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How to successfully pass a project interview in English

How do you conduct small talk appropriately? How should you present yourself in the best light? Where and how can you practice pronunciation and grammar? Language trainers at EPAM, Nadezhda Vartanyan and Ala Filatova, share practical recommendations on self-presentation, structuring responses, and handling questions during English interviews. The article also includes a list of relevant LinkedIn Learning courses for 7 tech specialties.

Language trainers Nadezhda Vartanyan and Ala Filatova

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1. The importance of first impressions

They say an interviewer forms their opinion of a candidate within the first 3 minutes of an interview. And what does each interview start with? Right, small talk. Mastering the skill of small talk is the key to breaking the ice between yourself and the interviewer, and creating that all-important favorable first impression. Being able to handle small talk questions, and comment on your day, the weather, the upcoming or previous weekend’s events, vacations, and so on, will help you smoothly navigate the first stressful minutes of an interview. For instance, it is common knowledge that there are dozens of ways to respond to the question ‘How are you?’ but it also pays to remember to ask the interviewer one or two questions back, in addition to using active listening techniques to show interest.

Small talk questions and possible answers

  • — How are you doing? — I’m doing well, thank you. How are you?
  • — How's your day been so far? — Very good so far, thanks. And how is your day going?
  • — What's the weather like in your part of the world/where you are? — It’s quite cold. It’s usually much warmer at this time of year. How’s the weather over there?
  • — How was your weekend? — It was nothing special. I just did some housework. How about yours?

To learn how to create a positive first impression and polish your small talk skills, you can take the “Creating first impressions” course on LinkedIn.

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2. Self-presentation

— When an interviewer says “Tell me about yourself,” your response requires a short self-presentation including a description of your current role, your relevant experience and qualifications, your knowledge and skills (both hard and soft), and a mention of one or two of your major accomplishments. Remember to use “I” instead of “we” and to highlight your contribution to past projects.

The following useful phrases will help you to focus attention on your experience and emphasize your strengths and major achievements:

  • I’m responsible for…
  • I’ve been in the IT industry for X years.
  • I’m good at…
  • I’m comfortable with…
  • I have a good knowledge of…
  • I’ve gained a lot of valuable experience in…

Many candidates feel shy or hesitant when talking about their strengths and accomplishments. A language trick to avoid feeling like you are bragging is to refer to feedback from your colleagues, managers, or customers about your work:

  • According to the teammates that I work closely with, I’m really good at…
  • As my manager pointed out during our last feedback talk, I can easily…
  • My former customer was very happy about the fact that I always…

Finally, at the end of your self-presentation, demonstrate confidence and enthusiasm by mentioning that you would like to become part of the project:

  • I hope my experience and skills will make me a good addition to your team.
  • I believe the combination of my education and experience makes me a good fit for this position.

3. Dealing with communication issues

— Since most interviews take place online, where technical difficulties are common, it is a good idea to learn a couple of useful phrases that may help you signal to the interviewer that you are experiencing tech issues:

  • I’m sorry, but you’re breaking up.
  • Can you hear me, okay? I’m afraid my connection is spotty today.
  • I can’t hear you clearly. Could you speak up?
  • Sorry, I got cut off. Could you repeat the question?

Never risk answering a question if you did not fully hear or understand it. Ask for clarification before you attempt to reply:

  • Sorry, I didn’t catch that. What do you mean by…?
  • Do you want me to speak about …?

Acknowledge that you have understood the interviewer when they paraphrased the question for you:

  • Okay, I’ve got it now. Thank you.
  • Okay, I see what you mean. Thanks.

Learn a few phrases and gap fillers to help you buy some time to think. This way, you can handle difficult questions, fill in pauses, and gain a few seconds to think and come up with a proper response:

  • Let me think about that for a moment.
  • I’d like to give that some thought.
  • Well… That’s an interesting question…

Be honest and admit if you have never heard of a certain tool or are not familiar with a particular technology. At the same time, it is worth sharing your thoughts based on things you are familiar with, about something you may potentially face on your project:

  • I’m not quite sure, but I think…
  • I don’t know exactly, but here is a thought…

4. Structure your answers properly

— Always try to give detailed answers, incorporating reasons and examples for support. There are two frameworks — PREP (Point-Reason-Example-Point) and STAR (Situation-Task-Action-Result) — that may assist you in dealing with most questions during the interview and make your answers solid and convincing.

Here is a list of action verbs that can be used to describe most of the steps you take to solve issues or cope with various tasks at work:

  • anticipate, develop, maintain, boost, migrate, coordinate, implement, determine, run, configure, resolve, install, collaborate, automate, stabilize.

Use cohesive language (e.g. I think... because… for example… that’s why…) to build answers that flow logically. Include linking words of sequencing (e.g. first, then, in the end), adding (e.g. also, besides, in addition) and introducing results (e.g. finally, as a result) to present the events and actions in the right order, or to add extra ideas.

5. Pronunciation matters

— Candidates tend to underestimate the importance of the correct pronunciation of IT terminology in English. Mispronouncing key words can lead to misunderstanding and creating an unfavorable impression. Candidates often put the stress on the wrong syllable in the following commonly-used words: career, support, industry, programming, software, feedback, deadline, etc.

The pronunciation of ‘ed’ ending of English regular verbs in the Past Simple tense is another trap for many interviewees. Watch the video How to say -ed endings in English to avoid this issue.

When getting ready for a project interview, check the pronunciation of the IT terms (tools, technologies, frameworks) that you work closely with. To do that, use YouGlish where the pronunciation of words is provided in the context of TED talks, conferences, or TV shows. Alternatively, check the pronunciation guides in online dictionaries such as Oxford Learner’s Dictionary or Macmillan.

6. Mind your grammar

Be careful of the verb tenses that you use while speaking about your past experience.

Use the Present Perfect tense to highlight your acquired skills, knowledge, or results:

  • I’ve learned technologies such as…
  • I’ve developed a pretty good understanding of…
  • Throughout my career, I’ve gained a lot of experience in…

    Use the Simple Past tense when you specify when an action happened or share examples from your previous workplace:

    • I started my career as… 3 years ago.
    • I graduated from X university in 2015 with a degree in…
    • On my previous project, I worked with such frameworks as…

    Many action verbs that we use to describe our past experience are irregular (e.g. do, give, go, get, make, take, etc.) and that is another pitfall for non-English speaking candidates. If you are not sure about the right form of the verb, look it up in the dictionary while preparing for the interview.

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    7. Questions for the interviewer

    — Finally, prepare two or three questions about the project, the future team, and your responsibilities and check the accuracy of these questions in advance.

    There are two types of questions you may ask:

    1. Closed questions — these are yes/no questions:

    • Do you work across different time zones?
    • Do you follow a specific methodology?
    • Is the team globally distributed?

    2. Open-ended questions — these are “wh” questions starting with the question words: what, when, why, etc.:

    • What technologies are used on the project?
    • Who will I work most closely with?
    • What support do you offer to newcomers?

    Choosing the latter type may help you gain slightly more information from the interviewer.

    What questions should you ask the employer in an interview?

    Remember to tailor your self-presentation and any questions you ask to the position you are applying for. Here is a list of LinkedIn courses that focus on applying for a particular role:

    Awareness of the language that you use and an appropriate choice of words and phrases, along with accurate grammar and pronunciation, will help you sail through your next interview. If you do not get the project this time, remember that practice makes perfect, and while you may not be quite there yet, you are closer than you were yesterday.

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