Graduates face increasingly bizarre job interview questions
Photo: aberCPC / Alamy Stock Photo
Do you know how many parking spaces there are at Heathrow Airport? And how many chimney sweeps are there in Manchester? Or why do golf balls have dimples? There is no reason for you to know the answers to these questions unless you want to enter a graduate program in 2021.
When Matt, an arts graduate from the University of Southampton, was invited to Bristol for an hour-long online written assessment, he was asked, among other things, how many lampposts there were in the UK and how many dogs lived in a certain area of London. He was applying to become a sales manager at a leading technology company.
“You show up waiting for an interview, but it’s just a test that could have been from a distance and saved me £ 40 on gas,” he tells VICE. He did his best on the questions and made some crazy guesses, but didn’t even get a response from the company. “You are working so hard to fulfill the request and many do not respond or even acknowledge your request.”
Welcome to the world of recruiting in 2021. Even before the pandemic, graduate programs were fiercely competitive and oversubscribed. Now with one in eight university graduates is unemployed in the UK, the struggle to find a job is even more difficult – and the barriers young people face are increasingly obscure and elaborate.
All of the graduates VICE spoke to requested anonymity because they feared for their job prospects. They talk about feeling totally available to big companies that don’t provide any financial support, and either keep them at bay or put them under scrutiny.
When Matt traveled to Bristol for his assessment, he had no interaction with anyone from the company who invited him, and none of his expenses were paid. Another company invited him to a recruiting dinner for a business graduate program, where he sat one-on-one with a different reviewer for each course of the meal. “It was intense,” he says. The next day, the six graduates did a group activity while 20 assessors stood around them in a circle, observing. “It was intimidating,” Matt says.
One of the worst bits is “the time it takes for processes to start.” It’s really hard for young people because it’s so unfamiliar. People spend years reapplying for these programs and that is not healthy. Matt sums up his experience as “online dating but for recruiting.” He believes it was expected to be perfect, with no possibility of human error, and that employers are no longer willing to take risks.
Helen, 22, had similar experiences after graduating from Plymouth University in Marketing in 2019. When it comes to job placement programs, she says companies are “taking the mickey”. She had three phone interviews for Hewlett Packard Enterprise before being asked to travel four hours one-way from Plymouth to Bristol for three more one-hour in-person interviews, each with two different interviewers. She also had to give a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation on any topic of her choice.
On a whiteboard, he was asked to calculate how many hairdressers were needed for the whole of the UK. “I probably stayed there silent for a good 20 seconds. I thought… I have no idea how many people live in UK. I’m pretty sure I said that more people live in the UK than there are in the whole world.
The company said they would be in touch. For six months there was radio silence. Then, once the placement had already started, she received a one-line email telling her she didn’t get the placement – “like I haven’t already guessed.”
Helen thinks companies treat graduates “because they can. And they know people will because at the end of the day, they have no choice. No one prepares you for refusals and continuation of applications. And I don’t think anyone realizes how much experience is required now.
Hewlett Packard Enterprise is not disclosing the number of applications received or the retention rate for their graduate program, although they did say they reimbursed travel before 2020.
On the convoluted interview questions, they told VICE: “Interviewers guide the conversation with each candidate in the way best suited to the position in question. We are not aware of the issue you are citing [how many hairdressers are needed for the UK] asked in an interview.
“Constructive and relevant feedback is provided at various stages, including after the last stage of the interview with the hiring manager. ”
Graduate programs were once considered a safe option for anyone leaving college with a solid 2: 1 or First – a reliable first step on the career ladder with a very respectable median starting salary of £ 29,667, according to the Institute of Student Employers. Today’s students face a much more brutal job market. ITV News found that 30 percent of top employers in the UK have reduced their graduate programs since 2019.
Graduates in 2021 also face everyone in the previous year’s cohort who is still struggling to find a job. A post-COVID recession will only make finding work even more impossible. Search for UK-based graduate jobs site Milkround shows only 18 percent of graduates secure jobs in 2020, compared to the typical 60 percent.
Jake, 21, is a fourth-year physics student at the University of Manchester and says what companies are asking graduates is now “ridiculous”. For a role as a software developer at leading IT company TPP, Jake was invited for an in-person test in mid-November. COVID-19 restrictions were more relaxed, but still in place. He traveled from Manchester to Leeds and was given a one-hour test which Jake said could have been easily completed online.
“I think it’s fair to do some testing, but only in combination with an interview so that they get a good assessment of you. I don’t think if I can resolve these issues represents whether I am capable of doing this job. It’s a stupid way to do the app, ”says Jake. “If I had performed these tests, I probably would have passed. You can learn a lot more by asking questions and seeing who I am as a person – a test after all this time traveling is just plain insulting.
Once the paper was marked, Jake was led to the front desk, he was told “sorry you didn’t make it, thanks for coming” and showed up. The company did not provide any feedback and he was furious that he spent two hours traveling, risking COVID-19 on public transport to take a single test.
“It was very rude and disrespectful, and I didn’t think this test alone could be a fair assessment of me. What about attributes such as motivation, passion and intensity of your work? They are much more important. TPP did not respond to a request for comment.
Forcing graduates to travel during a pandemic or refusing to pay expenses is not only bad form – it also gives some applicants an unfair advantage over others. Not all graduates have the money to attend their interview, and others may have health issues that prevent them from traveling during COVID-19. He favors financially stable and able-bodied applicants – or those who have enough money from mom and dad’s bank to make it to the interview center.
Oli Quie, 26, started a now-disbanded business called Grad Circle when he graduated because he couldn’t bear to go through recruiting graduates. Today, he is co-founder and CEO of Internal works, a behavioral psychology firm working on such assessments.
Companies want to have the most complicated application process because “they think there’s a status around it and that’s a good thing,” says Quie. “Employers ask impossible questions because it makes their hiring process look cool and different. They claim that there is a special reason behind this. It is a real kick in the teeth to ask these questions, because for a graduate, each application is a huge investment of time. You don’t want sterile questions to which you don’t know the answer.
Quie thinks that “employers need to think about making the process more fulfilling. A graduate should leave thinking that even though I didn’t get the job, at least I learned something.
From a psychological standpoint, Greg Serapio-García, behavioral psychologist and senior researcher at Innerworks, says he “doesn’t know” why companies ask you how many TVs there are in London. “It’s a really projective and ridiculous test. They are trying to test some sort of abstract or creative reasoning. If they’re trying to catch divergent thinkers, then maybe that’s helpful. It could also just be put there for fun.
Ultimately, Helen decided to skip her internship year, graduate earlier, and find a job in her field for a small business. Matt was accepted into a graduate program in human resources management and started in January of this year. Jake recently accepted a job as a data officer at the NHS, but plans to continue applying to graduate programs.
And if you still don’t know how many parking spaces Heathrow Airport has, it’s 51,500.