Playing to your strengths

Strengths-based questions are getting more common at interviews. We find out what to expect and how to prepare

If you have been for a job interview recently, you may have been asked questions like What makes a good day for you? Do you prefer starting or finishing things? or What never gets done on your ‘to do’ list? Although these might look like questions designed simply to catch you off guard and see how you cope, employers use them for a good reason.

Traditional competency-based questions such as Can you describe a time when you've used communication skills effectively? focus on what you can do. Strengths-based questions, on the other hand, aim to discover what you like doing, what kind of activities engage and energise you.

‘The employer wants to know what you have a natural aptitude for,’ explains Jonathan Burston, interview expert at

Strengths are pre-existing capabilities to behave in a certain way. Julie Stanbridge, head of student recruitment at EY, says a strength is something that we are born with, are good at and love to do.

‘It’s very different from a competency as the ability to do something is very different from enjoying doing it. For example, an individual may be great at maths and may also enjoy the subject – they always want to finish the homework first. Another person might do the same homework well, but it takes them much longer, they have to concentrate really hard and they feel drained after doing it. The first person probably has strength for numbers while the other one is just competent.’

Business case for strengths-based approach

Both competency-based questions and strengths-based questions can be used by interviewers to determine whether you are likely to succeed in a particular role and organisation. Some organisations, however, believe there is a stronger business case to recruit based on strengths.

‘When an individual’s strengths are well suited for the role, they will demonstrate higher levels of happiness, energy and engagement,’ says Stanbridge.

When you are using your strengths, you perform better and learn quickly, too. And there’s more to it. When you enjoy what you are doing, you may become so engrossed in it you lose your sense of time – positive psychology refers to this state of consciousness as the ‘flow’. Also, when faced with a task that plays to your strengths, you will be drawn to do it, even when you are tired or stressed.

You may be asked strengths-based questions if the interview is for your first professional role – competency-based questions wouldn’t necessarily give the employer the whole picture of who you are.

‘If you are a graduate, it may be hard for you to provide relevant and suitable work-related scenarios that can adequately demonstrate your abilities,’ says Ellis King, accountancy and finance manager at recruiter Morgan McKinley.

‘Internships or work experience tend to be "soft" experiences where you have been in a relatively undemanding environment – as such, they can’t adequately demonstrate how you would react in a more challenging, corporate environment.’

Employers have also wised up to the fact that job candidates are turning up to competency-based interviews with well-rehearsed, scripted answers.

‘Candidates are often coached by career advisers on how to pass a competency-based interview,’ says Stanbridge. ‘They often come up with very similar responses too, and so interviewers might have trouble observing the tangible difference between candidates. Strengths-based recruitment breaks this cycle, though.’

The approach benefits candidates

Most people are likely to come across at their best when talking about what they enjoy.

‘A strengths-based interview can also feel very insightful with the candidate feeling as though their potential employer has really got to know them,’ says Stanbridge.

The process can be very revealing for you too. ‘Some strengths we are aware of and others we might not know we have,’ says Stanbridge. It’s a sign of a good interviewer when they can help you discover the latter.

Strengths-based interviewing can also help you work out whether you’d actually want the job if you were offered it.

‘It can help you avoid roles you are not right for personality-wise – for example, if you love adrenalin sports, your boredom threshold may be too low for a job with a lot of data analysis,’ says King. So ask yourself – is there a compatible match between you and the role, personality-wise?

‘If there isn’t, then consider whether it’s worth applying for it in the first place – you don’t want to end up in a job you hate,’ says Burston.

Potential pitfalls 

‘The key point to remember is that it’s more difficult to "blag" a strengths-based interview,’ says King. On the other hand, some candidates still manage to over-prepare.

‘But one characteristic at the centre of strengths-based recruitment is authenticity – if a candidate has the strength the interview question is trying to elicit, then the response will come naturally,’ says Stanbridge. ‘Also, remember that interviewers are not expecting you to demonstrate every possible strength as everyone is unique and has different strengths and weaknesses.’

A major pitfall is not staying true to yourself and faking your answers. ‘It’s not uncommon for interviewees to try and second guess what an employer is looking for, only to have completely misjudged it,’ says Burston. ‘You’ll either get rejected because you’ve been caught out or you’ll end up in a job that is not suitable for you and will hate it as a result.’

Employers want to find someone who can do the job and who will also enjoy the role and the organisation. They may therefore use a mix of strengths-based and competency-based questions, so the best advice is to be prepared for both.

"‘Candidates are often coached by career advisers on how to pass a competency-based interview. They often come up with very similar responses too, and so interviewers might have trouble observing the tangible difference between candidates. Strengths-based recruitment breaks this cycle, though.’"

Julie Stanbridge - Ernst & Young