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What to Expect in a Panel Interview

What is a Panel Interview?

A panel job interview is one in which multiple people are interviewing you at the same time. This is why it’s called a ‘panel’. Of course, many people call this a ‘shotgun interview’, for reasons you’ll read below.

Interview panels are commonly composed of 3 – 5 people. Only two or more than five is unusual, although not unheard of.

Why Panel Interviews Are Used

Companies like panel interviews for several reasons.

First, it’s a way to get a variety of opinions from people in different areas of the company. Different departments will have different perspectives. If they will interact with the job in question, they have a vested interest in whoever is chosen.

Next, it reduces some of the inherent risks in the hiring process. With one on one interviews, the single interviewer may have specific preconceived notions or prejudices that can affect the decision. The consensus of an interview panel can lead to a more objective decision.

Also, panel interviews reduce the number of interviews for both the company and the applicant. Instead of three or four (or more!) individual interviews, several can be combined into one panel interview. This also shortens the time it takes to make a decision, which is also good for both the company and the applicants.

All that said, a panel interview is much more stressful for the candidate. Imagine sitting around a table with several people looking at you and firing questions and you’ll have an idea of the stress level.

But that’s also a final reason why companies like them. It gives them a chance to see how you stand up under a high-pressure environment.

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What Types of Companies Have Panel Interviews?

There are certain industries and types of companies in which panel interviews are more common. In theory though, you may encounter a panel interview at any company, and chances are you won’t know in advance.   

Here are the organizations where panel interviews are more common.

  • Academic organizations
  • Government organizations
  • Large non-profit organizations
  • Very conservative and cautious industries, such as finance, banking, insurance, investments. Bad hiring decisions tend to have larger consequences for these types of companies.
  • Senior executive positions in many industries. Here too, bad hiring decisions can be magnified.

A sector where you might not expect a panel interview is technology, but even here you just never know. I once had an interview at Microsoft and it was a one-on-one. I also had an interview at a start-up dot com (back in the day) and it was a panel interview. So you should always be prepared.

Common Elements of Panel Interviews

There are many different types of panel interviews and how they are conducted can vary wildly. However, some elements tend to be common to many of them.

  • They tend to be longer than one on one interviews. Many panel interviews are 60 to 90 minutes long (so be sure to hit the bathroom first), whereas the typical one on one interview is usually 30 to 45 minutes.
  • Many times, the Hiring Manager will lead the discussion, but often this will be equally shared among all panelists.
  • Some panels will require you to give a presentation and you will usually be told in advance, as well as what the topic will be.
  • Panelists will frequently all have the same list of questions and will go around the table, with each panelist asking the next question on the list. This is particularly prevalent in government organizations.
  • Typically, each panelist will fill out a detailed scoring sheet afterward, rating you on each question, or an overall rating based on the entire interview. The highest two or three scoring candidates may be the ones getting a second – or final – interview.
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Panel Interview Tips

You may not always know in advance that it will be a panel interview. If you do know, here are my tips for how to survive and even do well in your interview. And remember, all of the usual advice for interviews is equally relevant to panel interviews.

  • Try to find out in advance the names and titles of the people who will be on your interview panel. If you have a recruiter, ask them to get this information for you. If you don’t, call the HR department and ask if they will share this information.
  • Bring at least eight extra copies of your resume and cover letter. If you do well in your interview, some companies will have you meet other people afterward. You want to be sure to have enough copies for everyone on the interview panel, as well as an extra person or two that you might meet.
  • You’ll be asked more questions in a panel interview, so be prepared with many examples of accomplishments, anecdotes that relate to the job, and questions to ask.
  • Be sure to make eye contact around the room as you answer questions. Don’t look the entire time at the person who asked the question.
  • Be sure to take notes. A lot more ground is covered in a panel interview. You want to have notes you can refer to later on when answering other questions or when asking your own questions. You should always ask first if it’s okay to take notes – 99.9% of the time it won’t be an issue.
  • Try to remember each panelist’s name and use it when you answer a question from that person. Finding out their names in advance will help. If you can’t, ask each person their name – and write it down – at the start of the interview.
  • More and more, panel interviews are likely to ask behavior-oriented questions, so be prepared. These may include questions such as:
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“Describe a time when you were under pressure/had tension with a customer or colleague/had opposition to an idea/etc” It could be any one of these or something similar.

“How would you discipline an employee/handle a conflict with your boss/handle an irate customer/etc.”

There are an unlimited number of possibilities, so be prepared with some general examples that you can modify on the fly to fit the question.

In Conclusion

The main thing to remember is that all the usual interview preparation activities apply: know your resume well, have a good 60-second commercial, research the company thoroughly, focus on your accomplishments, and practice your answers.

Look at it this way: a panel interview allows you to impress several people at once!

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