Let’s Get Personal – Some Interview Advice for Students

By Andy Wickes

For a number of years now I’ve been involved in providing careers advice to students. Schools and colleges seem to be a lot better nowadays at bringing in people from industry to provide advice, rather than the situation when I was at school where much of my advice on a career in advertising came from my German teacher.

Take away the hours spent sitting at tables in echoing school / college halls, confused attempts at assembling exhibition panels and the embarrassing spells when no-one wants to speak to you, it has all been a very rewarding experience.

Variously I’m speaking to students who are looking at A level choices, HND or BTEC choices or degree choices. And in almost all cases I find that the careers advice given to students is getting better. It really is. What I find quite remarkably lacking though, is good interview advice.

Students looking to win a place in Further or Higher education generally need to win over an admissions tutor or two, demonstrating that they have flair enough to respond to teaching, and hopefully a style or passion that shows that they are dedicated to their subject. This is pretty fundamental stuff. You’ll notice that I didn’t make reference to anything in that last statement that said they need to be ‘good’ at their subject. We all know how subjective that statement is; what is vital is that they show a passion for their subject and (here’s the kicker) an interest that goes beyond anything that they have been asked to produce before at school.

I’ve spent hours looking at portfolios that show exactly the same work, all school or college projects, and all of them predictable and executed using the same techniques. This is because most A-level or BTEC courses up and down the country generally request the same or similar projects of their students. These students then tidy up these projects, pack them in their portfolios and take them to interviews to present to a tutor who has seen 20 students already that day, all with the same work. And those tutors get bored. Really bored.

So how to break that boredom? It shouldn’t even require explanation, but it does because when you are young it is hard to see things from the point of view of the tutor. And after all, most of the advice you receive comes from your careers advisor who is generally telling you to take school work.

Creative subjects should be fun. They should be something you are passionate about, and that you work on outside of school or college hours regardless of what project your tutor has you working on. You should be scribbling in scrapbooks, taking photographs, building sites, working on Flash animations or making videos. Why would you not?

Most students I speak to, when quizzed persistently about their personal projects have plenty to show. If you’re lucky enough to find the right student, they will have plenty of good work to show. But they all look shocked when you suggest that they present it! In my experience it is assumed that you show school or college work only at interview.

The fear is of course that this work somehow has less value than a project your school or college has asked you to, because surely all that schooling has been leading up this moment? That’s undeniably so, but your admissions tutor will want to see a little bit of what makes you, you. What makes you tick? What are your personal interests creatively and how do you plan to explore those interests during the course?

Take one case in point. Day 2 of interviews, 15:30. 12 students in, and so far we had seen mostly the same projects presented to us. Enter student ‘A’ who wants to show us his portfolio website of photographs. Photographs of manhole covers from across Europe. The are beautifully photographed, hand printed on bromide paper, and then scanned, annotated with fabulous typography and worked into a slick slideshow with music, transitions and the option to buy prints.

Bizarre? Certainly. But it was so accomplished the he stood out from the crowd, and got a large tick by his name. I won’t go so far as to say I bought a print, but I was impressed by the dedication and hard work that had brought this project together. He was working on this in his spare time.

No tutor was asking him to do this. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating the wholesale rejection of school or college work from these interviews – rather I’m encouraging students to consider that they will be one of many who will be presenting (more than likely) the same work over and over. I am also highlighting the huge importance of your personal interests and creative ambitions as these are ultimately what will fuel you through your course.

Don’t undervalue these projects, no matter how unfinished they might be, or how insignificant you might consider them. They all show a dedication to work that is never evident in course work. Straight away this makes you a safer bet as a student as it shows that regardless of your education, you are a creatively active person.

Being creative is something you are. It’s not something you just ‘do’.

Andy Wickes

Let’s Get Personal – Some Interview Advice for Students

Andy is a Creative Director from Surrey, managing a team of web designers at Jellybean Creative who produce online creative for the food and drink industry. He also lectures on graphic design, digital media, animation and photography and helps schools and art colleges to keep their courses relevant.