12 unique (& telling) interview questions for Gen Z Grads
19 July 2021
To recruit the best early talent, we need to make a great first impression. That means being as thoughtful and considerate with our interview questions as our candidates are with their answers.
Why graduate interview questions are so important
The labor market is changing — fast. Today’s early talent sees interviews as the two-way conversations that they are. They’re not just trying to impress you, they expect you to impress them as well.
As recruiters and hiring managers, one of the key attributes we’re looking for is energy and excitement. In fact, 4 out of 10 employers say that they would reject candidates who did not show enthusiasm.
But are we asking the right questions? Are we giving Gen Z something to be excited about?
Interview questions are indicative of your business
The interview questions we ask tell early talent a lot about our organizational priorities and values too. If we go on asking the same old formulaic questions, we’ll come across as old-fashioned and unimaginative — and lose early talent.
When it comes to company culture and mission, there’s a lot to be said for the principle “show, don’t tell.” Can our questions highlight our commitment to wellbeing, DEI, and more?
Yes! And we need to improve our approach to interview questions, for everybody’s sake.
12 stand out interview questions for early talent & Gen Z
Asking the right interview questions is a combination of being really clear about what you want to know and having a deep understanding of the cohort you’re interviewing.
Questions about their approach to work
Gen Z is just coming into the workplace, so many will lack professional experience. Creative questioning can help to bridge this gap.
Ask: 🗯 Let’s imagine you step out of this interview and find a lottery ticket on the floor. That lottery ticket ends up winning you $15 million. What would you do?
The ‘Boomer’ generation has often referred to work as the ‘rat race’ and the ‘daily grind’; the ethos of ‘living for the weekend was fully instilled as a cultural norm. Gen Z is approaching things very differently indeed. For them, work isn’t just a paycheck — it’s an opportunity to create change, make their mark, and get paid while doing so.
Compared to Millennials, Gen Z and today’s early talent is more money conscious and certainly seeks financial security. But does that mean they’d take the $15 million payout and run? Not necessarily.
This question will help you better understand a grad’s rationale for applying to your role. Do they love the idea of working for your company and can see themselves with you in the future, winning lottery tickets or not?
2. Working environment
Ask: 🗯 How would you describe your ideal working environment? What do you need around you, or not need around you, to help you thrive?
Graduates entering the workforce in 2020-2022 will have had a hard few years. Forced to complete their college and university degrees from home — cut off from classmates and potentially sharing a “co-working space” with their siblings or parents.
But every hard experience is a life lesson. And Gen Z will know this to be true!
Asking an early talent interviewee about their ideal working environment helps you understand some of the challenges that each candidate is likely to face — and how well they’d gel with the rest of your team. You’ll also be able to hear their opinions on adjustments and allowances.
Better still, this question provides a relaxed and inclusive way for disabled or neurodiverse graduate candidates to bring up any accommodations they may need.
3. Reverse mentoring
Ask: 🗯 Would you be open to reverse mentoring one of our senior leaders? And what do you think you could train them on?
In Headstart’s panel conversation, ‘Hiring Gen Z: What Employers Need to Know’ Amina Aweis said: “Stop underestimating Gen Z […] you need our innovation, you need our creativity, you need our ethic. There’s a lot you can learn from us.”
And she’s right — that’s why reverse mentoring, where younger team members coach more experienced colleagues, is so important in 2021 and beyond.
Graduate applicants may never have thought of themselves in a mentor role, let alone a reverse mentoring one! But asking this question can still unlock some of that famous Gen Z passion and opinion, helping you better assess their approach to work and what they have to offer the organization.
For the interviewee, asking about what they’d teach older colleagues indicates you’re a company that values fresh perspectives — something Gen Zers are eager to find in their employers.
4. Side hustles
Ask: 🗯 You mentioned on your CV that you’ve set up a side hustle you’re proud of. Tell me a bit about that — why did you start it up and what was has it taught you so far?
As well as being money conscious, Gen Z has become known for hedging their bets when it comes to long-term success and satisfaction. Whether it’s selling handmade crochet outfits on Depop or going freelance as a wedding photographer, early talent candidates are likely to have ‘side hustles’ and passions that they’ve monetized already.
Their motivations for getting started, and what skills it’s helped them develop so far, can say a lot about the applicant sitting in front of you. It’s also a valuable opportunity to let your applicant riff about something they really love.
Questions about soft skills
Soft skills are often underrepresented on a resume. Asking interview questions that allow early talent to showcase their soft skills can help you to find the very best candidates.
5. Hiring process
Ask: 🗯 Can you give me an example of something that we could improve in our application/interview process? What would you do differently?
This interview question allows you to gain direct experience of an applicant’s ability to deliver feedback. The best answers will show that they have considered the impact of the process on people other than themselves.
At the same time, you’re also showing that you care about how they experienced the application process; that you are open to feedback, and that they will be able to influence management decisions.
You might just gather standout ideas and advice from the answers as well.
6. Big fish
Ask: 🗯 What’s better: being a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond? Which would you enjoy, and learn from, most?
The college or university experience often leaves talented students feeling like a small fish in a big pond. Where once they were top or near the top of their high school class (i.e. a big fish in a small pond) they’re now in classes five times the size, with way more competition.
As you can imagine, this can be a very damaging shift — knocking a student’s confidence and even causing them to drop out. And the alternative option, securing a place at a less elite “pond” can actually be more encouraging for top talent in the long run.
This has interesting implications for early talent recruitment (which you can read about here), but when writing interview questions for graduates it’s worth lingering on this debate for a while. Would the candidate rather be the best in a small team, or are they happy making a more subtle contribution — and why?
7. Team Work
Ask: 🗯 Imagine you were working as part of a team on a big project. What would you do to make sure the team works well together?
This question is as much about identifying future leaders as it is about evaluating early talent for entry-level positions.
It can be helpful to ask follow-up questions on this topic. You could explain difficulties that your teams have encountered in the past and then ask for suggestions. This can help you to understand how a candidate approaches problem-solving as well as their social skills.
Questions on wellbeing and engagement
This is a big topic with Gen Z and early talent. Ask the right interview questions here, and your graduate talent pipeline will be filled with the best.
8. Pay Expectations
Ask: 🗯 What salary range would you need if we offered you this role? And what other benefits do you consider valuable?
Gen Z doesn’t just appreciate transparency, they hunger for it.
To quote another of our Gen Z panel experts, Lily Fothergill: “We want to know what the pay structure is. We want to know who’s getting paid and why.”
You can echo that sentiment back by asking an early talent or graduate applicant what they want to get paid for the job in question. By asking about any other forms of compensation they’d consider valuable, you’re learning more about the candidate (and their generational needs.) According to research, a free day off for your birthday and free hot drinks top the Gen Z wishlist. But it’s worth asking your candidate directly.
9. Work/life balance
Ask: 🗯 What advice would you give to a friend who was struggling to maintain a good work/life balance?
Writing essays until the early hours might be the norm for college students, but having a successful work/life balance requires a different approach. Recent graduates may not have found their own balance yet, so asking what advice they might offer to a friend can help you understand their underlying beliefs.
10. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
Ask: 🗯 From what you’ve seen so far about the world, what’s the one thing companies need to learn to do better in diversity and inclusion?
Many interviewers shy away from asking questions about diversity during interviews, but Gen Z is often keen to talk about these newsworthy topics. They are also super clued up and aware of what’s going on in the world around them — politically “woke” and vocal in comparison to their generational counterparts.
So why not tap into that enthusiasm by asking them how your business — as well as others — could improve to better embrace DEI? The candidate may not have direct experience in a previous workplace, but they’ll almost certainly have something to say about how inclusive brands and businesses are in the eyes of their customers.
Questions about hopes for the future
Understanding what a candidate aspires to is essential for planning future training and development. Asking questions about what early talent wants to achieve shows that you’re willing to invest in their future.
11. Dream job
Ask: 🗯 If you could design your absolute dream job, what would it be?
Asking this question helps you understand where a candidate is likely to thrive, so feel free to dig a little deeper as the conversation continues.
Try asking about specific aspects of their dream job and why they would find it fulfilling. Really trying to understand their motivation and passion demonstrates your willingness to help them achieve their goals. And that’s something many grads are looking for in an employer.
12. Future thinking
Ask: 🗯 Now that you’ve spent some time getting to know our company and what we do, what three steps would you advise us to take over the next 5 years?
Before asking whether the candidate has any questions for you, this is a great way to bring your interview questions to a close. Again, you’re showing that your business is open to the opinions of others — including young staff. It also shows that you’re considering them as a long-term addition to the team; someone who could help your business step into the future.
The candidate may feel a little challenged by the question, so let them take a few moments to think. But hopefully, if they’ve done their homework pre-interview and are keen to secure the position, plus the answers they come back with may just spark ideas in your mind.
Understanding early talent is the first step to hiring them
Gen Z represents an altogether different generation of workers to those who came before them. But they aren’t a total mystery — not if you try to get to know them.
Continue your education on Gen Z and early talent using our dedicated resources, starting with ‘Hiring Gen-Z: What Employers Need To Know’.
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