Added: 21 April 2008
- Preparation – the MP, the Party, the Job
- First Impressions
- Show off your Skills
- Any Questions?
- Further Reading
So congratulations, you’ve been shortlisted for interview for the dream job or internship you’ve always wanted! Well done – many jobs with MPs receive well over one hundred applications, and you’re one of probably just half a dozen people who’ve made their applications stand out by successfully highlighting your skills and experience.
Your prospective employer can already sense you’re capable of doing the job, now you have to use the interview to prove you’re capable of getting things done efficiently and to a high standard – whilst generally being a considerate and reliable colleague who will be a valuable addition to the MP’s small team.
Tip – you may well be interviewed by the MP’s current Caseworker or Researcher (‘Staffer’) as well as the MP him/herself. The staffer knows best what his/her job entails and can also be useful for you to ask questions of directly. He/she will probably have a significant say in choosing who is hired to replace them, so you need to appeal to him/her as much as the MP. Ignoring them or being flippant to the Staffer is likely to lose you the job instantly.
The key to a successful job interview is good preparation. Try to divide your preparation into manageable chunks and research, research and research some more.
Try and cover the following areas, which you will no doubt have to talk about in the interview –
You need to be able to show a good understanding of your prospective employer’s political interests and how can you contribute to developing them. Remember, MPs are very busy people and they’ll be looking for someone who can slot into the team with the minimum of fuss or difficulty.
- their portfolio within their party, what interests you about it and what experience you have of related issues
- any All Party Groups of which they are members
- recent questions they have tabled or debates they have taken part in (see www.theyworkforyou.com)
- local issues in their constituency they have been involved in. Are there burning constituency issues, such as post office closures, transport problems, environmental concerns? See the MP’s website and local news online for some clues.
Tip – all MPs have different ways of organising and managing their staff. Some will wander in and out of the office occasionally and expect you to quietly do as told with little other interaction or interest. Others will float around your office, bothering your printer and asking for your opinion on everything from top secret internal party politics to which colour tie they should wear. Often the distinction depends on age, with some of the younger MPs having a more modern, relaxed approach to their relationships with their staff. Try and figure out the type your prospective employer is.
You also need to show that you identify with the aims and values of the MP’s Party. Make sure you know what the values and ideals of the Party are and use examples to show you can identify with these. For example, you may be attracted to the Party because of its environmental policy, so you can show you identify with this by talking about your university campaigning for green issues, etc.
- Remember what attracted you to the Party in the first place – was it Party philosophy or any specific policies which you admired?
- How you first got involved and your more recent activity – elections or campaigns, etc.
- Have an opinion on the future of the party – what are its current strengths and weaknesses? How is it being portrayed by the media?
- Which policy areas need development? Are there any areas of policy you think are weak and may disagree with?
- How do you think the next General Election will play out? What will be the main issues to campaign on in the run up to the next Election?
Remember: for all of your answers, you need to be able to say why you think this way and give examples.
While of course you don’t know what questions will be thrown at you, you can certainly prepare for questions it seems sensible to expect. Keep in your head a statement including 3 or 4 points which will cover why you are interested in the job, why you are suitable for it and what you can bring to the role. Something along these lines will almost certainly be one of the opening questions and thorough preparation in this area can get you off to a flying start, creating confidence which can last through the interview. Again, try and emphasise you have excellent knowledge of what the job entails, so you can replace or assist the current researcher/caseworker in the smoothest of possible transitions.
Tip – On the morning of your interview, check the news and look for any stories relating to the MP, the Party or the portfolio area. If there are, take some time to read up, the MP may ask you directly for your thoughts or you may be able to show you’re on the ball with current events by mentioning it yourself. Keeping up to date with key issues is an important part of the Caseworker’s, Researcher’s or Intern’s job.
3. First Impressions
First impressions do count! It’s crucial to turn up on time, look presentable and ensure that the MP views you from the outset as someone he/she can work with. If you’re very nervous, try taking a few deep breaths before you’re called in and remember, your nerves probably won’t last long. The MP and/or their Researcher will do their best to put you at ease.
Shake hands with all interviewers firmly (too limp will make you seem weak but too vigorous will liken you to an aggressive salesman). Smile and thank them for their time – MPs are busy people and always appreciate any acknowledgment of this!
Body language is important – smile, lean forward a little in your chair and look interested. Don’t cross your arms as this looks defensive, wave your hands about too much as this looks nervous or simply crazy, and don’t play with hair/jewellery or interrupt questions.
Tip – Know exactly where you’re going for the interview and give yourself plenty of time to get there. If your interview is at Parliament, give yourself extra time to account for tube delays and security checks at Westminster. Try to arrive 15 mins or even half an hour early – you can grab a coffee at the coffee shop by Westminster tube, gaze at Big Ben and read over your notes. That way you’ll not arrive flustered and can spend those vital few minutes beforehand absorbing information and revising what you want to say.
As you leave the interview, thank the interviewers again, smile and say goodbye. If the staffer or intern sees you out, use the opportunity to build a rapport with them, perhaps ask how long they’ve been working for the MP or what they’ve enjoyed about it the most.
4. Show off your Skills
It’s very important in politics – even at your very first job interview – that you can support statements you make. If, for example, you say you have a good news sense and can help the MP get more press coverage, you need to give a good example of how you have done this in the past, perhaps during an internship or in a previous job. If you say you’re well organised, give an example of a large event you’ve organised which was a success, and make clear your role. Or, if you say you’re good at overcoming problems in the workplace, try and back this up with an example of a time when things went really wrong – how did you keep your cool and what action did you take to ensure things got back on track?
Always bear in mind the job description and what you know about the job, and try to match these up to the questions. If you’re asked for examples of certain skills, use your parliamentary experience as much as possible.
Tip – some MPs do, unfortunately, enjoy asking off-the-wall questions. This is to test how you cope with the unexpected, whether you’re able to think outside the box and turn a difficult question around to present yourself in a favourable light. MPs know you may have to do this on their behalf someday! Often they’re also checking that you have the required sense of humour for this job.
Questions such as ‘what is your favourite swear word?’ and ‘if you were a biscuit, what type would you be?’ allow you to use your imagination. (Hint, a Jammy Dodger is quite apt for politics and should get a laugh).
5. Any Questions?
At the end of the interview, you will be given the opportunity to ask questions of your interviewer/s. Make the most of this opportunity – don’t forget the function of the interview is for you to see how suitable the job is for you, as well as for the MP to test your suitability for the job. Any questions you have, don’t be afraid to ask, though steer clear of salary and conditions at this early stage – any second interview or the job offer itself is the right time to discuss these unless the interviewer brings it up him/herself.
‘Any questions?’ can be a useful time to show your knowledge again, but without seeming obvious. For example, you could ask a question relating to the MP’s portfolio or interests, such as how he/she hopes to develop a particular policy idea they may have floated, or how they intend to approach a piece of legislation due to be introduced. Such questions show you’re on the ball. Steer clear of hard hitting questions though, it’s not your job to put the MP on the spot or try and catch him/her out. Most MPs will respect you if you have your own opinions and ideas (as long as you can support these), but they’ll be put off by annoying Smart Alecs who think they’re Jeremy Paxman.
If the current Researcher/Caseworker is present at the interview, they’ll appreciate being asked questions too – perhaps what they’ve enjoyed most about the job.
A selection of staff currently working for MPs have flagged up the following questions, or variations thereof, so use these to get you thinking about some of the areas you may be asked to address. But don’t forget to expect the unexpected!
- Why do you want this job?
- What experience/skills/qualities do you have that make you suitable for this job?
- Why do you want to work for me and not another MP?
- Why are you Conservative/Labour/Liberal Democrat?
- Do you want to be an MP in the future?
- Would you enjoy working on my portfolio?
- Are you happy to undertake administrative tasks?
- Do you have experience managing people, such as volunteers and interns?
- What do you think are the current weaknesses in our party’s policy?
- What do you think are the big issues important to people in my constituency?
- How do you think our party is perceived by the electorate?
- What experience do you have in providing written briefings, notes, speeches, etc?
- What experience do you have in researching media stories and placing these with journalists?
- What makes a good news story?
- What Parliamentary techniques would you use to elicit certain information from the Government?
- How would you prepare me for an Adjournment Debate?
- How are you at dealing with stressful situations?
- How will you deal with difficult constituents?
- How will you prioritise a heavy workload?
- What is your biggest strength/weakness?
Finally, don’t be deterred if your first interview doesn’t result in a job offer. Instead, remain confident and positive. Try to understand why you may not have been offered the job (some offices may even offer you feedback) and brush up on these areas for next time. Many MPs’ staff will have been through several interviews before finding their current jobs, often discovering that the jobs they do eventually get are the right ones for them. Job interviews are a learning experience. While you may always be nervous, you’ll find you become better and better with practice.
6. Further Reading
Martin John Yate – Great Answers to Tough Interview Questions – this comprehensive guide to interview success has sold over 4 million copies.
Ros Jay – Brilliant Interview – What Employers Want to Hear and How to Say It
Guardian Guide to interviews – http://jobs.guardian.co.uk/careers/200256
CD April 2008