Answering those awkward questions

An interview is made up of an array of questions that form the start, middle, and end of the interview story. Some may seem straightforward and others a bit trickier – how you respond, and the questions you ask in return, will enable the interviewer to get a feel for who you are and what you can do. Knowing how to answer certain questions will allow you to make a good impression.

The following is a list of common interview questions, and believe or not, the most obvious are where the majority of people have a habit of falling down on.  It’s important to remember, however, that you have your own style of speech, so try to put these answers into your own words rather than what you think the interviewer wants to hear!

Tell me about yourself?

This is the most common question, but don’t take it lightly. Take some time to think and prepare your answer, and to consider yourself and those aspects of your personality and skills that you’d like to highlight to your interviewer.

No matter how this question is worded, please bear in mind that it is not an invitation to give someone your life story! This is one question where you need to get your act together quickly because it arrives early in an interview, sometimes even acting as the lead question – at the very moment your interviewer is forming their initial impression.  To gain a bit of clarity, you could ask “Is there a particular aspect of my background that you would like me to talk about?” or something similar. Whichever direction you decide to take, keep it brief, succinct, and ensure that it has some relevance to the job and industry in hand. It’s constructive to give a brief talk about your education, career to date, and aspects of your life that highlight your value as a candidate for the position you are seeking.

What are your greatest strengths?

Anticipate and prepare to discuss up to five strengths, such as:

  • Ability to solve problems
  • Keeping a cool head under pressure
  • Willingness to go the extra mile
  • Ability to work in harmony with others
  • Stable and progressive career to date

It is sensible to keep one or two key strengths in mind because the question may ask for one key attribute. You will want to demonstrate professionalism, reliability, willingness, and manageability. It’s best not to discuss strengths that are unrelated to the job or profession – keep it relevant.

What are your weaknesses?

This is not an invitation to put your head in a noose. Balance a weakness with a compensating strength. Consider the technique of pulling out a problem from the past and show what action you took to overcome it. For example, “I enjoy my profession and have high standards, so when people aren’t pulling their weight, I get a little frustrated. I am conscious of this so I overcome this by being positive and effusive, and hope others catch on”. In truth your interviewer isn’t really looking for general weaknesses but will be concerned about red flags that may harm your ability to do the job – so don’t pick a weakness that could damage your chances of securing the role! Demonstrating self-awareness that you do have weaknesses will also give the interviewer an impression of your honesty and desire for improvement.

Why should I hire you?

Simultaneously the best and worst question: the best because it’s an invitation to reiterate your strengths and other factors that put you ahead of other candidates; the worst because it’s the one that sticks in the interviewer’s mind, and if you aren’t prepared then it doesn’t make for a positive lasting impression.

Highlight your skills and expertise that are relevant to the job, and emphasise the fact that you can take direction, add value, and want to make a success of it. Show how the work you’ve done relates to the work you’re going to do. Your answer must cover the tangible and intangible things you can offer, but must, most of all, communicate to the employer that you want the job!

What do you know about our company?

Possibly the most commonly-asked question, and you can’t answer it unless you have had enough interest to research the company thoroughly. A high level of credibility will be attributed to a candidate that has a true understanding of the company, its history, and its position in the marketplace. Tell the interviewer something that would not be found on the website – do your research. A quick review of their website does not cut the mustard anymore.

What would your references say?

Be positive and honest. To take a reference from a previous employer that highlights your abilities and integrity puts you in an extremely favourable position. It also reduces the chances of a future employer having any doubts. It is not a frequently asked question but it can sometimes crop up and a good answer will only enhance your chances.

Try to draw connections between the job’s requirements and your recent career achievements. Highlight your former employer’s positive thoughts about you in relation to problems you have solved and projects where you have exceeded expectations.

How do you take direction?

This is a manageability question – the interviewer wants to know if you are personable, open-minded, and able to take direction. Employers are looking for candidates that can take fair and clear direction without fuss and hassle. It is hoped that you are an agreeable person who is capable of asking clear questions before a job begins and then getting on with it, without complication. This particular question can also be defined as “Can you accept constructive criticism?”

Your answer must give examples of times when you have taken direction, and may be related to a specific project that you have completed. You may also want to highlight positive working relationships with previous bosses that illustrate your ability to work well with your peers and employers.

What do you think of your current / last boss?

This question is of a similar ilk to the one above, and there are no prizes for working out the correct answer! It is not a good idea to go very dark on previous employers because those that do are recognised as employees that will cause the most disruption.  Bear in mind, we’ve all had bad jobs at one point in or career.  The best answer you can give is one that demonstrates that you respected your previous boss and the help that they gave you while you were under their guidance. You may be asked to validate your answer so be prepared to give examples.

What salary are you looking for?

Imagine that the interview is going swimmingly and then BAM! The million dollar question comes out of nowhere. In the past, this question normally arrived at the later stages of the hiring process, but these days some interviewers will ask this question early on in the proceedings. It’s best to be prepared and have a good idea of your worth in the market – it’s always tempting to shoot for the moon, but give an over inflated answer and you may find yourself eliminated. It is worth remembering that most jobs, particularly in the agency and in-house sectors, have a salary range, and it’s best to stay within that range. You may want to consider saying:

  • “The role and company culture are very important to me. Your company has a good reputation of being fair with employees and I trust you will do the same in my case”
  • State what your current salary is and suggest you are looking for a fair salary that reflects your level of skills and experience
  • “I’m sure you have a fair salary structure and if I am the best candidate, I hope we can work something out”

The main thing to keep in mind when answering interview questions is always be honest and sincere, and it’s a lot easier if you are well-researched beforehand.   Always try to give the best impression of yourself possible, but remember that you’re not expected to be perfect. And, if you want the job, make sure the interviewer knows it!