January 19, 2016

How to Ace an Unstructured Job Interview


You’ll know when you’re in a typical structured interview: The interviewer will be holding a questionnaire and referring to it quite regularly. The interview will be highly focused, which is, of course, the whole point.

Because structured interviews are so common – 88 percent of employers use them – most career-focuses sites advise candidates to prepare for these situations. What they forget to tell you, however, is that 92 percent of organizations also use unstructured interviews, in which the interviewer makes up the questions as they go. At best, an interviewer may scribble out a few potential questions on a piece of paper before the interview starts, but for the most part, unstructured interviews feel more like casual conversations than job interviews.

Despite this conversational feel, you have to remember that you are in a job interview – and you have to act accordingly. Therefore, I’d like to offer some tips on how you can ace an unstructured interview, no matter how loose it might feel.

1. Tune Into the Interviewer’s Personality

Research suggests that many employers hire people with whom they feel they can be friends. This personality-driven approach to hiring might be even more of an influencing factor in unstructured interviews, where HR protocols are less likely to interfere.

When you’re in an unstructured interview, then, it is crucial that you tune into the interviewer’s personality and interests, and then demonstrate your affinity with the interviewer. You can do this by researching the interviewer a bit beforehand. Find out what their hobbies are, who they admire, who their favorite authors are, and so on. Identify any interests you may have in common, and then (casually) draw attention to these shared interests during the interview.

2. Lead the Interview, If Necessary

This isn’t always the case, but on occasion, the interviewer may be quite unprepared for the interview. In fact, it is possible that you are sitting in an unstructured interview simply because the interviewer had no time to plan a more structured conversation! In such an event, you may feel like the interviewer is wandering around, or like their questions aren’t really giving you a chance to show off your skills.

LeadIf you do find yourself in this situation, don’t be afraid to take the lead. You can politely ask the interviewer to describe the most important duties in the role, or to outline some of the qualities a candidate will need to succeed in this role. Asking questions like these will help bring some focus to the interview and give you the opportunity to demonstrate your value.

3. Make Some Suggestions to Improve the Business

One advantage of an unstructured interview is that you can lead the interview in a direction that you want. One positive direction in which you can take the interview is onto the topic of how you can help to improve the organization if you are hired.

Simply ask the interviewer at an opportune moment if you can outline some ideas you have that could be beneficial for the business. Talk about ways the business can make more money, be more efficient, or increase customer satisfaction. Taking the interview in this direction will show the interviewer you are engaged and passionate – and, if your ideas are truly good, you’ll leave an excellent impression on the interviewer.

4. Prove That You Can Hit the Ground Running

You may also want to help the interviewer visualize you in the role. This is a powerful way to convince the interviewer of your worth and potential. Offer a concrete, impressive estimate of how quickly you’ll be up to speed in your new role. Outline the differences you feel you can make in the business – and explain why you are uniquely suited to make these differences.

Unstructured interviews may be daunting, thanks to their lack of focus, but the technique for acing them is very similar to the techniques you would use in other interview settings. Answer the questions presented you, and use the lack of boundaries to your advantage by steering the conversation in a direction that lets you really shine.

Read more in Interview Tips

Kazim Ladimeji is a Chartered Member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, and has been a practicing HR professional for 14 years. Kazim is the Director of The Career Cafe: a resource for start-ups, small business and job seekers.