How to answer common job interview questions

Some job interview questions come up time and again, such as “What are your strengths and weaknesses?”, “Tell me about yourself” and “Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?”. A bit of interview preparation on these questions can be a worthwhile exercise.

Let’s take the most difficult one first: “What are your strengths and weaknesses?”. I suggest you jot down at least three of your greatest work-related strengths and at least three of your greatest weaknesses. If necessary, ask other people’s opinion about them. In the first instance, don’t worry about how they’ll come across in an interview.

When you’ve finished this exercise, and before presenting your answers in an interview, you may want to knock off one or more of them, but keep it simple at this stage. What you want to end up with is three strengths that have weaknesses as their flip side, and weaknesses that have strengths as their flip side.

It’s important to show that you’re tackling your weaknesses, or that they’re diminishing of their own accord. And be prepared to back up what you say about your strengths with examples. Also, make sure you’re not boastful when you describe your strengths.

Here’s a couple of abbreviated examples. “I like to get things done and dusted, and I always meet my deadlines” and its flip side “I can be too impatient sometimes, although I try to avoid this, especially when it comes to other people who’re slower than I am”.

“I enjoy working in a team and often take personal responsibility for the jobs that other team members aren’t keen on doing” and a flip side “I tend to be too self-critical and not assertive enough, although I seem to have been coming out of my shell a bit more lately”.

All too often, the question “Tell me about yourself” gets an answer about the candidate’s family, pets and/or hobbies, which don’t have much relevance to the job. This is a chance to say why you’re attracted to the job and why you think you’d be good at it — and to provide an example that supports the view that you’d perform well in the job.

“Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?” is a potential minefield. You don’t want to come across as over-ambitious, under-ambitious or unrealistic. The safest approach is to talk about a career goal that’s realistically possible within the company you’re applying to and the skills you hope to develop, or further develop, in the job.

Bear in mind that, in most fields, employers will expect the people they hire to be committed and motivated, to have realistic career goals and to work in the job they’re offering for three years or so before moving on.

Another common question is “How did you prepare for this interview?”, which is an ideal opportunity to point out that you’ve gone through the company’s website, googled the company to see what people have written about it and asked people you know about the company — that is, if you’ve really done your homework!

Yet another type of question you could be asked is “Tell us about a time when you…”. Answering this type of question is discussed in one my earlier articles, “How to shine in structured recruitment interviews”.

Expect the unexpected. For example, one of my clients got the question “If I was to ask your wife whether you’re a volatile person, what would she say?”. My client found the question irrelevant and very disconcerting, which was probably the reason why he was asked the question in the first place.

Recruiters know that candidates prepare for job interviews and that they’ll be trying to put their best foot forward. Many recruiters want to penetrate that facade and form a view of the whole person.

At the same time, they’re also aware that candidate nervousness is often a problem in interviews, and this is another factor that can make it difficult to get to know the candidate thoroughly.

Consequently, from the candidate’s perspective, a delicate balance is needed. If you come across as being too prepared, too slick in your answers, or if your answers are too brief, a recruiter may not feel they’ve got to know you well enough to be reasonably sure that you’ll be a good fit for the job.

Finally, if you interview for a job and don’t get it, I’d suggest you phone the recruiter and ask for feedback on your interview performance, which is becoming more and more normal these days. If the recruiter is prepared to give you feedback, it may not include the real reason why you weren’t hired, but it’s well worth taking the time to ask.

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