Answering Interview Questions

There are two ways to think about an interview.  The first is that it creates an opportunity for the hiring team to trip you up with their questioning.  The second way is that the dialogue creates an opportunity to explain exactly how you can contribute in a meaningful way.

Depending on the point of view, answering interview questions is a battle of wits or an opportunity.  Let's stay on the positive side and discuss how to be seen in the best possible light.  The strategy for approaching an interview needs to be planned in advance.  Being able to effectively answer difficult interview questions takes practice.

Using Examples to Answer Questions

Just like the saying that a picture paints a thousand words, using examples to answer interview questions is an extremely effective technique.  Individuals have far more credibility during an interview if they're able to answer tough questions not just with a positive response, but also with an example that demonstrates they've been successful in the past.

For example, if you're asked if you've ever worked in a team setting, it is better to answer the question not just by responding positively with a simple "yes," but also by describing what the team set out to do, your exact role on the team, and the outcome of the team's effort.

When answering questions by using examples, much can be learned from behavioral interviewing techniques.  The acronym STAR is helpful in remembering this strategy for answering questions:

  • Situation or Task:  describe the situation, or the task that needed to be accomplished.
  • Action:  describe the actions taken to accomplish the task.
  • Result:  describe the results of the effort.

Taking Control During Interviews

Many people are uncomfortable with the thought of taking control of the interview process, but it's important to remain in control of the interview.  It's critical to avoid falling into certain traps when answering questions.

For example, let's say that Sally is on a job interview, and the interviewer wants to know if she liked working independently or in a team setting.  Her approach to answering this kind of question needs to be a diplomatic one.  In other words, she probably doesn't want to take one side or the other.

Most employees are asked to work both independently and with others.  So rather than picking one side over the other, one strategy you can adopt is to describe success when working in either situation.  Avoid providing information that can be used later on to come up with a negative hiring decision by the interviewer.

Giving Clear and Concise Answers

One of the challenges of interviewing is balancing the time needed to answer a question adequately with the typically short duration of an interview.  You need to squeeze in as much insightful information as possible when answering questions and that means giving clear and concise answers.

The following are some tips for providing the right kind of answers to interview questions in the right amount of time:

  • Before responding, take the time to think through answers.  It is much better to take the time and pull a story together then to provide an empty and thoughtless response.
  • Stick to the facts when responding to an interview question.  Avoid talking about "personalities" or "characters" encountered in the past.  They're not on a job interview; so leave their quirky habits out.  Don't come off sounding judgmental of others.
  • Check in with the interviewer.  Remember that an interview should be a dialog between two people.  It's okay to ask a question about adequacy of a response.  A simple "Is that what you were looking for?" is fine.
  • Finally, it's always a good idea to prepare by running through some examples in your head, or by practicing responses with a trusted friend.

It's important not to sound rehearsed, but the answer should be given in a confident manner.  This last tip can help during an interview.  Even if you haven't thought through the exact questions asked during an actual interview, if you've challenged yourself by going over some of the tougher interview questions, then you'll be prepared for a wider range of possibilities.

Answering Tough Interview Questions

If you feel the urge to prepare for a tough interview, the logical question is:  What does a tough interview question look like?  Well, for one thing, they are often vague.  Unlike a behavioral interview, where very specific questions are asked, vague questions can sometimes lead to vague responses, and that's a big mistake.

If the question is a vague one, then that affords you a lot of latitude in your response.  Take advantage of that situation, since it allows you to put your best foot forward.

Tough Interview Questions and Their Answers

Here are some examples of tough interview questions, and some guidance on how to answer them:

  • Tell me a little bit about yourself.  Be careful with this one because it could wind up going somewhere you don't want.  The recommended approach to answer this question is to talk about three things:  education, prior places of employment and recent work experiences.  Don't talk about personal habits.
  • So what do you know about our organization?  It is a common mistake to come to an interview unprepared.  If you're really interested in working for a company, then take the time to learn about their marquee products / services, market reputation, competitors, and have a feel for the size of the company in terms of revenues and employees.
  • Why do you think we should hire you?  This is a big opportunity to talk about the value you will bring to their organization.  Talk about your skills and achievements, and how these same winning behaviors will apply to their organization.
  • How long do you intend to stay with us?  This is another example of how a tough interview question can be turned around to someone's advantage.  The key here is to state your interest in a career at the new organization, and that it's important to stay challenged.  As long as the company provides you with a challenging assignment, and offers a clear career path, it's a win-win.
  • Why are you thinking about or why did you leave your last job?  When answering this question, be as honest as possible without hurting your opportunity for a new job.  Avoid personality clashes, especially with an old boss.  If you left a job on your own accord let the interviewer know.  If you left because you were terminated, stating something like "there were differences of opinion that we could not come to closure on" is probably a safe and accurate statement.

Keep in mind that when answering any of these interview questions it's critical to remain as confident and as upbeat as possible; don't play the victim.

Questions over the Telephone

More and more frequently, potential employers are using telephone interviews as a way of screening candidates.  Phone interviews can minimize expenses associated with travel, and they can save everyone a great deal of time if a good match isn't in the making.

Whenever actively seeking a new job, it's important to prepare for a phone interview.  This means preparing answers to interview questions as soon as a resume is circulating.  In addition to the advice already provided, below are some additional tips that can help with a phone interview.

Prepare for the Interview

Job candidates should prepare for a phone interview in the same way they'd prepare for an in-person interview.  Run through responses to tough questions in your head, and find as many interview questions as possible to help with the preparation stage.

Remove Distractions

It's imperative to stay focused on the caller and their questions.  If that means closing the door, or keeping the kids out of the room, then do it.  Interviews are stressful enough without worrying about others hurting a chance to make a good first impression.

Interview Cheat Sheets

One thing that can be done during a phone interview that cannot be done in person is referring to an interview cheat sheet.  Keep a copy of your resume handy, and write down the more impressive accomplishments.  Don't sound scripted, but do sound prepared.

Smile when Answering Interview Questions

Finally, it sounds funny, but make sure to smile when answering interview questions; especially over the phone.  It may seem odd or unnatural to someone observing this behavior, but studies have found that if someone is smiling while they're talking, then they project a much more positive image over the phone.

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