Navigate Common But Difficult Interview Questions With Ease

Posted by Jeff Pelliccio on Feb 15, 2012 9:14:00 AM

In Interview Tips

For most people, interviews are the most nerve-wracking part of the job application process. Being in an unfamiliar environment with people you do not know, who could ask you almost anything, can rattle the nerves of even the most confident candidate. That is why preparation is essential and that includes practicing your responses to interview questions. While you should avoid sounding rehearsed, you want to have answers to draw from, especially when confronted with the most difficult interview questions. Thankfully, many of the trickier interview questions are among the most common ones, and some forethought and introspection will help you navigate them with ease.

1. Tell me about yourself. This is one of the most popular ways to begin an interview and while it is partially meant to put you at ease, it is also a way to gauge how articulate, composed, and professional you are. Common mistakes are providing long, meandering answers, divulging personal rather than professional information, and simply regurgitating your resume. You need to find the balance between describing who you are and what you have done. Your answer should be concise, focused on your career, and highlight experiences and qualities that relate to this specific position.

Draw your interviewer in immediately with a compelling description of who you are as an employee. You should be able to accomplish this with three strong adjectives describing your best professional traits. Include a quick synopsis of your experience while mentioning key skills and achievements that illustrate what you would contribute to the company. Conclude with a description of how this position fits into your professional development and how you would use that to bolster the company. In about a minute, you should describe who you are, what you do, what you offer this company, and what you want for yourself and the organization. Make sure it aligns with the company’s mission statement and the job description. If you have a well-rehearsed elevator speech or self-marketing pitch, answering this should be a piece of cake. If you do not, now is a good time to write one.

2. What are your weaknesses? This is probably one of the most dreaded interview questions of them all. You do not want to reply with a generic, non-answer that dodges the question by citing a strength. It is far better to acknowledge a genuine weakness and describe the steps you have taken to overcome it. You should also pick something that is not critical to this position or could be a deal breaker. The best approach is to mention a skill you acquired or an approach to your work that you changed and continue to strengthen. Here is an example of each (and note the past tense in the first sentence):

A Skill: I was nervous about public-speaking, but I took a workshop to develop my presentation skills and created opportunities to speak in front of groups in order to become a more comfortable and adept public speaker. I continue to improve by reading books about communication, remaining current on technology for presentations, and speaking to groups whenever possible.

An Approach: While I never miss a deadline, I had a habit of overextending myself. I took a time management course and realized by setting a series of mini-deadlines, I could accurately assess my workload and make commitments accordingly. Also, since I had already completed several steps, I was never scurrying to do something at the last minute. I continue to improve by participating in an online forum about time management, reading articles about managing your workload, and maintaining a calendar to chronicle my mini-deadlines and determine whether I should allocate more or less time to similar tasks.

Answer this difficult interview question by identifying a weakness you have overcome that does not relate directly to the job requirements, describing the solution, and mentioning ways you continue to improve. An honest, substantive answer that demonstrates a pro-active approach and effective solution will impress every time.

3. Why did you leave your last job? There are a lot of variations of this question, but at their core they all invite you to say something negative about your past employer. Do not take the bait. Frame your answer positively and focus on yourself rather than the company. Begin by talking about what you learned and how you grew there. Then, describe your future professional development in the context of this new position. Take the same approach if the interviewer asks you to name something you did not like about your former boss, colleagues, or company. Start by acknowledging something good, then identify something that was new or different that required you to adapt. Finish by circling back to the positive and mention how this helped you improve. For example, “While I learned a great deal from my boss, he had a more relaxed approach to meetings which meant they often extended past the scheduled end time. I realized I needed to incorporate a 30-minute buffer into my schedule, so neither one of us would run late. I must admit that we often made the most progress during those extra minutes and it made me appreciate the benefits of being generous with my time even during busy periods.”

4. Where do you see yourself in five years? Predicting the future is impossible, but articulating a vision for your career is essential. Your response should communicate that you are ambitious but realistic and want to move up at this company, not move on from it. Your interviewer should also view you as an asset not a threat. If you have done your research, you will know what the typical career path is as well as the next couple of positions above this one. Keep in mind that while you will always strive to excel, the first six months of any job is mostly about finding your feet and truly learning about the company. During the next six, you will become fully integrated and start making a meaningful difference. The following year, you will flourish and make visible strides towards advancement. While this trajectory is by no means carved in stone, it serves as a good guide.

Begin your answer by describing the position you are actually applying for and a company with the same characteristics as this one. Mention your primary areas of interest and how you would like to expand your knowledge during those five years. Lastly, in general terms, explain how that career development would broaden your responsibilities and benefit the company overall. Your answer should chart a journey for you and the company with your prospective boss progressing in parallel.

5. Name 5 different ways you use a pencil at work (and other oddball questions). Obscure questions have become a trend in job interviews, and while you cannot prepare specific answers, you can have a sound strategy. Most importantly, you must be able to think on your feet and take any curveball questions in stride. Not becoming flustered when an interviewer asks you ”why are manhole covers round,” or “if you were a burger, what kind would you be” is not easy but it could be the deciding factor when it comes to hiring. The most important thing to remember is that there is no right answer for these questions. They are designed to evaluate your grace under pressure, problem solving skills, and creativity.

First, take a breath and repeat the question in your mind. While you do not want to freeze and leave nothing but dead air, you also do not want to jump in without thinking. Feel free to ask if you can take a moment to think about it. The only way to completely bomb this interview question is to panic and either launch into a bumbling, disjointed answer or offer nothing. Approach it good-naturedly and walk your interviewer through your thinking. While your answer can illustrate your creativity and thought process, this question is mostly about assessing your composure and personality.