It’s THAT time of year again. Graduate schemes are opening for application. The canniest candidates are beginning to put together application forms. Over the next few weeks we’ll be looking at some of the questions you might expect to have to answer and giving some clues on how you might go about it. So how do you deal with “What was your greatest achievement” without underselling yourself on the one side or sounding conceited on the other?
Ask yourself why the employer has asked the question.
This is always a great starting point and you’d be surprised at the number of candidates who never seem to stop to think about this. This question is there because the employer want to know something about you! They’re not going to score the answer on the basis of who has the most exciting story to tell about personal achievement, or on the basis of who has overcome the most difficult barriers to advancement. They want to see you write lucidly and succinctly about something of importance to you. The answer can be equally impressive if it turns on how you have worked alongside study to make ends meet, or if you talk about your gap year experience persuading reluctant parents in Africa to allow their children to be inoculated against Polio.
So how do you start the answer?
Start very simply “I think my greatest achievement / I am proud of “and then set out what you did. Use the STAR framework (situation, task, action, result). Describe the circumstances fairly briefly and then focus most of your answer on the action you took. Finish by reviewing the result. Make sure that you write clearly and without hyperbole. You should comment on the result by underlining the relevant skills you think you learnt from this experience,
What employability skills can you draw out from the experience?
It’s always good to be thinking about what an employer is looking for. Reflect on the skills you gained in the final part of the answer. If your achievement was to work alongside study, then you’ll have demonstrated a great work ethic, resilience and time management skills. Set that out.
If you have contributed to society in some way and you want a post in the Third (or charity) Sector, then you’ll want to point out how your efforts have impacted individuals. If, however, following that amazing voluntary work you want to work in a profit making organisation in the City, you might want to focus more on some of the skills you learnt. Communication? Teamwork? Persuasion and negotiation? It’s probably not a good idea to tell an investment bank that following your amazing experience working with the dispossessed, you have decided to work for the bank because you like its corporate, social responsibility policy. Remember that the bank is “about” making money. Their staff need to buy into that idea. If they think that you just want to “help” they’re going to wonder if you will be right for them.
And some general points?
1. Be guided by the word limit.
You don’t have to stick to this slavishly using up every last word, but if the limit is 500 then you can be sure that one sentence is not going to be adequate.
2. Don’t start writing about the employer in the answer.
This would not be good.
“My achievement in winning the long jump means that I am aligned with your company because you always try to leap ahead of your competitors”.
The example might look ridiculous but I see many draft answers which are just like this. This question is not asking you to talk about the employer or to show that you have done your research. It is asking about you!
3. Don’t belittle your own achievements and think you have nothing to write about.
The employer isn’t looking for the marathon running, country representing, top flight musician who has received an Oscar for acting and single handedly solved the Greek debt crisis! Instead it is looking for the person who can write well and demonstrate that he/she has done something other than just study! It is also looking to you to be able to recognise and talk about the skills you learnt.
4. Don’t go with the “getting a 2.1 at university” (unless you had to overcome some very particular personal odds to achieve this).
You don’t want to give the employer the impression that you had to struggle very hard to reach, what for it, might be a base line achievement.
5. Enjoy the opportunity to write about yourself and reflect on and feel proud of what you have achieved. Just don’t keep labouring the point in your answer! Self-effacing is a more attractive personality trait than conceit. You don’t need to keep referring back to your pride in the written answer.