“What if I have no idea how to respond to an interview question?”
This is one of the most common fears among job-seekers. The good news is, there are several steps you can take to ensure you’ll be prepared for whatever unexpected question an interviewer might throw at you.
Your first strategy should be being aware of the most commonly-asked interview questions.
And the most common question you’ll encounter is a variation of “Tell me about yourself.”
So what should you say? Sit down with a piece of paper and really think about the employer’s perspective. What will they be interested in hearing? And what will they find irrelevant and boring?
A great answer will show why you are a good candidate for the job, and how your previous experience has prepared you for the task at hand. Info like relevant education and training, projects at previous jobs that provided relevant practice or expertise, and personal passions related to the interviewer’s company or industry are fair game. Irrelevant personal information is best left out.
Practice your answer in advance and try to keep your answer to under one minute. Consider recording yourself talking. If the answer is long, determine what can be eliminated now, and shared later.
GOOD ANSWER for pharma sales position: “I got my Business degree at the University of Paris. I began my sales career in the IT sector, and did [X, Y and Z transferable skills or experience]. But because of my passion for helping people live healthier lifestyles, I am interested in this opportunity in the pharma industry.” Focuses on how previous experience can add value to the new employer.
BAD ANSWER: “I was born in Marseille and moved to Bordeaux when I was 9…” Avoid sharing irrelevant information that might bore the interviewer.
A few other common questions you should be ready for:
- What are your strengths?
- Why do you want to work here?
- Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
- Why do you want to leave your current company?
- How did you hear about this position?
- How would a previous boss describe you?
- Why should we hire you?
- What would you do in your first 90 days here?
- What is most important to you in a job?
Then, of course, there is the dreaded “What is your greatest weakness?”
There are a lot of awful ways to answer this question. (Please do not even think of saying, “I’m too much of a perfectionist sometimes,” or “My spouse complains that I am a workaholic.” Even if it is true, it will sound trite and disingenuous.)
Let’s make one thing clear: this is a terrible question, and almost feels like a trap. But the fact is, it still comes up in interviews — sometimes, because the interviewer you’re talking to is inexperienced and doesn’t know how to ask a better question, and other times, because the interviewer knows it is terrible, and wants to see how you will react to it.
So how do you get through this question intact?
Let’s break down some of the psychology behind it. What your interviewers really want to know about your areas of weakness is, 1. are you aware of it, and 2. what are you doing about it?
Thus, one of the best way to deal with this question is to talk about a real, but non-critical weakness you have had, and how you have dealt with it. Here’s an example of a decent answer: “Well, I used to be absolutely terrified of public speaking, and this was starting to impact my work. I realized that I needed to deal with it, so I talked to my manager about practicing it more in lower-stakes meetings. I also joined Toastmasters to practice public speaking in a safer environment outside of work. Although I still don’t love doing it, I no longer feels that it negatively impacts my ability to do the job.”
BAM. You have just demonstrated a high level of self-awareness, as well as an ability to deal with obstacles and work with your manager to improve your performance. Now, it’s important to keep in mind that if your future job depends on your ability to speak to large groups effectively, this would not be a great answer — you don’t want to say your weakness is something that is critical to doing the job. However, if you only need to convey information effectively at meetings, this story demonstrates that you are someone who is willing to challenge themselves and deal with their shortcomings.
Behavioral Interview Questions
A lot of employers are aware that if they ask straightforward questions, like “Are you a good problem-solver?” The answer will be a resounding “Yes!” However, if they ask about a past experience — such as, “Tell me about a time you solved a difficult problem” — they will get much greater insight into how you think and what you are actually like in action. Questions that ask about your behavior in the past are called behavioral questions.
Here are a few examples of typical behavioral questions:
- Tell me about a project you worked on that you considered a failure.
- Tell me about a time you disagreed with your boss.
- Tell me about a time you made a mistake.
- Tell me about a time you handled a dispute with your coworker.
- Tell me about an accomplishment you are proud of.
Because these questions ask about specific situations in your past, they are pretty straightforward. However, the best way to prepare is to look at common behavioral questions such as the ones above, and think of the best response to each of them.
For example, if asked about a disagreement with your boss, don’t just blurt out the story of the time you and your manager got into a loud, awkward argument in the middle of a meeting. Instead, can you think of an instance that demonstrates positive personality traits, or an instance where you learned something valuable? Did you know that you were right and your boss was wrong, but had to find a diplomatic way to show your point of view without making the manager look bad in front of the VP? Or did you learn a valuable lesson about how you were thinking short-term but your boss was basing a key decision on a long-term vision? Find a story that is engaging and demonstrates growth. (Read more about answering behavioral questions here.)