Graduate Program Interview: 5 Successful Strategies for Grad Schemes

As you know, applying for a technology or business-related graduate program is a huge feat. You are probably a member of Wikijobs, you’ve already attended seminars and events, and have short-listed your companies. If you’ve submitted a series of applications, some will have responded with an invitation to psychometric testing. When you pass those tests, you are invited to an interview. In this article, I’d like to walk you through 5 strategies of ensuring you pass your interview and get invited to an assessment centre.

When I applied into graduate schemes, I had about 8 phone interviews and 5 in-person interviews. The interviewer ranged from interview consultants in the Philippines or Europe to line managers. In order to make this article work with you, our strategies will transcend who you are speaking with.

In order to do well at your interview, you must (1) know the company, (2) know yourself, (3) have anecdotes from your life, (4) establish links between your values and the company’s values, & (5) practice.

Know the company

A friend of mine, Jony, had three interviews in January 2014. He interviewed at a Big 4 accounting firm and two technology firms. Before his interview, he read through some of the website. He wanted to know what the company was “about” and what the company offered. He spent about 1 hour reading the website.

He failed both interviews.

Everyone can “read the website.” That does not mean anything. Websites are marketing. They are a collection of products, services, and feel-good messages that ANYONE can Annual Reportread.

Interviewers try to connect a great person to their company. But everyone can learn technical or business skills. Having a good degree and a decent application is the price of admission. Interviewers only interview people that, on paper, could get the job. So in order to move beyond the interview, you need to provide something else. You need to provide something more tangible.

That thing, that epic-awesome-ness that you give during the interview is (1) understanding of the company, (2) linking the company to your values, and (3) proving that to the interviewer.

In order to truly know about the company, you need to read the annual report. Every public company has an annual report online. This is a document that the company produces each year as an open letter to investors. It is the company telling its owners how it is doing. This document covers the mission, the goals, the successes, the failures, the hopes, the dreams, the products, and the financials for the company.

It is not meant to sell products. It is meant to sell the company to investors. And it is required by law to be accurate.

If you read the annual report, you will succeed.

Here is the annual report for PWC. If you have an interview coming up, find the annual report of the company you are applying for and read it. Read it. Know it. Know it and refer to it in your interview.

You will put yourself above other applications with both your knowledge of the company and your comfort when speaking about the company.

Know Yourself

I failed one interview. I meant to fail. I was hoping to get experience with in-person interviews so I went to an assessment centre and had a face-to-face interview. This was for a technology rotation graduate scheme. When we sat face-to-face, one of the first questions was, “Why ____?” Because I knew the company, I had an amazing answer. The second question was, “What do you want to do?” They were asking if I knew which direction I wanted my life to go.

Of course I did. I spent the last two years gaining a skill set in technology. I became quite good at security. So, immediately, I said, “I want security.” They smiled. They were excited that I knew exactly what I wanted.

When they rejected me, they were kind. They said that I was perfect (awww shucks), but that the technology rotation did not have a security element (duh!) and that I would be discontented (double-duh).

When I interviewed with the companies that did offer positions (security companies/divisions), I knew exactly what I wanted to do. “Why security?” they would ask. Well … and I would list exactly “‘why security.”

I knew myself, and I knew what I wanted. You have to know yourself and know exactly what you want. Even if it changes, you have to do some introspection.

If you do not have a concrete answer as to what you want to do, how will the interviewer know if what you want aligns with what the company wants? You do not want to be all things to all people; you want to have personality and uniqueness.

You get that by completely understanding yourself, your strengths, your weaknesses, and your hopes for the future. You must figure these out, articulate them, and practice speaking them.

A person who knows herself will succeed, because she knows what she needs to do today to get where she wants to be tomorrow.

Have anecdotes from your life

Having anecdotes from your life is an extension to the previous point, but it works because most graduate schemes that I’ve been in focus on competency-based interviewing.

A competency-based interview asks questions around the company’s core competencies. These could be things like leadership, teamwork, or integrity.

The questions would be similar to, “tell me a time when you had to convince someone of something,” or “when have you failed and what did you learn?”

These questions are incredibly important. Luckily, there is a simple way to preparing for them. First, you need to identify the most common competency-based questions.

Then, you use your knowledge of yourself to create a STAR response based on real events in your real life. This takes time because a lot of really smart people are also really boring.


STAR MethodThe STAR method requires you to start with the (s)ituation/(t)ask, then to discuss the (a)ctions, and finally to explain the (r)esult. This interview-answer template forces you to quickly explain real-life situations in a way that the interview can understand.

For example, if the question is “when have you faced an ethical dilemma.”

A STAR approach would be as such:

  • (S/T) In my final year of university I was involved in a group project. One of the members of the group brought a PDF copy of the final examination. He claimed to have taken it from the professors computer. He offered to give it to the group and planned on selling it to the other students. He had been my closest friend for the past three years.
  • (A) I was torn, because I have integrity, but this would really mess up a lot of people. Because he wanted to sell it, he may have gotten caught and a lot of people would be brought down. I didn’t want to tell on him because he would be expelled. I didn’t want to cheat on the test, but the answer cheat was literally in front of me. If I did not look at it, they would consider me a narc and I would be in a lot of trouble. I decided to look at the results, to save face. I then went to the professor and told him that a copy of his test was leaked online. I did not tell him who leaked it and he accepted my silence.
  • (R) Without telling anyone, he completely re-wrote his exam. Several students failed, my friend had to give a lot of money back, but the test was secure. I did the right thing both by my friend (loyalty) and by my honor code (telling the school when someone cheated). If the professor had forced me to give up my friend, I would have, but luckily I did not have to.

If you have anecdotes like the one I just made up (don’t make them up!) you will be clear, concise, and on your way to an assessment centre. Many websites teach you how to use the STAR method. Use them when you are invited to an interview. It is essential that you understand how this works.

Establish links between values

Now that you have established your personal values and you fully understand the company values, you need to frame your examples from the STAR method to find a link between the two. Specifically, if the company values complete loyalty, you would not use the example above, because you did what was best for everyone. If the company valued utter loyalty, your example would have to be around a time you have been utterly loyal.

You don’t tell the company that they are loyal and you are loyal. That is not the point of an interview. Instead, when they ask a question, and you know they value loyalty, you tell a story about a time when you were utterly loyal.

While you are writing your STAR answers, you must think both about what the interview question is, what you value, who you are, and who the company is. These things need to all be addressed when you work on your unique answers.

Establishing links between what you have to offer and what the company wants is one of the most important skills both during the interview and in the assessment centre. You have to establish yourself and the company, of course, but you also have to practice.

Practice your interview

It doesn’t matter if you spent three weeks writing answers to every potential interview question based on the annual report and your thorough understanding of yourself. If you do not practice saying the words you will come off as scared, or worse, a robot.

Even though the answers might be perfect on paper, you have to use your mouth – words – to convey them to the interviewer.

In order to have the ability to convey those mouth words in a very convincing way, you have no option but to be completely prepared. You get prepared by practicing in front of people and receiving feedback. You should ask a friend, a family member, a consultant, or a voice recorder to give you feedback. And you must practice.

If you follow these steps you will absolutely do well at your interview.

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