How to survive a panel interview

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One-on-one tech interviews can be intimidating enough. Make it one-on-four or five (or more) and your nerves can shoot through the roof. 

When you think of a panel interview, you might have visions of being bombarded with rapid-fire questions, inquisition style. Or maybe you imagine auditioning on stage in front of a panel of harsh celebrity judges grilling your every move. And if that’s not overwhelming enough, panel interviews are often the last interview standing between you and the role, so you have to perform well if you want the job. 

More interviewers means more preparation, so we’ve rounded up our top tips to help you ace your panel interview.

The panel interview explained

Not all tech interviews include a panel interview, but if yours does, it’ll likely take place just before a final hiring decision is made—i.e., after you’ve already met the hiring manager in person and passed any onsite coding challenges

A panel interview is when three to five decision-makers from the company come together to interview you in the same room (or via video chat)—all at the same time. Panel interviews typically last 45-60 minutes, with panelists representing different job functions and departments.

The purpose? Get perspective from a range of stakeholders, help eliminate bias (whether conscious or unconscious) and see how well you perform under pressure in group situations. Expect fast-paced questions, cross-talk and follow-up questions, which means your panel interview will be more lively, social and less technical than a traditional tech interview.

Career coach tip: Treat your panel interview like a group conversation instead of a stuffy interview or Q&A session. This will help your answers flow more naturally and prevent you from experiencing those dreaded “deer in the headlights” moments.

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Who’s on the firing squad?

As with every type of tech interview, research your interviewers in advance. If you haven’t been given a list of people who will be on the panel, email your contact at the company—either the recruiter or hiring manager—and ask for their names and job titles. 

Knowing each panelist’s background (and even what they look like) can help eliminate the mystery behind the process to make your panel interview less nerve-wracking. It’ll also help you find commonalities that’ll create interview chemistry (e.g., same alma mater, similar background, mutual connections).  

Take note of how technical each member’s background is. For example, not everyone on the panel will know what an isomorphic string or tree traversal algorithm is. And because your interviewers come from different backgrounds, they’ll each be interested in different aspects of your background, so be sure to highlight the right skills and traits based on who’s asking. Keep in mind, however, that when one person asks a question, everyone will be listening closely to your answer.

Career coach tip: You can probably get away without addressing panelists by name during the interview, but you should remember names so you can write personalized thank you notes later on.

Brainstorm what each panelist will ask you (and look for)

Each panelist will view you through a different lens. A fellow engineer might ask questions about your work as a software engineer. A director of engineering, on the other hand, might ask high-level questions that reveal how you fit into the company as a whole.

That’s why it’s important to prepare for the panel interview questions each person might ask. Here are the different stakeholders that might make up your panel, along with what they’ll want to know about you:

Hiring manager

Beyond your technical skills, hiring managers want to know how you align with engineering and product teams, as well as overall company culture and values. So in addition to focusing on traditional hiring criteria—like education, years of experience and coding language requirements—they want to see how you interact with different groups and personalities. 

Fellow worker

Depending on the role you’re applying for, your peers will likely test your knowledge of more technical topics, such as algorithms, test cases, design tools, etc. Will you go above and beyond in your role? Are you willing to learn along the way? Each question they ask helps them assess your tech skills (and if you’re willing to learn) as well as how you’ll mesh with the team.

Product manager

The questions product managers ask aim to reveal your level of passion for the products you work on, as well as the contributions you’ll make. How well do you adapt to changing requirements and respond to challenges? How comfortable are you tending to the smallest product details while keeping the big picture in mind? What’s your process for dealing with conflict? Do you deliver on time?

Director/VP

Questions will be around what motivates you on a day-to-day basis and your ability to make an impact. How do your career goals align with the role? How have you made an impact in previous roles and how do you plan on growing with the company? What leadership qualities do you bring to the table that will help you mentor future new hires and/or help you grow into a leadership position yourself?

Non-tech stakeholders

Non PM/engineering panel members like marketers, salespeople and designers hope to learn if you’re a strong fit, tech skills aside. They might ask questions related to your soft skills, like your ability to communicate effectively and solve problems. Do you accept feedback positively and use that insight to shape your processes? Can they bring you in for a customer call? Can you write for the company’s tech blog? How do you learn and grow from mistakes?

Practice the art of group eye contact with these tips

Now that you know who’s on the panel, it’s time to practice interacting with them. Talking to a group of people is very different than engaging with someone one-on-one. Making eye contact, for instance, is often trickier when speaking to a group. And when you’re nervous, it can be even harder.

You might be tempted to focus on one interviewer (often the most senior-level panelist, most outgoing, or the one you connect with the most). Or, you might have a tendency to avert your gaze and avoid looking anyone in the eye. But it’s important to give equal attention to each panelist since everyone will likely have a vote—and you don’t know who has the most decision-making power.

Learn to work the room. How? Before your interview, practice confident body language whenever you’re in a group of people, or set up a mock panel interview with a few friends. When one person asks you a question, maintain eye contact with them at the beginning of your answer and then shift your gaze to others as you continue to elaborate. This will help you establish rapport and create a conversational atmosphere where everyone feels included.

Come with questions to ask the panel

Have questions ready to ask the entire panel as a group, as well as questions specifically for each panelist—even though you won’t get to them all. Avoid asking general questions. For instance, since the panel interview is likely one of the final interviews (if not the last), you’ve probably already asked about the company’s values, what a typical day looks like in the role and who you’ll be reporting to. 

Instead, dive deeper and think about what you really want to know. A common misconception is that you should ask questions just to look good in front of your interviewers. And while that’s important, asking smart questions is a unique opportunity to find out if the role, team dynamics and company will be a good match for you.

You can direct questions to the panel in general—e.g., “What are each of you looking for in an ideal candidate?” Or you can ask questions to an individual on the panel by framing it as “What is the marketing team looking for?”

Here are a few other panel interview questions you might want to ask:

  • What do you think is the biggest challenge I’ll be facing in this role?
  • Do you have any concerns about my skills or qualifications? 
  • What’s your favorite (and least favorite) part about working here?
  • How do teams in different departments work together?
  • What are the company’s current goals and how are each of you working to achieve them?

Bring extra copies of your resume

Bring enough copies of your resume for everyone (plus a few extras just in case anyone else joins the panel). The panel might already have copies of your resume on hand, but taking this small initiative can highlight your soft skills—like organization, dependability and attention to detail—and can go a long way towards solidifying you as the right person for the role.

Leave a lasting impact with a handshake and a thank you

Before leaving the interview room, give everyone on the panel a handshake and address them by name. Within 48 hours, send a thank you note to each member of the panel individually using a specific detail you might have learned about them during the interview, or expanding further on a question they asked. 

If you don’t have every panelist’s email address, send a group thank you—but make sure to mention everyone by name in your note.

What makes a successful panel interview?

Panel interview success doesn’t always mean getting a new job. It might mean getting useful interview feedback that clarifies what you’re doing right and how you can improve. It could mean making meaningful connections in your industry that could lead to a future job referral. It might mean figuring out that you don’t want to work for a startup. 

Job offer or not, panel interviews are a great way to hone and build your interview skills. After all, if you can survive a panel interview, you can survive just about any interview.

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