How to answer hard interview questions January 30, 2009Posted by Helen Curry in : Uncategorized , trackback
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When I was applying for my present job, my Dad commented that he had only ever had one interview in his life! He got the job, and stayed there. It sounded crazy, but it was much more common in his generation to have a job for life. Now people would expect to have much more change in their careers, and for some jobs people will have multiple interviews by phone and in front of different panels. But doing more interviews doesn’t make it any easier!
I think most people hate interviews, and it is common to walk out feeling you didn’t show a true picture of yourself, or that you stumbled over a question which you now have the perfect answer for…
How would you answer these?
- Why do people like working with you?
- What sort of tasks do you normally put off doing if you can?
- How would you describe your leadership style?
- How would you cope with a heavy workload?
- Who is your hero/heroine?
It is a terrible experience if you get blocked in an interview, if someone asks you a question that completely throws you. While you are less likely nowadays to be asked truly bizarre questions like “if you were a vegetable, what would you be?”, however you may be asked negative-leading questions like “what is your greatest weakness”. Your first thought might not be the one you want to give…
It can definitely help to write down a list of possible questions based on the job description and run through them with a friend. Even better, get down to your local careers service and borrow a book on interviews. That’s where you will find the questions you don’t expect. You might think that such books aren’t useful to you, as they aren’t job-specific, however a large part of any interview is about general work skills and you as a person – how you handle stress, how you work in a team, how you plan projects, how you lead. These personal questions can be the hardest ones to answer on the spot.
For a general overview of preparing for interview, see our leaflets on Interviews.
I think sometimes there is a feeling both amongst interviewees and interviewers that people shouldn’t prepare, that an interview should bring out a person’s natural responses to get a true picture of them. I disagree. What is natural about an interview?
- Not everyone is good at thinking up answers on the spot, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be good at doing the job. Does the day-to-day job really require instant, unprepared answers?
- Many people just aren’t comfortable with talking about themselves, or boasting about their achievements, and it can make them feel embarassed. Rehearsing answers can help them find a way to express their success stories in a way that they feel comfortable with, that represents the facts of what they did well.
- Modern interview questions are carefully designed to identify key skills and requirements from the job description. In this situation, an answer can be greatly strengthened if you follow the model answer format that matches this question style. If they ask “how do you cope with tight deadlines”, you can either say “very well thank you”, or produce a structured STAR response: describe the Situation, describe the specific Task, explain your Action, and give the Result. The latter answer is stronger because you are giving concrete examples to demonstrate your point, and you are revealing much more about your personal, practical and emotional responses.
- Some people say you can’t anticipate every question, so if you are very well-prepared you might feel even more thrown when you get something unexpected. Perhaps. But I would never recommend learning rote answers to every question you can find – it is a waste of time, and you don’t want to sound like a robot. Just take some time to identify a few key examples for each key skill that you can adapt to fit different questions.
- Avoid common mistakes. In a recent interview practice session, when asked to describe a team project, many students talked about “we discussed our options, we decided this by vote, we did this”. As soon as you see other people do it, you can see the problem. The interviewee is being modest or is trying to play up their teamwork credentials, but what the interviewer really wants is to know about you - what you suggested, what role you took in the team. As far as they know, you could have been completely passive. When you practice in front of others, they can point these kinds of mistakes out to you.
- And of course, applying for jobs is competitive. Would you go to the Olympics without training so your ‘natural talent’ will shine through? No, you would practice because you can always improve; you will compare yourself with others before the big day so you know that you have met the standard to compete.
While it is true that a good interviewer can bring out a lot from a candidate and compensate for the awkwardness of the situation, many job interviews are conducted by non-specialists. I mean that in two respects, either they are expert interviewers from the HR department but they don’t know the technical details about your role, or they are your future colleagues, experienced in doing the job but untrained in coaxing answers from inarticulate candidates. Furthermore, there are sometimes procedural restrictions on how many additional leading questions can be asked to stimulate the candidate to talk further.
Why take a chance? Why make the interviewer do all the work? If you prepare a few good examples, and get familiar with interview questions, you will feel more relaxed and more confident. You will know what you want to say, how to express who you are, and what you can do, and make sure they hear it!