top nine tricky graduate interview questions

The top nine tricky interview questions and how to answer them

Here's an overview of tricky interview questions you might come up against in graduate job interviews, along with tips on how to answer them that will help you manage your nerves and impress employers.

Forewarned is forearmed, which is why we've compiled a list of our top nine tricky interview questions that recruiters love to use and candidates sometimes stumble over. This overview of our most popular guides to interview questions that can catch you out will help you understand what employers are really asking for. You'll also pick up tactics for answers that show you in the best possible light, and find some extra examples of questions that could throw you if you haven't thought about them in advance.

'What is your most significant achievement?'

This question is designed to assess your values and attitude as much as your achievements, and employers often want you to talk about your activities outside education. You're more likely to come across well if you choose to discuss something you're genuinely proud of, which could be because it involved leading others, overcoming obstacles or persisting in the face of the odds. Read the full guidance to find out about answers that graduate job hunters often give to this question, but which should be treated with caution because they might not help you to stand out.

‘What motivates you?’

You are particularly likely to be asked about your motivation in a strengths-based interview, which focuses on what you enjoy doing and what you do well. This is an approach that graduate recruiters are increasingly using alongside or instead of competency-based questions.

Your answer should draw on an example from your extracurricular activities, work experience or studies that suggests you would be strongly motivated by the job you are applying for.

‘How do you manage your time and prioritise tasks?’

When a recruiter asks how you manage your time, don’t just give an example of a time when you did this successfully. Your interviewer wants to know your tactics and strategies for getting yourself organised, so whatever approach you use for prioritising and listing your tasks, you should be ready to describe it. Your reply should indicate that you can adjust your priorities if you are given new tasks or if situations change.

‘Give an example of a time when you showed initiative.’

If an interviewer asks you to describe a situation in which you showed initiative, avoid giving an example of an idea you had but never put into action. It’s much better to talk about a time when you not only came up with a solution to a problem but also acted on it. Then you can explain the effect your decision had when you put it into practice.

‘What is your biggest weakness?’

The problem with this question is that you’re being asked about your shortcomings, when your instinct, in an interview situation, is to keep your flaws as well hidden as possible. What you need to do is to frame your answer to as to give it a positive spin.

Strengths and weaknesses can be different sides of the same coin, so another way to approach this question is to think about how you overcome the potential downside of your greatest strength. For example, if you’re a natural teamworker, is it difficult for you to cope with conflict or assume leadership abilities? How do you cope with this?

‘Give an example of a time when you handled a major crisis.’

Feel free to reframe the question. This is similar to asking ‘Can you give an example of a time when you had to cope with a difficult situation?’ or ‘Give an example of a time when you had to cope under pressure’. However, ‘crisis’ is a much stronger, more emotive word. You may find it easier to give an example if you think back through your work experience, study, extracurricular activities and travel and come up with a time when you had to cope with an unexpected problem.

‘Why do you think you will be successful in this job?’

This isn’t an invitation to boast – you are being asked to match your strengths to the qualities needed to do the job. Don’t forget, it’s a very specific question. Why are you suited to this job, as opposed to any other? Thorough employer research will save the day, as it will enable you to match your skills, interests and experience to the job role and the company.

‘Give an example of your lateral thinking.’

Lateral thinking is the ability to use your imagination to look at a problem in a fresh way and come up with a new solution. Companies prize employees with lateral thinking skills because without them, they can’t innovate and create new products. Think about times when you’ve been faced with real-life problems and have somehow managed to overcome them. Chances are your solution involved an original, creative approach, and that’s what employers want to find out about.

‘Where do you expect to be in five years’ time?’

This is another question that allows you to show off your employer research and your understanding of your chosen career path. You’ll want to come across as enthusiastic, but not arrogant. Tailor your response to reflect the nature of the organisation, the sector, and your own experiences and skills. Specific details will impress.

And finally... some more interview questions to think about

Graduate recruiters use some questions as much to see how you cope when you’re put on the spot as to elicit a truthful answer. This question is a test of your ability to think on your feet and come up with a diplomatic response. Whether you sidestep the question by saying you’ve always got on well with your employers, or describe a tricky situation you’ve experienced that highlights your potential, you need to avoid attacking your previous employers.

If you're asked about your biggest failure in your interview, chances are the recruiter is interested in finding out how resilient you are, and whether you can cope with setbacks. Find out how to use this question as a way to show your strengths and convince the employer that you are the right candidate for the job.

Pick up tips and tactics on how to answer when you're asked about handling stress in your graduate job interview. Find out how to demonstration your motivation and resilience.

Here's how to answer interview questions about coping with conflict and resolving difficulties, with an example model answer and tips about what not to say.

This is a classic example of an interview question that could throw you if you haven't thought about it in advance. Our advice will help you understand what employers are looking for and choose a suitable example to discuss.

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