How to Answer Tough Job Interview Questions Expert Insights, Tips and Tools to Sell Yourself
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Building a strong resume, choosing potential employers and getting your foot in the door to pitch yourself are huge accomplishments when searching for jobs. After all, only about 2 percent of applicants even get asked to interview, according to a report from Glassdoor, a job search and review website. Proper interview preparation is the crucial next step. Even the most qualified candidate can get shaken by an unexpected or difficult interview question. While it's impossible to know exactly what an employer will ask, examining tough questions, their purpose and ways to approach them can help job-seekers feel confident and prepared going into their interviews.
17 Tough Interview Questions and How to Answer Them
Thinking about potentially difficult interview questions in advance and taking the time to tailor answers to a particular company can go a long way toward making an interview go smoothly and helping a candidate stand out. Some of the toughest questions are quite common, pushing interviewees to think critically and creatively about their answers. Others are unexpected and may catch candidates off guard. Career strategist and founder of Rebuilding Foundations, Hannah Stenson, and master interview coach and founder of Rocket Interview, Jeevan Balani, weigh in on some of the toughest interview questions job-seekers face today.
How would you describe yourself in one word?
What is your greatest accomplishment?
What are your biggest strengths?
What are your biggest weaknesses?
“This is a classic ‘tough' question since there is no perfect answer,” Balani says. “A good approach is to be candid about an area you are working on. But it is critical that you highlight how you have already started improving in this area, and the actions you continue to take to improve on this weakness.”
Stenson agrees and provides an easy-to-follow formula: “Go to WAR with this question: Weakness, Action, Result. My weakness is [a common weakness you experience and have learned from] which has forced me to [show maturity in how you have recognized it in your life] which has led me to [insert something positive about how you have grown because of it].”
Both stress that the weakness should be meaningful, not something trite (“I'm a perfectionist”) or trivial (“I need a couple cups of coffee before I get going in the morning”).
Tell me about yourself.
Where do you see yourself in X years?
Also, recognize that while employers may be sincerely interested in a candidate's plans for the future, Stenson points out there's quite likely another motive. “Often the intent behind this question is about longevity — will you stay with the company, or will you leave? Positions are expensive to fill, and if you are planning to leave before you even get the job, that can be a red flag. Pivot the question to the here and now, and your commitment to this position.”
If you could work anywhere, where would you work?
Describe a time when your job conflicted with your ethics. How did you handle the situation?
Why have you been out of work so long? (or) Could you explain the gaps in your employment?
Why are you leaving your current job? (Or anything about current or former jobs.)
Tell me about a time you made a decision without complete information.
How much do you expect to get paid?
Tell me about a time you demonstrated leadership.
Have you let an employee go or moved them off your team?
How would your team describe you?
Why should I hire you?
Do you have any questions for me?
Job Interviewing Apps and Tools
Practicing interviewing skills can help job candidates craft thoughtful responses and go into their interview feeling confident and prepared. These apps and sites can smooth the process.
Big Interview is a subscription-based, online interview training platform that provides advice and practice interviews specifically tailored to users' industry, position and experience levels. Students and alumni can check to see if free memberships are available through their schools.
Doing extensive research on a company and the specific people in charge of hiring can be time-consuming, but it's a necessary part of building thoughtful interview responses. Charlie scours the internet and puts together a summary of pertinent news and social data regarding a company or person, giving interviewees a background upon which they can build.
For those who prefer to practice their interview skills on a computer rather than through an app, Interview4.ME is a good solution. Users answer interview prompts and record them with their computer's webcam.
This free app uses video to help users practice their interviewing skills. Users can watch as Career Confidential's CEO asks them interview questions, and make a video recording of their responses so they can see and hear their answers from the interviewer's perspective.
This free app is a comprehensive interview prep tool for iOS. It provides practice questions, an interview playlist builder, pre-interview brain warm-ups and tips for post-interview follow-ups.
This computer-based, free mock interview platform allows users to customize their interview practice to specific industries, and the site's question bank is updated regularly. Users can share their interviews with mentors or request feedback from an expert. My Interview Practice also has a blog where job-seekers can find more advice and information to help with job prep.
Aimed specifically at engineers and programmers, Pramp is a free peer-to-peer mock interviewing platform that helps prepare job-seekers for coding interviews. Users can interview, practice and give and receive feedback with a peer. Pramp also matches users' skills, based on practice interviews, with potential employers and facilitates resume-free interviews within the platform itself.
While Wordzen won't provide any mock interviews or practice questions, it's an excellent tool for reaching out to prospective employers and following up after an interview via email. Live editors ensure users' emails are professional and free of errors, so a clumsy phrase won't quash a candidate's opportunity.
What If You Don't Have Some Answers?
No matter how much they prepare, there is still a chance that prospective employees will not have an answer to an interview question — and will freeze up as they search for what to say. When a clear answer isn't available, the best approach is to be honest rather than try to fake your way through. Stay calm and poised, and try to work around the question while still providing the information the interviewee is after.
Balani says it's good to think about the underlying intent of the question and address that. “Consider this example: ‘What experience do you have with SQL?' This is a common question for analysts, and often they do not have much experience. The way to pivot here is to discuss your relevant skills, which can include analyzing data and working with a variety of technological solutions, and to potentially articulate your understanding of SQL, even if you don't have the experience. Express enthusiasm for applying your transferable analytical skills to SQL.”
Showing a willingness to learn, whether it's a particular skill or something related to the company's inner workings, is a great way for candidates to demonstrate honesty, sincere interest and investment in the position.
Some companies like to ask word problems or trivia-style questions to see if a candidate can think on their feet and work through problems in stressful situations. If asked how many golf balls would it take to fill the room, a “would you rather” scenario or some other off-the-wall question, candidates should avoid saying they don't have an answer. In these situations, employers are more interested in seeing analytical skills than correct answers.
“Pauses to think are OK,” Stenson says. “Not knowing the answer, especially to a more technical question, is OK as well. Walk them through how you would find the answer or as much of the answer as you know. These hard questions show them how you deal with stress and pressure, so recover by showing tact in this stressful situation.”
If an interviewee finds themselves in a particularly tricky situation they can't handle in that moment, they should calmly acknowledge the question and say they need some time to think about it. In a follow-up email thanking the interviewer, include an answer to the tough question. While it's not ideal, remembering the question and demonstrating that they've actually given it thought can show that the candidate is thoughtful and true to their word.
Stenson notes that it's important to remember that sometimes interviewers ask inappropriate questions about things like age, ethnic background, religious beliefs and gender, and that in these situations, it's OK to not answer. “Know what your legal protections are,” she says, “and learn to respond appropriately: ‘Is there something specific you are wondering or worried about?' Asking for the intent behind the question can help you clear up any concerns, no matter how awfully phrased the question. And at any point, if the interviewer is asking inappropriate questions, making you feel uncomfortable or disrespecting you or your time, you can leave.”
People getting ready for job interviews can access more tips, preparation tools, mock interview software and other useful job search resources by checking out these websites.
Before landing an interview, job-seekers need to have a good resume. Creddle allows users to customize a range of sleek resume templates. The templates automatically format to fit a single page and can be printed or used online.
Glassdoor is a job search and review site that focuses on workplace transparency. Job-seekers can research careers and salaries to help prepare for salary questions.
This popular guided meditation app can help job candidates gather their thoughts and stay relaxed before their interviews.
This business-focused social media platform is full of job search resources and expert advice on tackling interviews.
Huntr is a job search organization app that helps job-seekers keep track of all aspects of their search, including jobs they've applied to and interviewed for, wage information, job descriptions, locations and contacts.
For some job-seekers, assessing themselves and identifying strong talking points is a real challenge. Mindomo is a brainstorming and organizational tool that can help users visualize and connect ideas by using mind maps, concept maps and outlines.
Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, O*NET is an excellent resource for career and salary research.
This blog provides advice, templates, courses and other information to help job-seekers successfully navigate all aspects of a job search.
Using this site, job-seekers can make their resumes pop with eye-catching infographics based on information pulled from their resumes or LinkedIn profiles.
Find video and text-based answers to job interview questions and conundrums.
This interview training platform was designed specifically for college students to help them become stronger job candidates. The system allows professors and career coaches to customize training to specific fields of study and has a range of features to make providing feedback easier. Free memberships may be available through students' schools.
This is an example of an on-campus resource for student job-seekers. Many colleges and universities have career centers where students can draft resumes, research jobs and prepare for interviews.
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