Job interviews are often about tough questions. That’s the bad news. The good news is, with the right kind of preparation, you can breeze though most of them.
Here are 11 commonly asked questions and the best ways of answering them. Be sure to read this page in its entirety.
Question #1: “Tell me about yourself.”
This is the classic opener. Many questions you may get are just variations on this theme — “Tell me about your background’, ‘Tell me your story’, or even ‘Who are you?’
The same kind of response can cover all those questions.
Don’t start with your school and college days, ramble on about various jobs, etc. Instead, try responding with something like this very effective answer.
Mark owns an events management company. He is always on the lookout to expand his business. A medium-size technology company is meeting him to discuss having his company do a special promotion.
Though this is not a job interview, the situation is exactly similar — Mark has to sell himself and his work to the client. Here is Mark’s response to the opener question.
“I’m an events planner. I often say I’m someone who creates memorable promotional events to help my clients do good business.
“Recently, my company organized a special Japanese cultural evening on behalf of that country’s Consulate. We created a setting similar to that of a Japanese village, with traditional music and authentic Japanese food. The Consulate expressed its happiness at the event’s success and wrote a strong letter of appreciation.
“I’ve been in this field now for 8 years and have a number of repeat clients, including ABC Technologies, Infiniti Styles and XYZ media. About three quarters of my revenues are from repeat clients.
“I’ve organized shareholder meetings, theme parties, product launches and other events. As a result, I have an excellent ability to co-ordinate complex activities, lead people to perform as a team and get results — all within tight time and budget constraints.
“My clients have told me that they continue to hire me because they see me as dependable and able to deliver what they want. I now want to work with mid-size firms where such promotions can have a tangible, immediate impact. That’s why I am interested in your company.
“That’s the brief background! Actually, I’ve covered many things. What particular areas would you like to know more about?'”
See how powerful that response is? Always use this kind of answer — it’ll ensure you are head and shoulders above your competition from the get-go.
Question #2: What are your weaknesses?
Fact: everyone has weaknesses. So don’t say you have none!
Talk about a weakness that is not central to the job you are interviewing for.
For example, if you are interviewing for the position of a sports writer, do not say it takes you a long time to put your thoughts into writing!
Choose a weakness that can be fairly easily remedied. E.g. talk about specific knowledge in an area, and not a personality trait / key skill.
For example, if the target organization is using a particular cloud computing platform you are not familiar with, you might use that as a weakness. Provided working on that platform is not central to your job!
Always state what you are doing to remedy the weakness. For example, you might mention that you are attending night classes about that application.
Question #3: “Career-wise, where do you see yourself in 5 years time?”
The interviewer is trying to find out whether you have a vision for your career. Plus whether you will stick around for a while.
Give specifics about how you hope to grow professionally picking up new skills and knowledge.
You can mention the kind of career progression you envision. Maybe you are in sales and you would like to see yourself as heading a region, for example.
Also mention some ‘big picture’ stuff. Eg, you’d like to make a real impact on your industry, or on your company’s clients in some manner. And, of course mention that you would like to do this working for your interviewer’s company.
Question #4: “How do you get along with your supervisors?”
This can be a tricky question — if you choose to make it so. Your best bet is to respond in a straightforward manner.
Say that you get along very well with your boss and that you consider your relationship with him to be one of the major positives in your job.
But sometimes, they may ask you to elaborate further. The interviewer may do so either to uncover any difficulty you are having in getting along with people, or to find out what sort of people you are looking to work for.
One way out is to discuss some lessons you learnt from your boss. It is usually true that we learn something of value from all our bosses, and this puts you on safe ground.
Any elaboration you do about your relationship should only be in positive terms. Never hint at serious personality clashes when responding.
Question #5: “How do you most enjoy working – alone or in a group of people?”
Look at the organization, its needs and culture to bring the correct emphasis to the answer.
In all cases, you will have to demonstrate that you are good at and comfortable with working in both team situations and in an individual, self-directed manner.
Thus, it is best to give a balanced reply.
Demonstrate both situations with examples of how you produced good results under each condition.
Question #6: “In a group setting, what are you – a leader or a follower?”
This is somewhat similar to the earlier question on working alone versus in a group.
As a general rule, it is best to answer this question also with examples of situations where you assumed leadership roles and where you were a good team player.
If you overemphasize your leadership capabilities, it may be assumed that you are not a good team player or worse, that you have problems getting along with people.
And for obvious reasons, do not imply that you cannot assume leadership roles either. Hence the need for balance in your reply.
Now, what if you are asked some really difficult-to-answer questions (see the next two questions for examples)?
There are two keys to giving effective answers to tough interviewing questions.
First – get to the heart of the interviewer’s concern. Ask them exactly what about that objection bothers them. If you miss this step, giving effective answers to difficult questions is, well, real tough.
Second – It’s how you say it as much what you say. Great answers to tough interviewing questions are always given in a calm, confident manner.
Here are a couple of tough questions / objections and ways you can answer them.
Question #7: You’ve held too many jobs in a short time span
Keep in mind that what constitutes ‘too many jobs’ varies from one interviewer to another. Explain each of those moves briefly, with some logic. The reasons could include, but are not limited to:
- A job was just not right for you, and you decided to move away from it, cutting your losses
- The employer’s business failed or was on the verge of failing, which is why you moved out
- A reorganization that reduced the importance of your department and adversely affected your career prospects
- The organization merged with another one and your position was due to be downsized
- You had reached a certain level and further advancement was not possible in the foreseeable future
Present your logic objectively without sounding bitter or angry. Highlight your initiative in moving out of an undesirable situation.
If you held onto one of the jobs for a reasonable period, show that as evidence of your commitment to stick around.
Is there any other activity you’ve done for years – social work, etc? If so, you can mention that as evidence of your ‘stick-ability’. All of these could be great answers.
Question #8: You have one or more gaps in your employment
If you have valid reasons for the gaps, you do not have anything to worry about.
E.g. you took time off to study full time, be a full time mother, or critical illness forced you to take rest, etc.
If you do not have such reasons, your gap may take some explaining. If you have had gaps in your work history but are now employed and are looking for another job, the problem is not really a major one.
Perhaps you had other activities going on – helping out a friend in his business, volunteer activities, doing freelance work, teaching classes, working on a temporary basis, etc.
This will give you something genuine to say about what you are doing now.
If you had started a business that did not do well and you now want to go back to a job, put a positive slant on the situation. Focus on how you had showed initiative and considerable courage in going out on your own.
Be sure to highlight how you have satisfied your entrepreneurial urges and are now more than willing to settle down in a job.
As you saw from the previous two questions, it is definitely possible to give convincing answers to difficult questions. All it needs is some preparation and clear thinking.
In general, you need to dig deep and develop a deep understanding of relevant facts about the company, industry, competitive landscape, etc. That’s what will allow you to give the best possible answers to questions during a job interview.
Question #9: What three words describe you?
The best way to answer this question is to pull out three of your strengths. You must sit down and make a list of your key achievements and greatest strengths before going into a job interview.
You do need to plan in advance for this question. Based on the job you are interviewing for, you need to identify three key strengths of yours in such a way that they tie in with what the job requires.
While mentioning those strengths, back them up with brief examples of specific accomplishments you made in your current / previous job.
You can include a mix of your knowledge, specific skills and personal quality to answer this question. That will give a more rounded and better impression to the employer.
For example, you can talk about your knowledge of specific programming paradigms or methods and your ability to effectively lead a team as the three areas.
Of course, you need to back up each with a short example, as mentioned above.
Remember, it’s often difficult to think up a good answer on the spur of the moment. That’s why there’s no substitute for adequate preparation before meeting the company.
Question #10: “Tell me about a time when you faced an ethical dilemma”
This type of question is common in behavioral interviews. Your best option is to give an example where you were only an observer and not a participant.
Perhaps you became aware of someone violating company policy, cheating, etc.
Be sure to speak in neutral terms; avoid sounding self-righteous. Never reveal names of the parties involved.
Show that you spoke to the parties involved and made them aware of the violation before you initiated any sort of legal or disciplinary action.
And do point out what you learnt from the situation. Perhaps you saw a need for better control systems, etc to make sure this did not repeat. That’s a great way to respond to this question.
Question #11: Did you do any preparation for this interview?
No need to say you didn’t. The fact that you did prepare for a job interview only shows your professionalism and won’t reflect badly on you.
In a matter of fact manner, describe how you researched the company, profession and industry as a whole.
Don’t mention that you participated in mock interviews, or worked on public speaking skills, identified your strengths and weaknesses, etc. You want them to get the impression you are always confident, aware and articulate.
As you can see, coming out with flying colors in job interviews is to a great extent, a matter of good planning and forethought. Remember the scout motto “Be prepared”? That’s probably the best advice anyone can give you for employment interviews.