How To Handle Tricky Interview Questions

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Acing a job interview takes ambition and ultimately confidence. Say your big interview is coming up in a couple of days. You've done all your homework and recited your pre-prepared answers a dozen times. But what happens when the interviewer ambushes you with a question you didn't expect? Do you stumble because your confidence falters? Obviously, your reaction can be the difference between a cushy new paycheck every week and a trip to dead-ends-ville. To make sure you're not caught off guard the next time you walk into a job interview, we spoke with Dawn Quesnel, professional career coach, former executive recruiter at two of Boston's premier agencies, and the founder of Career Life Balance. Here's her professional advice on six common tricky interview questions. Q: What are your weaknesses? A: The purpose of this question is to see how you handle stress. Don't skirt around; be brief, direct, and to the point. Share a weakness you are currently working to improve, but don't respond with a cliche such as "I'm a perfectionist," or "I'm a hard worker." It's a balance of being real and showing you're authentic without shooting yourself in the foot. A good example is: If you're a high energy person you might say, "Sometimes I can get really excited about a project and forget that sometimes everyone isn't as inspired about it as I am and can overwhelm people with my enthusiasm." Q: What would your friends tell me about you? A: Be sure to give a positive answer that communicates qualities such as confident, fun, loyal, and hardworking. The answer should describe your personality beyond your professional image. The employer is trying to get to know you as a person here. A good example is: "My friends would probably tell you about my energy and enthusiasm that I display confidence in everything I do." Q: Tell me about a time you failed in your career. A: This question also comes in the form of "What was the biggest mistake you've ever made, and what did you learn from it?" Respond with a number of your greatest learning experiences. Maybe give an example of how you might have mis-managed a project and what you learned from that experience. The idea is to display that you are able to adapt and overcome relevant job-related challenges. The “failure” you discuss should be serious enough to be credible, but not something that would cast doubt on your competency. Q: Explaining “job hopping” on your résumé. A: If you've had a fairly high number of job changes in the last several years, be prepared to talk about them. Be candid, but explain that your job hopping was never a result of poor performance - that you grew professionally as a result of each job change. A good example: "I was very happy at XYZ Company but my boss left, the company changed directions, and then my boss who left called me and offered me a position that took my career to the next level.” Your goal is to convince the interviewer that you're interested in his company for the long haul. Q: Tell me about a time when you've had to deal with unfair or harsh criticism from a supervisor or peer. A: This is a bait question to see if you will start spewing venom about your former boss or coworkers. It's okay to talk constructively about past problems with colleagues, but be careful not to display any heated emotion. If you do, you're showing the interviewer that you probably don't handle conflict well. That's a career killer. Q: What are your salary requirements? A: Shoot for a no-answer here, which is basically what sounds like an answer but doesn't specifically respond to the question. You want the interviewer or hiring manager to give you a number instead of you giving them one. Additionally, before they provide an offer, you need to convince them that you're worth top dollar for the position. Talk about the opportunity and how you are excited by the challenge of the role and that you want to design a win-win. A good example: "In my research, I've seen anywhere from $60K to $80K for similar positions. Given my experience and perfect fit for this position I'm confident you will present me with a fair offer." Bonus Tip: Remember, some of the most interesting questions during a job interview are frequently those asked by the candidate. That's because your questions show how interested you really are in the company and the position, and how much you know about the opportunity and have thought about the challenges. Here's just a few questions you should be asking in your next job interview to start your thinking: • "What are the three accomplishments I will need to have 'checked off' at the three, six, and twelve months stages after starting this role?" • "How do these support the department, division, and corporate strategic objectives?" • "What resources are already allocated to accomplish these?" • "How many people were promoted internally last year, what was the criteria for those promotions, and what influence did you have on the situation?"

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  • Hyacinth T.
    Hyacinth T.

    This iformation is very helpful. Some of these questions cn really throw the interviewee off.

  • Vilma Blanco
    Vilma Blanco
    Good morning:I have been testing/interview with civil service positions for several cities.  I am wondering how best it is to interview with these entities.  It is much different than outside companies in their demeanor and decision making.  It's hard enough to pass the test, but there are panel interviews and if you pass that hurdle, then, you go to the individual who hires you.  Can you give good advice on how to deal better with this issue?  I always make it to the top 5, then the top 2.  I want to be the #1 now.  Thank you.
  • Pam
    If I have two companies interested in me, and one has given me an offer, but I want to hear the offer from the 2nd company before I make my decision.  Without losing my chance for the job, what is the proper way to tell the 1st company that I have a another interview I want to attend before I make my decision
  • Trevor O'Dell
    Trevor O'Dell
    Regarding how someone who doesn't like you would describe you:  Obviously, you leave out the major negatives like your annoying manner, etc.  Focus on the things that even someone who can't stand you would be forced to admit you do well.  Perhaps you could use a competitor as the "for-instance" person.  Try to avoid giving details on the people who don't like you, though, as you don't want to come across as a complainer...nor do you want those people to become your references.
  • Patricia Charles
    Patricia Charles
    How would you answer, Tell me about your boss on your last job? Thank You,Patricia
  • Becky
    I would have liked to find this website before my last 2 years of interviewing.  Thanks for answering the "hard" questions. Here's another question I'd like to find an acceptable answer for. The scenario in setting priorities when faced with conflicting deadlines and personal events in a given schedule.  Any suggestions?  
  • Greg G.
    Greg G.
    On the salary requirments question, I want to agree and expand on the response provided. Yes, it is true that if you are the first to say, "I need $60K", you're out, kaput, strike 3! Don't ever give a number. Instead, work your way around it by saying, "well, I'm sure you have a salary RANGE in mind, but I would rather focus on on how I can make contributions to your organization". Notice I emphasized "range". This way both parties can reach a comforatable agreement on salery when the candidate is offered the position--but not until then. The employer is looking for a reason to throw your name out of consideration. Don't give him/her one. It could impress them that you're not swinging at the first pitch--if you catch my drift. A final note: it is said the longer you're in an interview may be an indication the employer is interested in you. They're checking you out!!
  • Liz
    Another stock question I heard last week was, "Tell us about one of your biggest accomplishments..."They did not specify career vs. personal accomplishment, so I assumed it was career or at least professional-like.I'd love to see some examples of good answers to that question--
  • Tom Orlando
    Tom Orlando
    Very good article.  One question I had recently was, "What were you paid on your last job?"  I said I felt that was not really relevant since this is not the same type of job as the one I held last.  Actually, I didn't want to reveal that my last job was a "survival job" and paid about a quarter of what I was worth in the prospective job for which I was applying.  In addition, I was brought up to consider one's salary to be a confidential matter.  My reply was obviously the wrong one as the mood turned cold and the interviewer replied, "Salary history is ALWAYS relevant."  What should I have said?
  • Sunny Okhuevbie
    Sunny Okhuevbie
    I am just preparing for another interview next coming monday,19th May 2008. I have learned several lessons here. I could not give a satisfactory answer in my last interview when the interviewer asked about my weakness.what is your response to this question "How would someone describe you that doesn't like you?"
  • Kim Rusk
    Kim Rusk
    Thank you for all the informative material.  I have 3 very important interviews with (2) with a Big-10 University and 1 with the local Hospital.  I will take in all of the tips I received on this website as I go into these interviews!
  • marvin d moorefield
    marvin d moorefield
    thank you for sending me this e-mail because I have an interview Monday.
  • Dan
    I have always found that the best answers to write down for the "salary requirements" (or "expectations") field on your application are (1) Whatever range was used with the original job ad (like $20 - $26 per hour or $42000 - $54000 per year) or (2) Just give them a range (in yearly terms) that your research has shown to be an average earning compensation for this type of job. The important thing here is to give them a range. This will show them the fact that you have flexibility while conveying your confidence in your ability AND the value of the services you have to offer them. It also shows them your professionalism by conveying to them the fact that you are aware of what "the fair-market range" indicates that you SHOULD be getting paid. Furthermore, if they don’t respect the fact that you feel your experience (along with the fair-market value range) should qualify you to receive this much pay, then YOU should be looking elsewhere for a job that compensates YOU fairly…simply because (most likely), THEY never will!
  • Vicky
    On a recent interview, I was asked this question:  "How would someone describe you that doesn't like you"?  That really took me by surprise.  During this same interview, ALL the questions had nothing to do with my actual work/skill experience, they were all "personality" type questions. What is a good response to that question?
  • Elizabeth
    Here's one I'd love answered--I recently had a series of interviews (separate people back to back over the course of a morning) and every person thought I was slightly to definitely overqualified for the position.  I didn't feel that way at all, because it was taking my experience into a very different direction than what I had previously thought about doing.  So, how does one answer "why are you interested in a job for which you're overqualified?"  I can't exactly say, "Oh, you know we all make ourselves look really good on our resumes."  I tried to explain that I believed the new direction was very interesting and showed a lot of potential for growth, but what else could I have done?
  • Harv Ykema
    Harv Ykema
    I have a interview in a few hours, and I apprecieate the insight to the salary question, weakness question and follow up questions. I think my biggest downfall is answering the question,What is one of your weakness? Thanks
  • Judy
    Strengths and weaknesses are usually evaluated in a particular context. An enthusiastic person who likes to talk is strong in a sales job, weak in a data processing job. If you can choose an ability or personal trait that would work well in the job you're interviewing for but didn't work so well in a past job, you've got an answer that becomes another positive aspect for your interview.
  • Nip Nguyen
    Nip Nguyen
    In the couple hours from now , I'll have an interview by phone with an employer, I appreciated for the interview questions. Thanks
  • White_bread
    This is what I like to say to the salary question...I add my question at the end to turn the tables of control..."In my research, I've see that a position like this pays between $60,000 - $ 80,000 a year. Given my experience and perfect fit for this position I'm confident you will present me with a fair offer. Your company does pay fairly based on experience, right?"If they insist after this, it's a company who does not value employees, you'd be better off staying away from a place like this--or plan on looking for another job after a year or two because you WON'T be happy.
  • M. Jackson
    M. Jackson
    I think your Questions and Answers are going very helpful for a lot of us.
  • Jean Spice
    Jean Spice
    The question about criticism is a great question.  It is a good idea to get over all negative feeling towards past employers before you start interviewing.  This should be an opportunity to learn where you can improve on skills and stop blaming others for whatever went wrong.
  • ivan marioni
    ivan marioni
    It's very helpful advice.Thanks
  • Nichele
  • Dennard
        This page was very enlightening thank you very much. It is informative thought provoking. The purpose of it all is to help the interviewee understand that he/she doesn't have to be nervous, and that the interviewer is human also. Thank you again.
  • Rhonda
    I am sure we have all had that question, "SO tell me about yourself?" Don't think for a second this is not a loaded question it is.  I learned the hard way plenty of years ago when I made the mistake of answering that question as if I had never worked on any body job before.  I rambled on about my family and nothing about my skills.  Take it from me always Keep It Short &  Simple, but most of all know that you have about 1 minute to tell them about all of your skills, not your family members like I did.  That was more than 15 years ago and every time I am asked that question I think back to that day.  I have never made this mistake again.  I learned my lesson the first time around.  

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