In most fire departments, the oral interview score usually accounts for 100% of your overall score and ranking on the hiring list. Therefore, it is extremely important and critical that you properly prepare yourself for the oral interview. Many people can just "wing-it" on a written examination or physical ability test. However, it can be very difficult to "wing-it" during your oral interview, especially if you have not completely prepared yourself. If you have not completely put the time and effort into the process, than you are only wasting their time and yours. Based on my experiences and observations, here are some tips to help you successfully prepare for the oral interview:
1. Know where you are going before you get there.
I realize this is easier said than done. I think of myself as pretty good with directions, which means I don't necessarily always look at maps; most of the time that works out for the better. Regardless, not looking at maps came back to bite me a few times while I was testing. One time, I was driving about one hour to take an oral interview that I had assumed would be located at the community center (because it was held there last year when I had also taken their oral interview). Guess what, I was wrong! I get to the community center and it was all locked up.
I ended up driving by a fire station (which was coincidentally located by the community center, otherwise I would have been in trouble since I had not brought a map with me) and the crew did not know where the oral interview was going to be occurring (I realize that seems odd, but many departments do not inform their members of information relating to the testing process). I was basically out of luck since the time for the test had already come and gone. What is the moral of the story? I should have taken the letter the city had sent me with the location of the testing site with me that day. I should have also looked at that letter more closely well in advance. I would have still had plenty of time to get a map from AAA or download one from a site such as yahoo maps or mapquest.com - don't do the same mistake as I did!
2. Have your attire already prepared and ready to use on the day of the interview.
There is nothing worse than getting dressed for an interview and finding out that your dress shirt is still at the cleaners, or actually needs to go to the cleaners because it is wrinkled or dirty. The same goes with the rest of your dress attire. As soon as you get the notice in the mail for the interview, get your clothes ready. I also suggest having more than one dress shirt and tie so that if you damage one or get one dirty, you always have at least one backup. Also, if you are really putting some time and effort into testing, you are going to find yourself at times having more than one interview in a week (sometimes in a day)! Don't wear the same dirty shirt to the next interview; take it to the cleaners and wear your backup shirt!
3. Leave plenty of time to get to the location of the interview.
This ties into tip number one above, know where you are going before you get there. When I was testing, I was not the best at leaving plenty of time to get somewhere (for that matter, I really am that way in a lot of things in life; I do make it to work on time though). Because of my last minute leaving, I was late for a couple of written tests, and they did not let me in. For one of those, I drove an hour and a half for nothing. Could I have prevented that? Of course I could have. If possible, drive to the testing site in advance, to see how long it will take you. Once you have determined your estimated time of travel, double that time just to leave yourself some "flex-time" in case of car trouble, auto accidents, traffic delays, etc.
4. Do as much homework / research on the position as you can, well in advance of the interview.
If it is worth your time and effort to drive to the test and participate in the hiring process, than it is worth your time and effort to actually spend some time doing your homework on the agency you are testing for. The last oral interview I proctored was when my Department was hiring Volunteer / Reserve Firefighters. When they were asked questions relating to how they would be utilized as a Volunteer / Reserve Firefighter, the majority of candidates answered the questions without any knowledge of how we would be utilizing them.
Many of them answered that when their pager went off, that they would respond to the fire station and then go out to the call to go do some firefighting. Well, our Department does not operate that way. They would be expected to respond to the incident scene and would then be utilized more often than not in a support fashion, not in a primary offensive firefighting fashion. Had they done their homework by researching the fire department and how the rank they were applying for operated, they would have been able to answer the questions better and increase their chances of getting a better score on the interview.
How can you research the department? Almost every fire department has a website that has some information relating to the department on it. Every fire department has firefighters that are usually very willing to assist the candidate that is attempting to work for them. Those are probably the two most important ways to find out more about not just the agency you are applying to, but the position you are applying for as well.
5. Get plenty of sleep the night before the interview.
It has been proven time and time again that we all should strive for eight hours of sleep per night. Some of you are able to survive on less; some are able to survive on more. You know yourself better than anyone else does. Don't go out partying the night before an interview (or any phase of the testing process for that matter) and expect to perform at 100%. If nothing else, you are probably still going to be off-gassing any of the alcohol you might have consumed (assuming you had your two beers) and it will probably be very noticeable to the department representatives. Showering, throwing on perfume or cologne (whatever your poison might be), and putting on clean clothes can only do so much improvement to you.
6. Practice answering questions with your tape-recorder / video-recorder.
This is something that many candidates don't take advantage of, and I don't know why. Recording devices are a relatively cheap investment into your future that you can use for the rest of your life, and in areas besides firefighting. Most of us probably think we are excellent at oral communications. You will continue thinking that until you hear yourself speaking. The first time I heard myself, I didn't think it sounded like me at all. Then I heard myself answer some questions and it really humbled me and pointed out some obvious communication issues I needed to improve. Video-recorders are even better because they bring out your body language and mannerisms that you present. You might be able to find out that you have many bad or nervous habits that you were not even aware of by watching yourself through a video-recorder.
7. Know yourself inside and out, and be able to talk about yourself inside and out.
The oral interview panel is grading you based on your answers to the questions. If you do not completely answer the question, you do not get the most possible number of points. The oral has no clue who you are or what you have done to prepare for the position. Be able to bring out all of your strengths and positive attributes, as well as your past accomplishments and contributions. Be able to talk about your weaknesses (yes, we all have them) and what you are doing to improve them. I hear many candidates say they are uncomfortable talking about themselves. Well, if that is your case, either get over it and find a way to be comfortable, or do not expect to ever score high enough to get hired. Remember, there is a fine line between being overconfident and being cocky or arrogant. Learn to find a happy medium. You're there to market and sell your most important product - you!
8. Practice answering all of the potential oral interview questions so that you are prepared for anything.
Some people say that they don't want to practice answering questions because they will sound like they are memorized or rehearsed. Duh! Practicing will make you sound more organized, more complete and thorough (because you will minimize leaving important things out of your speech), and like a better communicator. There are not that many different types of oral interview questions that you can be asked. Most departments just want to find out who you are, what your background consists of, how your background will make you a perfect fit for that department, what your ethics or values are, why you want to work for that department, how well you will get along with others and how well you will follow orders and/or directions. Start doing some research on the internet and you can start finding out different types of questions. Also, when you finish an interview, take the time to write out the question when you get back to the car (unless they tell you not to do so) so that you can practice that question for the future. Take the time to build a catalog of oral board questions and your potential answers to the questions. Then you can take them to people that have sat on oral boards before and get their opinions. Be careful though, everyone has an opinion - good, bad, or indifferent!
Taking the time now to prepare for any and all of your upcoming oral interviews should pay off in the long run. Most firefighters and individuals involved with the hiring process will probably agree that the oral interview is the most important phase of the hiring process. They are making a decision whether to hire you based on a 15 or 30 minute interview. Make the most of that time through proper preparation and you should see your scores drastically improve!