Strengths-based interview questions are all about predicting your future potential, what you are particularly good at and what inspires you. By way of contrast, competency-based interview questions are all about discovering whether you have the basic ability to ‘do the job’, as indicated by what you have achieved in the past. Some employers are moving away from using mainly competency-based graduate job interviews to using a mainly strengths-based interview approach.
Strengths-based interview questions and assessment exercises seek to discover:
- How well you are likely to do the job, not just whether you can do it
- Whether you would be motivated in and energised by the job
- Your natural behaviours: how you typically respond to situations you would face in the role
The reasoning behind this approach is that if recruiters hire graduates who would enjoy the work, be able to use their strengths and feel able to be their authentic selves at work, the graduates would be more successful in the role and committed to the company; they would be a long-term investment for the employer. As these recruiters want to hire graduates who are right for the specific role, they spend a lot of the recruitment process providing you with a real understanding of what the job will involve.
It is also argued that strengths-based interviews and assessments provide graduates from all socio-economic backgrounds with an equal opportunity to succeed. The answers to the questions don’t require you to have multiple examples from extracurricular activities or internships – examples that might be easier for students from more advantaged backgrounds to obtain.
Strengths-based interview questions could be closed (requiring a ‘yes’/’no’ answer), open (requiring a longer answer), hypothetical (focusing on how you would act in a situation) or behavioural (focusing on how you do act).
Typical or example strengths interview questions include:
- What motivates you? Or, conversely, what do you find draining or tiresome?
- Who do you admire the most?
- When do you feel most inspired?
- Do you find deadlines motivating or intimidating?
- What would your perfect day look like?
- How do you judge success?
- Would your friends say you have [a strength/ability, eg the ability to learn quickly]?
- What has been your most significant achievement?
- What has been your biggest failure?
- How do you feel when you are faced with a sudden obstacle to your plans? What do you do to resolve it?
- If a colleague was struggling to make a complex decision, what would you do to help?
- If a customer was unhappy with the service they’d received, how would you persuade them to keep on using your business?
- Given a choice, would you prefer to be giving a presentation or double-checking data?
Recruiters will have previously identified the strengths that they want to assess and each question will relate to one or more strengths. These will be based around various attributes, skills, values and behaviours that are needed to be successful in the job. Common ones include:
- relationship management and building
- inspiring the trust of colleagues and clients
- the ability to pick up new information and learn quickly
When you give your answers, it is probable that recruiters will be gauging whether you would do well in the job (sometimes known as your capability or ability) and how energised or drained you are when using that behaviour/strength (known as your engagement level).
Large graduate recruiters may also use video interviews as part of their strengths-based assessment process. These will typically be used instead of telephone interviews and online aptitude tests.
Recruiters often use two stages of video interviews and both are intended to give you an ‘immersive’ experience of the job you would be doing, its highlights and its challenges. You can expect to watch videos about the work and answer questions about what you have seen at various points throughout. For example, you might be watching a meeting with a client in which the client raises an objection and you could be asked how you would respond. The questions might be multiple choice, require free text answers or invite you to film and upload your answers. These might be known as job simulation exercises.
Our partners at Shortlist.Me offer resources that will help you practise video interviews.
One of the reasons recruiters like strengths-based interview questions is that they are not as easy to prepare for as competency-based interview questions can be: strengths questions often capture your instinctive, true responses. However, there are some things you can do to show yourself in the best light:
- Make sure you listen to (or read if you are doing a video interview) the question carefully. Strengths-based interviews are likely to be more quick-fire than other types of interviews and might end up asking something subtly different to what you expect at the start of the question.
- In a face-to-face interview, don’t be afraid to: ask your interviewer to repeat the question; elaborate on a scenario given in a question; or take time to think. If you do need longer to think, indicate to the recruiter that you are thinking about the question, rather than leaving a long pause.
- Although these questions aren’t competency-based, do bring in previous examples when answering the question if you can: it will give you more to talk about and show evidence of previous capability.
- Try to keep in mind what recruiters look for when assessing engagement, but don’t get too obsessed by this. Your enthusiasm will shine through naturally. Recruiters often assess your engagement by looking for verbal and body language clues. Studies have shown that when we are energised or motivated by what we are talking about, we tend to give longer, more detailed answers, using positive language and an enthusiastic tone. Our body language is also naturally more expressive.
- Don’t worry if you are an introvert, shy and/or just plain nervous. When assessing engagement levels, interviewers will have been trained to look beyond this.
- If taking part in a video interview where you have to film your answers, read our feature providing expert performance tips on video interviews.
Generally speaking, professional services firms and banks have led the way in using strengths-based interview questions. However, many other large employers have also adopted this approach, including Jaguar Land Rover, which uses strengths-based interviews to assess how well you would be likely to do the job and whether you would be motivated by it. You are also particularly likely to be asked strengths-based interview questions by technology and consumer goods companies.
While some companies may have adopted a wholly strengths-based approach, other employers are mixing strengths-based interview questions into their existing interviews, so you might be asked strengths questions alongside competency and traditional ‘Why have you applied to us?’ questions. The Institute of Student Employers (ISE) reported that in 2019 50% of its graduate recruiter membership used strengths-based recruitment processes in some way, while 69% of employers combined a number of approaches, including recruiting by competency and values matching. If an employer lists required 'behaviours' alongside 'qualifications' and 'skills' in its job descriptions, it’s a fair bet they will be using a strengths-based approach in one way or another.