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Job Interviews: How to Prepare When You’re Just Starting Your Planning Career

Job Interviews: How to Prepare When You’re Just Starting Your Planning Career

4 months ago By Emily Harris
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This January, many young planners are graduating and embracing entering the workforce, while other professionals are looking for a fresh start for 2022. Job interviews are one of the most daunting parts of any job application process. They can often feel like you’re under a spotlight where the interviewer will render a verdict depending on your ability to give the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers. This can be especially daunting for those trying to land their first job or who have minimal professional experience. Navigating through job interviews and providing answers that showcase a candidate’s capability is a skill and one that many can find difficult to master. When Public Sector People reached out to professionals within the planning and environment space on what areas of the job-seeking process they felt they needed the most assistance, the majority of responses revolved around job interviews. Consequently, we’ve provided some key steps to help guide graduates through their first job interviews.

Plan Out Your Hypothetical Questions 

Because so much of a job interview hangs on how you answer the questions posed to you, stumbling over a question could be the deciding factor in landing your dream job. So how do you best prepare? When looking at any job advertisement, you should focus on the role’s key selection criteria; the skills, attributes, knowledge and qualifications that the employer has defined as being essential for satisfying the requirements of a role. For a town planner, this selection criteria could include a tertiary qualification in town planning. Applying for roles within the public sector (local council for example) make it easier in this regard because each role will have their key selection criteria clearly stated within each job advertisement. Within the private sector, a role’s key selection criteria won’t necessarily be clearly stated within the job application but can still be detected by reading through the key responsibilities and the essential skills listed for a role. Reading through this key selection criteria will give you a clear idea of what types of questions to expect in an interview. 

Prepare Your Hypothetical Answers 

It’s also important to remember that interview questions will fall into two key areas; behavioural and competency-based. Behavioural-based interview questions aim to reveal the way a candidate thinks; essentially what motivates and drives them at work. The purpose of this line of questioning (which usually focuses on your past work experiences) is to determine if the candidate aligns with the organisation’s culture and values. It relies on the theory that past behaviour predicts future action and this will help to reveal how candidates will act in particular situations within the role in question. 

Example Behavioural Questions:

How do you like to set and work towards goals? Can you walk us through a recent goal you set and what you did to ensure you achieved it? 

How do you think you work under pressure? Can you provide an example of a time you recently felt pressure at work and what you did to handle it? 

What motivates you to work hard? Can you think of workplace examples where this applies? 

Example Question: Can you describe a time where you faced a challenging situation at work – how did you handle it? 

How to answer: When asked questions about conflict or challenging situations, interviewers are usually looking to gain a better understanding of how you handle stress and your ability to break down larger problems into smaller tasks. Many roles within the planning and environment space will be high-pressure and involve stakeholder management, so showcasing your ability to handle and resolve conflict in your answers is critical. For those just starting out in their planning career, try and draw upon examples of conflict you’ve had perhaps in a casual job, an internship or even conflicting assessments during your studies. 

Example of a good answer: While in my final year of study I was doing an internship at a local council in their planning division. While there, my manager had to go on leave suddenly due to a family matter. However, it was a very busy time for our team and we had a number of planning applications with specified timeframes that needed to be prepared. Because of my manager’s unexpected leave, he hadn’t had time to provide me with any handover notes so, in order to ensure I was still delivering my key tasks by their timeframe, I organised a quick meeting with members of the greater planning team to establish what tasks they needed from me when. From there, I created my own to-do list based on what was the highest priority and closest deadline and worked backwards. This helped me to keep on task in my manager's absence and ensured all of the tasks I needed to deliver were achieved on time.  

Competency-based questions are used by interviewers to assess the specific attributes, knowledge and skills a candidate possesses in relation to a particular role. When asking a competency-based question, interviewers are usually looking to determine if you have the specific skills required to perform a job, based on what you reveal in your answers. Again, the idea is that if you have used these skills before, you will be able to apply them to the necessary standard again. 

Example Competency-Based Questions 

How do you identify and deliver the standards required by your clients – can you provide a recent example of when you did this? 

Has there been a big decision you’ve made at work recently? Can you take us through your decision-making process?

Can you give me an example where you collaborated with individuals or teams outside your business area to deliver a positive outcome?

Can you talk us through a recent circumstance when you had conflicting deadlines and how you managed these?

Example Question: What would you do if a customer said you were taking too long to handle an issue? 

How to answer: A big portion of planning and environment revolves around customer service and stakeholder management; there are a number of different organisations, community groups and individuals that are involved within the one planning project and planners need to ensure each stakeholder’s needs and priorities for a particular project are being met to ensure the project is successful. A question like the above is designed to demonstrate your customer service skills and how you can handle or resolve issues with a disgruntled stakeholder/individual. Luckily, customer service is a skill that can be developed in a number of roles, so even graduates who haven’t had much experience of this within a professional context can still use examples of customer service they’ve had in a part-time job. 

Example of a good answer: When I worked at a call centre for Telstra while finishing my studies, I would try to avoid this feedback by giving customers an estimate up-front of how long a task would take to help manage expectations. Of course, accurate estimates aren’t always possible. If I got this feedback, I'd start by acknowledging it without getting defensive. I'd probably say something like, "I apologize that this issue is taking longer than anticipated. There’s been a delay in resolving the issue” and try and explain the reason for the delay as best as I can. No one likes to be left on hold, so I would then promise to call the customer back once the resolution was resolved – this also frees up their time. Keeping customers in the loop is always important, as it helps them feel like their problem is being prioritised and they are valued as a customer. I would then provide updates by email in the interim, and then ensure I’ve communicated with the customer once the issue in question was resolved. 

Don’t Forget The STAR Method

Another popular and useful tool you can use to prepare and answer interview responses is the STAR Method, which helps to ensure your answers follow a clear structure and best showcase your competency and skillset in relation to a particular role. STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action and Response and can be applied to your answers as follows:

 The Situation- Start your answer by sharing the context around a particular work challenge, task or experience; the who, what, when and where.

The Task- Then describe your involvement or role in that particular task, challenge or situation. 

The Action- Explain the specific steps or processes you took to overcome or resolve a challenge or complete the particular task. If the action was carried out by a team, focus on your efforts as it is your efforts that are being assessed. 

The Response- Finish by summarising the outcome that was directly achieved by your efforts. In this section, it’s important to quantify your results to help demonstrate your capabilities so try and include figures or stats where possible – e.g. this resulted in a 5% increase in traffic to the organisation’s website. 

Reaching Out To Recruiters 

Another option for job seekers – especially those who have just graduated or are trying to establish their planning career – is to reach out to specialist recruiters. For graduates who are still trying to establish a professional network within the planning industry, recruiters who specialise in the urban planning space can be a great option. They will have established clients within the industry and will know of opportunities best suited to those just starting out in their careers. They will also help their candidates with all stages of the recruitment process - resumes, selection criteria and interviews- and know what organisations are looking for in a candidate’s answers. Using recruiters can provide additional support and help to ‘cut through’ within the current job market.

The key difference between using recruiters and approaching an organisation independently is that recruiters will act as middlemen between the client and the candidate (you). They will negotiate on your behalf and if the end result isn’t a job offer, they can pass on constructive feedback to assist you as you progress in your job search. To ensure this happens, you need to be working with recruiters you can trust. Do your research, take the time to meet with experienced recruiters in your market and tell them your ideal future direction, your previous experience and work background. Because you should feel comfortable and confident in who is representing you.

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Public Sector People specialise in assisting and supporting professionals within the public sector including those who work within the planning and environment space. For those interested in learning more about any of the information discussed above, you can reach out to us at 


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