How to Plan Responses to Tough Interview Questions

The job interview is your chance to separate yourself from a host of similarly qualified candidates. A common mistake by interviewees is to go into an interview assuming the outcome of the meeting. A wiser stance would be to assume nothing other than the fact that you have already satisfied the basic qualifications for the position you are seeking. Thee outcome of the interview will likely – almost uniformly – depend on your performance during the meeting. In order to perform well and give yourself the best shot at securing the position, you should prepare to give a winning showing. 

Non-Verbal Communication

One important ingredient of an interview is the message you deliver through your non-verbal communication. Your body language and facial expressions work to relay signals to the interviewer that may overshadow your responses to the interviewer’s questions. Oftentimes we are unaware of the signals we are sending and our bodies project impressions that belie our true feelings. Remember: The person interviewing you does not know you or what to expect from you. Unlike your friends and family, you are not afforded the benefit of the doubt or any other context from which the interviewer can judge anything other than wheat she or he sees.

Practice your body language in front of a mirror. When you are not speaking, what type of expressions do you most often make? While you may know what you are thinking at a given moment, do the expressions on your face match your thoughts? If not, work on projecting a more alert and eager expression. Similarly, if you have the tendency to slouch in your seat or allow your posture to become overly relaxed, practice sitting upright and relatively still to convey an alert and eager demeanor.

Verbal Responses

Practice your responses. There are several standard questions during an interview. Some of the questions may be positioned differently, but the common questions you can expect involve your previous experiences and your future goals. Knowing the vein of likely questions allows you to prepare in advance and polish your responses. Create flash cards with common topics written on one side. On the reverse side, write a winning response that you can commit to memory. While you might not get the chance to recite an entire response during the interview, certain phrases and points will be at the ready to deploy when a question of a related topic arise.

When giving answers to questions asked during an interview, what you say is as important as how you say it. Practice your answers before an interview by paying particular attention to the phrasing you choose to say what you want the interviewer to know. An example of the importance of phrasing is the following: When asked about your previous supervisor, be careful to give a positive answer even if the experience was rife with negativity. In such an occasion; choose to focus your answer on the ways you were able to learn from the difficult situation versus lamenting what an awful time it was. Focusing on the positives is only half of the battle. Your tone of voice, if sour, will contradict your optimistic and forward thinking stance, so keep your voice upbeat so as to not reveal hidden resentment you may harbor.

Your best effort during an interview is possible with the proper preparation. Prepare to do well during the interview and take advantage of the opportunity to do your best and land the job you deserve.

Introducing Yourself

Having a plan to answer difficult questions during an interview will enable you to craft and deliver a winning response. Understanding why the questions are asked will give you the best chance at constructing the most effective answer possible. Here are three examples of common interview questions:

“Tell me about yourself?”

The tried and true starter for interviewing serves two main purposes. The question gives the candidate the opportunity to introduce themselves and disclose characteristics not found in a resume. “Tell me about yourself” is also a great way to draw out a candidate’s ability to communicate. Such an open-ended question tests the interviewee in several ways. You will be evaluated on your tact, your manner of expressing yourself through verbal communication, as well as your ability to engage and communicate with a stranger in a new environment.

Often positioned at the beginning of the interview, this question can set the tone and leave a lasting impression regardless of your performance during the subsequent questions. Prepare your answer by considering the following:

  1. Assume you will have time to describe items from your resume later or that those items have already been noticed by the interviewer.
  2. Pick two or fewer personal hobbies to give the interviewer a sense of what you are like as a person.
  3. Recognize potential controversy when revealing your personal life. It is unnecessary to reveal your fervent political leanings or religious beliefs. You are free to do so but should recognize that you are opening yourself to potential risk of rejection.
  4. Attempt to project a focused direction in your “story”. Having a varied background can project a willingness to explore and take risks or the less flattering “unfocused and meandering”.

“Why do you want to work for us?”

Besides a paycheck and accompanying benefits, interviewers ask why you want to work for their particular company for a few reasons. The question gives you the opportunity to explain what you know about the organization. The breadth of your knowledge will show interest and a thorough preparation for the interview and position.

Use this common question as your opportunity to achieve three important goals:

  1. Display your willingness and ability to research the company generally and the job title specifically.
  2. Put into digestible terms the reason you believe your experience and skill fit within the company and the position.
  3. Use your initiative to research the company and position to elucidate what you are seeking from an employer. An example: “I chose Acme because reputation and stability are important to me.” The interview can surmise that you are also reputable and stable.

“Why should we hire you?”

While it seems a simple question with obvious answers, treat this question with the utmost importance. The interviewer will ask the same question to all of the candidates she sees. Those candidates (if they are competent) will make their pitch earnestly – and so should you. You are being interviewed because you have already satisfied a certain threshold. Perhaps your references or resume preceded you; in any event, you can be sure that the other candidates will have passed that threshold as well.

Given that you are in competition with similarly qualified people, you will be wise to use this blatant question as your best shot to distinguish yourself and win your case. Consider the following:

  1. You will only have a brief time to answer, not nearly enough to list every reason. Choose the most important or unique reasons you can think of.
  2. Do not spend your brief time doing a recap of your resume. If you choose to highlight what is in your resume, be sure to connect your previous experiences with the tasks of the job you are seeking.
  3. List ways you can contribute, ways not clearly called for in the job description of the position you are seeking.
  4. Describe your work ethic. For example; “adaptability” is not listed on your resume. You should tell the interviewer how easily you adapt to varied environments and what a value that would be to her team.

Defining Yourself

“Tell me three things about you, which are not found in your resume.”

An interviewer attempting to get to the “real you” might ask for things about you not found on your resume. This question is not intended to flesh out disqualifying revelations or extract gossip; rather, it is more commonly an attempt to get a more rounded view of you and your personality.

Having a prepared answer – at least the framework of a response – will allow you to deliver a response that serves you well and provides you the opportunity to shine in the process. Be sure to consider a few main ideas to ensure a winning answer, including:

  1. Choose three distinct examples to avoid reiterating the same point.
  2. Come up with a brief explanation of each of your examples. The three parts of your answer should be similar in length.
  3. Choose examples that show a side of you that you are comfortable and proud to project in an interview.
  4. Correlate the examples you choose with a trait or traits that are necessary for the position you are seeking. For example; for a position that requires patience and steady dedication, revealing your affinity for fishing can be tied into the strengths needed for the job.

“Provide an example of a goal that you successfully attained.”

A question about a goal you successfully attained is less about the goal and most importantly about how you achieved the goal and the lessons you carry from that experience. An interviewer’s goal is to derive a comprehensive evaluation of your traits and habits. Since every situation that would arise (should you be selected for the job) cannot be specifically addressed in the interview, questions like this one are used to uncover a doctrine or common practice that you employ.

Answering this question successfully will let the interviewer know that you are equipped with the tools to set and reach your goals. Be sure to consider the following when crafting a response:

  1. Establish the stakes. Briefly define the goal and what achieving it means to you. 
  2. Explain why achieving the goal was a unique challenge to you. Disclose previous habits or circumstances that made achieving the goal particularly daunting.
  3. Briefly describe your method for approaching the goal; the plan you established.
  4. Describe the process for achieving the goal once you put your plan into action.
  5. Explain how you felt when the goal was achieved and what, if anything, you learned about yourself in the process.

Your Ideal Job

“What is your ideal job?”

This question is another commonly mishandled opportunity. Interviewers ask this question to determine a great many things about you in the process. You should expect that your answer will be scrutinized as well as the way you deliver your answer. You should not rest when creating a response to this question or in your delivery of the response you compose. A successful answer will pay off while a fumbling of the response can leave a lasting sour note ringing in the ears of the interviewer.

Make the most of this response by including in your answer the results of considering the following:

  1. Do not simply detail what you know about the position you are seeking. A qualified interviewer will recognize your pandering.
  2. Pull aspects from previous positions and explain why each part is appealing to you.
  3. Do not dwell on the material. Your office size, benefits and compensation are less expository as your role, support and general success.
  4. Link your description of your ideal job with your credentials to show why you are qualified to assume the job and perform well.

“Why do you want this job?”

This is a basic question often asked of a political candidate; why do you want the job? The first response that comes to your mind may not be the answer that will endear you to the interviewer. Perhaps you have been out of work for a spell or you are desirous of the salary that comes with the new position. Those answers do not reflect positively on you and will not help you to succeed in securing the job. Instead, your answer should be more thoughtful and give the interviewer a sense that you would appreciate something unique about the positioned should it be offered to you.

Remember, all other applicants will be asked the same question. In order to stand apart and offer a response that places you in a more favorable light than that of your competitors, consider these factors:

  1. Pick three duties of the position and match them with your experience.
  2. Choose an example of a role you had previously that aligned with your three chosen duties of the job you are seeking.
  3. Express your eagerness to contribute and explain why your skill and experience makes you a particularly viable candidate for the position. 
  4. Research the company to gain an understanding of the history and current status of their business. Express an eagerness to help continue success or usher in a new era of prosperity – whichever sentiment fits best.

Conflict Management

“Can you give me an example where you’ve had to deal with a customer who has made an unrealistic or unreasonable demand?”

Customers are the life’s blood of any service business. As such, gauging your demeanor and experience when dealing with a difficult customer will tell the interviewer whether or not you have the disposition and professional tools necessary to maintain a “customer first” approach to doing business.

The key to answering this question successfully lies in your ability to convey your ability to adhere to the constraint of your assigned duties while simultaneously focusing on pleasing the customer. Keep in mind the following when creating an answer for this question:

  1. Make sure to project a positive and patient sentiment toward customers.
  2. Show an appreciation for the fact that you are not expected to break rules to please a customer or settle a dispute.
  3. Come up with words or phrases that you can or have employed to show empathy with a customer while delivering information that may not be what the customer wants to hear.
  4. Divorce yourself from emotion when handling an unrealistic demand from a customer. Though frustration is likely, show a dedication to remaining dispassionate and focused.

“What would you do if you had to deal with an angry customer?”

Most often, your job will include dealing with customers who are respectful and cordial. Occasionally and depending on the nature of your job, you may encounter an angry customer. An interviewer asking about your experience or methods for dealing with an angry customer is likely trying to both inform you of the possibility as well as find out if you have what it takes to handle such situations correctly.

Creating a response that gives the interviewer confidence that you are up to the challenge should include these factors:

  1. Do not assume that your emotions regarding angry customers are shared by the interviewer. They may have several years dealing with such situations and can be well-past the emotional aspects of the task.
  2. Remember that an angry customer is most often angry about a policy and not about your performance.
  3. Express a willingness to apologize on behalf of the company whether you feel an apology is due or not.
  4. Remove your ego from the equation. A confrontation with an angry customer is not a competition.
  5. Express your ability to maintain focus on resolving the situation and not allowing the matter to affect subsequent contact with customers.

Your Weaknesses and Challenges

“Give me an example of when you’ve produced some poor work and how you’ve dealt with it.”

There comes a point in your interview when you will have to reveal a negative aspect of your work history. The key to handling those instances is your ability to turn a revealing disclosure into a testament of your growth and ability to learn from missteps. While you have no choice but to include a less than glowing example about yourself, you are free to pick a situation that does the least amount of damage to your candidacy.

When creating a response to satisfy the question and turn a negative into a positive; remember the following:

  1. Choose a situation for your example that does not suggest that your poor work was the result of a lack of effort.
  2. Acknowledge that your production was subpar but do not make excuses.
  3. Describe the factors that led to your delivering substandard work and use the opportunity to take as much responsibility as possible. 
  4. Describe what you learned from the situation and what skills and tools you gained to ensure against repeating the poor performance.

“What do you find difficult in work, life, or relationships (etc.)?”

This question, like the others that call for you to reveal a weakness or part of your personality that is less than stellar, provide you with an opportunity to show humility and detail your path from certain flaws to certain strengths. When an interviewer asks this question, use this as an opportunity to reveal something with which you previously or currently struggle along with what you have been able to learn to male your struggle less impactful over the years.

In order to effectively create a successful answer to this question, be sure to keep in mind the following:

  1. Make a list of just two or three things you find difficult.
  2. Be sure that you have solutions for each example of something you find difficult.
  3. Give examples of how your difficulties have been lessened by your solutions over time.
  4. Present a view of when and how those things you find difficult will be settled by the solutions you have already implemented in your life.
  5. Provide a real-world example of a difficulty you had previously that is no longer an issue for you.

Previous Work and School

“Tell me about the culture at your last company or employer.”

While this question may appear on the surface to be small talk or an opportunity for you to rest from your pitch, you should not take this answer lightly. The interviewer is commonly asking this question to judge you on a number of factors. Firstly, any occasion where you are invited to speak openly is a chance for an interviewer to hear how you communicate. Your manner of speech and body language should be professional and measured. Secondly, a prospective employer looks for a positive person and does not want to hear horror stories about your previous post.

In taking this answer as seriously as it deserves, consider these factors when coming up with a productive response:

  1. Describe the style of the office and how it contributed to the atmosphere of the workplace.
  2. Give the advantages of the ways the managers handled the employees and how (if at all) the climate changed over time.
  3. Describe any activities that were out of the ordinary, how often those situations arose, and what effect they had on business.
  4. Leave out passion-filled descriptions. Instead, explain how you felt the culture contributed to or detracted from the goals of the organization.

“Tell me about your life at College or University.”

Your education is likely a key to your ability to compete favorably with the other candidates for the position.  This question is commonly asked to uncover evidence of your growth over the years. Your accomplishments have already been displayed on your resume and will not need rehashing via an answer to a question about your college years. Use this opportunity to express how you grew as you learned.

Detailing growth can be an invaluable chance to paint yourself in a positive light. Do so by considering these factors:

  1. Speak less about academics than you speak about other aspects of college.
  2. Explain how you were able to maintain your studies while managing the various social elements of college life.
  3. Chart the difference you see in your abilities from your first year to your last.
  4. Link the lessons you learned in college to the achievement you’ve had professionally or hope to have in the future.

The Bottom Line

Yes, planning and preparing for a job interview can be scary. But if you were able to believe in Santa Claus for like 8 years, you can believe in yourself for like 10 minutes. Have a plan of action by making sure you are ready and able to answer hard-hitting questions.

I would wish you good luck but it is considered back luck to say “good luck” so—break a leg.

Steve Gottwald

Hi my name is Steve, a former member of the US Army Reserves. I attended the University of Arizona and earned a Bachelor of Science in Business Management degree.

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