Assessment centres can be incredibly stressful, but for most graduate schemes they are a very …
‘What is your biggest weakness?’
The problem with this question is that you’re being asked about your shortcomings, when your instinct, in an interview situation, is to keep your flaws as well hidden as possible. What you need to do is to frame your answer to as to give it a positive spin.
Strengths and weaknesses can be different sides of the same coin, so another way to approach this question is to think about how you overcome the potential downside of your greatest strength. For example, if you’re a natural teamworker, is it difficult for you to cope with conflict or assume leadership abilities? How do you cope with this?
You could show that, although you may have had a problem in the past, you’ve taken steps to combat it. For example: ‘I used to find that pressure got to me but I’ve found ways to minimise this. I went on a time management course at university, which has helped me to organise myself and reduce my stress.’
The best response, however, is to describe a weakness that could also be viewed as a strength, such as, ‘Because I tend to get very passionate about the work I do, I get frustrated if others don’t share my enthusiasm.’
Most strengths – attention to detail, teamworking and so on – have the potential to shade over into weakness. If you’re a natural teamworker, do you find it difficult to cope with conflict, or to assume leadership responsibilities? If you’re great at the details, do you sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture? Another way to approach this question is to think about how you overcome the potential downside of your biggest strength.
‘Why do you think you will be successful in this job?’
This isn’t an invitation to boast – you are being asked to match your strengths to the qualities needed to do the job. Don’t forget, it’s a very specific question. Why are you suited to this job, as opposed to any other? Thorough employer research will save the day, as it will enable you to match your skills, interests and experience to the job role and the company.
‘I have the right combination of skills and experience. For example, the job description says you need people with project management skills who can work well in teams. At university a drama society I was in organised an annual charity fundraiser sit-down dinner. Last year I headed a sub-committee arranging the catering and venue so I’m used to overseeing tasks and working within a team. We also increased the amount of money the event raised for charity – up by a third on the previous year.’
Recruiters don’t just look for evidence of involvement in extracurricular activities – they like to be able to gauge how effective you were. If you can come up with information that helps to quantify your contribution and impact, it will help you convince the employer that you’re the right graduate for their scheme or job opportunity.
Where do you expect to be in five years’ time?’
This is another question that allows you to show off your employer research and your understanding of your chosen career path. You’ll want to come across as enthusiastic, but not arrogant. Tailor your response to reflect the nature of the organisation, the sector, and your own experiences and skills. Specific details will impress.
Your research into the company’s culture will be helpful, as it will clarify your understanding of the personal qualities the organisation is looking for. You can also use this question to show you understand the key competences needed to be effective in the role you’re applying for and to progress in the organisation. If you are likely to need to undertake a professional qualification to progress, show that you understand the work that will be involved, and how long it will take.
Think about how to tailor your response to reflect the nature of the organisation, the sector, and your own experiences and skills. Specific details will impress. You could refer to the current work of the company, and talk about the roles you would hope to have in similar projects. Your response might be along the following lines, with extra detail to flesh it out: ‘By then, I will have obtained my professional qualification and I hope to be leading a team of colleagues on a major project, and progressing towards a senior project management role.’
You could also give examples of one or two goals that are not directly work-related. For example, if you have taken part in sporting events or charity fundraising while at university, explain that you hope to carry on with similar activities at work, perhaps joining a sports team with fellow employees, or supporting a charity that is backed by the company.
You are particularly likely to be asked about your motivation in a strengths-based interview, which focuses on what you enjoy doing and what you do well. Your answer should draw on an example from your extracurricular activities, work experience or studies that suggests you would be strongly motivated by the job you are applying for.
The best answers to these questions are honest and yet should also connect to the job you are going for; they should strongly suggest that you would be highly motivated by and suited to the work.
So, when preparing to answer this question, you should think about:
· What do you enjoy doing? Think about your course and your wider interests. What do they have in common?
· What have you enjoyed while working at your part-time jobs or internships?
· What sort of tasks are you best at? In what sort of environments (busy, dead-line driven, loud, quiet etc) do you work the best?
For example, are you well-suited to working as part of a team? Do you work at your best when you have an imminent deadline or do you crumble?
Then think about:
· The skills sought by the employer and the nature of the job you will be doing.
How do you manage your time and prioritise tasks?
When a recruiter asks how you manage your time, don’t just give an example of a time when you did this successfully. Your interviewer wants to know your tactics and strategies for getting yourself organised, so whatever approach you use to prioritising and listing your tasks, you should be ready to describe it.
‘I make a list. I work out what order to do things in by thinking about which tasks are urgent and how important each task is. If I’m not sure what’s urgent and what isn’t, or how important different tasks are, I find out. If I’m given a new task I add it to the list and decide when to do it, so I adapt the order in which I do things as necessary.’
It doesn’t matter how you make your list – whether you jot it down in a notebook or in a desk diary or use an app or other online tool – but be ready to explain your preferred technique to your interviewer. You may have some other system for prioritising and organising your work. Whatever it is, be prepared to talk about it.
Give an example of your lateral thinking.
Lateral thinking is the ability to use your imagination to look at a problem in a fresh way and come up with a new solution. Companies prize employees with lateral thinking skills because without them, they can’t innovate and create new products. Think about times when you’ve been faced with real-life problems and have somehow managed to overcome them. Chances are your solution involved an original, creative approach, and that’s what employers want to find out about.
The good thing about being asked about your powers of lateral thinking is that there is, by definition, no one right answer to a problem that has to be solved creatively.
It’s also a lot easier on your nerves to be asked to come up with an example of your own choice, rather than to be put on the spot by an off-the-wall question about how you’d escape from a blender if you were inside it and three inches high, or whatever.
As you prepare for your interview, think about real-life problems that you’ve overcome. Here are some possible examples:
· A difficult customer at work, or disagreement with a landlord
· A student society you were involved in that was struggling financially
· A team you were part of that wasn’t doing well, or where there was a conflict that needed resolving
· A deadline you realised you couldn’t meet
· Being lost somewhere, mislaying something essential, or having travel problems
· Running low on cash and needing to come up with a way to make more
· Needing to find work experience in a profession you are interested in but know little about
Most real-life problems – especially ones involving other people – call for a creative approach and some lateral thinking. Try to think of situations that were heading for failure until you came up with a new approach that turned them around.
For example, if you’ve been involved with a student society that was struggling financially, a logical solution to the problem might be to seek to cut costs. If you use lateral thinking, however, you might come up with a great new fundraising idea, devise a novel initiative to boost membership, or approach a contact you’ve made through some other means to secure sponsorship.
When you hear about students who have come up with original ways of grabbing employers’ attention, the ruse they’ve used is often testament to their powers of lateral thinking. Careers planning in itself often involves lateral thinking, especially if it’s not immediately obvious to you what you want to do when you graduate.
Give an example of a time when you showed initiative.
If an interviewer asks you to describe a situation in which you showed initiative, avoid giving an example of an idea you had but never put into action. It’s much better to talk about a time when you not only came up with a solution to a problem but also acted on it. Then you can explain the effect your decision had when you put it into practice.
So how should you tackle the question, ‘Give me an example of a time when you used your initiative’?
‘Takings at the pizza parlour where I worked part-time as a waitress during my studies were down, so I chatted informally to fellow students who were potential customers to get some ideas for things we could do to attract more business. I approached my boss with a couple of ideas and she agreed to invest in flyers and advertisements in the student paper. We also introduced a suggestions box for new toppings and created a new pizza every week. Within a month profits were up by 10%.’
This answer highlights the candidate’s effectiveness, interpersonal skills, powers of persuasion and commercial awareness, as well as the ability to take a creative approach to problem solving.