Interviews and assessment centres

'Give an example of a time when you showed initiative.' Tricky graduate interview question

28 Mar 2023, 10:37

When employers ask you about using your initiative, what are they really trying to find out… and how do you begin to answer such a broad question? Our example answers will put you on the right track.

'Give an example of a time when you showed initiative.' Tricky graduate interview question

Are you a self-starter? Can you get things done without needing supervision after you have been shown how?

A job interview question about how you’ve used your initiative can be particularly challenging to interpret because The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘initiative’ in a variety of different ways. If you’re not sure exactly what you are being asked at an interview, it’s very difficult to give a confident, impressive answer.

According to the dictionary definition, then, initiative is:

  1. The ability to assess and initiate things independently.
  2. The power or opportunity to act or take charge before others do.
  3. An act or strategy intended to resolve a difficulty or improve a situation; a fresh approach to something.

Why am I being asked that?

The problem with being asked for a time when you’ve ‘taken the initiative’ is that ‘initiative’ can mean so many different things. We explain how to interpret this competency-based question.

Our targetjobs careers expert talks you through ways to show you can be proactive.

So what is the graduate recruiter really asking with this interview question?

When initiative is asked about in the form of a typical competency-based question – for example, ‘Give me an example of a time when you used your initiative’ – an interviewer might be interested in the following:

  1. Are you a self-starter? Can you get things done without needing further direction or supervision after you have been shown how once?
  2. Are you capable of coming up with new ideas and thinking creatively in order to solve problems?
  3. Can you work independently?
  4. Can you spot an opportunity or something that needs improving, make a plan and carry it out?

Your example can touch on one or more of these questions or, instead, you can ask your interviewer to say how they define initiative in order to help guide the example you give.

How do you answer ‘Give me an example of when you showed initiative’?

You can take your example from your work experience, part-time jobs, a group project or coursework, travels on a gap year or a skills-related extracurricular activity.

If you are struggling to think of a time when you acted on your initiative, our sample answers below should get you thinking about when you may have done something similar. Remember that you need to provide sufficient details in your answer for the interviewers to understand the scale of your achievement. It's important, too, that you talk about the impact your initiative-taking made.

Example of using your initiative in a part-time job

‘In my part-time job as a copying assistant at a reprographics place, I always attempted to fix a paper jam or a broken photocopier before asking a more experienced colleague to help. Nine times out of ten, I fixed the problem and the customer was served more quickly, helping to increase customer satisfaction.’

Example of using your initiative at home

‘In my student house, our Wi-Fi was not included in our rent and we were paying more than we needed to for it. I worked out the usage of our house, researched options that balanced cost and quality and used my research to negotiate a new, more competitive price with our supplier. We saved £12 a month on our bills and my housemates were happy that I’d taken the initiative on this.’

Example of using your initiative on your course

‘While undertaking research on the impact of the punk counterculture in the 1970s, I came across references to news articles written by a music journalist at the time. I couldn’t find the articles on our library network or online, so, on my own initiative, I found the journalist on Twitter and asked her whether I could obtain copies of her work for my dissertation. She offered to be interviewed for my dissertation instead. I did so and my dissertation earned a distinction.’

Example of using your initiative when job hunting

‘When I was in my first and second years at university, I couldn’t decide between a career in publishing and a career in law. To help me decide, I asked my family and friends if they knew of anyone working in those fields and used my university’s alumni database. I contacted an editor and a family lawyer and they both talked to me about their careers and offered me a week’s work-shadowing each – these placements were informal and not organised via my university. They helped me to confirm that this profession was the right one for me.’

If you’re still struggling to think of an example of when you’ve shown initiative…

Remember that using your initiative can involve lots of related skills and attributes and so you may be able to re-purpose an example you’ve prepared for another competency question to meet the needs of this question – just choose something that was your idea and that you made happen.

Skills and attributes that often go hand-in-hand with taking the initiative include:

  1. Innovative thinking .
  2. Problem-solving .
  3. Entrepreneurism .
  4. Creativity .
  5. Leadership .
  6. Confidence and the self-belief to try something new.
  7. Being quick to learn.
  8. How proactive you can be.

Other ways that your ability to take initiative may be assessed

Graduate recruitment teams may assess your ability to take the initiative in other ways. For example, they may seek to gauge your level of initiative via:

  1. situational judgement tests (or SJTs): visit our commercial partner AssessmentDay for both free and paid-for tests .
  2. how you react to situations in assessment centres, such as how you approach group exercise, case study or presentation tasks or the opportunities you take to ask questions of the people you meet on the day.
  3. other interview questions, such as ‘Give me an example of when you initiated a project’, ‘What motivates you?’ or ‘Tell me about a time when you led a team on a challenging project’.

Get help on answering more difficult interview questions with our article on the top nine tough tricky interview questions and answers .

You can hone your interview performance by practising answering tricky interview questions using resources from our partners at Shortlist.Me .

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