big Interview’s Pamela Skillings has helped her coaching clients prepare for a variety of group interview scenarios. For confidentiality reasons, she doesn’t want to name company names, but the companies have included the following:
• A top technology company uses group interviews to staff up sales and business development teams The interview day includes a presentation by the company, a group activity that includes small groups presenting to the rest of the room, and individual interviews.
• A major retailer prefers the group interview format for choosing participants in their competitive management training programs. Their group interviews also include small-group activities and presentations followed by individual interviews. In the individual interviews, participants are often asked about their team members (Who was best? Who was worst?)
• A highly prestigious investment firm centers group interviews around group discussions about controversial topics. They like to see how participants deal with conflict and also feel that the format helps them to see how candidates think and what they are most passionate about.
Some companies will provide an agenda and some advance information about what to expect. Others seem to savor the element of surprise.
More Group Interview Examples and Sample Questions from Glassdoor.com
The folks at Sausalito-based job listings site Glassdoor.com (a great overall resource in your interview prep process) provide a collection of additional group interview examples that have been shared by interviewees.
Keep in mind: These are just a few examples and companies frequently change up the specifics of their group interview formats.
Your experience may be entirely different or very similar to one or more of the methods mentioned below. And as you will see, many big name companies use the group interview process in different ways at different times.
1. American Airlines Group Interview
The position of flight attendant at American Airlines requires a great deal of public interaction and customer service, making group interviews ideal. Below is an outline of the American Airlines group interview process as indicated on Glassdoor.com by flight attendant candidates.
The Task: For the group task, they invited candidates to draw circles with three lines inside. On those three lines, candidates were asked to write three things everyone in their group had in common. Then candidates were instructed draw a line going out of the circle. On that line, they were to write something unique about themselves. The other group members were to try and guess which person belonged to the unique item.
The Questions: Once the group task was complete, the group interview began with a series of questions, including the following:
• What unique asset to do you have to offer American Airlines if they hire you?
• Identify an occasion when you gave back to your community, but credited a company or organization.
• Describe a time when you improved a process. Why is it now better?
• Describe a time when it was necessary to disappoint a customer. How did you handle the situation and its repercussions?
2. Apple Store – Mac Specialist Group Interview
The group interview session with the Apple Store is reported as part informational (where the management team conducts a presentation to all candidates) and part demonstration (where individual candidates share their knowledge of Apple products with the management team).
The goal is to determine how well the candidates can engage the customers and explain the products. Interview questions included the following:
• Is this an interesting enough job for you?
• What is the one thing about yourself you’d most like to improve?
• Name one song on your iPod no one would ever guess.
• If you could be any Apple product, which one would you choose and why?
3. Victoria’s Secret Stores Group Interview
A particular group interview for Victoria’s Secret Stores involved a group of candidates who are asked several different interview questions. Questions asked in the past include:
• How do you encourage customers to transition from “just looking” into buying products?
• What’s the most important benefit of wearing a good bra?
• Use three words to describe yourself.
• How would you respond when catching someone shoplifting?
• What is something you dislike doing, but must?
• Name an occasion when you had outstanding customer service. What made it great?
• Which animal is your spirit animal and why?
4. Alpine Access Group Interview
The group interview for Alpine Access, a firm that hires work-from-home call center agents, was described as somewhat relaxed compared to other group interviews. The candidates reported that Alpine Access offers information about the company to candidates and then asks each candidate a series of questions. If the interviewer likes the answers, candidates move forward to the one-on-one interview round. Interview question examples included:
• How would you respond to an irate customer?
• How do you define customer service?
• Why do you feel you’re a good fit for the position?
5. Kohl’s Group Interview
Kohl’s has conducted group interviews for cashiers in the past. The interview involved several questions, some for everyone to answer and some random questions directed at specific individuals. If they liked the answers provided during the group interview, candidates were called back for a second interview. Kohl’s cashier candidates shared the following sample questions via Glassdoor:
• How would you react if you caught a coworker stealing?
• Give details about a time when you provided outstanding customer service.
• What makes you a good candidate to work as a Kohl’s cashier?
• Why do you want to work for Kohl’s?
• How would you respond to a customer stealing?
More Potential Group Interview Questions and Activities
It’s much easier to prepare for the group interview if you know what to expect. Companies vary widely in how they conduct the interview itself, but most include one or more of the following in the interview process:
• Employer Presentation
• Work-Simulation Exercises
• Task-Related Assessments
• Skills and Behaviors Assessments (which may look at):
Decision Making Skills
Problem Solving Abilities
Talent to Negotiate and Compromise
Ability to Analyze and Assess
More Potential Group Interview Activities
Expect group activities that work within the scope of the job you’re preparing to do. For instance, if you’re applying for a job as a buyer at Macy’s, your group activity may involve creating an outfit. If you’re applying for a job at Kohl’s, you may be assigned a challenge such as dealing with a dissatisfied customer or shoplifter.
More Potential Group Interview Questions
Expect post-activity or exercise questions about the experience. Some may be posed to the entire group and other questions may be asked of individuals. They include questions such as:
• How did the team work together to successfully complete the exercise?
• What was your individual contribution to the group activity?
• What struggles did the team face in accomplishing the goal?
• How would other team members describe you?
You’ll also be asked individual questions in the group interview process. In addition to the questions mentioned in section above, expect questions such as:
• How would you describe yourself to other people?
• What are your personal career goals and how does this job help you accomplish those goals?
• What unique skills, talents, or perspectives do you bring to this position?
How to Prepare for a Group Interview
Start with the basic interview preparation that you would do for ANY job interview (including performing adequate company research, practicing common interview questions and answers, and preparing your own questions). However, there are a few additional things you can do to prepare specifically for a group interview.
First, when conducting your research on the company and their interview process, make sure you check sites like Glassdoor.com that may provide inside information from past candidates. If you’re lucky, you may even find the scoop on particular activities and interview questions that may be asked (don’t take this info as 100% gospel, however, companies often switch up approaches).
Business Week admonishes (and we agree) that you should resist the temptation to over-rehearse for group interviews. Much of the purpose of a group interviews is to see how you operate in an “off the cuff” situation. Over-prepared responses may come off too scripted, and can disappoint the interviewers who are looking for authentic reactions and responses.
Do’s and Don’ts of Group Interview Discussion
• Do project a positive attitude.
• Do wait patiently for your turn to speak.
• Do avoid appearing overly competitive.
• Do demonstrate that you have listened to others’ points of view.
• Do take a different approach than other candidates.
• Do timely interject an intelligent response or question.
• Do be polite.
• Don’t interrupt other applicants.
• Don’t criticize other candidates.
• Don’t monopolize the conversation.
• Don’t play the power struggle game.
Do’s and Don’ts of Group Interview Activities
• Do show your ability to delegate tasks.
• Do demonstrate leadership skills.
• Do share a plan to solve the problem.
• Do support another plan if yours isn’t chosen.
• Do be respective of others’ ideas.
• Don’t forget to offer praise and appreciation for other team members.
• Don’t be too passive.
• Don’t appear uncooperative.
• Don’t be too aggressive.
Note: The Big Interview blog has tons of information about common interview questions and answers and how to prepare, so be sure to read up before your interview.
More Tips for Standing Out at the Group Interview
For outgoing people who are accustomed to working in teams, group interviews may be easier to ace than the typical one-on-one. Quieter people, introverts, and those who prefer working alone may find these types of interviews much more challenging.
With preparation and the right mindset, however, any candidate — even the quietest candidate — can make his or her voice heard in a group interview setting.
If you’re the strong, silent type and the idea of a group interview makes you cringe, the following tips can help you prepare to leverage your unique strengths, even in an uncomfortable environment:
• Display your listening skills. As difficult as it may seem, it is definitely possible to stand out in a group interview situation. One way to do this, according to The UC Davis Human Resources Department is to “Show your listening skills by paying attention to what others say during the interview and try not to repeat their responses.” Not only is it polite to listen while the other candidates are talking with the interviewers, but you also learn a lot from the experience. Pay attention to the responses of other candidates and the interviewers’ reactions to those responses. It will help you craft your own responses to the same questions and later questions.
• Speak up. This is your chance to demonstrate your fit for the role. Some people get uncomfortable and clam up, especially if they are intimidated by a group of big-mouthed extroverts. If you don’t speak up, you can easily be overlooked. Interviewers are also looking for people who know how to make their voices heard. That doesn’t mean you have to be the loudest. Look for opportunities to jump in and confidently raise your hand.
• Resist any temptation to try to one-up the other interview participants and instead focus on sharing the traits, talents, and characteristics that make you unique. It may seem smart to undermine the other candidates in an effort to make yourself look better. However, you should always err on the side of supporting your team in group interview environments.
• Don’t forget to build on responses other participants provide.This lets the interviewers know you’re paying attention and demonstrates your ability to think as a member of a team.
• Involve everyone on your team in the problem-solving process.Be the leader, not by taking charge, but by getting to know the people on your team, addressing them by name, and using their strengths to accomplish your goals.
• Share the things that make you unique. You never know when you’ll find a kindred spirit among the interviewers. More importantly, it humanizes you and gives an impression of you as a whole person rather than a one-dimensional candidate. It sets you apart from the others being interviewed, which is your goal at the end of the interview.
• Treat everyone with respect. Yes, the other candidates are your competition. However, they may become your teammates at some point in time, whether in this position or another position down the road. An added benefit to treating everyone with respect is that this is something the people conducting the interviews are looking for as well. It’s a point in your favor to behave as if you’re already coworkers attempting to reach a common goal.
• Lastly, don’t forget to acknowledge all the members of your team for helping to carry out the plan effectively. This shows leadership and humility while presenting you as a leader in the creation and execution of the plan.
Following Up after a Group Interview
The “Thank You” letter still applies in group interview situations. Whether you were interviewed by one person or reviewed by an entire panel, it’s important to send a thank you letter to every interviewer who participated in the process.
Use the “Thank You” letter as an opportunity to detail the things you’ve learned about the interviewer. This lets the interviewer know that you pay attention to details and helps make you more memorable for that individual interviewer. Consider the thank you letter as your final opportunity to make a good impression.
Sending email thank you letters within 24 hours of the interview is acceptable today. However, if the company culture is more traditional, a handwritten thank you letter may be more appropriate.
Failing to send a thank you letter in a timely manner can sabotage an otherwise good interview, leaving the interviewers believing you’re either no longer interested in the job (at best), lazy, or ungrateful.
It’s true that many people find the group interview to be highly intimidating. That doesn’t have to be the case though. The challenge lies in shifting your mindset from one of dreading the group interview to one of using this type of unique interview format as an opportunity to shine.