'What did you do during lockdown?' Tricky graduate interview question
The secret to answering any questions about your lockdown experience is to focus on what you learned about yourself.
Normally in our series on how to answer tricky interview questions we write about the perplexing questions that we know are asked by many, if not all, interviewers. This time, however, we are answering one that we are pretty confident won’t be asked, but one we think you might worry could be: what did you do during lockdown?
Or at least we are pretty confident most interviewers won’t ask it as an official question with the aim of assessing whether you are suitable for the job. Recruiters and interviewers have also had to adapt to the challenges and stress of multiple lockdowns themselves. They will be aware of how the coronavirus put to a halt the Easter and summer plans of students and most wouldn’t expect you to have used this time to boost your employability – although if you have been able to it would be a bonus.
Having said this, it is possible that you might be asked the question – or the slightly different ‘How did you cope with the challenges caused by lockdowns?’ – if the employer is particularly interested in assessing your resilience (because the job is known to be high pressured or stressful) or if they know that you will need to start working remotely and want to see how you coped in relative isolation.
It is also possible that, in the short term at least, you might be asked the question as an icebreaker or as small talk; that is, it could be asked in the same way as you might be asked ‘How was your journey?’ at the start of a face-to-face interview.
How to answer the question if you are asked ‘What did you do during lockdown?'
- It is perfectly acceptable to say that you followed government advice and focused on maintaining your physical and mental wellbeing.
- If you self-isolated or shielded (on behalf of yourself or a household member) or were ill yourself, it is fine to say so and leave it at that.
- If you worked part time or undertook a virtual internship, you can talk about them in the same way as you would for any other part-time job, focusing on what you achieved and the skills you developed. For example, you could explain how working at a supermarket gave you extra insight into dealing with customers or assertiveness: ‘I continued working shifts at my local supermarket throughout lockdown, carrying out different roles as needed: on the checkout, as a picker for online shops and managing the queues. It taught me how to be flexible and do what was needed, but it also improved my customer service skills, teaching me how to be calm and assertive with customers during panic buying.’
- If you cared for the vulnerable in your family or looked after younger siblings and/or the house so that key workers or those working from home in your household could work, do talk about it. These are no small achievements and have probably honed many skills and values recruiters seek, such as taking on responsibility.
- If you were sitting and studying for exams during this time, you can talk about how you went about continuing studying despite the challenges. If you have been taking online courses, you can also talk about them.
- You could instead not talk about a specific activity, but about your personal development – essentially, what you have learned about yourself as a person and how you cope with pressure. You could say something along the lines of: ‘Being in lockdown confirmed to me that I am the kind of person who performs at their best when working with others in a team.’ Or: ‘I learned from my time in lockdown that I work best when I have a tangible goal for each day or week – for example, when exercising, I set myself the target of completing my run in a shorter and shorter time, which meant that I also did more indoor fitness activities to help me do so. I also set myself the task of collating my gap year pictures into photobooks. That gave me a feeling of accomplishment and a feeling of control.’
How shouldn’t you answer it?
Try to avoid answering ‘nothing’ because you will have achieved and learned more about yourself than you think. Even if you feel that you gained nothing but weight sitting on the sofa eating Haribo and playing Witcher 3, the truth is that you have been following government advice and coping with unprecedented, anxious times. Think of your sofa-sitting in that light; we refer you to answer one above.
What alternative interview questions could you be asked about lockdown?
We maintain that it is unlikely you will be asked about lockdown as a formal interview question. However, if you have written about how you spent lockdown on your CV or application (and see here for tips on how to do so, if you choose to), you should be prepared to be asked about it at interview. You could be asked, for example, ‘Tell me about your virtual internship’ or ‘I see you volunteered to help the vulnerable during lockdown. What did you gain from it?’ In either case, you need to be able to talk confidently about what you did, what you achieved and what you learned or gained from the experience in the same way as you would talk about any other work experience or extracurricular activity on your CV.
You might be asked open-ended questions, for which you might want to use your lockdown experiences to substantiate or inform your answer. For example:
- How do you react to, approach or cope with change?
- How do you handle stress?
- What motivates you?
- What is your biggest weakness?
If you volunteered during lockdown, for instance, you could use it as an example to illustrate how you are motivated by helping others. However, you should never feel pressured into talking about a strange and unprecedented time; you can choose an example from any part of your life to answer such questions.