Highlight your track record of making a difference to a task or project.
This interview question is similar to the classic ‘What could you bring to the company?’, but adds in an element of time pressure that could spook all but the most confident of graduates. After all, it is not directly asking you in what ways you can contribute, but how quickly your contribution will be ‘significant’, a subjective value judgement.
By its very nature, the question assumes that the candidate has some knowledge of how a workplace works. Most graduate interviewers will not expect graduates with little or no experience to have a detailed understanding of this and so are more likely to ask you the ‘What can you bring…?’ question instead. They will reserve the ‘How soon…?’ question for experienced hires who would be expected to ‘hit the ground running’ when joining a new company.
However, there are a few times when you could be asked this question as a new graduate:
- If you are interviewing for a sales job or a similar role in which you would be expected to reach targets and/or bring in revenue almost from day one, you could be asked how soon you think you would be able to do so.
- If the role you are interviewing for is fast-paced and requires a high degree of flexibility and adaptability (for example, if it is a role in a start-up company that would expect you to pitch in as and when required, regardless of your job description), this question may be asked as a way of gauging how quickly you believe you will be able to both fulfil your role and to contribute wherever and however needed.
- It could be asked as a way of assessing whether you have a good understanding of the role – as an alternative to ‘Explain what you’ll be doing on a day-to-day basis’ or ‘What do you think you’ll be doing in six months/a year/five years?’. In order to answer it, you will need to show your knowledge of the responsibilities involved in the position. The question is most likely to be asked in interviews for graduate or trainee manager roles.
- If the experience level for the role you are interviewing for is not set in stone – for example, if the employer is open to hiring either a graduate or more experienced person, depending on who applies – this question might be asked as a way to assess how quickly you’d be able to hit the ground running. But even in this case, the interviewer should be able to work that out from your CV rather than by asking you in the interview.
What is the graduate recruiter really asking?
This question always implicitly asks ‘What can you contribute to the company?’, but it could also be asking you:
- How confident are you that you could make a meaningful impact in your role? (Confidence in your abilities is an essential trait for target-driven and sales roles in particular).
- Do you have a good understanding of what the role involves and what you will actually be doing day to day?
- Are you the sort of person who takes the initiative and ‘gets things done’?
- How quickly will you be able to understand the key objectives or requirements of the role and be able to start working on them?
How not to answer the question of how soon you can significantly contribute
The mistake that many graduates make with this question is to overthink the meaning of the word ‘significant’. Don’t put pressure on yourself by thinking that to make a ‘significant’ contribution you need to transform the company from bottom up. That’s not the case. At a graduate level, the ability to perform your role to a high standard, with the minimum of intervention from your manager, will be significant enough. As such, it might make it easier to answer this question if you mentally replace the word ‘significant’ with ‘meaningful’ or ‘useful’.
You see, the key with this question is to be positive, but not unrealistic, about your ability to contribute in a meaningful way. You should never answer ‘I don’t think I have the experience to make a significant contribution’ or ‘I’m not sure how long it will take me to make a significant contribution’. As mentioned above, the ability to do your job well is sufficiently significant and you don’t want to under-sell your abilities. However, neither should you imply that by the end of your first week you are ready to take on the role of chief executive officer. Neither approach suggests that you have a good knowledge of the role you are applying for, your own capabilities or your potential to grow in the role.
How to answer the question
If you were an experienced hire interviewing for a role that you have some experience of, we would recommend an answer along the lines of: ‘Looking at the job description, I see the key objectives and priorities of this role as A, B and C. I would therefore spend my first few weeks in the role devising a detailed plan for how to achieve them and by the end of my three-month probation I would expect to have achieved X, Y and Z. Does this chime with your expectations?’ You could then go on to sketch out your initial plan for the interviewers and/or to stress the qualities and skills that you could bring to the role.
Depending on the role and how detailed the job description is, you could take a similar approach as a new graduate, but you would need to be confident that you know the main priorities and how much autonomy you would have to make things happen; graduates often start out in assistant roles, supporting more senior colleagues. If you are confident (perhaps you have interned at that organisation and have shadowed a graduate), go for it.
If you are not confident about this, think about the question differently. Take it as an opportunity to emphasise your ability and keenness to make a meaningful contribution to whatever task you take on – either right from the start or as soon as you’ve had any workplace training you require. In your answer, you could highlight any or all of the following as appropriate:
- your track record of making a difference to the success of a task or project – or of reaching targets (depending on the job role)
- your willingness to learn new things and your ability to pick up new tasks quickly
- the skills and qualities you have that would enable you to undertake the duties in the job description to a high standard (these are essentially your answers to the interview questions ‘What can you bring to the company?’ and ‘Why would you be successful in this job?’)
- how you can be a trusted and reliable team member, while also being able to take the initiative (that is, to see what needs to be done and do it).
You can flesh out the above points with examples from all areas of your life: your academic history, your previous work experience, your extracurricular achievements and so on. Remember that interviews are conversational so, if the interviewer wants to steer your answer in a different direction, they will ask a follow-up question.