Toughest Interview Questions and Answers

Question 1           Tell me about yourself.

TRAPS:  Beware, about 80% of all interviews begin with this “innocent” question. Many candidates, unprepared for the question, skewer themselves by rambling, recapping their life story, delving into ancient work history or personal matters.

BEST ANSWER: Start with the present and tell why you are well qualified for the position. Remember that the key to all successful interviewing is to match your qualifications to what the interviewer is looking for. In other words you must sell what the buyer is buying. This is the single most important strategy in job hunting.

So, before you answer this or any question it’s imperative that you try to uncover your interviewer’s greatest need, want, problem or goal.

To do so, make you take these two steps:

  1. Do all the homework you can before the interview to uncover this person’s wants and needs (not the generalized needs of the industry or company)
  2. As early as you can in the interview, ask for a more complete description of what the position entails.  You might say: “I have a number of accomplishments I’d like to tell you about, but I want to make the best use of our time together and talk directly to your needs. To help me do, that, could you tell me more about the most important priorities of this position?  All I know is what I (heard from the recruiter, read in the classified ad, etc.)”

Then, ALWAYS follow-up with a second and possibly, third question, to draw out his needs even more. Surprisingly, it’s usually this second or third question that unearths what the interviewer is most looking for.

You might ask simply, “And in addition to that?…” or, “Is there anything else you see as essential to success in this position?:

This process will not feel easy or natural at first, because it is easier simply to answer questions, but only if you uncover the employer’s wants and needs will your answers make the most sense. Practice asking these key questions before giving your answers, the process will feel more natural and you will be light years ahead of the other job candidates you’re competing with.

After uncovering what the employer is looking for, describe why the needs of this job bear striking parallels to tasks you’ve succeeded at before. Be sure to illustrate with specific examples of your responsibilities and especially your achievements, all of which are geared to present yourself as a perfect match for the needs he has just described.

Question 2       What are your greatest strengths?

TRAPS: This question seems like a softball lob, but be prepared. You don’t want to come across as egotistical or arrogant. Neither is this a time to be humble.

BEST ANSWER: You know that your key strategy is to first uncover your interviewer’s greatest wants and needs before you answer questions. And from Question 1, you know how to do this.

Prior to any interview, you should have a list mentally prepared of your greatest strengths. You should also have, a specific example or two, which illustrates each strength, an example chosen from your most recent and most impressive achievements.

You should, have this list of your greatest strengths and corresponding examples from your achievements so well committed to memory that you can recite them cold after being shaken awake at 2:30AM.

Then, once you uncover your interviewer’s greatest wants and needs, you can choose those achievements from your list that best match up.

As a general guideline, the 10 most desirable traits that all employers love to see in their employees are:

  1. A proven track record as an achiever…especially if your achievements match up with the employer’s greatest wants and needs.
  2. Intelligence…management “savvy”.
  3. Honesty…integrity…a decent human being.
  4. Good fit with corporate culture…someone to feel comfortable with…a team player who meshes well with interviewer’s team.
  5. Likeability…positive attitude…sense of humor.
  6. Good communication skills.
  7. Dedication…willingness to walk the extra mile to achieve excellence.
  8. Definiteness of purpose…clear goals.
  9. Enthusiasm…high level of motivation.
  10. Confident…healthy…a leader.

Question 3           What are your greatest weaknesses?

TRAPS:  Beware – this is an eliminator question, designed to shorten the candidate list. Any admission of a weakness or fault will earn you an “A” for honesty, but an “F” for the interview.

PASSABLE ANSWER: Disguise a strength as a weakness.

Example: “I sometimes push my people too hard.  I like to work with a sense of urgency and everyone is not always on the same wavelength.”

Drawback: This strategy is better than admitting a flaw, but it’s so widely used, it is transparent to any experienced interviewer.

BEST ANSWER:  (and another reason it’s so important to get a thorough description of your interviewer’s needs before you answer questions): Assure the interviewer that you can think of nothing that would stand in the way of your performing in this position with excellence. Then, quickly review you strongest qualifications.

Example: “Nobody’s perfect, but based on what you’ve told me about this position, I believe I’ d make an outstanding match. I know that when I hire people, I look for two things most of all. Do they have the qualifications to do the job well, and the motivation to do it well?  Everything in my background shows I have both the qualifications and a strong desire to achieve excellence in whatever I take on. So I can say in all honesty that I see nothing that would cause you even a small concern about my ability or my strong desire to perform this job with excellence.”

Alternate strategy (if you don’t yet know enough about the position to talk about such a perfect fit):
Instead of confessing a weakness, describe what you like most and like least, making sure that what you like most matches up with the most important qualification for success in the position, and what you like least is not essential.

Example: Let’s say you’re applying for a teaching position. “If given a choice, I like to spend as much time as possible in front of my prospects selling, as opposed to shuffling paperwork back at the office.  Of course, I long ago learned the importance of filing paperwork properly, and I do it conscientiously. But what I really love to do is sell (if your interviewer were a sales manager, this should be music to his ears.)

Question 4           Tell me about something you did – or failed to do – that you now feel a little ashamed of.

TRAPS: There are some questions your interviewer has no business asking, and this is one.  But while you may feel like answering, “none of your business,” naturally you can’t.  Some interviewers ask this question on the chance you admit to something, but if not, at least they’ll see how you think on your feet.

Some unprepared candidates, flustered by this question, unburden themselves of guilt from their personal life or career, perhaps expressing regrets regarding a parent, spouse, child, etc.  All such answers can be disastrous.

BEST ANSWER: As with faults and weaknesses, never confess a regret. But don’t seem as if you’re stonewalling either.

Best strategy: Say you harbor no regrets, then add a principle or habit you practice regularly for healthy human relations.

Example: Pause for reflection, as if the question never occurred to you.  Then say, “You know, I really can’t think of anything.”  (Pause again, then add): “I would add that as a general management principle, I’ve found that the best way to avoid regrets is to avoid causing them in the first place.  I practice one habit that helps me a great deal in this regard.  At the end of each day, I mentally review the day’s events and conversations to take a second look at the people and developments I’m involved with and do a doublecheck of what they’re likely to be feeling.  Sometimes I’ll see things that do need more follow-up, whether a pat on the back, or maybe a five minute chat in someone’s office to make sure we’re clear on things…whatever.”

“I also like to make each person feel like a member of an elite team, like the Boston Celtics or LA Lakers in their prime.  I’ve found that if you let each team member know you expect excellence in their performance…if you work hard to set an example yourself…and if you let people know you appreciate and respect their feelings, you wind up with a highly motivated group, a team that’s having fun at work because they’re striving for excellence rather than brooding over slights or regrets.”

Question 5           Why are you leaving (or did you leave) this position?

TRAPS: Never badmouth your previous industry, company, board, boss, staff, employees or customers.  This rule is inviolable:  never be negative. Any mud you hurl will only soil your suit.

Especially avoid words like “personality clash”, “didn’t get along”, or others which cast a shadow on your competence, integrity, or temperament.

BEST ANSWER:

(If you have a job presently)
If you’re not yet 100% committed to leaving your present post, don’t be afraid to say so.  Since you have a job, you are in a stronger position than someone who does not.  But don’t be coy either.  State honestly what you’d be hoping to find in a new spot.  Of course, as stated often before, you answer will all the stronger if you have already uncovered what this position is all about and you match your desires to it.

(If you do not presently have a job.)
Never lie about having been fired.  It’s unethical – and too easily checked.  But do try to deflect the reason from you personally.  If your firing was the result of a takeover, merger, division wide layoff, etc., so much the better.

But you should also do something totally unnatural that will demonstrate consummate professionalism.  Even if it hurts , describe your own firing – candidly, succinctly and without a trace of bitterness – from the company’s point-of-view, indicating that you could understand why it happened and you might have made the same decision yourself.

Your stature will rise immensely and, most important of all, you will show you are healed from the wounds inflicted by the firing.  You will enhance your image as first-class management material and stand head and shoulders above the legions of firing victims who, at the slightest provocation, zip open their shirts to expose their battle scars and decry the unfairness of it all.

For all prior positions:
Make sure you’ve prepared a brief reason for leaving.  Best reasons: more money, opportunity, responsibility or growth.

Question 6           The “Silent Treatment”

TRAPS:Beware – if you are unprepared for this question, you will probably not handle it right and possibly blow the interview.  Thank goodness most interviewers don’t employ it.  It’s normally used by those determined to see how you respond under stress.  Here’s how it works:

You answer an interviewer’s question and then, instead of asking another, he just stares at you in a deafening silence.

You wait, growing a bit uneasy, and there he sits, silent as Mt. Rushmore, as if he doesn’t believe what you’ve just said, or perhaps making you feel that you’ve unwittingly violated some cardinal rule of interview etiquette.

When you get this silent treatment after answering a particularly difficult question , such as “tell me about your weaknesses”, its intimidating effect can be most disquieting, even to polished job hunters.

Most unprepared candidates rush in to fill the void of silence, viewing prolonged, uncomfortable silences as an invitation to clear up the previous answer which has obviously caused some problem.  And that’s what they do – ramble on, sputtering more and more information, sometimes irrelevant and often damaging, because they are suddenly playing the role of someone who’s goofed and is now trying to recoup.  But since the candidate doesn’t know where or how he goofed, he just keeps talking, showing how flustered and confused he is by the interviewer’s unmovable silence.

BEST ANSWER: Like a primitive tribal mask, the Silent Treatment loses all it power to frighten you once you refuse to be intimidated.  If your interviewer pulls it, keep quiet yourself for a while and then ask, with sincere politeness and not a trace of sarcasm, “Is there anything else I can fill in on that point?” That’s all there is to it.

Whatever you do, don’t let the Silent Treatment intimidate you into talking a blue streak, because you could easily talk yourself out of the position.

Question 7           Why should I hire you?

TRAPS: Believe it or not, this is a killer question because so many candidates are unprepared for it.  If you stammer or adlib you’ve blown it.

BEST ANSWER: By now you can see how critical it is to apply the overall strategy of uncovering the employer’s needs before you answer questions.  If you know the employer’s greatest needs and desires, this question will give you a big leg up over other candidates because you will give him better reasons for hiring you than anyone else is likely to…reasons tied directly to his needs.

Whether your interviewer asks you this question explicitly or not, this is the most important question of your interview because he must answer this question favorably in is own mind before you will be hired.  So help him out! Walk through each of the position’s requirements as you understand them, and follow each with a reason why you meet that requirement so well.

Example: “As I understand your needs, you are first and foremost looking for someone who can manage the sales and marketing of your book publishing division.  As you’ve said you need someone with a strong background in trade book sales.  This is where I’ve spent almost all of my career, so I’ve chalked up 18 years of experience exactly in this area.  I believe that I know the right contacts, methods, principles, and successful management techniques as well as any person can in our industry.”

“You also need someone who can expand your book distribution channels. In my prior post, my innovative promotional ideas doubled, then tripled, the number of outlets selling our books.  I’m confident I can do the same for you.”

“You need someone to give a new shot in the arm to your mail order sales, someone who knows how to sell in space and direct mail media.  Here, too, I believe I have exactly the experience you need.  In the last five years, I’ve increased our mail order book sales from $600,000 to $2,800,000, and now we’re the country’s second leading marketer of scientific and medical books by mail.”  Etc., etc., etc.,

Every one of these selling “couplets” (his need matched by your qualifications) is a touchdown that runs up your score.  IT is your best opportunity to outsell your competition.

Good luck in your job search!

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