The National Audit Office graduate scheme: seven application and interview top tips

Want to know how to succeed at the NAO’s online application, telephone interview and digital assessment centre? Graduate recruiter Zoe Galang shares her advice.

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National Audit Office (NAO)

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The National Audit Office (NAO) is different from other accountancy employers because of the work it does – and everyone who works there is driven by a shared sense of purpose. ‘All of our trainees help to bring about change and have an impact,’ says Zoe Galang, graduate resourcing specialist at the NAO. ‘We are the independent public spending watchdog. We support parliament to hold government to account to improve the public services that all UK taxpayers contribute towards.’

It is for this reason that, throughout the application and interview process, NAO recruiters focus on assessing why you want to work for the organisation and whether you demonstrate the core competencies they require in trainees.

The National Audit Office’s recruitment process

The process comprises:

  • an online application, requiring you to answer motivation and competency-based questions
  • an online numeracy test
  • a telephone interview, largely made up of motivation, competency-based and scenario-based questions
  • a virtual assessment centre, involving a group exercise, an individual presentation and a final interview with a director who has come through the graduate programme.

Each recruitment stage explores the competencies that the NAO seeks. Zoe says that they employ a combination of competency-based questions (which ask you for examples of times when you have used or developed a particular skill) and scenario-based questions (which ask you how you would react to a particular situation) so that they can gauge your full potential. ‘We see how you have acted and how you would act, so that your strengths can shine through,’ she notes.

The process is fully online due to the ongoing effects of Covid-19. However, don’t let that put you off applying. For example, if you do not have access to a laptop or a quiet space, you can attend the assessment centre in person at the organisation’s offices, where you will be given a desk and a laptop.

Similarly, as a Disability Confident employer, the NAO can make reasonable adjustments for students with disabilities or additional needs. One common adjustment is made to the numeracy test: you are normally assessed partly on how long you take to complete it, but your request for additional time will be considered when your results are reviewed.

How to secure a place on the National Audit Office graduate scheme

Here are Zoe’s practical tips.

1. Understand what the NAO does and what it offers

‘Typically, just over half of applications are declined because they do not show a proper understanding of what we do,’ Zoe says. ‘I’ve had applications that say, “I’m applying to you because I want to work in tax”. That’s not what we do.’

What does differentiate the NAO from the private sector? ‘I always come back to the work we do,’ says Zoe. ‘It has a real impact on ensuring that taxpayers’ money goes to improving our public services. For example, in 2021 we audited the expenditure of £1.8 trillion, certified 407 financial statements and created 62 value for money reports. The work we do is hard-hitting and frequently in the headlines.’

The NAO offers unique learning and development opportunities, giving trainees the opportunity to learn about different policy areas across government. This is in addition to training designed to enhance technical abilities and future leadership potential – and the opportunity to train for the prestigious ACA qualification with the ICAEW.

Zoe recommends starting your research with the NAO website, its careers website and LinkedIn profile before reading one or two of its reports. Make sure you also understand what auditing is and what studying for the ICAEW professional qualification involves.

2. Emphasise why you want to work for the NAO

Your understanding of the NAO needs to come through when you state why you want to work for the organisation. ‘We want people who explain in their own words why they specifically want to work in the public sector and as an auditor,’ Zoe says. ‘It’s not enough to say “I want to work for you because I want to be a chartered accountant”. Say why us in particular. Successful candidates for our scheme are motivated by a real sense of purpose and appreciate the challenge and variety we offer.’

You can also convey motivation by linking your current skills to the role. ‘It’s impressive when a candidate says: “I am a physics student and can communicate technical information effectively, as seen in (for example) my university work and that means that I will be confident when answering technical questions from civil servants with non-technical backgrounds”,’ says Zoe.

3. Choose your examples wisely and widely

‘Many students think that all of their examples of their competencies need to come from formal work experience opportunities or only from their time at university,’ Zoe reflects. ‘They can come from any aspect of your life at any time.’

Use the NAO’s definitions of its core competencies to mind map different examples from each area of your life. For example, here are some situations in which you may have had to ask the right questions to gain relevant information (a core part of the ‘analyses data to draw sound conclusions’ competency):

  • in your part-time retail job, you may have had to ask unhappy customers the right questions to resolve their complaint
  • if working on a student newspaper, you may have had to ask an interviewee the right questions to create an article
  • if undertaking a research project as part of your course, you may have had to ask the right questions to set the terms of your own research topic
  • if you have been any sort of mentor, coach or buddy, you will have learned how to ask the right questions of your mentee to fulfil your role.

4. Answer all parts of the question

At the application stage, it is especially important to give the right amount of detail. At interview, your interviewer can ask you supplementary questions if they require further information, but this is obviously not the case during the online application. ‘We either have answers that are far too short or far too long where the answers just get cut off,’ says Zoe. ‘Type your answers in MS Word beforehand and use its word count function.’

But how can you ensure you add the right level of detail? ‘Make sure you answer all elements of the question,’ Zoe advises. ‘You will be given a headline question such as “Tell us why you want to work for us” and there will be supplementary questions to support you: answer all of them.’

For competency questions, Zoe recommends using the STAR method.

5. Contribute to and collaborate in the group exercise

Among other things, the group exercise assesses how you communicate and build rapport with others. Make sure you have an input, even if you volunteer to become a notetaker or timekeeper. ‘It is important that you actively contribute to the discussion and do your best to ensure that everyone within the group is included,’ says Zoe. ‘It can be more difficult in a virtual setting, but I have seen how some candidates have suggested that the group uses the hand raise function on the platform to make sure everyone speaks.’

6. Read around and evidence your opinions

In your final interview, you may be asked your opinion on certain public policy questions and about how taxpayers’ money is spent. This is in part to assess you against the NAO’s big picture competency. ‘There is never a single right or wrong answer to these questions,’ Zoe says. ‘It is more about how you support and evidence your position.’

The best way to prepare for these questions is to read widely around political and economic issues affecting the UK. The NAO’s publications and reports will help, but also keep up with the news and opinion pieces. Read widely across the political spectrum. Publications such as The Economist, Prospect magazine, The New Statesman and The Spectator could be good periodicals to begin with, in addition to broadsheets. Your university or public library may hold subscriptions or else you can take advantage of free trials.

7. Keep an eye on timings

Throughout each stage of the selection process, be aware of the time allocated for each activity and let that guide your responses. For example, when delivering the presentation in the assessment centre, take note that it is intended to last ten minutes, with time for questions afterwards; if yours lasts three minutes, you are selling yourself short.

Another key time to take note of timings is during the online numeracy test. As noted above, it is time-recorded not time-limited, which means that the time you take to finish it will influence your final score. The challenge is to balance speed with accuracy and precision. The best way to do this is to practise: take as many free online numeracy tests as you can (see here as a starting point.)

Discover more about the NAO's graduate programme on its organisation hub.

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