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 little boy on dad's lap as he's on his laptop working; image used for HSBC International Services Life abroad article How to ace a virtual job interview.

How to ace your virtual job interview

Coffee created the first webcam, in a way

In 1991, researchers at Cambridge University got tired of taking unnecessary trips to the coffee machine, only to find that the pot was empty. So they rigged up a digital camera, pointed it at the pot, and had the images sent to their computers. A few years later, Cambridge researchers upped their game1 by uploading the camera's images on to the internet, and the first external webcam was born.

This coffee pot-watching technology has revolutionised the way we do business. Videoconferencing company Zoom revealed that more than 300 million people meet on their platform daily. Even the hiring process is becoming more streamlined, especially for companies hiring from overseas. A recent career-services survey2 found that almost 90% of employers are shifting to virtual job interviews.

When you get that callback, how do you know if you're making the most of your time online to showcase your skills and get hired?

Go through this checklist before you log on and ace your virtual interview. If you're still in university, you might want to read our checklist of 9 things you should do before graduating.

Sort out the tech stuff

One of the biggest mistakes job candidates make, says virtual job interview technology CEO Kevin Parker, is failing to prepare adequately. Technology may have changed the hiring game, but old-school preparation will never go out of style.

Internet connection

If a slow connection is causing your video to lag or freeze, move to an area with a more stable connection (preferably not mid-interview!). If you're experiencing delays, wait a moment when the other person finishes talking so you don't accidentally interrupt them. It can be helpful to nod to show you're paying attention.

You could always connect directly to the internet with a cable. Disabling certain options on your video software can also help with bandwidth.

Perhaps most importantly, have the interviewer's phone number ready in case you need to go old school and take it offline. That way, if you're unlucky enough that your system crashes altogether, you can deal with it in stride and go with your backup.

You do have a backup, don't you?

Video software

Zoom, Skype, WebEx. These software programs and apps are all slightly different. Install your interviewer's choice ahead of time and play around with the features. You don't want to appear unprepared or lacking in basic tech skills. Getting flustered will most likely throw you off your game, too.

Schedule a test run with a friend and have the software ready to go on an alternate device as a backup. When you're ready to dial in, turn your ringer off, block computer pop-ups and close all unnecessary web browser tabs.

Remember the reasons for audio feedback? No? That's because you didn't familiarise yourself with the technology. (Hint: for Zoom it might be because you have your computer and telephone audio on at the same time.)

Laptop or screen set up

Your face and shoulders should be in the frame. To do this with a computer, your screen should be about 75-90 cm away - longer than the length of your arm for most people. Take this into consideration and get yourself a wireless keyboard if you'll need to access your laptop during the interview.

Your eyes should be level with the camera. If you're using your laptop, get it off your desk and up to eye level with a stack of books, boxes or whatever you can find. If you're using two monitors, just make sure you're looking at the right one. It can be disconcerting having a conversation with someone who's seemingly staring off into space.

Try and make eye contact by moving the other person's image as close to your camera as possible. If you find it too difficult to look at the camera instead of their face (this can feel weird so it does take practice), use your phone. You'll appear to be looking them in the eye when you're actually looking at your screen. Positioning your phone horizontally will look better if the interviewer will be using a computer. Keep the perfect distance and stay steady with a tripod.

Headset and sound

They might be super comfortable but don't wear your gaming headphones. Most of us find accessories the same size as a person's head to be distracting, naturally. Keep a spare headset handy so you're not fumbling around in case they conk out. If you don't have headphones, you can use your computer's built-in speakers and mic but you run the risk of audio feedback. If audio's a problem, an accessory microphone plugged into the USB port of your laptop will do the trick nicely.

Mute your mic when you're not speaking. Better yet, adjust your settings so that it defaults to mute whenever you join a call. Unless you like sounding like you're calling from the bottom of a well, it's best to avoid empty rooms or those with high ceilings. Your voice will echo off hard surfaces if there's nothing to absorb the sound. Placing soft furnishing in the room or even towels will help with this (just keep those piles out of sight).

Create your space

Cats and your kids wandering in and out of the room are a fantastic idea ... if you'd like your interview to go viral. Let the others in the house know you're not to be disturbed and lock the door if you have to.

Find a well-lit room

You know how you feel down on a dark day and chipper on a sunny one? There's science behind that and it can set the tone of your interview, too. Choose a room with plenty of natural light. If that's not possible, use warm lights pointed toward your face but not in your eyes. Backlighting can be particularly unflattering if you have frizzy (or thinning) hair; light shining directly down on you will cast sinister-looking shadows. The interviewer should be able to read your body language and see your facial expressions clearly.

"Curate" your background

Ask yourself if you're happy to virtually invite people into your home. You want the interviewer to be paying attention to you and not studying the dirty pile of clothes on the floor. Even your book titles aren't safe from judgement if they're on display, so think about what they say about you. Position yourself about 90 cm (3 feet) in front of a neutral background with minimal distractions and stay away from Zoom backgrounds for now. They're fun and quirky – and that's why you should save them for your chats with friends.

Pay attention to your appearance

This is more about first impressions than vanity. Take your job interview seriously and dress professionally but simply. Your attire will depend on the industry, the position and possibly culture.

Avoid busy patterns that can easily create a "moiré effect". This is where small stripes or dots give the optical illusion of shimmering colours. White might blend into your background or cause glare and black can look gloomy, but blues are always a safe bet. Consider the angle of your camera and adjust your neckline, accordingly, and avoid any jewellery that reflects or makes noise.

What if you were running for President of the United States of America? Even the famous aren't infallible. It's said that the first-ever televised presidential debate cost Richard Nixon the presidency3 to then-Senator John F. Kennedy. Under the hot lights, "Tricky Dick's" cheap makeup began melting off with his sweat, revealing dark stubble and an unflattering grey pallor. He also had a habit of taking his eye off the camera to answer reporters' questions. Viewers were left with an image of a shifty, perspiring politician.

Don't let this happen to you.

Do a practice run

Once you've downloaded the tech, go ahead and set up your space and test your equipment, making sure everything looks right on camera (by "everything" we mean you). Some professional interview coaches recommend recording a mock interview and playing it back so you can listen to your tone of voice and choice of words. This gets less cringey the more you do it.

Sorry, was that EST or PST? Time zones can be tricky if you're interviewing for a job overseas. Including dependencies and two uninhabited territories, there are 11 time zones in the US alone. Dial in at the wrong time and you'll be considered to be late or a no-show, even if it is an honest mistake. Double-check and get it right.

Last-minute details prep

You don't want to be scrambling for your headset and dialing in at the last minute. Join the call a minute or two before the interview starts (and don't forget to mute your mic). If winging it is not your style, write yourself "cheat sheets" and place them around your computer where you can easily see them. You'll want to post them higher up, in line with your camera, so you're not looking down during the interview.

Relax and be authentic

You've made it through to the hardest part, really. Relax and be authentic. There might be 10 other candidates with similar qualifications, all vying for the same job. This is the time to let your personality shine through by telling your own unique story. Stay professional and don't cross any lines, of course, but by letting your guard down you'll have a chance to connect with your interviewer.

Afterwards, send the interviewer a thank you and reiterate your qualifications as they relate to the job. The hiring process may be changing but manners will always be in style.

So, whatever happened to the coffee-cam?

By 1996, there were over 1 million hits on the coffee pot image – more than King's College Chapel – and the brew machine was considered to be "the number one tourist attraction in East Anglia". Two years later, visitor hits on the pot surpassed 2 million.

After 29 years, Cambridge University's coffee pot camera was switched off in 2001. The coffee machine was auctioned off for GBP3,350 (around USD5,400) and the students used the profits to buy an espresso machine instead.

Ready to open an overseas account?

Now that you've hopefully aced your virtual interview, it's time to think about your relocation. Leave your details on our quick form and we'll get in touch to answer your questions and to help you open an overseas account.

If you're moving abroad, there's travel, accommodation and insurance to think about, too.

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