Answering tough interview questions

I provide a lot of advice about preparing for the interview process in my book, including Tip 45: Prepare for difficult questions. The questions I focus on in that tip are the ones that my students have told me they found difficult—questions that ask about strengths (how do you answer without sounding arrogant?) and weaknesses (how do you admit to a weakness without giving them a reason to eliminate you from consideration?), or that ask about salary (what’s reasonable?) or future plans (can you say you want to go to grad school?). But this week a friend sent me an article by Robin Madell titled “How to Answer the 5 Toughest Job Interview Questions,” and four of the five questions in that article are different from the ones I cover in the book. A couple of them are only relevant to people with a fair amount of work experience, but I think they’re worth discussing.

“1. Tell me about a time you failed.” This is a fairly typical “behavioral” interview question (see more about behavioral questions in Appendix K: Typical interview questions), but Madell’s answer is a bit different from mine. She says to be honest about what went wrong and explain what you learned from the experience. I agree with her suggestion, but I also believe that it’s helpful to think of your answer in terms of an acronym: STAR. Describe a Situation or Task, tell what Action you took, and explain the Results. Both Mandel’s suggestion and mine lead to the same response to the question, but the STAR acronym is particularly useful because it can be relied upon to assist in answering all behavioral questions.

“2. Why do you have gaps on your resume?” If you’re just graduating from college, you’re less likely to have gaps than a more experienced job seeker who may have taken time away from work for personal reason—the birth of a child, illness of a family member—but if you took a gap year, or if you dropped out for a couple of years and then went back to school, you may need to be prepared to talk about a break in your resume. Madell tells you to put a positive spin on whatever it is that took you out of the workforce (or away from school). Talk about what you learned or how you coped. The example she gives is to talk about volunteer work you did and how that can be a benefit to the organization you’re looking to work for. The key here is to think about it ahead of time so that you’re prepared with an answer.

“3. What is your greatest weakness?” Madell presents two options, the first of which I think is a bad idea: “turn a negative into a positive—for example, by stating that you work too hard, have perfectionist tendencies, or are too passionate.” Any reasonable person is going to see right through that, having heard it many times before. It sounds both dishonest and disingenuous. The better option is, according to Madell, “being honest.” Admitting that you have a flaw demonstrates that you have some self awareness. But I think that you should take it one step further and say what you’re doing about it. So if you have problems with time management, say that—and add that you’re participating in an online workshop to gain some time-management skills; or if you’re uncomfortable speaking in public, add that you’ve just joined Toastmasters. Just be sure that you have planned how to answer this question ahead of time, and that you really are doing what you claim to be doing!

“4. Why did you leave your last job?” This is one of the questions I did not include in my book because I was writing it for college students, most of whom would not be asked this question. Madell warns that this can be a difficult question to answer without coming across as whiny or impatient, but some form of “I’ve gone as far as I can go” or “I want something more challenging” will probably work out fine.

“5. Don’t you feel like you’re overqualified for this job?” Madell says that the way to handle this is to emphasize the way that your skills match the position and find a way to reassure the interviewer that you’re not going to leave as soon as something more rewarding comes along. You can do this by emphasizing your engagement with the organization, your willingness to work hard, and your desire to move up within the organization at some future point when you have proven your value.

As I have often said before, the key to interviewing is to go in prepared. The more you can learn about and plan for possible interview questions, the more comfortable and confident you’re going to be while you’re in that interview session.