career advice

Tough interview questions and strategies to answer them

Practicing responses key to getting hired

Contributing ColumnistJanuary 6, 2014 

Theresa Mickelwait

The interview is probably the most crucial aspect of securing employment. Your answers could make or break you as a potential candidate. Research and interview preparation are always important but there are some types of interview questions that trip up a lot of people. Knowing the intent behind the question is key to having a good answer.

Here are a few examples of tough interview questions and strategies to answer them.

Tell me about yourself

This question is often used by the interviewer as an ice breaker, but you can turn it into an opportunity to shine. It is a difficult question because it is so broad and open-ended. However, the interviewer is really asking "why are you here today?"

This is not the time to tell them a lot of personal information about your hobbies and your family. This is your chance to share why you are passionate about this opportunity and what got you to this point today: your education, training and accomplishments. What are your weaknesses?

The weakness question makes a lot of people nervous. Let me just remind you that you are human and so is the interviewer. They are not expecting you to be perfect but to have awareness of your weaknesses so that you can take measures to overcome them. The other key thing to remember is that you don't want to choose a weakness that is essential to the job. If working with people is the main function of the position, don't tell them you are shy. Hopefully, if you've chosen a career that fits your skills and personality you won't make that mistake.

Many people have been coached to use a weakness that you can easily spin into a strength, like "I'm a perfectionist" or "overachiever." I would caution you about this since some of those examples are overused and can sound insincere. You want to put your best foot forward in an interview, but you should still be authentic about who you are. Really reflect and be honest with yourself and convey yourself sincerely to the interviewer. Humbleness shows self-awareness and the ability to learn from mistakes.

Tell me about a time you made a mistake or failed at something. What happened and why?

OK, if the weakness question makes you feel like you just stuck your finger in an electrical outlet, this one will hit you like a lightning bolt. Ouch! Nobody likes to admit they failed at anything and you certainly don't want your future boss to think you're incompetent. It's uncomfortable, no way around it. So, get over it before your interview and this one won't make you look like a deer in headlights.

But the same principles apply here as well. Try to choose something that is not an essential job function.

I'll admit this is the question that stumped me on my first job interview. I never did anything truly horrible but I panicked. I could have thought of something benign, such as a simple mistake in explaining an assignment to a client, or forgetting to file my report on time. Just provide an explanation of what happened and what you learned from the situation. The key is to be prepared for these questions ahead of time and you won't buckle under the pressure.

What are your salary requirements?

The key to answering this one is to try to deflect it as long as possible. If they are asking this early in the interview process, such as during a preliminary phone interview, then they are using it as a screening tool to eliminate candidates and narrow down their choices. A good answer at this point is simply to say that through research you are aware of the typical salary this position pays and you are certain that once offered the job that you will be able to come to an agreement.

Once a job offer is on the table, that is the appropriate time to start talking real numbers. Prepare yourself by researching salaries online and asking people that work for the company how the pay compares. See if you can deflect the question back to the interviewer and make them give a starting figure. Once you do state a salary always give a range of at least $5,000. As the salary increases so should the range. You can always try to make a case for a higher salary based on your experience or your education, but be realistic by factoring the information you have.

Questions employers shouldn't ask

There are some questions employers shouldn't ask because it is information that could be used to discriminate against you, such as age, ethnicity, religion, health and family status. However, they can ask about your ability to perform the job, such as if you speak another language, lift a certain amount of weight, work a specific schedule, or travel when necessary.

If you get a question that reveals information that could be used to discriminate, it could be unintentional. So don't accuse them, but answer tactfully. You don't have to give a direct answer but you can still answer the intent of the question which is about whether you are a good fit.

For example, if they ask something about your personal relationships like if you plan to get married, they could be wondering if you will be dedicated to your career and that you can balance your personal life with your work life. Simply assure them that whether you have a family will not interfere with your career goals and you are able to perform the essential duties of the job.

These are only a few examples of tough interview questions. You should always make a list of possible questions and practice answering them, giving examples from your experience that highlights your qualifications. And after each interview spend some time reflecting on how it went and what you can improve upon. You should see improvement with each interview.

Theresa Mickelwait holds a master's degree in psychology and a certificate in career coaching from the National Association of Colleges and Employers. She is a senior assistant director at the University of Kentucky James W. Stuckert Career Center. Reach her at Theresa.Mickelwait@uky.edu

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