How do you ace an interview? How can you prepare for the inevitably difficult questions? This material is excerpted from a program segment I did on NBC-30’s morning show with Keisha Grant on October 18, 2005.
Tell me about yourself.
This is the classic interview question to anticipate. A good immediate response is, “I’d love to—where would you like me to start?” It helps to focus the interviewer’s area of interest while you collect your thoughts.
The best solution is lots of interview preparation. Know as much as you can about the job and the employer. Focus your responses on the match between your experience and what the employer needs. Develop your “one-minute” introduction that captures highlights of your background and experience. Definitely rehearse this question because it’s almost a guarantee you’ll be asked it.
KEY POINT: Don’t ramble, be prepared, link strengths of your background to company/opportunity at hand.
Why did you leave your most recent job?
Be honest and positive, even if you were fired or resigned. If you were fired, explain what happened very briefly in a sentence or two. Add what you learned from that experience.
Did you resign? You can respond, "I was seeking career advancement" or "I wanted to pursue a new career opportunity” and “believed it was fairer to my employer to conduct my search on a full-time basis, not while I was working.”
If you were laid off, you can reply, "My company was forced to downsize my department."
KEY POINT: Never bad-mouth or be negative about a past employer.
What is your greatest strength?
By the time you enter an interview, you should have a pretty good idea what your key attributes are. Good things to consider (and always be authentic) are being flexible, adaptive, willing to learn, willing to take on additional responsibilities … and then skill-specific. For someone in an administrative role, for instance: incredible attention to detail, methodical, well-organized, high energy level, excellent team player.
KEY POINT: Prepare a quick summary of key strengths in advance that you think best link to challenges of the opportunity.
What’s your biggest weakness?
Another classic question you should anticipate. Be certain to prepare. Two good replies (but be true to yourself):
* I can sometimes get too bogged down in details and so I have to step back, from time to time, to look at the big picture. That’s because I believe every customer deserves 100% of my energy and attention to those details. The point? While it’s a potential weakness (losing sight of the scope of work and becoming bogged down in details), it also demonstrates that it is the result of a commitment to customers, an asset.
* I try to please everybody and at times I have to be careful of that. I’m always working on my time management skills. I am guilty of trying to do too much in one day. The strategies I’ve employed include working off a to-do list, hiring a time management consultant, which was very useful, and spending 15 minutes at the end of each day to reorganize my desk and my planner.
KEY POINT: Be prepared. Be concise. Don’t be too personal or “negative.” Focus on the upside of how you turn a weakness into an advantage.
You appear overqualified for this job; why do you want this position?
This often occurs in situations of “underemployed” executives—folks who lost high-paying jobs and now are working looking to work at Staples or Home Depot, for instance. What you want to demonstrate is that you are committed to joining this company and making a contribution. Emphasize the high energy and skills you have to do this job—deemphasize the higher level of your previous positions. DON’T say, for instance, “when I was the president of Alpha Electronics, I did such-and-such.” Eliminate titles from your vocabulary. Instead, show actual skills linked to this position.
If pushed—why would someone with your background be willing to work for such an obvious pay cut? Your best reply is that you are fortunate to be in a position that allows you to truly pursue a job you would love—and this is a chance to get into a rapid-paced, customer-focused environment in a field you’ve always wanted to work in (i.e., home improvement).
KEY POINT: Display enthusiasm. Tie to a desire you’ve always had in this particular field. Be clear about your commitment to joining the company.
Why the large time gap on your resume?
For someone who has been unemployed for a long time (say more than 9 months or a year to many years), it’s important to be honest.
If you’ve been a caregiver or stay-at-home mom, for instance, mention that you have cared for a family member (or children) for the past seven years, but are now returning full time to the work force.
If you’ve been retired and are now returning to work, mention that you were in a position where you could take a few years off for travel following your retirement from Aetna and that you’ve had an opportunity to learn a new skill, which you are anxious to put to use back in the workforce. Definitely mention if you have used the opportunity to return to school or even take a PC class.
Finally, if you have been actively searching, mention that you have been pursuing new opportunities on a full-time basis in order to find the right opportunity to which you can really make a difference … and that this seems to be the one!
KEY POINT: Offer a brief, positive explanation. Show how you’ve maintained or learned new skills. Demonstrate enthusiasm for this opportunity.
What are your salary requirements?
Always try to postpone this as long as possible. If the question comes up too early in the process, you can sincerely respond, “Oh, are you in a position of making me an offer now?” Chances are the interviewer wants to establish a range. A good reply to consider is, “I am confident that if we establish that I am the right candidate for this position, your offer will be on target with industry standards for the value I can bring to your organization.” If really pushed for a number (and you should do research in advance), you can respond with a researched reply, “I would expect to be compensated in the $65K to $80K range, what I understand to be the typical range in this area for these responsibilities. However, I’m most interested in establishing fit and determining that I am the right candidate for the job. I’d like to tell you a little more about …” and then get back to signature strengths.
KEY POINT: Keep the interview going as long as possible before negotiating to best demonstrate your value. When pushed, have a broad range in mind, but focus on establishing “fit.”
Tell me about the most challenging work problem you have ever faced.
You should definitely prepare a CAR story for every interview. A CAR story is challenge-action-result. It should be a story that can be told in less than 2 minutes and showcase your talent in effecting a positive outcome.
KEY POINT: Always prepare several excellent examples of situations that were challenging for which you “had the answer” and craft a succinct reply that shows a positive result.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
Four Best Strategies to Help With Sticky Interview Questions
#1 – Prepare! Rehearse. Practice the tough questions. Do it outloud, with a friend or coach.
#2 – Due diligence. Learn as much about the job and employer as possible before the interview. Consider your top selling points, your critical advantages.
#3 – Don’t be afraid to pause and reflect on a difficult question during the interview. You can even say, “That’s a great question, let me consider for a moment …”
#4 – Always remember your follow-up thank you letter is your best tool for addressing anything forgotten in the interview, reiterating a key point you want to reinforce, or clarifying an answer on which you stumbled. Just knowing that you can address anything in the thank you can give you great confidence in the interview!
– Jan Melnik, MRW, CCM, CPRW, President, Absolute Advantage