Strengths Based Interviewing: a recruiter’s insight

In recent years strengths based interviewing and assessment has gathered pace rapidly in graduate recruitment. Pioneered by the likes of EY and Nestle, the approach is now used to some extent by many large organisations who recruit graduates, including Aviva, BAE Systems, Barclays and Unilever. Although still far less common than competency based interviews, being assessed on the basis of their strengths is increasingly something candidates should expect when applying for graduate roles.

The legal sector remains fairly traditional in its selection methods, but international law firm Shearman and Sterling last year incorporated strengths based assessment as part of their trainee recruitment. We caught up with their Graduate Recruitment Adviser, Katie Meer, to find out more:

Can you tell us a bit about strengths based interviewing, and how it differs from other approaches, such as competency questions?Strengths based questions try to find out what candidates enjoy doing rather than just getting them to repeat examples of things they’ve done in the past.  You can’t really prepare for strengths based questions so we can tell a lot from the way you answer, such as body language, tone of voice, gesture, or length of answer.

Why did Shearman and Sterling decide to incorporate it in their selection process?
A few reasons: one is that it makes our interviews more interesting for both the candidate and the interviewer. It often means that topics will come up that we wouldn’t have usually discussed. It allows the candidate to direct the subject a little more freely. From a commercial perspective, strengths based interviewing also allows us to see what candidates truly enjoy doing and we can hope that candidates who go into a job that involves lots of tasks they enjoy will work harder and be more productive in the role.

What impact have you noticed on how candidates are performing at interview and those making it through your selection process?
I think we are seeing more candidates from diverse backgrounds excelling at interviews.  After the strengths based part we often feel we’ve broken the ice and seen the candidate’s real personality so we can make a more informed decision about whether they would fit with the firm.  It is also far more entertaining!  I’ve heard some weird and wonderful answers from the very open-ended strengths based questions, which is very refreshing.

Do you think adopting strengths based interviewing has had an impact on the diversity of candidates you are seeing at interview, or who are making it through your selection process?
Strength based questions are very good for social mobility as they don’t require the very polished interview technique and rehearsal applied to competency questions. In fact, trying to answer strength questions in the competency method does not work well as it seems unnatural.

Do you know of any other law firms using strengths based interviewing, and how widely do you think it may be adopted by the legal sector?
I think a couple have now started but it is still the professional services firms who are very strong in this area.  The legal sector is getting much better at adopting creative methods and considering new processes, but for firms with very formulaic recruitment processes I’m not sure it will work.  At Shearman we have a panel of 35 partner, counsel and associate interviewers who have been trained in our interview techniques.  We do not have a strict script of answers to follow, but instead recommended topics to explore and skills we want to see the candidates demonstrate, making for a more conversational interview.  At larger firms who have more rigorous processes this would probably not be possible.

Do you have any advice for how candidates can prepare for a strengths based interview?
You can’t really prepare for them apart from getting used to thinking on your feet!  Confident candidates with strong communication skills may find these questions easier, but everyone should enjoy talking about their views, ambitions and experiences regardless of preparation or background.

If you are interested in finding out more about strengths based interviewing, try the interview resources available through Careers Tagged, from The Careers Group, University of London, or have a look at this blog post from Capp- the consultancy who helped several firms pioneer strengths based interviewing.

This article was first posted on the Law Careers Blog.

Commercial awareness: an eastward march

HSBC to Hong Kong – the right place at the right time?

Skyscrapers in hong kong Image downloaded by anonymous anonymous at 17:02 on the 18/05/15

As some of you may be aware, there has been recent talk of HSBC upping sticks and moving its headquarters to Hong Kong. This has prompted much speculation and commentary in the media. In this piece we look at how you might use this news story  in an interview setting – if prompted to to talk about a recent news story that has interested you. This is a technique used in some interviews for financial roles, where evidence for wider economic knowledge is sought by the interviewer. It’s a technique I’ve used myself when interviewing people for roles on trading floors in the City!

So perhaps the first thing to note, is that if HSBC does move to Hong Kong, its balance sheet will dwarf Hong Kong’s GDP by 10 times.

So why would Hong Kong want HSBC on its patch? Certainly the regulatory authorities in Hong Kong are warm to the idea, but what other factors might be at play, and how might it affect the banking landscape that you may graduate into?

  • Is HSBC following the money? Three-quarters of capital market executives feel that the Asia Pacific region will have a global financial hub within 5 years AND within 15 years two-thirds of the world’s middle class will live in Asia, while Europe and the US’ share will drop to less than 25% in the same period.
  • HSBC has a history of reviewing its geographic location every 3 years following its move to Europe in the early 90s. Perhaps a nomadic economic model where the bank moves to the most beneficial environment is one that other institutions may envy.
  • Hong Kong would not be alone in having a financial sector that dwarfs the rest of its economy; Iceland has recently hosted a financial sector with assets larger than the territory it operates in. The collapse resulted in some years of capital controls, but ultimately a strong recovery as the government resolved not to socialise private banking losses. Could Hong Kong, and consequently China follow this model if the bank runs into difficulties? Would they want to?
  • Might the biggest issues come from a lower credit rating from not having the Bank of England as a lender of last resort, and even employee visas and capital controls?

…some food for thought as more expertise & business positioning moves globally eastwards.

A guest post from our Careers in the City group

Image courtesy

Latest Internship Picks

Here’s this week’s pick of the internships available on Graduate Gateway.

Remember, all of these opportunities are paid and you receive personal and professional development from The Careers Group while on the internship. Also there’s a good chance they’ll turn into permanent roles; over half of the interns we place receive job offers from their employers.

Dude, where’s my future?

Have you ever found yourself wondering what London might look like in 10 or perhaps even in 15 years time?

I’m not talking about what additions there might be to London’s skyline beyond the cheese-grater or the walkie-talkie (though I’d vote for any building that might be described as the pizza-slice), but more so what jobs might be in vogue, where the growth will be – and what sectors might contract.  Moreover, and perhaps most critically, might you have thought of extra skills you could develop right now – to best position yourself for the future? I imagine you might well have done! So how might we refine these ideas and actually take them forward?

News just in – from the future

These questions, and more, are entertained in Deloitte’s London Futures report – which was released in November – following extensive academic research alongside input from 100 London-based organisations.

On a personal note, this coincided with me visiting Facebook‘s UK headquarters – which certainly helped contextualise a lot of what I read in the report.

Dude, where’s my future?

  • 30% of jobs in London are at high risk of automation within the next 20 years, compared to 35% for the wider UK. At greatest risk are jobs that currently pay less than £30,000.
  • 73% of London businesses plan to increase their headcount in the next 5 years.
  • 40% of employers will adapt their workplaces to increase the focus on collaborative work and flexibility.
  • 84% of London businesses say the skills of their employees will need to change over the next 10 years

84% – wow! So what skills will I need?

While no one has a crystal ball, there is a strong sense that skills relating to creativity, complex problem-solving and high technical content will be highly sought after…

Deloitte JPEG 1

Whilst I certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers, I can’t help but feel that MOOCs (free online learning platforms which are open to all such as Coursera or Edx) are certainly one way of gaining skills that may be relevant. Here you can learn about how computers work, the basics of marketing, how to code, how the internet works, how to become an entrepreneur – to feel good elements such as happiness courses and hundreds of things besides.

There is no way that we can know exactly what employers might want in 15 years time, but we can certainly do our best to present the fact that we have enquiring minds that are eager to learn and embrace new technologies and ways of doing things.

To that end, sources like CodeAcademy and experimenting with Raspberry PI are certainly great avenues to demonstrate this.

A post from our colleagues at the City blog – see for the original.

Why become a Physics Teacher?

Physics teacher blog TEACHER

Picture taken from Solarnu, Article by Bryony Wills

Science based industries currently employ about 5.4 million people. By 2030, this is expected to rise to about 7 million.

But with a shortage of physics teachers in the UK, who is going to teach school children the skills they need to take on these jobs in 15 years time?

At an event recently, Professor Peter Main said that if everyone who is studying physics at university at the moment became a physics teacher, we would still have a shortage of physics teachers!

But the teaching profession is recruiting against many other employers, some of whom can offer enticing pay packages and benefits. So why might someone decide to work as a physics teacher? I asked this question of someone who has left the engineering sector to do just that.

Why did you leave your engineering job?

I found working for a big corporate was actually quite slow moving. There were lots of meetings with people talking in jargon about things that didn’t matter at all outside of the corporation. I also felt that there was a process of promotion. So you’d do a job for a couple of years and then you’d be hoping for a promotion. This meant that there were excessive numbers of middle managers and many others trying to impress in order to become middle managers. To be promoted you needed to make an impact or create something, so everyone was creating new processes thus making things more complicated without actually getting anything done. I can’t say that every company is like this, but I decided that I didn’t want to work in a big business.

What made you decide to become a teacher?

I thought about the things that I enjoy. Not just things in the workplace, but my hobbies and interests. I realised that I enjoy performing – I like being on stage, playing the saxophone, giving presentations. I noticed that this was something I had missed since graduating.

I enjoy working with really bright and interesting people but I don’t mind whether they are 17 or 57.

I am still really interested in physics and I wanted to do something related to this, but I have always been broadly interested. I never wanted to specialise.

And I definitely wanted autonomy, to take responsibility and see results from what I was doing.

When I looked at these things, being a physics teacher was clearly a good match for what I was looking for. Because autonomy is so important to me, I also decided that I wanted to work in a private school where I thought I would get the most freedom in terms of my teaching practice. I don’t know if this is accurate, but it was my feeling. It might be different for someone else.

And do you think it was the right decision?

Teaching is great. I work with bright, fun kids. It’s great seeing the kids learning – especially those who found physics difficult, learning that physics can be something that they enjoy and can be good at. It can be very rewarding to see the kids enjoying something because of what you do.
For me, teaching has rewards that are personal (rather than earning returns for a pensions fund). I can see the positive results, the difference that I have made. And I get to use my creativity to adapt to the students needs.

What are the down sides?

Definitely the bureaucracy. There is a lot of protocol so sometimes even when it’s obvious what would be the best thing to do you can’t do it. And teacher chat! Teachers are always saying that there is no job harder than teaching. I can’t think of teaching as hard work because it’s so enjoyable.

If you’re a University of London student or GradClub member, you can access more information about teaching using CareersTagged, and the search term ‘Teaching’.

International Public Policy – working in a national vs. European context

The recent elections might have piqued your interest in a career in public administration. The following interview conducted by Eva Kiss, Careers Consultant, will offer you some insights into working in a national vs. European context.

If you are interested in pursuing a career in International Public Policy, you may wonder which of the above two contexts may suit your personality and professional aspirations better. Working for the European Institutions can be a very rewarding experience for many – while it can turn out to be a rather frustrating one for others! And, obviously, the same will be true for working for a national government.

Myriam Watson, former Communications Specialist, has had a very gratifying professional experience in both the UK and the European Public Administrations. In our interview, I asked her to summarise the main differences between the national and the European working contexts.

In Myriam’s view, a national framework makes it easier to set priorities, strategise, build an in-depth partnership with key local collaborators (e.g. development NGOs) and work in a more refined and perhaps more efficient way. One element can be risky though: the change of national government. If your views don’t resonate with those of the new leadership, the change in the political agenda can become challenging to deal with.

While this factor isn’t so radically present in the EU, the complexity of the context can be challenging. There are a lot more stakeholders to take into account, so decision-making can be slower and the work more complicated. The audience is also way more varied, and as there is no real European public sphere to put your message to, you need to work through 28 national channels and try to localise your message. Why would anyone want to work for the EU then?

“Working for the EU gives one the sense of being a facilitator in finding ways to elevate the debate, identify common ground, forge compromises and bring people together. It is both challenging and fascinating to explore how to define ‘European interest’. It is not driven by ‘party-politics’, but the idea of what unites us” – shares Myriam.

Visit the Peace, Politics and Policy blog for the full interview, including tips on getting started in International Development.

It pays to tailor your application

One piece of advice I give to jobhunters time and again is to tailor. Always to tailor. If you want an employer to understand what you’ll bring to their team, you have to tell them. And you have to be specific. If after a quick name-change, you could send the exact same application off to another similar organisation, then you’re not being specific enough.

Of course tailoring your application will take more time and effort, but that’s part of the value. Employers want to know that you’re committed enough to do your research – that you’ve found out all about them, imagined yourself in the role, and you know exactly how you’ll contribute.

ninaresume.pngA fantastic (and admittedly rather extreme) example of creative application tailoring was reported in Business Insider last month. Nina Mufleh wanted to work for AirBnB, so she put together an online CV (screenshot above) and tweeted it to Air BnB bigwigs. But this was no ordinary CV. With a format very similar to an AirBnB profile, the CV showcased Nina’s knowledge and understanding of the travel industry, and her vision for the future of AirBnB. It took her a week to put together, but it was well worth it, because it secured her an interview.

You can see Nina’s full CV here. If you’re a current university student or recent graduate unsure how to tailor an application, seek guidance from your university careers service. This article was adapted from a UCL Researchers Careers blog post.

UCAS points – A blunt tool?

Picture by Isabelle Grosjean, article by Mark De Freitas

PwC announced this Monday, 4th May 2015, that it has abandoned the UCAS points tariff for over 90% of its graduate and early identification roles. PwC’s move followed an analysis of applications from students who had not achieved its normal UCAS requirements and the candidates PwC was missing as a result.

The requirement for a minimum number of UCAS points has often been criticised as a barrier to social mobility. PwC had found that one in three of its graduate recruits had been privately educated.   The Association of Graduate Recruiters described the UCAS requirement as “a blunt tool” and called on other employers to follow PwC’s lead.

PwC, just like many other large graduate employers, will continue to use psychometric tests to measure candidate’s abilities. So it’s worth becoming familiar with these tests. Students and GradClub members from all University of London colleges have free access to a series of full length, online, timed tests on the Assessment Day website Use the link below to register and access the tests:

Register now…


Have you checked your spelling?

The number one reason why your job application is likely to be rejected is poor spelling. So you can have the right skills and experience, have done the internships, even researched the organisation and brushed up on your commercial awareness; but none of this will matter if you haven’t taken the time to proofread your CV.  According to this article in the Telegraph, the most common spelling mistakes recruiters see are:

1) Responsibility

2) Liaise

3) University

4) Experience

5) Speciality

6) Communication

7) Achievement

8) Management

9) Environment

10) Successful

So…slow down. Try not to send off job applications in a rush. Try to factor in some time to proofread. Don’t rely on your computer’s spell check. And get a friend or family member to read over an application before you send it. You’ve put all that effort into getting good work experience and doing the best you can in your degree – so give yourself the best chance at making a good first impression.

Originally posted on the QMUL Jobs Blog

No grad scheme? No worries!

Glum fishArticle by Anna Levy, Photo from Benson Kua

Sometimes, it can seem like if you’re a student at a top university, it’s either a grad scheme or the gutter…

At careers fairs and on campus you’re seduced by big companies with free chocolates and promises of a high-flying executive life. Your friends are frantically filling in 20-page application forms as soon as their final year starts. Meanwhile, the student debt is mounting up and those grad scheme salaries can look mighty tempting.

But a grad scheme really isn’t for everyone, and certainly isn’t the only way to be successful in your career.

In fact, only a fraction of the graduate level jobs gained by university-levers are via the big grad schemes (something like 16%). Many more grads find great jobs and exciting careers through other means. Graduate training programmes are also mainly focused around certain (corporate) industries, like banking or management consultancies, so if you want to get into, say, publishing, PR or the not-for-profit sector, you’re unlikely to find many structured schemes.

So, what to do if the grad scheme steam train has passed you by? Here are a few thoughts…

  1. Size isn’t everything… While regimented grad schemes are usually offered by large organisations, the majority of graduate level jobs are found within smaller companies, which make up 99.3% of all private-sector businesses in the UK. Joining a small to medium-sized business (SME) could bring a lot of advantage, including the chance to take more responsibility and get involved in more varied work early on than being in a larger and more structured, hierarchical environment. Sometimes these companies will advertise on job sites, but many opportunities are never advertised – the so-called ‘hidden job market’– and are secured instead through speculative applications and networking.
  1. But if big is what you’re after… There are other ways to get in with the larger firms if that’s where you’ve set your sights. Many start in entry level jobs or through temping and then work their way up. You may start on lower pay and the progression may be slower, but if you can prove yourself on the job, you could rise through the ranks quicker than you’d imagine. If you’ve missed out on the grades for a grad scheme, this could be a good option.
  1. A chance to experiment… One of the problems with joining a structured grad scheme is that you’re tied in – at least for a year or two. There are real benefits, especially at the start of your working life when you may have fewer responsibilities and before you go too far down one route, to taking a ‘try-it-and-see’ approach. One of the ways to do this is to find a paid internship – there are many advertised on the Careers Group’s JobOnline website from a whole range of different sectors. As well as giving you the chance to test your assumptions about what a particular job role or working environment might be like, internships canhelp you pick up new skills and very often lead to a job offer. Many grads also find fantastic permanent jobs after temping at an organisation.
  1. Giving something back… Another way to gain skills and experience is to volunteer. If you are keen to break into the charity or NGO sector, they’ll probably want to see some evidence of voluntary work – both to show your commitment to the sector and potentially to the cause. And if you lack work experience, volunteering is a great way to build and demonstrate skills to private companies too. Volunteering doesn’t have to mean breaking the bank to support yourself either. There are many schemes, both here and abroad, that offer a stipend and even, in some cases, accommodation while you volunteer. Check out The Idealist, the European Voluntary Service and also Year Here, a great scheme that provides a year-long UK programme, where you get the chance to be involved in innovative social projects and public sector consulting. They offer a travel stipend and a limited number of £5k bursaries.

The main message is DON’T PANIC. You don’t have to have it all figured out yet, and you certainly don’t have to get on a grad scheme to be successful.

A grad scheme might mean a fast-track to a more senior role, but if it doesn’t end up being the kind of work that motivates you, do you really want to get stuck on that track? It could be better to try a few things out and then find out what routes you want to pursue. And if you do want to apply to grad schemes a little further down the line, you’ll have lots of interesting evidence for your CV.

If you’re graduating this Summer and don’t know what’s next, make an appointment with your university careers service to explore your options.