Interview Questions To Uncover The Best Graduates

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March 28, 2022

Graduate recruitment season is well underway.

You’re probably meeting hundreds of graduates over the next few months. If not thousands. And by definition they’re well-educated, bright young things. They often present and express themselves well.

Sorting the best graduates from the pack is a near-impossible task. And, faced with hundreds of competitors stomping the same graduate hunting ground, you’re under huge pressure to move fast.

That’s where this article comes in.

We’ve taken the three most valuable graduate skills and collated the must-ask interview questions to uncover each.

So you can sift the wheat from the chaff, and move faster to bring the best new graduates into your business.

When you want to unearth… true passion for your business.

As part of their 2018 ‘What do graduates want?” report, Bright Network asked 157 graduate employers across various sectors what they value most in graduates. Passion for the business topped the list.

Here are four questions that can uncover true passion. As opposed ‘cupboard love’, where anxious grads feign passion because they know passion’s what you want to see.

#1 – What’s been the most exciting thing you’ve done at university

You’ll notice this isn’t ‘why do you want to work here?’. That’s a question almost every graduate will’ve prepared an answer for. Starting with something outside your business encourages grads to discuss something that has genuinely mattered to them.

That gives you a benchmark for what passion looks and sounds like. Which will help you judge whether their passion is real or feigned when they start talking about your company.

#2 – What have your criteria been for deciding where to apply?

What you’re really asking here is, why us?

By phrasing the question slightly differently, you encourage candidates to be more honest about their wider application criteria. Instead of trotting out their rote answer about why they love your business.

Their answer should help you assess whether your business and their values align – crucial to sustained passion.

#3 – What’s the big problem you’d like to solve in our industry?

Every graduate will likely have a well-rehearsed answer to ‘why do you want to work here?’ But this question sorts the superficial researchers from the genuinely-invested-in-the-industry researchers.

If they’re not engaged with your industry, they’re unlikely to be passionate about your business and the problems you solve. Not long term.

#4 – What questions do you have about working with us?

Graduates who are genuinely passionate about your business see the interview differently. They’re not just trying to impress you, to secure a graduate job. They’ve pictured working with you; they’re actively weighing-up what life with you will be like.

You want to be under scrutiny, because their scrutiny means they care.

Those graduates will likely have loads of questions, because they won’t just have researched your business. They’ll have done research critically. Asking questions, making notes, jotting down ideas. They’ll be burning with curiosity about you.

When you want to unearth… problem-solving

This was the third most important quality that employers value, according to Bright Network. (The second is communication skills, which you can assess across the entire interview).

Little wonder, as problem-solving is a crucial capability behind a whole host of desirable abilities. Like improving processes. Anticipating risk. Understanding and reacting appropriately to trends. Understanding relationships to improve collaboration. Spotting opportunities; innovating.

Here’s how to assess graduates’ problem-solving skills.

#5 – Describe how you’ve solved a problem you’ve faced recently?

You’re looking for process, with this question. Good problem-solvers can quickly identify the problem, evaluate the root cause then implement solutions. And crucially, they’ll keep following that process, learning from ineffective solutions to move forwards.

With this one, ask lots of probing follow-up questions. Like…

  • What other solutions did you consider?
  • How did you rule out solutions?
  • How did you decide which solution to try?

#6 – Faced with this specific role-related challenge, what would you do?

Question five relies on the graduates’ recollection of a problem they solved. It’s a helpful way to understand their process but it’s also a common question graduates’ might have prepared ahead for.

This situational question is different. This question forces the graduate to think on their feet, showing you whether their on-the-spot, under-pressure problem-solving abilities match the neat process they outlined above.

The best graduates will find ways to turn problems into opportunities, following a structured process.

If you’re struggling to come up with situational questions, try asking one of your current high performers. They can tell you what challenges they’ve faced but also show you what a great reaction looks like.

#7 – Faced with this specific ethical dilemma, what would you do?

This question ups the stakes by adding an emotive twist to question six. Think, ‘what would you do if you suspected your manager was forging expenses?’ or ‘what would you do if you discovered your close colleague had made a mistake?’

Here, the best graduates will discuss options in a considered, calm way. They’ll think through the different outcomes without taking sides or leaping to judgement, and they’ll ultimately display ethical values that align with the company’s own.

This question also helps you uncover graduates’ emotional intelligence – an important skill for almost every role.

When you want to unearth… resilience

Bright Network found resilience was fifth on the list of qualities employers’ value in graduates (behind commercial awareness, which overlaps with passion for your business). Call it resilience, call it perseverance, call it grit. Whatever you call it, the point is, you want graduates who have it.

That’s despite graduates thinking resilience is the quality employers least value, interestingly. That bodes well as candidates mightn’t be expecting questions that assess their resilience – so you’re more likely to get honest answers.

Here’s how to uncover the grit you’re looking for.

#8 – Tell me about your biggest failure

People with grit and resilience are the ones who’ve failed, picked themselves up, dusted themselves off and carried on. You’re looking for people who aren’t uncomfortable with the question – who don’t see failure as failure.

By leaving this question open-ended (rather than, say, ‘tell me about a time you failed and what you learned) you’ll see which graduates naturally frame their failures in this context.

Those are the people who’ve already accepted and analysed their own failures, learnt lessons and moved on. That’s what you want.

#9 – How does stress affect you, and how do you manage it?

High-performing graduates are often also susceptible to stress. Their ability to manage stress effectively, even in a pressure-cooker environment – is closely linked to resilience.

Stress is a crucial area to drill into during graduate recruitment especially, because this is most graduates’ first entry into the professional working world. They may never have been exposed to stress like this before – and poor coping mechanisms can derail even the best potential hire. Assessing upfront how well-prepared graduates are helps you make sounder hiring decisions.

Here you’re looking for people who’re self-reflective enough to understand if, how and when they suffer from stress - and have practical tactics to manage it.

#10 – What do you dislike most in other people?

Resilient people are generally more tolerant. Better equipped to handle setbacks and frustrations like annoying colleagues, shifted deadlines, changing client demands or any number of other normal workplace situations.

That’s where this question comes in. You’re looking for a balanced response that admits a pet peeve or frustration (because we all have them) but also rationalises and empathises. Relaxed body language and calm analysis are king, here.

For example, ‘I find it really frustrating when people don’t do what they’ve said they’ll do. I hate being let down because I might then let other people down as a result. I know I often don’t have the bigger picture as to why people might have fallen through though. I know they’re trying their best. If it happened more than once, I’d talk to them beforehand and let them know why the timeline matters and see if we could pre-empt any issues.’

Move faster to secure the best graduates

Passion, problem-solving and resilience aren’t the only important skills top graduates have but they are crucial. They’re three skills you’re unlikely to compensate for, no matter how good your newest hire is elsewhere.

Like, if you hire a graduate who’s a talented developer with exceptional problem-solving skills and oodles of passion for your business. They tick a load of boxes. But if they’re not resilient, they might cause problems in your team and weaken your culture. Not good.

These ten interview questions help unearth those three qualities, sweeping away candidate over-preparation to uncover the truth. So you can spot the best graduates from a great bunch, and move fast to secure the fresh talent your business needs.


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