Prepare your answers
Different types of questions you may be asked
The types of questions you'll be asked will depend on the role, organisation and industry you're applying for.
Practicing your answers to common interview questions and question types can build your confidence in doing interviews. You can't be sure what you'll be asked, and some questions will be industry-specific. But you can prepare answers on different topics, such as your competencies, strengths, values and how you've responded to your weaknesses or past failures.
Motivation and suitability questions
Central to the interview process will be the employer's need to understand your reasons for applying to the role.
- Why do you want to work for us?
- What attracts you to this position?
- Why do you want this job?
Researching an employer is essential if you want your interview to be successful. The knowledge and understanding you gain through your research will help you perform confidently during an interview and show that you have a genuine interest in working for the company.
However the employer chooses to phrase it, don't underestimate the importance of your response to these types of questions. By asking motivational questions, the employer is likely to want to establish:
- What do you know about the company and the position?
- What evidence do you have to back up your interest?
- What do you hope to get out of the job, apart from a salary?
The 'evidence' you offer to justify and demonstrate your interest needs to be concrete. Simply stating that you've 'always wanted a career with an organisation like this' won't be enough. Consider relevant experience you've gained through internships, projects, university modules or involvement in volunteering, activities or societies.
The recruiter will also want to address some 'unspoken questions', including:
- Do you have a good understanding of what the job role involves?
- Do you want the job?
- If you were to take the job, how long would you be looking to stay in the role and with the organisation?
- Are you serious enough about the job to have carried out thorough research?
Why does good employer research matter?
Knowing about new developments or key issues in the sector you're applying to can help demonstrate your enthusiasm and knowledge. So keeping up to date with industry press and news is vital in your preparation.
We've put together our top tips on gathering information about employers and where to do your research. This will help you in your response to the question, "why do you want to work for us?".
Consider who the organisation works with, what their mission statement, objectives or values are and what projects they've worked on recently. Relate these to your desire and enthusiasm to work with them. Also review the information you've got about the job role, including the person specification and revisit the content of your application.
If you choose not to spend time on research, you may end up resorting to empty flattery and waffle in your responses. This won't impress the recruitment panel.
Competency-based questions are popular with recruiters as they let them compare candidates. They can also be used on the principle that past behaviour is the best indicator of future performance.
While competency-based questions can be used by employers across all sectors, competency-based interviews may be particularly favoured by large graduate recruiters as part of an assessment centre.
Key competencies frequently sought by employers
- commercial awareness
- conflict resolution
Make sure you refer to the person specification for any additional skills or attributes they may be looking for. These types of questions aim to test a variety of skills and you'll need to answer in the context of actual events.
Expect questions opening with:
- "Tell us about a time when you…"
- "Give an example of…"
- "Describe how you…"
Examples of competency-based questions
- "Give an example of a time when you had to coordinate the work of other people."
- "Describe how your planning and organisation resulted in the achievement of a personal or group task."
- "Tell us about a time when you had to work effectively as a member of a team."
- "Give an example of a time you handled conflict in the workplace."
- "How do you maintain good working relationships with your colleagues?"
- "Tell me about a big decision you've made recently. How did you go about it?"
- "Give me an example of a challenge you faced in the workplace and tell me how you overcame it."
- "Describe a situation where you solved a problem creatively."
Answering competency-based questions
You can find your responses and examples from experiences including your studies, part-time work, volunteering and leisure interests. When answering these questions give clear examples and analyse the situation.
As a student or graduate, you may have a limited amount of work-related examples to draw on but aim to use a different example for each competency you're asked to discuss.
To give a thorough response, use the STAR technique:
- Situation – briefly describe the background to the situation and provide context
- Task – specifically describe your responsibility at the time
- Action – describe what you did
- Result – describe the outcome of your actions and what you could have done differently
Where possible, try to relate your answers to the role you're interviewing for. Don't attempt to wing it by thinking on your feet; the quality of your responses will suffer.
Find out more top tips from our advisers in the video.
Meeting the questions in a job interview
Strength-based questions are about predicting your future potential. They let the employer identify what you're particularly good at and what inspires you.
By asking strength-based interview questions, the employer is looking at:
- How well you're likely to perform in the job role, not just whether you can do it
- Whether you'd be motivated in and energised by the job
- Your behaviours, including how you typically respond to situations you may come across in the role
The employer will want to make sure your abilities match the role. Questions may be more personal so the employer can get a genuine insight into your personality and see if you'd be a good fit for the company.
The questions could be:
- closed – requiring a 'yes'/'no' answer
- open – requiring a longer answer
- hypothetical – focusing on how you would act in a situation
- behavioural – focusing on how you respond
Examples of strength-based interview questions
- "What motivates you?"
- "What do you find draining or tiresome?"
- "What energises you?"
- "How do you judge success?"
- "What has been your most significant achievement?"
- "What has been your biggest failure?"
- "Would your friends say you have a strength/ability (such as the ability to learn quickly)?"
- "How do you feel when you're faced with a sudden obstacle to your plans? What do you do to resolve it?"
- "If a colleague was struggling to make a complex decision, what would you do to help?"
- "Do you think this role will play to your strengths?"
As with any other interview questions, you'll need to include specific examples to justify and illustrate your responses. These can come from your studies, work experience, previous employment, volunteering or extra-curricular activities. Using specific examples will give you more to talk about and show evidence of previous capability.
Keep in mind what recruiters are looking for in their candidate, but don't become too focused on this. Research has indicated that when we're motivated by what we're talking about, we tend to give longer and more detailed answers. We also use positive language so, where you can, be natural in your response.
Value-based interview questions are increasingly common in recruitment processes and across different work sectors. Recruiters use them to see if you share the same values as the organisation and to assess your overall fit in the workplace.
Remember, an organisation's values often define and determine how their employees collaborate, the type of developments they'll commit to and the types of people they want to recruit and retain.
By using value-based interview questions, the employer will be looking to see if your priorities align with the organisation's goals and what drives your behaviour in the workplace.
Common values that employers may be looking to identify, especially in a corporate environment, may include:
- Social responsibility – this includes consideration of social and environmental solutions to business issues and operations
- Integrity – this involves acting with professionalism and transparency and adhering to the organisation's policies
- Collaboration – working effectively with others to meet shared goals
- Innovation –developing and implementing new ideas to improve the performance of the organisation/business
- Customer/client orientation – working positively to both maintain and increase customer or client satisfaction
- Accountability –taking responsibility for both actions and decisions in team and individual projects
Examples of value-based questions
- "Why does our organisation appeal to you?"
- "What are our core values?"
- "What parts of the role would you find most enjoyable? What aspects would you think might be least enjoyable?"
- "What would be the main rewards for you in this role?"
- "What have you done to find out more about this career area?"
- "Describe a situation where you needed to work as part of a team. Why was this important? What was your exact role in the team? What was the result of having a team approach?"
- "Can you describe a situation where you worked in a team and things didn't work out? On reflection, how would you have handled the situation differently? What did you learn about yourself?"
- "Describe a time your team failed to complete a project on time. What would you do differently if you had the chance?"
- "What would you do if you had to work with a person you didn't get along with?"
- "Describe a successful team project you worked on so far. What was your contribution?"
- "How would you react if your team received negative feedback about a part of the project that was entirely assigned to you?"
- "Describe a situation where you were particularly successful. Why do you think you were successful? What did you learn about yourself?"
- "Outline a situation where you made a mistake. What happened? What would you do differently another time?"
- "Could you give an example where you have learned from feedback?"
- "Provide an example where you actively went out of your way to learn something new to achieve a personal goal?"
- "Can you give an example went the extra mile? What was the situation? Why did you do this? What was the outcome?"
- "How do you motivate yourself when faced with a task you don't enjoy?"
- "What do you find most challenging in your studies? What makes it challenging?"
- "What do you find most stimulating and why?"
- "Describe a situation where you have demonstrated integrity?"
- "Have you ever faced an ethical dilemma at work? If so, what was the issue and what did you do?"
- "Describe a situation where you were facing a technical issue and your normal troubleshooting method wasn't working. What did you do?"
- "Describe a time you managed to calm an irate customer. How did you manage to maintain your professionalism and address their complaint?"
Preparing for value-based interview questions
Do your research by reading the organisation's mission statement and their core values. Be prepared to talk about your experiences and feelings openly and question your behaviours and decisions, as well as reflecting on them.
Explore our section on researching an employer to support you in developing your ideas.
If the employer's values don't appear in a dedicated section on their website, be proactive in working out further detail from the recruitment sections of their site, their company news or articles and their 'about us' section.
Some employers break down their values into behaviours they believe are needed to achieve them. So when researching an organisation's values, consider what professional behaviour may be required.
For instance, HSBC identifies being 'dependable' as one of its core values. They break this down into the following:
- "Standing firm for what's right, delivering on commitments, being resilient and trustworthy"
- "Taking personal accountability, being decisive, using judgement and common sense, empowering others"
A second example is the NHS, who identify a core value as 'working together for patients'. They break this down as follows:
- "Patients come first in everything we do. We fully involve patients, staff, families, carers, communities, and professionals inside and outside the NHS. We put the needs of patients and communities before organisational boundaries. We speak up when things go wrong."
When developing answers to value-based interview questions, aim to use action verbs such as 'helped', 'recognised', 'responded', 'achieved', 'listened' and 'considered'.
These can be useful to identify behaviours needed to support an organisation's values.
As with other types of interview questions, such as competency-based and strength-based questions, it's important to consider times during your studies, part-time work experience, placement or extra-curricular activities where you think you've demonstrated commitment to particular values.
Note down some solid examples of your behaviour linked to each of the organisation's values.
- Don't be vague about your values – be confident in how your principles, ethics and behaviours align with and can support the work of the organisation.
- Don't challenge or question the merit of the employer's values – they might be key to the organisation's work, so questioning them might jeopardise the success of your interview.
- Don't be cynical, flippant or insincere in your responses – an interview panel will spot when you're not being genuine if you can't justify your response or offer examples of where you've previously demonstrated a commitment to their values.
Questions about weaknesses, failures and resilience
If employers want to know about your strengths, they'll almost inevitably want to know about your weaknesses. This can also be about figuring out if can learn from mistakes and how resilient you are.
Questions about weaknesses or failures
- "What has been your biggest failure to date and what did you learn from it?"
- "Identify three of your main weaknesses."
- "Describe a time when something didn't work out as you had planned. What did you do and what did you learn from it?"
- "Tell us about a mistake you've made."
- "How do you deal with setbacks?"
When discussing weaknesses, you can positively frame your answer by picking characteristics that you've actively taken steps to improve. For example, self-confidence issues could have previously led to difficulty accepting criticism, but tell the interviewer that you've learned to embrace constructive feedback as it allows for self-improvement.
Avoid saying you have no weaknesses, that you're a perfectionist, or that you work too hard. These are generic responses that the employer might interpret as a sign of a lack of self-awareness.
When addressing questions about failures and/or mistakes, employers may be looking for you to reflect on your experiences. Again, frame your response positively. Evidence how you've been proactive in changing your behaviours.
Remember, practising these types of questions are also good ways to test your problem-solving skills and assess how aware you are of your areas for development.
Questions about resilience
Resilience can be described as the ability to:
- overcome barriers
- adapt to problems in different contexts
- develop appropriate solutions
Resilience is increasingly seen as a desirable attribute by graduate employers. So they may design some of the questions to asses this during your recruitment process. They may ask:
- "How do you respond to setbacks?"
- "How do you cope with pressure?"
- "Tell me about a time when you worked with someone you didn't agree with."
- "How would you respond if you received negative feedback from your manager?"
- "Outline an example of when something didn't go to plan. What action did you take and what do you feel you learnt from the experience?"
Remember, an employer isn't expecting you to be a 'superhuman'. Don't be afraid to talk about examples of where you asked for help. Resilience isn't about being unaffected by stress or pressure. It's about the ability to recognise this and build on coping strategies to manage it. Resilience isn't a static quality.
Employer may be assessing your ability to adapt to a new workplace and role. They'll also assess your ability to take a logical approach, think innovatively, take ownership, and not give up at the first hurdle.
The questions asked in interviews won't be limited to your motivation, competencies and strengths. Employers use a range of questions and may choose scenario-based or situational questions to diversify the interview process.
These questions are designed to see if you can think on your feet and to find out how you'd deal with a particular situation. Rather than being asked to describe a past experience, you're presented with a hypothetical scenario.
The interviewer may start with an ambiguous prompt, such as "How would you respond to...?" or "How would you deal with...?"
Examples of scenario-based questions
- "You're due to deliver an event as part of your role, but find that you're short-staffed. How would you manage this?"
- "You're managing the front reception desk and you need to deal with an angry and disgruntled customer. How would you respond to them?"
- "Two important colleagues in the organisation demand your attention at the same time. What would you do?"
- "How would you handle it if you believed strongly in a recommendation you made in a meeting, but most of your co-workers shot it down?"
- "How would you deal with a colleague at work who you seem to be unable to build a successful working relationship?"
- "You disagree with the way your supervisor tells you to handle a problem. What would you do?"
Remember, the employer is looking for logical thought and a demonstration of your analytical and problem-solving skills.
There is not a right or wrong answer scenario-based or situational questions. However, you must provide a clear plan of action about how you would deal with such a situation.
Where you can, back up your answer. What is your thought process behind this – to support colleagues, to follow procedures, to manage expectations of others, to limit the impact on the workplace and individuals involved?
It can be tricky to prepare for these types of questions, but it's important to think through the types of situations you might find yourself in based on the role description. Also, consider the skills and qualities they may be looking for in their suitable candidate based on the person specification.
For some job roles, the employer wants you to demonstrate a technical skills-set. These questions are more common for particular career sectors, including scientific, engineering or technology-based roles.
They are designed to assess specialist skills essential for effective performance in the job role. Some employers will favour a separate technical interview, while others might combine technical questions with general questions in one main interview.
Preparing for technical questions
The employer is likely to ask you in-depth questions about the course and the units or subject areas you've covered. So make sure you revise the basics and pay particular attention to topics directly related to the organisation's area of work.
Interviewers will focus on project work to assess your ability to carry out independent work, manage your workload and solve problems related to a specialist area. In offering a summary of your project work, discuss the challenges you faced, how you overcame any problems and talk positively about the outcomes.
While some of your interview panel may be familiar with technical terminology and concepts, other individuals might be more interested in how you can convey complex ideas in a simplified and concise way.
Showing an understanding of recent trends and developments, such as advances in types of technology used by the employer, will highlight your interest and enthusiasm in working with them. Also, consider the employer's activities in line with these.
While there will be some specific, knowledge-based questions, the employer may also ask you to comment on a range of scenarios or hypothetical scenarios. Even if you're not sure of the correct response, tell the interviewer how you might approach the problem or how you might source the correct information or support.
Technical questions will focus on how you communicate technical ideas and information. They don't require you to know and be able to recall everything. So if you're unclear about a question during the interview, have the confidence to ask for further clarification.
If you feel you're struggling to convey information, you can ask for a piece of paper to sketch out or produce a diagram to expand upon your response. This may be particularly relevant for engineering-based roles.
Top tips for technical interviews
- Where you can, avoid using jargon – assume your interviewees have limited knowledge so you don't miss out basic, but vital information.
- When discussing your experience and achievements, make sure you focus on your contribution to these events.
- Listen to the questions carefully before starting to respond and be confident in asking for clarification, where necessary.
- Don't forget, even if it's a technical interview, the employer will still be looking for you to evidence and demonstrate transferable skills, such as communication and personal skills – you need to show that you can work well with others and communicate your ideas clearly.
Technical question resources
- TARGETjobs – technical interview tips for graduates, by graduates
- TARGETjobs – technical interviews: putting your graduate science skills to the test
- TARGETjobs – impressing in quantity surveying and building surveying technical interviews
- TARGETjobs – technical interviews for graduate engineering jobs
General questions and typical difficult questions
Hopefully your interview will run smoothly. However, it's good to spend some time thinking about how you'd deal with difficult questions.
While people may find certain types of questions more challenging than others, we've identified common questions that might need more preparation.
4 Examples of general questions
This warm-up question might be used to ease you into the interview process. But don't underestimate the importance of your response to this. Your answer needs to find a good balance between showing your personality, while also reflecting the focused, professional self you intend to convey throughout the interview.
View this as an opportunity to sell yourself to the interviewer. You could outline your academic and professional journey to the point of your interview, making sure you include information about your skills and attributes. You could also discuss an interest or hobby you have.
This question is about your motivation for applying to the role. Make sure before attending an interview that you're clear about why you want to work for the organisation. Think about what they do as well as the direction of their organisation and how you would help them achieve their goals.
Good employer research plays a vital role here. This is more than a case of looking at what appears on the company homepage. It's about showing a genuine understanding of the employer – their values, strategy, structure and place within their sector. See our full guide to researching an employer.
This is a question that allows you to show off your employer research and your understanding of your career progression. Show your enthusiasm, without coming across as arrogant.
Tailor your response to reflect the nature of the organisation, the sector or industry, and your own experiences and skills. Overall, you'll want to demonstrate your commitment to your career path, the company and hard work.
The trick here is to positively frame your answer by picking characteristics that you've actively taken steps to improve. For example, self-confidence issues could have previously led to difficulty accepting criticism; but tell the interviewer that you've learned to embrace constructive feedback as it allows self-improvement.
Overall, these questions aim to test your problem-solving skills and assess your self-awareness.
This isn't an invitation from the recruiter to boast. They'll be expecting you to discuss your strengths and qualities and match them to the requirements of the role.
Keep your response specific – why are you suited to this job more than another? Make sure you've considered how your skills, interests and experience link to the job role and the company.
These questions are difficult because they challenge you to address the issue of conflict directly. The employer will be looking for you to show awareness of some common sense principles for reducing the risk of conflict, how to handle it when it occurs and putting in place measures to ensure it doesn't happen again.
Make sure you've re-read your application content before the interview and that you're happy and confident in answering any related questions.
Questions to ask the employer
The interview is also your opportunity to find out more about the organisation. At the end of the interview process, the employer will offer you the opportunity to ask them any questions you may have. Anything you ask should cover the work itself or your career development.
Prepare some questions in advance, but don't panic if all your queries have been answered – mention this positively. Remember to ask questions if the moment naturally arises during the interview itself.
Examples of questions to ask the employer
- "What support does the organisation offer to new graduates?"
- "How often is a graduate's performance appraised?"
- "What development plans does the organisation have?"
- "What is a typical career path in this job role?"
- "What are the company's expectations of the role?"
- "What will the priorities be?"
- "What's your experience of working for this organisation?"
- "What challenges do you see in the role?"
- "What do you think will be the major challenges facing this company over the next three years?"
Is there anything I've missed?
You may find that following an interview you leave cursing yourself for not mentioning a key piece of information. Asking this question lets you make sure everything has been covered. It can help prompt some initial feedback from the employer about how the interview has gone or offer them an opportunity to prompt you on areas they want to find out more about.
Avoid undoing all of the good work you've done during the interview by asking ill-fitting or inappropriate questions at the end. An interview isn't usually the time to ask questions about pay, benefits or perks unless the employer raises this.
You might get more chances to ask questions during the recruitment process, such as talking to other staff outside of the formal interview. You may be introduced to a recent graduate to chat about their job, taken on a tour around the building or be joined by other staff for lunch.
Use this opportunity to find out more about the employer and the role. Appropriate questions in this context might include:
- "What job do you do and what does this involve?"
- "What type of products/projects/cases do you work on?"
- "How long have you been working with the organisation?"
- "Did you start in your current role as a graduate?"
- "Is this a friendly place to work? Are there social events or other activities to get involved in?"
The interview panel might get feedback from everyone you meet during your visit - so be aware of what you ask and how you come across in more informal situations. Remember, they'll be looking for a 'good fit' for their organisation and team.
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