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Interview questions for graduate management jobs

How to answer interview questions for graduate management jobs

You’ve applied for a trainee management scheme and they’ve called you to interview. What questions might they ask and how should you prepare?
Interviewers need to know that you have an accurate understanding of what being a trainee manager in their employ involves.

Interview questions for aspiring trainee managers vary considerably from sector to sector. However, it’s likely that your face-to-face interviews will involve a mix of CV-based questions, competency questions that test your suitability for the role and hypothetical questions that assess your management style and your ability to think on your feet. Here’s some advice for dealing with these different question types.

Questions about: Your CV | Your motivation | Your understanding of the role | Your skills | Hypothetical situations

CV-based interview questions

CVs should be short and concise. It’s impossible to cram everything into two sides of A4, so interviewers will ask you to expand on what you’ve written. If they find a project that you’ve led particularly interesting, they will ask you to give more details. Conversely, if you’ve written anything that sounds a bit vague or ambiguous, they may ask some searching questions. The best way to prepare for these questions is to practise explaining items on your CV, stressing what you contributed and what the results were in each case. For advice on writing management CVs read our handy guide.

Questions on your motivation for applying

Answering ‘Why this industry?’

What is it about the work environment that appeals to you? Perhaps you’re applying to be a retail manager because you particularly like the idea of working in a store. Or maybe you’re applying to be a construction site manager and you’ve always been an outdoors type. It will be particularly impressive if you can talk about the challenges and developments facing the industry.

If you’re applying for role in transport you could talk about rising fuel costs, for retail you could talk about the role of online shopping and for construction you could talk about sustainability, for example. That would show that you’ve got business sense and are commercially aware, a crucial skill for a manager.

Answering ‘Why this company and why this job?’

The interviewers want to feel special. Things to talk about could include the training scheme structure, opportunities to take on early responsibility, support for taking professional qualifications or the company’s policy on sustainability and social responsibility. You probably shouldn’t say that the salary is one of your biggest motivations for applying, even if that is in fact the case.

The best way to prepare for these types of question is, of course, to read up about the company and the wider industry. But you should also consider where you fit in; how will this particular training scheme help you develop as a leader?

Questions assessing your understanding of the managerial role

Interviewers need to know that you have an accurate understanding of what being a trainee manager in their company involves – the day-to-day work, your responsibilities, the hours and the opportunities for career progression. Going straight into a management role after university is no mean feat – you need to convince the recruiter that you truly understand what you’re letting yourself in for. You might be asked questions along the lines of:

  • Explain what you’ll be doing on a day-to-day basis. What do you think your objectives will be?
  • What do you think you’ll be doing in six months/a year/five years?
  • What do you think the biggest challenge of the job will be?
  • What will you find most satisfying?

​Prepare for these types of questions by first researching the specific role thoroughly. Look at the Inside Buzz reports on TARGETjobs if the company has one, other online resources such as employee videos on the company's website and, if possible, use LinkedIn or your network to talk to people in the role. Then relate what you know to your own strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes and preferred ways of working. 

Management-focused competency questions: Tell us about a time when you…

Your interviewers will want to find evidence that you have the necessary skills to be a manager. Attributes that they’ll be looking for include:

  • people skills
  • time management
  • budget-keeping
  • leadership
  • motivating and inspiring others
  • decision making
  • problem solving

They will probably ask you to provide examples of a time when you’ve demonstrated these managerial skills. You could be asked to talk about your experiences of working to a budget, working to tight deadlines, influencing and persuading people or dealing with conflict. You’ll probably also be asked to describe successful projects you’ve managed. If you can’t think of a time when you managed an entire project, you can talk about your experiences of leading part of a larger project.

The best way to prepare for these questions is to look at the skills on the job description and to think of examples to talk about before you go to interview. A good technique to use is the CAR method (Circumstances, Action, Results). What were the CIRCUMSTANCES for your project or task? What was your end goal? What ACTION did you take to achieve your goal? What was the RESULT? Did you achieve or exceed your targets?

As you’re applying for a managerial role, it is particularly important to focus on the results that you’ve achieved. Be as specific as possible – if you raised funds for a charity, how much did you make and was that over and above your target? If you led a team, what positive feedback did you get at the end?

Job-focused hypothetical questions: What if…? How would you…?

These questions are designed to work out how well you think on your feet and whether you can improvise solutions to problems. They have no set answer, and they will cover the types of situations that you will come across if you get the management job.

Although there’s no way of preparing exact answers in advance, you’ll be less likely to get caught out if you do your reading and identify the primary objectives of the role and the culture/values of the organisation you are applying to. You can use this knowledge to guide your responses.

Remember, too, that answers to hypothetical questions should consider a range of possibilities and outcomes. Two different candidates could respond to the same question very differently but still come out with good answers. The only really ‘bad’ response would be a brief, one sentence answer that didn’t address the potential complexities of the situation.

You could be asked something along the lines of the following:

What would you do if one of your team members were underperforming?

This question assesses your ability to manage people. How do you react when people fail to meet their targets? It may help to break it into smaller questions. You could start by asking yourself why your team member might be missing their targets. Is it because their training was inadequate, is it because they’re struggling with the workload, or is it simply because they’re demotivated? How would you find out? What would you do once you’d got to the root of the problem and why?

A key contractor has told you that they are going to be late filling your order, but your client wants to speed up the project. How do you resolve the situation?

This question is about your ability to negotiate, a key managerial skill. Can you balance competing demands and engineer a compromise? How would you manage your client’s expectations and what would you say to the contractor? Perhaps you could ask them to deliver the goods in smaller installments. In what circumstances would you look for a new supplier, and what complications could arise if you took this route?

How would you manage conflict?

It would be entirely appropriate with this question to ask for further details. For example, are you in a management position and seeking to defuse the conflict or are you a member of a team in which there is conflict? Is the nature of the conflict a professional disagreement or something more personal? Once you have sufficient details, you can adjust your response. Remember that it can help to limit conflict if everyone feels that their opinion has been listened to. After you have allowed their voices to be heard, you can think through your next steps, depending on the circumstances: for example, do you need to acknowledge that both sides have valid points and adjust your position accordingly or do you need to use your authority as line manager to underline that certain behaviour is unacceptable?

Reaching the end

At the end of the interview the roles will be reversed and you will be given the chance to ask the questions. While you shouldn’t ask something that could easily found out from their website, you could ask for more detail about:

  • a big project that the company has recently completed
  • the structure of the business
  • how the interviewers got into the industry
  • what they like about their job and the company
  • industry trends