Life

Graduates Are Facing Increasingly Bizarre Job Interview Questions

"How many lampposts are in the UK?" is just one of the weird, unrelated queries put to those applying for grad recruitment schemes.
June 24, 2021, 8:00am
Three sad university graduates trying to find a job
Photo: aberCPC / Alamy Stock Photo

Do you know how many parking spaces there are at Heathrow Airport? How about how many chimney sweeps there are in Manchester? Or why golf balls have dimples on them? There’s no reason you should know the answers to these questions – unless you want to get onto a university graduate scheme in 2021.

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When University of Southampton arts graduate Matt was invited to Bristol for an hour’s written online 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 be a commercial manager at a leading tech company. 

“You turn up expecting an interview, but it’s just a test that could have been remote and saved me £40 in petrol,” he tells VICE. He did his best on the questions and made a few wild guesses, but didn’t even hear back from the company. “You work so hard filling out the application and so many don’t reply or even acknowledge your application.”

Welcome to the world of recruitment in 2021. Even before the pandemic, graduate schemes were fiercely competitive and oversubscribed. Now, with one in eight university graduates unemployed in the UK, the fight to get a job is even tougher – and the hoops that young people have to jump through increasingly arcane and elaborate.   

All the graduates that VICE spoke to requested anonymity as they feared for their employment prospects. They speak of feeling utterly disposable to big corporate companies that provide no financial support, and either keep them at arm’s length or subject them to overbearing scrutiny. 

When Matt travelled to Bristol for his assessment, he had zero interaction with anybody from the company that invited him down, and none of his expenses were paid. Another company invited him to a recruitment dinner for a commercial graduate scheme, where he sat one on one with a different assessor for each course of the meal. “That was intense,” he says. The next day, the six graduates did a group activity while 20 assessors stood around them in a circle, watching. “It was intimidating,” Matt says.

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One of the worst bits is “the amount of time it takes for processes to start. It’s really tough on young people because it’s so unknown. People spend years reapplying to these schemes and it’s not healthy.” Matt summarises his experience as “online dating but for recruitment”. He feels he was expected to be perfect, with no room for human error, and that employers are not willing to take a chance anymore.

Helen, 22, had similar experiences after she graduated from Plymouth University with a marketing degree in 2019. When it comes to placement schemes, she says companies “take 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 hour-long, in-person interviews, each with two different interviewers. She also had to give a 20-minute presentation with a PowerPoint on any topic of her choice.

On a whiteboard, she was asked to calculate how many hairdressers were needed for the whole of the UK. “I probably stood there silent for a good 20 seconds. I thought… I have no idea how many people live in the UK. I’m pretty sure I said more people live in the UK than there are in the entire world.”

The company said they would be in touch. For six months, it was radio silence. Then, once the placement had already begun, she received a one line email telling her she had not got the placement – “as if I hadn’t guessed already.” 

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Helen thinks companies treat graduates like this “because they can. And they know people will do it because at the end of the day, they have no choice. No one prepares you for the rejections and chasing up applications. And I don’t think anyone realises just how much experience is required now.”

Hewlett Packard Enterprise would not disclose the number of applications they receive nor their graduate scheme retention rate, although they said that they reimbursed travel prior to 2020. 

On convoluted interview questions, they told VICE: “Interviewers guide the conversation with each applicant as is best suited to the position in question. We’re not aware of the question you cite [how many hairdressers are needed for the UK] being asked in an interview.”

“Constructive and relevant feedback is provided at different stages, including after the final hiring manager interview stage.” 

Graduate schemes were once seen as a safe option for anybody leaving university with a solid 2:1 or First – a reliable first step on the the career ladder with a highly respectable median starting salary of £29,667, according to the Institute of Student Employers. These days, students face a much more brutal job market. ITV News found that 30 percent of the top employers in the UK have made cuts to their grad schemes since 2019. 

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Those graduating in 2021 are also up against anybody from the previous year’s cohort still struggling to find employment. A post-COVID recession is only going to make finding work even more impossible. Research by UK-based graduate jobs site Milkround shows just 18 percent of graduates secured jobs in 2020, compared to the typical 60 percent.

Jake, 21, is a fourth year Physics student at the University of Manchester and says that what companies ask of graduates is now “ridiculous”. For a software developer role at leading IT company TPP, Jake was invited to an in-person test around mid-November. COVID-19 restrictions were more relaxed, but still in place. He travelled from Manchester to Leeds and was given an hour-long test paper that Jake thinks could have easily been done online. 

“I think it's fair to do tests, but only in combination with an interview so they have a proper assessment of you. I don't think whether I can solve those questions represents whether I'm capable of doing that job. It’s a stupid way of doing the application,” Jake says. “If I’d practiced those tests, I probably would have gotten through. You can find out much more by asking questions and seeing who I am as a person – a test after all that time spent travelling is just quite insulting.”

After the paper was marked, Jake was walked to the reception, told "sorry, you haven't been successful, thanks for coming," and showed out. The company did not provide any feedback, and he was furious that he had spent two hours travelling, risking getting COVID-19 on public transport to sit a single test. 

“It felt very rude and disrespectful, and I didn't feel that test alone could be a fair assessment of me. What about attributes like motivation, passion and how hard you work? They're much more important.” TPP did not respond to a request for comment.

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Forcing graduates to travel during a pandemic or refusing to provide expenses isn’t just bad form – it also gives an unfair advantage to some candidates over others. Not all graduates have the money to get to their interview, and others might have health issues that preclude them from getting around during COVID-19. It privileges financially stable and able-bodied candidates – or those with enough cash from the bank of mum and dad to get down to the interview centre.  

Oli Quie, 26, started a now-dissolved company called Grad Circle when he graduated because he couldn’t bear to go through graduate recruitment. Now, he is co-founder and CEO of Innerworks, a behavioural psychology company working on such assessments. 

Companies want to have the most complicated application process because “they think there's status around that and it’s a good thing,” Quie explains. “Employers ask impossible questions because it makes their hiring processes look cool and different. They’re pretending there’s some special reason behind it. It’s a real kick in the teeth to be asked those questions, because for a graduate, every application is an enormous investment of time. You don’t want unfruitful questions you don’t know the answer to.”

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Quie thinks “employers need to think about making the process more fulfilling. A grad should walk away thinking even if I didn't get the job, at least I learned something.” 

From a psychological perspective, Greg Serapio-García, a behavioural psychologist and lead research scientist at Innerworks, says he “doesn’t know” why companies ask you how many TVs are in London. “It’s a really projective and ridiculous test. They're trying to test some sort of abstract or creative reasoning. If they're trying to catch divergent thinkers, then perhaps it’s useful. It could also just be put in there for fun.”

In the end, Helen decided to skip her placement year, graduating early and getting a job in her field for a smaller company. Matt was accepted onto a HR management graduate scheme and started in January this year. Jake has recently accepted a data administration job in the NHS but plans to keep applying to graduate schemes. 

And if still you don’t know how many parking spaces Heathrow Airport has – it’s 51,500.

@caitlintilley