'Give an example of your lateral thinking.' Tricky graduate interview question

What do employers really want when they ask you questions about your ability to think laterally? Find out how this is connected with your creativity, use of initiative and problem solving skills.

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In the stress of a graduate job interview situation it’s easy to be thrown by questions you haven’t prepared for. Here’s a tricky question that might catch you out if you haven’t already thought about it in advance: ‘Can you give us an example of a difficult situation where you had to think laterally to get out of it?’

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. Without lateral thinking, companies can’t innovate and create new products – they’re just stuck with doing the same old thing, perhaps more efficiently than before, but they won’t be able to lead the way. Any company that wants to stay ahead of the competition needs to recruit graduates who are capable of lateral thinking.

This skill is highly prized in creative industries such as the media and publishing, and is valued across a range of different industries and professions, including retail, law, management consultancy and IT. Any graduate who takes up a management role is likely to need to draw on lateral thinking skills to solve problems and take forward the work of the team. Lateral thinking can also be assessed using psychometric tests.

First, unpick your tricky interview question

‘Can you give us an example of a difficult situation where you had to think laterally to get out of it?’ is actually two questions in one. You need to come up with an example of a difficult situation – a problem or challenge of some kind. Then you need to explain how you thought creatively to come up with a fix or solution.

This question is not asking you:

  • Are you capable of coming up with a solution to a straightforward logical problem?
  • Do you go in for off-the-wall creative daydreaming that has no particular application?

Why are recruiters asking about your ability to solve a problem using lateral thinking?

Your answer will give the employer some insight into the following:

  • Can you think in an innovative way?
  • Are you capable of coming up with a creative solution to a problem?
  • Can you overcome difficulties when the answer isn’t immediately obvious from all the information that is already available and from the way things have been done before?
  • How do you cope when you’re up against a challenge you’ve never previously experienced?

How to answer tricky graduate interview questions about lateral thinking

The good thing about being asked about your powers of lateral thinking is that there is, by definition, no one right answer to a problem that has to be solved creatively.

It’s also a lot easier on your nerves to be asked to come up with an example of your own choice, rather than to be put on the spot by an off-the-wall question about how you’d escape from a blender if you were inside it and three inches high, or whatever.

As you prepare for your interview, think about real-life problems that you’ve overcome. Here are some possible examples:

  • A difficult customer at work, or disagreement with a landlord
  • A student society you were involved in that was struggling financially
  • A team you were part of that wasn’t doing well, or where there was a conflict that needed resolving
  • A deadline you realised you couldn’t meet
  • Being lost somewhere, mislaying something essential, or having travel problems
  • Running low on cash and needing to come up with a way to make more
  • Needing to find work experience in a profession you are interested in but know little about

Most real-life problems – especially ones involving other people – call for a creative approach and some lateral thinking. Try to think of situations that were heading for failure until you came up with a new approach that turned them around.

For example, if you’ve been involved with a student society that was struggling financially, a logical solution to the problem might be to seek to cut costs. If you use lateral thinking, however, you might come up with a great new fundraising idea, devise a novel initiative to boost membership, or approach a contact you’ve made through some other means to secure sponsorship.

When you hear about students who have come up with original ways of grabbing employers’ attention, the ruse they’ve used is often testament to their powers of lateral thinking. Careers planning in itself often involves lateral thinking, especially if it’s not immediately obvious to you what you want to do when you graduate.

You can practise your answers to tricky interview questions using resources from our partners at Shortlist.Me .

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