answering tricky interview questions about what motivates you

'What motivates you?' Tricky graduate interview question

You are particularly likely to be asked about your motivation in a strengths-based interview. Find out what recruiters want to hear in your answer.

This question is one that throws many candidates because it is very broad and easy to misinterpret, and can throw you if you haven't thought about it in advance. It is commonly used in strengths-based interviews, which focus on what you enjoy doing and what you do well. Another version of this question is 'What motivates you in life?' or 'What are you passionate about?'

It's wise to be prepared for both strengths-based and competency-based questions, as you may well be asked a mixture of the two, whether you're facing a phone interview, a video interview or meeting the recruiter face-to-face. Many graduate employers now use strengths-based assessments as part of the recruitment process. According to a survey of members of the Institute of Student Employers (ISE) published in September 2017, 41% of employers now use some form of strengths-based approach as part of the recruitment process. 

What the interview question ‘what motivates you?’ is not asking you

This question is not asking you:

  • What are your motivations for applying for the job?
  • What are your career goals and aspirations?

At least, it’s not asking you these things directly, although you can touch on them in your answer. It is asking you: what motivates you in life in general? What (apart from a loud alarm clock and a mug of industrial-strength tea) gets you out of bed in the morning?

By way of contrast, questions about what motivated you to apply for the job are inviting you to match your motivations in a specific way to the employer, the industry and the role.

Why are recruiters asking you about what motivates you?

This question helps recruiters to find out more about you as a person. Your answer can give them some insight into:

  • what makes you tick
  • what you enjoy doing and what you value
  • whether you would do well in the job role
  • how you would fit into their team

How to approach the graduate interview question ‘what motivates you?’

The best answers to these questions are honest and yet should also connect to the job you are going for; they should strongly suggest that you would be highly motivated by and suited to the work.

So, when preparing to answer this question, you should think about:

  • What do you enjoy doing? Think about your course and your wider interests. What do they have in common?
  • What have you enjoyed while working at your part-time jobs or internships? What did you look forward to? When you came home feeling that you'd had a good day, what kind of tasks or projects had you tackled?
  • What sort of tasks are you best at? In what sort of environments (busy, deadline driven, loud, quiet etc) do you work the best?

For example, are you well-suited to working as part of a team? Do you work at your best when you have an imminent deadline or do you crumble?

Then think about:

  • the skills sought by the employer and the nature of the job you will be doing

Good answers to the question ‘what motivates you?’

It’s all in the detail. Whatever you say, you need to back it up with examples from your studies, work experience and/or extracurricular activities, and it should relate to the skills and aptitudes required for the job you’re going for.

So, for example, when one of our trainee editors was asked this question at interview she answered: ‘I am motivated by meeting set targets within deadlines, as it gives me a sense of accomplishment and it's something that I can look back on and say "I achieved that". I'm also motivated by visible results – for example, when I wrote an article for my student newspaper, I got a sense of accomplishment from knowing that up to 16,000 students would read it.’

This was a good answer because:

  • it fitted the type of work we do here at TARGETjobs: the work we do is deadline driven and it is visible (it will be seen by students)
  • she came across as truthful and self-aware: she knows that she is motivated by whether her work will be seen, not just by the work itself
  • her example indicated that she had relevant work experience, which is always an added bonus

If you were going for a job that was highly target driven and competitive, such as a sales role, an answer along the lines of smashing targets, attaining financial rewards and being the best wouldn’t be out of order.

Here's an overview of types of experience that you might find motivating (though you should always make sure your answer is personal and relates to your own background, and give a concrete example):

  • meeting deadlines, targets or goals
  • mentoring and coaching others
  • learning new things
  • coming up with creative ideas to improve something, or make something new
  • analysing complex data in order to draw clear and simple conclusions
  • working well as part of a team
  • leading a team to success
  • completing a difficult project, and seeing it through to the end
  • spotting flaws and errors so as to make sure the end result of a project is as good as possible
  • finding a way to solve a problem, or overcome a challenge