by Alex Lojo

When I first encountered the challenge of preparing a Spanish person for a job interview in English, like most would, I turned to the literature that was provided by my employer. However, a lot of what was said there I found somewhat outdated. Concerned, I followed my innate curiosity, and began to explore what the experts of today had to say about this subject. Many articles, conferences, e-books, and hours successfully preparing Spaniards for interviews later, I have gathered that there are two key components to succeed in this quest. This article will explore those two essential areas to mastering interviews: perfecting the linguistic and academic aspects together. Though what follows will be of greatest interest to Business English teachers, the reframing devices I discuss will be useful to anyone looking to cultivate their students’ critical thinking skills.

I turn first to the linguistic aspects that act as the foundation to how candidates come across to interviewers. In my experience, the students that I have encountered in classrooms in Spain tend to focus most of their attention on how they compare to what they call native speakers. This, however, ultimately does little to help the candidate. And, if anything, it distracts them from the real objective: consistent accuracy. Now, becoming proficient in any language other than one’s mother tongue will always present its challenges. Hence, making sure that the candidate is ready level-wise for an interview in English is necessary.

Provided this step is achieved, the next one would be to raise the learner’s awareness of what they are saying. If we can manage to get them to open their eyes to how things sound and how the way that they choose to frame things impacts the perception that others have of them, then they can start to consider their word choices more carefully. This translates into empowerment. When provided with the tools to elevate their speech, my students increase not only their desire to impress, but more importantly, their ability to do so.

One of my favorite examples is whenever I bring their attention to how easy it is to end up seeming rude in an email. Let’s consider a message like “Send me this document”; a sentence that perhaps, in Spanish, would not be construed as being as rude as it would be in English. Even if we assume that this message was meant in the nicest of ways, the reader does not have a way of knowing the writer’s intention - they can look only at the text they have received. Embellishment is needed, even if it seems unnecessary - the addition of a simple please or thank you can make all the difference, and the same is certainly true in interview situations.

Another point on which I spend a big chunk of time in interview preparation sessions is trying to find opportunities. In other words, every “problem” can instead become a “potential opportunity.” And what I mean by this is that I like to deconstruct any weakness and find something to get out of it that can help my student be an even better professional. For example: Stress about completing a project could mean that you care about your work and the company. Being given a task that you would rather not do could readily turn into a chance to explore new areas and become comfortable with something with which you were not comfortable before. A stubborn personality can help you fight for what is right for your client or your company. Basically, if we want to, we can always find a way to flip the narrative of our limitations, turning them into an asset. To those who have been in interview situations before, this might all seem like obvious advice, and in a way it is. The crucial difference here though is that, in preparing for an interview in English instead of L1, we cannot take anything for granted. Our students’ skills in L1 do not always carry over, and nor do they all translate directly. Besides, even if the candidate is aware of such interview strategies, they might lack the English needed to employ them successfully.

Analogously, how to frame information in a positive light is yet another key tool with which all my students so far have struggled. Here are some of the approaches my students have used in their practice interviews, followed by my suggestion for an improvement.

Saying that they are “bad” at something.

Saying that it is something that they have been trying to overcome and they try their best to not let it interfere with in their performance.

Stating that they do not know how to do something.

Explaining that they have been meaning to get to it for a while now and they hope to be able to get there soon.

Expressing how frustrating something is.

Communicating that you intend to steer away from such instances as much as possible.:

Adopting this approach - of looking for the positive in the negative - helps the student to avoid difficult situations in their interview. It allows them to remain honest at all times, and to speak with candour and sincerity. The aim is to empower the student to speak with confidence where otherwise they might lack confidence - but it becomes the task of the teacher to train such students adequately, both to notice these opportunities and to use their language appropriately when they arise.

When the end game for our students is to get a better job or a promotion, it is fundamental to help them show themselves in the best possible light. Or put simply, “sell themselves.” Interviews are a transaction in which the interviewer is the buyer, and the interviewee is both seller and product. Realizing this creates a mental shift in my students, which helps them understand why we want to focus on how they present information, as much as what they are going to choose to present. This is why carefully listing and drafting all the things that will be deemed appropriate to use during both mock interviews and real interviews is such an important step. Such a list/template gives them something tangible to refer to when in doubt. Thus, contrary to what we normally do in a general English class, in this context, having a limited number of possibilities is beneficial, by virtue of narrowing the avenue for making mistakes. In a lot of situations, but certainly during an interview, it is not about how much is said, but rather what is said and the quality of its expression. For this reason, I repeatedly say to my students: “less is more.”

The second aspect of interview preparation is more academic in nature, and essentially boils down to the student knowing their subject area well enough to be considered an expert in that area. Again, it falls to the teacher to make sure that their students are sufficiently prepared. If a student has not yet mastered all the terminology and technical vocabulary that is required for the post they are applying for, then I expect them to do so as soon as possible - though I provide guidance on how the student can go about acquiring such knowledge in English. Distinguishing between standard business classes and interview preparation sessions helps manage students’ expectations here. Therefore, we had better make sure to differentiate, and to do so early enough on in the course that the student does not feel like they have been mis-sold. Any course should begin with a needs analysis, and the teacher’s task here is to make sure that the student’s ambitions are achievable. If a student lacks the English to talk about their subject area, no amount of interview preparation will help them to secure the job or promotion they are after.

All in all, there are vastly nuanced approaches to coaching somebody for interviews, but as explained in this article, fundamental aspects like the power of words and how we choose to communicate about ourselves is, in my opinion, what matters the most. Being aware of this while we work towards consolidating a robust linguistic repertoire, when applied smartly, should, and in my experience does, generate great results in real life.

Author Biography

Alex Lojo obtained his BEd in pedagogy in 2016 and has been working in ELT in Spain since then. He is an Assistant Director of Studies at Kennedy Languages (Madrid), managing and supporting business English teachers.

As a teacher, he is driven by helping his students reach their potential and meet their objectives, but also by planning and delivering lessons they enjoy. He is particularly interested in andragogy, believes that teaching is a social activity, and loves the social aspect of language learning and communication.