'Describe a time when you had to be an effective decision maker.' Tricky graduate interview question

What are graduate employers really looking for when they ask if you are an effective decision maker? What examples of your decision-making skills do they want to see? Learn how to show recruiters that you are effective when it comes to making decisions.

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What are effective decision-making skills, and why are they important for graduates?

In the workplace it’s important to be able to make decisions both you and your colleagues can trust. This is why recruiters for many jobs – for example those in the Civil Service, consulting firms and finance firms, among others – will want to see evidence of your ability to make effective decisions. When you start out in your first graduate role, it is natural to make a few wrong decisions, but an employer will want to see that you can use a sound process when it comes choosing the right course of action and don’t just decide something impulsively, with no clear thinking behind it. If you’re in a leadership position, you need your team to be able to trust that your decisions have been made based on solid knowledge and logical thought. Accepting that sometimes you need to change course is also a vital skill in the workplace.

What examples of decision-making skills do graduate recruiters want?

You could choose examples from home, from university (academic or extracurricular activities) or from a part-time job.

Use our sample answers to generate your own ideas.

Example #1 of a time when you made an effective decision:

At university we decided to host a fundraising social for out netball team, so that we could finance our new kit and the travel for away games. We had been allocated a small amount of money from the university’s clubs fund so we needed to decide how best to spend it, with the aim of raising the greatest profit possible. As the head of the planning committee, ultimately the decision was down to me. First, I brainstormed and listed all our options with the other committee members. After considering multiple options, we were down to two preferred courses of action: spending the money on great food and drink and charging a higher ticket price for the event, or using it to purchase items/experiences that students could compete to win at an auction and charging a lower ticket price. I then canvassed the opinions of friends and members of the sports team and combined these results with my knowledge of what had been popular at precious events. I made the decision to go down the auction route as a) students baulk at the idea of spending a lot on tickets and are generally happy with basic food and drink and b) an auction appealed to the competitive side of sportspeople. We raised £600 on the night and everyone had a great time.’

Example #2 of a time when you made an effective decision

‘At the beginning of my second year at uni I looked for a part-time job (something that had been impossible the previous year due to the Covid pandemic). I decided to go for a job as a waitress as friends I’d spoken to said tips can add a good 30% on top of your base salary. After attending a few interviews at restaurants, I was lucky enough to be in the position of having to choose between two job offers. One was close to my student accommodation, on an easy bus route, whereas the other was in a part of town not easily accessible by public transport and would require some late nights. The latter paid £3 an hour more than the former, however, and was also a more high-end restaurant, so I knew the chances of generous tips would be higher. I had to decide between the two. I weighed up the pros and cons of each, including taxi fare home for the two night shifts a week, and decided to take the job at the place further away, even though on paper it didn’t look as convenient. I’m happy to say it was the right decision and I was even able to fund a trip to Spain with my friends that summer – something I wouldn’t have been able to do had I chosen the more convenient job’

Make sure that with every example you give recruiters you demonstrate how you identified the situation (ie the decision that needed to be made), considered possible solutions or actions and selected the one you felt would have the best outcome. Sometimes, a gut feeling can lead to a great decision – and the role of intuition in decision making should not be overlooked – but it’s probably best not to use an example of a decision based on 100% gut feeling at a job interview, as it will not allow you to demonstrate your thought process! Also, it may seem obvious, but be sure to choose an example where you can show that your decision had a positive outcome and include the outcome in your answer.

What other questions will recruiters ask about decision making skills?

Graduate employers may phrase their decision-making interview questions differently, for example:

  • Tell us about a time when you had to make a difficult decision.
  • Have you ever made the wrong decision? How did you rectify the situation?
  • Have you ever made a decision that was controversial?
  • Have you ever done something differently the second time round?
  • What’s the best decision you ever made?

All of these questions implicitly ask you about how you make an effective decision. The first four questions require you to reflect on why a decision was difficult, wrong or controversial and how you then took the best actions you could – or how you would act differently in future. The final one requires you to reflect on why something went right.

What other skills and attributes are important when it comes to making effective decisions?

Making a good decision involves combining clear thinking with several other key skills, many of which are highly sought by graduate recruiters:

  • Communication : you will likely need to access information from colleagues and clients in order to have the fullest picture possible with which to make your decision. In some situations this will call for diplomacy and tact when eliciting answers to your questions.
  • Emotional intelligence : your decision will likely affect others, so being aware of this impact will influence the decision you make.
  • Problem-solving : you will likely use some elements of good problem solving before coming to your decision. You may have to work some things out, for example, before feeling equipped to make a decision.
  • Logical reasoning: you should be able to explain (to yourself and others) how you reached your decision in a clear, logical way.
  • Influencing : you will need the ability to get buy-in from others about your decision.
  • Personal responsibility – in effect, this means ‘owning’ your decision. Be able to justify why you made it and take responsibility if it turns out to be the wrong decision. No one ever makes the right decisions 100% of the time, but being able to accept that you need to change your course of action is a valuable (and respected) skill.

How can you improve your decision-making skills?

We all make decisions, every single day, from what time to set your alarm in the morning, to what to have for breakfast and what to wear, to whether or not to go out with friends in the evening or chill out in front of the TV. Think about why you have made the decisions you have today, and the things you had to consider in order to reach each decision. You can implement these same steps and thought processes when it comes to making bigger, more ‘important’ decisions.

Other ways that your decision-making skills may be assessed at interview

Graduate recruitment teams will look for evidence of your effective decision making throughout the assessment process – not just at your graduate interview. They may seek to assess your decision making via:

  • Situational judgement tests (or SJTs). Visit our commercial partner Assessment Day for both free and paid-for tests .
  • Group exercises . In a typical group exercise you’ll be presented with a problem that you must work as a team to solve. Often there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer – recruiters will be looking to see how you go about solving the problem, working as a team, and how you reach a decision. They’ll want to see that you’ve considered all reasonable options and why you rejected some possible solutions.

<p>Get help on answering more difficult interview questions with our article on the <a href="https://targetjobs.co.uk/careers-advice/interviews-and-assessment-centres/top-nine-tricky-interview-questions-and-how-answer-them" title="Tricky interview questions">top nine tough tricky interview questions and answers</a>.</p>

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