How to Answer Difficult Interview Questions

Under even the best of circumstances, interviewing for a new job is one of the most nerve-wracking experiences ever.  If you’ve been out of work for any amount of time or are anxious to escape a bad employment situation, these competitive processes can cause even more anxiety.

For this reason, it’s important to prepare for the toughest interview questions you’ll encounter.  While being prepared won’t help to soothe your nerves entirely, it will make it easier to make a good impression and respond to your interviewer in a calm, professional way.

Here’s how to handle some of the most common difficult interview questions as effectively as possible:

Question #1 – What are your biggest strengths?

This common question, asking you to describe the specific skills you would bring to the organization, is likely one of the first queries you’ll encounter in any job interview.  But although it might sound straightforward, it’s actually more difficult to answer well than you might imagine!

There are two things to keep in mind here:

  1. Keep your answer experience-oriented.  Most human resources professionals believe that past performance is the best indicator of future success, so don’t just say that you have a certain skill – give examples that prove it.
  2. Relate your answers to the organization’s needs.  Having a stock set of strength-based responses won’t do you much good if they don’t match up with what the company is looking for.  Do the necessary research before your interview to find out what challenges the company is facing and then tailor your strengths to suit these needs.

Question #2 – What are your biggest weaknesses?

Once you’ve successfully answered the “biggest strengths” question, you’ll likely be hit with its corollary – describing your biggest weaknesses.

Now, let me be clear…  The absolute worst thing you can do here is to pseudo-brag about how you “just work too darn hard” or are “just too detail oriented.”  That’s a load of bullshit – you know it, and most HR professionals know it as well.

A far better approach is to focus on skills you haven’t yet had a chance to develop.  For example, if you know that the position you’re interviewing for will include presentations or public speaking roles, you could say something like, “I haven’t had as much opportunity as I would have liked to develop my public speaking goals, but I’m excited about the chance to push myself to learn these new skills at your company.”

Question #3 – Why did you leave your last job?

Handling this common interview question can be tricky, considering that many of us have left jobs due to incompetent bosses, inept coworkers and a host of other reasons unrelated to our performance.

But bring these complaints up in your interview (whether or not they’re valid), and you’ll be immediately branded a whiner.  Instead of focusing in on your credentials and merits, your interviewer is now wondering whether or not you’ll make the same complaints about his organization after you leave!

To answer this question appropriately, put the onus of your decision to leave your most recent job entirely on yourself.  Even if it isn’t entirely accurate, it’s a far better approach to claim that your decision to leave was due to your desire to “expand your knowledge base” or “develop new skill sets” than to put the blame on your previous employer.

Question #4 – What are your salary expectations?

Be warned – discussing salary expectations during the interview process benefits your interviewer, not you!

As a general rule, the best time to negotiate salary is once a job offer has been made, demonstrating that the company wants to have you on the team.  This gives you significantly more leverage to negotiate higher rates than if you throw out a random number to an HR lackey who’s only trying to filter out candidates based on their salary expectations.

Since your best bet here is to stall, consider any of the following lines to delay discussing salary until you’re in a better position:

  • “I’m flexible in terms of salary, but would rather discuss it later on in terms of total compensation.”
  • “I’m open to discussing salary in the future, but would like to learn more about what the job entails before determining what the appropriate compensation would be.”
  • “Do you have a salary range in mind for this position?  If so, is that range flexible based on employee experience?”

Question #5 – How many ping pong balls can you fit into a 747 airplane?

Finally, keep your ears open for oddball questions like this one, which was made famous by Google’s HR team in the 1990s.

The purpose of questions like these isn’t to determine what specific factoids you’ve memorized – it’s to see how you think on your feet.  If you’re hit with one during your interview, take a second to think and then talk your interviewer through the process you’d use to come up with an answer.  Even if you can’t provide a final value, you’ll demonstrate your ability to think clearly and flexibly while challenged – a major asset to any organization.

Of course, as the job market becomes even more competitive, interview questions will naturally become more challenging.  If you’ve got a great story of a tough interview question you faced and how you handled it (whether good or bad), share it in the comments section below!

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  1. Pingback: 3 Interview Questions That Reveal Everything | Kelly Business Advisors, LLC

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