'How do you manage your time and prioritise tasks?' Tricky graduate interview question
If you’ve got an interview coming up for a graduate job or summer internship, you may well have thought about examples of when you’ve managed your time efficiently or coped with competing deadlines, perhaps when juggling your studies with part-time work, or in a workplace situation. However, you might not have anticipated a follow-up question: faced with a number of different tasks, what techniques do you use to prioritise and work your way through them?
How not to reply to the interview question, ‘How do you manage your time and prioritise tasks?’
Don’t be thrown by the question, and don’t avoid answering by returning to the safety of an example of when you’ve successfully managed your time. You’ve been asked how, not when.
What is the graduate recruiter really asking?
Are you going to be able to cope with different tasks with different deadlines without getting yourself in a muddle and forgetting what you need to do? Can I trust you to just get on with it and use your common sense? How organised are you? Are you going to spend forever fiddling round making colour-coded lists, or are you actually going to get through what you need to do?
So how do you answer the interview question, ‘How do you manage your time?’
‘I make a list. I work out what order to do things in by thinking about which tasks are urgent and how important each task is. If I’m not sure what’s urgent and what isn’t, or how important different tasks are, I find out. If I’m given a new task I add it to the list and decide when to do it, so I adapt the order in which I do things as necessary.’
It doesn’t matter how you make your list – whether you jot it down in a notebook or in a desk diary or use an app or other online tool – but be ready to explain your preferred technique to your interviewer. You may have some other system for prioritising and organising your work. Whatever it is, be prepared to talk about it.
Another important aspect of time management is setting yourself targets and breaking down bigger projects into small, manageable steps. Self-awareness can be useful too. You may have observed that there are certain times of the day or week when it suits you to tackle particular tasks, and this can be a factor in planning what you are going to do when. This can form part of effective time management – though you'll need to make it clear that you're able to adapt and be flexible too.
Good time management will help you with various other skills and competencies that graduate employers seek, from perseverance, resilience, reliability and coping with stress to problem solving and teamwork. If you look back at challenges you've overcome and achievements you're proud of, chances are that your time management techniques came into play. You just need to be able to tell your prospective employer how you managed to fit it all in.
Your time management skills may also be tested through an e-tray exercise at an assessment centre day, through a personality questionnaire or through gamification, an approach to graduate recruitment in which you are asked to play an online game in order to show your responses in different situations.