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25 interview questions for graduate careers in government

Jaymes Carr

Careers Commentator
We help you navigate the challenge of preparing for a public service job interview with practice questions, tips from successful graduates and useful resources.

From local government bodies, like the City of Sydney Council, to federal employers like the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the government sector encompasses a range of organisations with unique requirements, objectives, and hiring practices. While some, such as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Training, deal with broad areas of policy, others, like the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, focus on more specific issues and challenges.

Already, this makes for a complex environment in which to prepare, as a graduate, for a job interview. Compounding this already daunting prospect, is the competitive nature of many graduate programs within the public service. For example, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trading receives some 2,000 applications a year for about 35 positions, while the appealing perks at organisations like the Australian Bureau of Statistics attract highly qualified candidates from across the country.

A promising solution

The good news is that graduates who aspire to careers within the public service can draw upon a range of helpful resources. Many agencies have produced their own literature to guide candidates through the recruitment process—we’ve provided a short list of such guides below. Candidates can also, of course, benefit from the advice of successful past candidates, such as GradAustralia’s industry insiders. Drawing on information from both of these sources, we’ve compiled a list of 25 questions that will help you prepare for your own graduate job interview in the public service.

NB: Given the range of positions within the public sector, it’s impossible to identify exact questions that graduates should expect within their own job interviews. As such, the following examples are indicative only of the type of question you may be asked. Wherever possible, you should consider how they might be tailored to reflect the priorities of your prospective employer.

The 25 questions

Open questions

  1. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
  2. What was your greatest achievement at university?
  3. What motivates you?
  4. Why are you interested in this position?
  5. What do you see as your strengths?
  6. Where do you see yourself in five years?

Expertise-related questions

  1. What are the main foreign policy challenges facing Australia?
  2. How should the work of NSW Fair Trading be evaluated for success?
  3. What would you consider to be Australia’s current national security priorities?
  4. How would you select a suitable statistical model when conducting a national survey?
  5. Which information would you aim to gather first when auditing a small business?
  6. How would you decide which information to include (or exclude from) a ministerial brief?

Behavioral questions

  1. Can you provide an example of a difficult choice you’ve had to make in the workplace or at university? What made it difficult and how did you arrive at a decision?
  2. Tell us about a time when you’ve been overwhelmed by work. How did you go about prioritising your tasks?
  3. How do you deal with situations in which the completion of a project requires you to work with somebody you might find difficult?
  4. Can you tell us about a teamwork situation in which you’ve had to demonstrate leadership? How did you assume leadership and convince others to follow you?
  5. Describe a time when your team or company was undergoing some change. How did that impact you, and how did you adapt?
  6. Tell us about a time when you had to rely on written communication to get your ideas across to your team.

Organisational knowledge questions

  1. What do you see as the role of the High Commission?
  2. What is the goal of the assurance audit services group?
  3. What do you know about the values of the Australian Bureau of Statistics?
  4. What role does the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission play in enforcing industry codes?
  5. Where in the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources do you see yourself making the biggest contribution?
  6. What do you know about the four values of the Australian Energy Market Operator?
  7. What do you perceive to be the chief responsibility of the Australian Human Rights Commission?

Tips from our insiders

Be prepared for a very rigorous interview process

“The interview process was over two days, the first day was an introduction to the organisation and tour, the second was assessments and interviews. It's a really smart way to do it because the first day gets you all hyped about working at the organisation and you really put your best enthusiastic foot forward in the interview the next day.”
Entry level, Sydney, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation

Prepare to be quizzed on the technical details of your role

“They mainly asked technical questions, as well as why I wanted to join the organisation.”
Graduate, Canberra, Australian Bureau of Statistics

“Explore AEMO's website and read some of our publications relevant to your area of specialty. Have an understanding of the power system and economic market behind it—know the lingo.”
Graduate, Sydney, Australian Energy Market Operator

Become an expert in the organisation you’re hoping to work for

“Read through the organisation website (both ACCC and AER) and learn about what they do. Learn about what the priority areas are for that year and peruse news items (either on the website or Google) that relate to those priority areas. Think about how the work of the organisation relates to whatever study background you have (i.e. economics, finance, law). Prepare practice answers and practice saying them aloud.”
Midlevel, Melbourne, Australian Competition and Consumer Commission

Align yourself with the values of organisation

“Read up on the values of the organisation. The values are the metric by which candidates are measured.”
Graduate, Canberra, Australian National Audit Office

Match your skills explicitly to the objectives of your prospective employer

“Research the agency’s role and purpose, its strategic plan and what schemes we administer. Think about what skills you have and how they can contribute to the agency’s strategic direction.”
Graduate, Canberra, Clean Energy Regulator

Use the selection criteria to guide your preparation

“Invest a significant amount of time and effort in crafting responses to the selection criteria. The selection committee refer back to these at each step of the interview process, so they form a crucial part of your application. Obviously read key documents on the DFAT website prior to the essay and face-to-face interview, as you will be asked about current priorities.”
Graduate, Canberra, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trading

Play to your strengths

“Pick policy issues where you are likely to know more than the interviewer (i.e. nothing particularly topical or high profile). Spend the time knowing these issues well and be prepared to justify your responses.”
Midlevel, Canberra, Department of Treasury

Don’t underestimate the importance of soft skills

“Reference how your extracurricular experiences and life outside of university have developed your skill set - there's a fair chance the best examples of what you can offer your future employer occurred outside the four walls of the classroom.”
Midlevel, Perth, Western Australia Department of Health