You researched the company. You tailored your resume. You diligently submitted your application. As a reward, you landed an interview and an opportunity to showcase yourself further. But your excitement quickly dissipates as you walk into a conference room filled with people. Intimidated, you freeze.

As a recent college graduate myself, I distinctly recall the intimidation factor experienced as I walked into my first panel interview. Having now served on dozens of search committees and conducted many panel interviews, I realize there are a number of differences in how you should approach panel interviews.

Rather than discover this by trial and error, here are five things you can do to rock your first (or next) panel interview.

Set the Table

The first step is determining how many individuals might comprise the panel. Don’t hesitate to contact human resources and ask how many members to expect and whether or not your resume/materials are already distributed. Even if they are distributed electronically, it may not necessarily mean each member of the panel has printed the materials. As a courtesy, be prepared with materials for each member. Otherwise, it may be seen as the equivalent of inviting guests to the table without a place setting.

Pay Introductions Proper Heed

In most cases each member will be introduced and you will be afforded the opportunity to introduce yourself. It can be easy to get caught in the moment and forget names, but do what you can to take note of who is in attendance while still maintaining eye contact and giving firm handshakes.

Doing so will show you are interested and their introduction may give you something to relate to when asked a question later. For example, “Great question, Bill. I am sure as Director of International Admissions you encounter a number of obstacles to effective communication on a daily basis. In my previous position I implemented the following processes to help overcome cultural barriers in communication.”

Beyond this opportunity, noting and using the panel members’ names will make it easier to recall them when later composing a thank you letter to the group. Pro tip: one thank you note for the entire group works well. Individualized thank you notes to each interviewer with specific talking points based on what each one said in the interview can do wonders.

When it comes time to introduce yourself, stay concise and within the scope of the position. Don't rattle on about your outside interests and activities. Too often applicants feel unnecessarily pressured to include information at this early juncture in the interview. You'll have plenty of time to discuss what makes you a good fit for their team throughout the interview. Revealing these things at length in your introduction detracts from the focus of the interview.


Match Attitudes

Depending on the composition of the panel and the culture of the company, your experience can vary greatly. Some may have a more laid back approach, while others are very formal and professional. Do your research ahead of time to find out what you can about each panel interviewer and the attitude of the company. Do your best to interpret the tone of the group early on and adjust accordingly.

However, always stay professional, even when the situation doesn't call for a formal tone. Some of the biggest mistakes occur when candidates become too relaxed. The more relaxed you become, the easier it is to misinterpret a comment and say something you might regret. Remember, these people may have been colleagues for years, but they have only known you a matter of minutes. They're looking to see if they can imagine you as a good fit for their mold.

Understand the Group Dynamic

During the introductions, you will have learned a lot about the people you're meeting with. As questions and answers start flowing, you may be asked to demonstrate your on-the-fly thinking, presentation skills, and ability to problem solve under pressure. In this situation, it's important to be clear on your intended audience and your role as the presenter.

I once sat in on a teaching demonstration for a college instructor position in which the candidate was expected to give a high-level lecture but proceeded to give an elementary level overview. This could either have been perceived as a miscommunication, a misunderstanding of the position, or a lack of comfort with the level of material being asked to present.

As you work with the panel, understand the audience by knowing their strengths, explaining in minute detail when it's necessary, and otherwise holding a dialogue rather than a one way exchange of information. This way, you can have a valuable and dynamic conversation with the panelists, which often results in a successful interview and positive impression.

Question Everyone

We all know the importance of asking questions as a candidate during the interview process, as it demonstrates interest in learning more about the company and shows you're engaged in the interview. It's important to have one or two questions for every member of the panel, as this will show that you paid attention, understood their background, and are interested in their input.

Panel members are not drawn out of a hat. They're selected by the hiring manager or search committee because their input is valued and they will be working directly with you. Put most of your focus on the hiring manager or the panel chair, but give time to the rest of the members as well.

With panel interviews it's also important ask how your position might interact with those individuals on the panel on a daily basis. This will demonstrate your interest in collaboration, as well as help you gain an inside scoop on a “day in the life of” the position. Remember that interviews are information-gathering tools for both sides of the hiring equation. You need to find out if you want to work with these people as much as they need to find out if you're a good fit for their team.

By keeping these five approaches in mind, you are that much more likely to come across as a polished panel interviewer the first (or next) time around.

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

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