Easy Answers to Tough Interview Questions

If you were invited for an interview, you’ve conquered half the battle; the recruiter already thinks you can do the job based on your resume. The next half, though, is about proving them right. Things like body language or your outfit play a part, but only a supporting role to what really gets the spotlight: how you answer those tough questions. Here are some tips on how to deliver.

Q: “Tell me a little about yourself.”

What they’re really saying: “I’m trying to figure out why you want this job and if you’re a good fit.”
What they’re not saying: “Tell me a funny story from your frat days or what you watched on Hulu last night.”

There’s a way to be honest, express your individuality, and still tailor your answer to their expectations. For example:

A: “I studied social work at the University of Michigan because I knew it would be the best way to apply my passion for people. Since then, I’ve worked as a counselor for refugee agencies, where I became more informed of global, systemic issues. Those experiences paved a specific long-term career path for me, which is why when this position opened up, I knew it would be a good fit.”

Notice that the answer has a chronological, thematic structure. Your answer doesn’t have to be so formulaic, but the interviewer’s takeaway should be that applying for this job was the next natural step.

Q: “What are your weaknesses?”

What they’re really saying: “You’re not perfect, so how do you compensate?”
What they’re not saying: “What are your weaknesses?”

Employers are moving away from asking this question, but if you get it, avoid either extreme, i.e. sounding fake (“I work too much”) or too transparent (“I’m not very punctual, I tend to lose things,” etc.) It’s all in how you spin it:

A: I pay incredible attention to detail, but sometimes it causes me to miss the bigger picture. I’ve been working on that by approaching projects from a bird’s-eye view throughout the process.”

Q: “How do you handle stress?”

What they’re really saying: “Do you have good problem-solving, time-management, and decision-making skills?”
What they’re not saying: “How do you unwind?”

Cite at least one–if not all three–skills in your answer, and use a specific example. Sometimes a personal answer can work (e.g., I exercise three times a week to stay balanced), but it’s safer to answer how you handle stress or pressure on the job.

A: “In stressful situations, I take a step back and analyze the best ways to solve the problem. For example, in my previous position, there were moments of high volume that were stressful. In order to provide quality customer service to each individual, I prioritized their needs, quickly assessed which cases could be handled by colleagues, and addressed the most urgent situations first.”

Q: “What would others say about you?”

What they’re really saying: “Are you a good fit for our team?”
What they’re not saying: “I care what your friends and mom think about you.”

Always answer this question based on what previous colleagues and employers would or have said about you. Include any weaknesses to give a well-rounded answer, too. Don’t be afraid of commenting on relational skills.

A: “I’ve been consistently commended by employers for my initiative and ability to think outside the box. My colleagues would say that I’m willing to go above and beyond to get the job done, and that I value working relationships marked by mutual trust and respect.”

Q: “Where do you see yourself in five (or ten) years?”

What they’re really saying: “Do you know where you’re going in life, and are we a part of it?”
What they’re not saying: “Tell me the truth.”

If the job is an entry or even mid-level position, chances are that they know you won’t be there in five years. They’re testing to see whether you’re stable, reliable, and have clear goals. Start with the big picture, then narrow down to the specific company and/or position.

A: “I see myself at a creative marketing firm that pushes the envelope. My goal is to be a senior copywriter that oversees and ideates multiple projects, and I see this position as the starting point.”

These just scratch the surface, but remember these recurring principles when interviewing : be confident, be specific, and be honest–just not too honest. Looking for more interview tips? This video is full of gems that you can use to ace your next interview:

What’s the hardest interview question you’ve ever faced? How did you respond? Tell us in the comments below!

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18 Comments

  1. Bob Pliska
    Posted April 8, 2011 at 1:44 am | Permalink

    I find the “why” questions to be the most difficult. The honest answers to these questions are not simply self descriptive facts or characteristics. These answers require a disclosure of information that provides a glimpse of how the candidate thinks. This can be very uncomfortable.

    For examples . . .

    Why are you the best candidate for this job?

    Why should you be hired?

    Why do you want this job?

    • Kathy
      Posted April 12, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

      I usually find that it’s easier to answer these questions as if they were asking another question altogether. I believe the question that they are really asking is “What can you bring to the position that others cannot” You should respond with action words like “can-do” attitude, innovation, organization, prioritize, and team-work. Of course there are many other action words but I find that these are the basic ones that will get you to the next interview.

  2. Jeff Brennan
    Posted April 9, 2011 at 4:08 am | Permalink

    Years ago, just before college graduation, I was going through a series of interviews for a national retailer. After a screening interview at school, I was invited (along with about 3 dozen other almost-grads) to their corporate headquarters. In my 3rd interview there, I was asked, “If you were a car, what kind of car would you be?” This being the first job I ever interviewed for, I struggled with an appropriate response. I said I would be the top of line car, very fast, very stylish, and very expensive. That was my doom. “Oh, so you are expensive?” was the response. I back-peddled. Then I was asked, “In five years, what kind of car would you be?” I was sunk. Had I thought more carefully, I would have started with a basic model, stable, but unrefined model, working up to a more intelligent, flexible car in 5 years. Definitely the oddest question I was ever asked, and I haven’t had the heart to ask it of my interviewees.

    • Noodeh
      Posted July 16, 2011 at 8:41 am | Permalink

      that’s really funny
      :D

  3. Posted April 11, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    I agree with you bob. In addition to finding out how the candidate thinks, “why” questions also gauge whether you read through the job description and understood it properly and in addition, whether you understand what the organisation is about. In effect, the questions you posed could go something like “do you think you have what it takes to fulfill your responsibilities and enable it to reach the desired goals”. I have also found out that building a little bit of insight on what opportunities a company can exploit, can be helpful but i only say this from a marketer’s point of view.

  4. Steve Anderson
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 1:36 am | Permalink

    The hardest question I have face was a lesson learned for me. I eventually recovered from my poor answer and got the job. The DGM sat across from me and said, “Hi, thanks for coming in. Tell us Steve, what do you know about our company?” I should have been way more prepared. The interview was really down hill from there.

  5. Ashkelon
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    To answer the question, a few months ago I was applying for a tech support position with a major ISP, to the question where do you see yourself in ten years, I answered winning a moliere (prestigious french theater award). Somehow I still got the job. Sometimes when the interview isn’t too high stakes, being relaxed, offbeat and genuinely ammusing the interviewer will gain you more than highly studied answers.

    Best of luck

  6. Posted April 19, 2011 at 5:31 am | Permalink

    Imagine how much more potent, relaxed, and amazing our world could be if people offered their more honest and amusing responses: and were rewarded for it?!

    Not many have that much guts yet…except Ashkelon, nice job, and keep it up ;)

  7. Laura Beyer
    Posted April 19, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    I would like to know how to answer that “where do you see yourself in 5 years, in 10 years?” when you are trying to get that last job of your career and maybe work 2-3 years more.
    I have been asked “What was my worse mistake I had made on the job.”
    I think my worse experience at an interview was when the hiring manager was getting fired while I was waiting in the HR rep’s office.

  8. Highlander
    Posted April 26, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    I need more of this. Thank you very much

  9. Posted May 21, 2011 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Laura,
    First off, don’t let anyone know you only want to work for 2-3 more years. It is nobody’s business but your own. What the last several years should have taught us all is that loyalty is something you reserve for close family. Biggest mistake on the job? How about, “I once didn’t accept a promotion because I was working on an important assignment when I was approached to take a higher position. I didn’t accept the position because I thought the work I was doing was more important for the organization. In hindsight, I could have been more effective for the organization by accepting the promotion.? Then get prepared for the next question, “What was the task?” Your answer needs to reflect a positive outcome for the organization. Think about some aspect of developing an employee or team and relay that to the larger picture of the organization.

    My favorite interview question is, “Tell me about your best and worse boss?” This one has a fun answer!

  10. mykkmy
    Posted June 8, 2011 at 4:49 am | Permalink

    This was a good article and everyone’s comments were great. I have an interview for a great job tomorrow morning and you all have helped me to prepare. Wish me luck!

  11. Nidhi Agarwal
    Posted June 8, 2011 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

    One of the toughest questions i feel is when the employers ask “Why are you exactly looking for a change”

    It becomes tough to answer as you cannot start criticizing the company nor you can start saying the new organization is better off…it becomes really tough to answer such questions

  12. barathram
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 2:25 am | Permalink

    when they ask personal questions. i obviously know they are not interested to know about my personal life. then why ask questions about it. I’ve always wondered how to answer such wuestions

  13. Posted June 18, 2011 at 6:27 am | Permalink

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  14. Posted July 11, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    The “what they are really asking” issue is really well addressed in this article and accompanying video. Answering interview questions is a skill that most people don’t get to practice as often as other career related skills. I look forward to sharing this article with the people I connect with who are preparing for interviews.

  15. Jeff Brennan
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 4:03 am | Permalink

    I learned long ago that when filling a position, finding a candidate with the right attitude is just as important (if not more so) as finding someone with the right level of experience, skills, and tool knowledge.

    To interview candidates for attitude, I focus on asking open-ended questions and pay as much if not more attention to “how” the question is answered, as opposed to “what” is said. I ask a question and watch body language. I look at the eyes, pay attention to how long it takes for the candidate to come up with an answer, listen for “um” and “uh” in the response, and focus on how the response is formed. Did the candidate provide a stream of consciousness, verbally bash anyone, avoid the question, or provide a coherent and believable response?

    I do ask some of the same questions listed by those above, such as best/worst boss, worst mistake, greatest accomplishment, and so on, but I’m more interested in what they did to resolve the issue, overcome the mistake, or to what they attribute their previous success.

    Experience can be gained, knowledge obtained, and skills and tools learned, but hiring people with the right attitude, who fit well in the existing team and culture, and provide some diversity is key. So I ask questions to find candidates with the best attitude.

    Hope that helps.

  16. Belleasaurus
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 4:11 am | Permalink

    This was my first on campus interview for an administrative position. I am usually very well spoken and can think of a good answer to most interview questions, but my mind went blank with this one. My interviewer asked me to “Name one thing you didn’t like about a previous job”. I didn’t want to say bad hours or problems with co-workers so I just said waking up early. ;/ didn’t get the job

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