The ten most common questions asked at graduate interviews
We asked students what questions they were asked at graduate selection interviews by a variety of employers and for a range of jobs.
Whereas we doubt if this survey is very reliable but it does give an idea of the key questions to watch out for, and to prepare answers to, at interview.
Of course questions were sometimes asked in slightly different formats. For example,”Why do you want this job?” was sometimes phrased “Why do you want to be an accountant/social worker/journalist?”
1. Why do you want this job?
One of the most predictable questions and very important! You need to demonstrate that you have researched the employer and tie your knowledge of them into the skills and interests that led you to apply. For example, an interviewee with a small public relations agency might say:
“I’m always ready to take on responsibility and feel this will come more quickly with a firm of this size. A small firm also gives the chance to build closer working relationships with clients and colleagues and I’ve found through my past work experience that this makes an organisation more effective as well as more satisfying to work in.”
Try to find some specific feature on which the employer prides themselves: their training, their client base, their individuality, their public image, etc. This may not always be possible with very small organisations but you may be able to pick up something of this nature from the interviewer.
At the end of the interview, it is likely that you will be given the chance to put your own questions to the interviewer.
- • Keep them brief: there may be other interviewees waiting.
- • Ask about the work itself, training and career development: not about holidays, pensions, and season ticket loans!
- • Prepare some questions in advance: it is OK to write these down and to refer to your notes to remind yourself of what you wanted to ask.
It often happens that, during the interview, all the points that you had noted down to ask about will be covered before you get to this stage. In this situation, you can respond as follows:
Interviewer: Well, that seems to have covered everything: is there anything you would like to ask me?
Interviewee: Thank you: I’d made a note to ask about your appraisal system and the study arrangements for professional exams, but we went over those earlier and I really feel you’ve covered everything that I need to know at this moment.
You can also use this opportunity to tell the interviewer anything about yourself that they have not raised during the interview but which you fell is important to your application:
Don’t feel you have to wait until this point to ask questions – if the chance to ask a question seems to arise naturally in the course of the interview, take it! Remember that a traditional interview is a conversation – with a purpose.
2. Examples of questions you can ask the interviewer
These are just a few ideas – you should certainly not attempt to ask them all and indeed it’s best to formulate your own questions tailored to your circumstances and the job you are being interviewed for! Make sure you have researched the employer carefully, so that you are not asking for information which you should be expected to know already.
- • Is there a fixed period of training for graduates?
- • I see it is possible to switch job functions – how often does this happen?
- • Do you send your managers on external training courses?
- • Where would I be based – is this job function located only in …?
- • How easy is it for new graduates to find accommodation in this area?
- • How often is a graduate’s performance appraised?
- • What is a typical career path in this job function?
- • Can you give me more details of your training programme?
- • Will I be working in a team? If so, what is the make-up of these teams?
- • What is the turnover of graduates in this company?
- • What are the possibilities of using my languages?
- • What are the travel/mobility requirements of this job?
- • How would you see this company developing over the next five years?
- • How would you describe the atmosphere in this company?
- • What is your personal experience of working for this organisation?
3. Describe a situation in which you lead a team.
This is an example of a competency-based question. Many graduate positions involve people management, where you will be expected to plan, organise and guide the work of others as well as motivating them to complete tasks. The interviewer needs to assess how well you relate to other people, what role you take in a group and whether you are able to focus on goals and targets.
Outline the situation, your role and the task of the group overall. Describe any problems which arose and how they were tackled. Say what the result was and what you learned from it. Examples could include putting on a drama or music production; a group project at university; a business game or Young Enterprise scheme or being team leader in a fast-food restaurant.
This, and other skills which the employer considers essential for effective performance in the job, should have been highlighted in the job description or graduate brochure – so always be prepared to give examples of situations where you have demonstrated these qualities! While your example should indicate the nature of the team and the task, you need to focus on your own role as leader and on the personal qualities that led you to take on/be nominated for this role and which helped you to succeed in it. Leadership involves many skills: planning, decision-making, persuading, motivating, listening, co-ordinating – but not dictating!
4. Describe a situation where you worked in a team
Another competency-based question. Most jobs will involve a degree of teamwork. The interviewer needs to assess how well you relate other people, what role you take in a group and whether you are able to focus on goals and targets. Outline the situation, your particular role and the task of the group overall. Describe any problems which arose and how they were tackled. Say what the result was and what you learned from it.
Examples could include putting on a drama or music production; a group project at university; a business game or “Young Enterprise” scheme or working in a fast-food restaurant.
5. What do you expect to be doing in 5 years time?
Try to avoid vague or general answers such as “I would hope to grow with the responsibility I am offered and to develop my skills as far as I am able” or “I would expect to be in a management role by then”.
This question allows you to demonstrate that you have done your research on the career routes open to you within the organisation and so you should try to be more specific – not necessarily tying yourself down to a particular route, but showing that you have at least a general idea of where you want to go.
Use the employer’s recruitment literature to gain an idea of the career paths followed by past graduates. You may be able to supplement this by showing your knowledge of professional bodies and the steps you will need to take to gain their qualifications, e.g. in areas such as marketing or personnel.
6. What are your weaknesses?
The classic answer here is to state a strength which is disguised as a weakness , such as “I’m too much of a perfectionist” or “I push myself too hard”. This approach has been used so often that, even if these answers really are true they sound clichéd. Also, interviewers will know this trick. If you feel they really apply to you, give examples: you could say that your attention to detail and perfectionism make you very single-minded when at work, often blotting out others in your need to get the task done.
A better strategy, is to choose a weakness that you have worked on to improve and describe what action you are taking to remedy the weakness. For example: “I’m not a very self-confident person and used to find it very difficult to talk to people I didn’t know well, but my Saturday job in the local library meant that I had to help people with all kinds of queries and that helped me a lot. Now I’m perfectly happy talking to anybody on a one-to-one basis and I’ve joined the debating society this year to give me experience of speaking in front of an audience.”
Don’t deny that you have any weaknesses – everyone has weaknesses and if you refuse to admit to them the interviewer will mark you down as arrogant, untruthful or lacking in self-awareness This question may be phrased in other ways, such as “How would your worst enemy describe you?”
7. Who else have you applied to/got interviews with?
You are being asked to demonstrate the consistency of your career aims as well as your interest in the job for which you are being interviewed. So if you have applied to one large accountancy firm it is reasonable to assume you will be applying to them all.
What you can certainly say in your favour, however, is that the present employer is your first choice. You may even answer the question by explaining you have yet to apply to any other organisations for this very reason. Perhaps your application to the other firms is imminent, depending on the stage you are at in the recruitment cycle.
Give examples that are:
- Relevant – related to the business you are presently being interviewed for
- Prestigious. They will reflect well on the firm interviewing you
- Consistent. Not from lots of different job areas or employment groups of less interest to you than the present opportunity
- Successful so far. Do not list those firms who have rejected you.
8. Why did you choose your university and what factors influenced your choice?
If you had, in fact, no real choice in where you went to University – e.g. if you had to study close to home for financial or family reasons – you can talk about the more general issues you had to consider in coming to University and perhaps lead the question round to your choice of course rather than institution.
Your actual answer is less important than the evidence of decision-making, planning and logical reasoning skills that it should demonstrate. This is an opportunity for you to demonstrate these key skills.
9. What are your strengths?
This allows you to put across your “Unique Selling Points” – three or four of your key strengths. Try to back these points up with examples of where you have had to use them.
Consider the requirements of the job and compare these with all your own attributes – your personality, skills, abilities or experience. Where they match you should consider these to be your major strengths. The employer certainly will.
For example, team work, interpersonal skills, creative problem solving, dependability, reliability, originality, leadership etc., could all be cited as strengths. Work out which is most important for the particular job in question and make sure you illustrate your answer with examples from as many parts of your experience, not just university, as you can.
This question may be phrased in other ways, such as “Tell me about yourself” or “How would a friend describe you?”
10. What has been your greatest achievement?
To say that your greatest achievement was getting to University, or getting your degree, will do nothing to distinguish you from all the other candidates. Unless you have had to contend with exceptional difficulties to gain your academic qualifications – such as illness or major family problems – try to say something different that will make you stand out.
This doesn’t have to be an Olympic medal or an act of heroism. Ideally, it should give evidence of skills relevant to the job such as communication, initiative, teamwork, organising or determination:
- • Duke of Edinburgh’s gold award – especially the expedition and community service parts
- • Organising a sports or fund-raising event
- • ”Overcoming my fear of heights and learning to abseil”
- • ”Learning enough Spanish in three months to make myself understood when I traveled around Mexico”
- • Training for and completing a marathon .. or even a 5 Kilometre race
Other common questions (in rough order of popularity) were:
- • Why do you want to join our organisation?
- • What would you do if …….. happened? (hypothetical questions)
- • Describe a situation in which you dealt with confrontation (for example a difficult customer).
- • Describe a situation in which you influenced or motivated people.
- • What other careers have you considered/applied for?
- • Why did you choose your degree subject? Describe yourself (in one word).
- • Are you prepared to be mobile?
- • Describe a situation in which you used initiative.
- • Describe a situation in which you solved a problem.
- • Describe a situation in which you took responsibility.
- • What are your hobbies?
- • What was your biggest setback? (How do you deal with adversity?)
- • Tell me about your project
- • Describe a situation where you had to plan or organise something.
- • What computing skills do you have?
- • What is your usual role in a team?
- • Describe a situation where you had a difficult decision to make.