Making an Impression in a Panel Interview

Last Updated Jun 20, 2007 2:43 PM EDT

Panel interviews, which are becoming popular in many organizations, allow several of the company's representatives to meet a job applicant at the same time in the same place. If you are job-hunting, you may eventually experience a panel interview. It can be an intimidating experience—a number of people sitting around a table, all looking at you expectantly—but it need not be. It can be an excellent opportunity for you to present yourself in the best light to some of the organization's decision makers at one time. The key to a successful panel interview is your ability to remain composed and confident. Ask yourself:

  • How can I prepare myself mentally for a panel interview?
  • What are my major strengths as a potential employee?
  • How can I best communicate these strengths to each panel member?
What You Need to KnowHow do panel interviews fit into the overall hiring process?

Panel interviews are seen as way of using time efficiently for both interviewers and job applicant. With several representatives of the organization in the same place at the same time, you, the applicant, need not be escorted from office to office. In a sequential interviewing process, if one interviewer takes more time than has been scheduled for his or her part of the process, the entire schedule can be thrown off. This seldom happens in a panel interview.

Other benefits of a panel interview are that you, as the job applicant, only need to tell your story once and receive consistent information from the panel members. At the same time, all the panel members receive the same information from you on which to base their decision to hire you.

If I'm interviewed by a panel, it is wise to send a thank-you note to each member?

Yes, you should send a thank-you note to each member of the panel individually, in the same way that you would to each person if you had interviewed with them one-on-one. So be sure to get the names and titles of everyone on the panel. It is not necessary to compose a completely unique note for each interviewer—a similar note is perfectly acceptable. You should, of course, mail each separately.

What to DoPrepare Well

As with any interview, you will want to learn as much as you can about both the organization and the job you are applying for. The organization's Web site is a good place to start: its annual report may be published there, as well as more detail about the job opening you are applying for. Check your local library for recent articles about the organization, and talk with people who are familiar with the organization and its business. Before you go to the interview get as much information about the following as you can:

  • the size of the organization
  • its structure
  • its main business
  • its major competitors
  • its work culture

Being mentally prepared is also key for this type of interview. Visualization is a powerful technique that has been used successfully by many people. Jack Nicklaus claims that much of his golf success can be attributed to his mentally rehearsing each shot before he actually picks up a club.

You can use it just as effectively to mentally rehearse for a panel interview. It can help you feel and appear cool and confident. Before the interview, close your eyes and picture yourself in a conference room with several people sitting around a large table anticipating what you might say in response to their questions. See yourself relaxed and open, answering each question easily, relating to each interviewer, ending with smiles all around—knowing it was a success.

Answer Each Question Individually, Even If You Feel You Are Being Bombarded

It may seem to you that everything is moving too fast during a panel interview. One person may ask a question, and before you have an opportunity to answer, another may ask a related question or add another layer to the first question. Try to answer each question in turn, taking the first and building on it to incorporate the second. Be sure to answer all the interviewers' questions, so that none leave the room thinking you have ignored either them or their questions.

Ask for Clarification If Appropriate

If you do not fully understand a question, check that you have understood it correctly before you launch off on what could be completely the wrong tack. You don't have to be elaborate: a simple "Do I understand you correctly? You want to know…" can be very helpful when you are uncertain as to the exact information the interviewers want from you.

On the other hand, you will need to know occasionally if your answers have been understood. "Did I answer your question?" directed at the panel member concerned will confirm that you have replied appropriately.

What to AvoidYou Do Not Prepare Mentally for a Possible Panel Interview

You may have heard that the organization has never done panel interviews. Prepare anyway. You have no way of knowing what they may choose to do in your case. Preparation for a panel interview is time well spent, as you will be well prepared for any interview.

You Let the Interviewers Do All the Talking

Resist the temptation to let the panel members do all the talking and thereby take the pressure off you to perform. This is an interview like any other interview; you have come to persuade them to hire you. While you do not want to interrupt panel members, you do need to find a way in which to discuss your strengths and all the other reasons for them to choose you for the job. If you fail to do so, the panel will compare notes after your meeting and be asking each other "What did we learn about this applicant?" They will discover they have learned that you are a good listener, nothing more.

You Direct Your Comments to Only One Panel Member

As you speak, make meaningful eye contact with each member of the panel; catch the gaze of a particular member, hold it for about three seconds, and move to the next panel member. This may take some practice beforehand. It is not easy to catch someone's eye, count to three, and move on, all while trying to impress the panel with your answer to a challenging question. But it is a useful skill, transferable to other situations such as meetings and public speaking, and will eventually become second nature.

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