We all have interview questions we secretly pray a prospective employer won’t ask us. Whether you find them vague and confusing, or you think they are uncomfortable topics, or you simply aren’t sure how to approach answering them, for some reason these questions always trip you up and jeopardize your chances of getting hired.
But with proper preparation, a little practice and the right approach, you can master even the most daunting questions from across the table.
Here are some of the questions job seekers most dread, and tips on how to handle them.
- Tell me a little bit about yourself
This question is asked in nearly every first-round interview, yet many job seekers still struggle with it. Given the questions open-ended and broad-scope phrasing, plus the fact that it’s often the very first “official” interview question, it’s not surprising interviewees stress over finding the “right” answer. The key is preparation and brevity.
“Don’t waste time talking through your entire resume down to every detail, as they already have that information in their hand. Avoid personal and irrelevant information as well,” says Jennifer Lee Magas, vice president, Magas Media Consultants. “Instead, provide your elevator speech – a concise 30-second overview of who you are, what you have done—jobs, internships, volunteer opportunities, sports, leadership roles—and how this can help a future employer.”
- Why should we hire you?
This common question often trips up candidates because it’s blunt and to the point. Once again, this question requires a bit of preparation—in particular, a clear understanding of the job description, requirements and expectations.
“People don’t do well with this one because they don’t review the job qualifications ahead of time. The interviewer wants to know what you will do specifically for this position, not general statements about yourself,” Magas says. “Organize your thoughts using the PAR acronym, or Problem, Action, Results. Quickly illustrate your worth by outlining a problem you dealt with at work, what specific action you took to solve that problem, and how your solution ultimately benefited the organization in terms of saved money or time.”
- Why are you leaving your current company?
Past actions are a good indicator of future ones, so discussing your current employer during a job interview can be tricky. The best way to approach this is to not dwell on the negatives.
“Absolutely 100 percent stay positive when asked why you are leaving your current company. It should be about opportunity [and] growth,” says Ricardo Estevez, director of Career Services at The Art Institute of Washington. “Make sure the job you’re applying for is moving forward. If you are changing careers, you can express how passionate you are about the new field into which you are transitioning.”
“You should never bash a previous supervisor, or employer in general,” agrees David Bakke, career expert at Money Crashers. “You could say something like your old boss was a stickler for details, but that it ultimately made you a better employee.”
- What are your salary expectations?
Discussing money is something of a taboo in our culture, so it’s understandable that so many job seekers struggle when the question of salary comes up in the interview. It also happens to be one of the most crucial—raises, bonuses and even future job offers are usually based on your salary.
“Usually you know what your value on the market is, or at least a range. You also know how much you need to live comfortably and pay your bills,” says Heather Neisen, HR manager at TechnologyAdvice. “Ultimately, this question is best answered with ‘Here’s what I’m aiming for in my search and why—I now have my master’s, I now have the experience, etc.’ Just like every part of the interview, you and the employer are looking for a fit. Don’t waste their time or your time. State what your salary range is and if they can’t be flexible, you have the ability to end the process.”
- How many ridges are there around the edge of a quarter?
Or, if you were shrunk down to the size of a pencil and put in a blender, how would you get out? What about, how many traffic lights are in Manhattan?
Sometimes interview questions are just plain weird. If you’re faced with a question that seems both unrelated to the job and more like a brainteaser or riddle than an interview question, don’t panic. In many cases the interviewer is less interested in what your answer is than in how you answer.
“Companies like Google are famous for asking very unusual interview questions, so don’t be surprised if it starts happening more and more with smaller firms as well,” says Tim Backes, career adviser, resume expert and hiring manager at Resume Genius. “They are looking for someone who will give an answer and not just stumble over their words and repeat the question a dozen times as well as someone who shows both a clear train of thought, no matter if it’s based solely in logic or it’s creative. They also want to see confidence, but not arrogance. No matter what you do, remember to keep your composure and answer any unusual question to the best of your ability.”
Matt Tarpey writes about the workplace and career advice for CareerBuilder