The Five Worst Interview Questions – and how to ace (or bomb) them

The good news is that you got past the online resume screening software (also known as “The Reject-o-Matic”) and have actually scored an interview. Congratulations. But there are some traps and no-wins ahead of you that you need to be prepared for.

“Tell Us About Yourself”

A nice open-ended question, which means you get absolutely zero guidance on what they’re looking to hear, how long you should go on for, how you should structure your response, nothing. In theory it should be an easy question, but it strikes fear into the heart of most interviewees. Part of this is deliberate. Interviewers want to see how you manage without outside direction, whether you can express yourself articulately, and what kind of things you consider most important to communicate about yourself.

And as a test, it works: many candidates freeze up and end up mumbling vague, rambling, or even too-personal facts that don’t leave the interviewer any wiser about who you’ll be if you end up working for them.

You need to do your homework ahead of time. There is no single answer to this question, but one place to start can be a simple, not-too-elaborate description of:

  • where you came from (professionally speaking) – your major areas of experience and expertise
  • what you’re good at and why
  • what you’re like to work with
  • where you want to go in your career

Practice delivering it with confidence, but avoid memorizing it as a set speech – you’ll sound “scripted” and “over-rehearsed”. Personal touches are okay (unusual interests, etc.), but keep in mind that this is a job interview, not a therapy session or a cocktail party.

“What’s your greatest weakness?”

There’s lots of advice on how to handle this one, and most of it’s bad. We’ll clear off a few of the worst ideas.

Don’t claim to not have any weaknesses. You’ll come off as either evasive or arrogant.

Don’t give a “weakness” that’s actually a strength (“Some people say I care too much about the job, I guess that’s my weakness…”)

Don’t give a weakness that’s vague — you’re giving the interviewer room to imagine the worst. (When you say, “I’m too independent,” does that mean that you forget to check in regularly, or does it mean that you flip out when anyone disagrees with you?)
And don’t give a weakness that’s pathetically trivial (“I’m not very good at spelling.”) It makes you sound like you’re not a good critic of yourself if that’s the biggest flaw you can come up with.

But on the other hand, don’t give something that will cause people to hesitate to allow you in the door, or near their projects. You don’t want to confess to losing your temper easily when you’ll be working in customer service, or intimidated by technical topics when you’re a technical writer (don’t laugh, we’ve actually heard this one).

Try for an issue that is specific, middle-of-the-road, not a deal-killer for the job, and something that your references will be able to, at least a little bit, back up. BUT DON’T STOP THERE. The key is that you also immediately supply a description of what you’ve done to fix the problem. Maybe you’re taking university courses to top yourself up with current technical information, or to solidify your weak written communication skills. Maybe you’ve set up informal weekly “mini-reviews” where co-workers can let you know how you’re doing with a certain task. Maybe you’ve sought out a mentor to coach you. The main point is that you don’t present as a problem for your future employer, you present as a solution that’s already underway.

“What do you see yourself doing in five years?”

This is another exercise in steering your way between not-okay options. Do you say “doing this job” (the one you’re interviewing for)? Possibly, but in many fast-past companies that can come across as lack of ambition. Do you say to the interviewer, “Doing YOUR job”? TOO MUCH ambition.

You want to come across as someone who has a plan, but is still open to new possibilities showing up on the horizon. A safe answer is to talk about what you hope to have accomplished at that point in terms of solidifying your skills and building new experience, and the kind of next steps you might be thinking about at that point. Maybe you’ll be thinking about moving into a supervisory role, or maybe you’ll be looking for an opportunity to bump up another level in your qualifications. Either way, you don’t plan to get stale.

“Why did you leave your last employer?”

It certainly is possible that your last coworker was unethical or an idiot, or your boss’s expectations were completely unrealistic. But leave those facts at the door. It’s time to take the high road. No matter how unfair or unjust or plain aggravating your last workplace was, you can’t diss a former employer. If you can’t give an explanation that sounds pleasant and positive, then focus on what you want in your next employer rather than what you hated about your last one. Maybe you want to move into a new industry or subject area. Maybe you want a chance to challenge your skills in a new way. Maybe you want to move into a smaller company because you’ll get to wear more hats, or into a larger one because you want to be part of a multinational team.

While you’re busy keeping your teeth clamped down on your real reasons for leaving, remember that lying is a deal-killer if you were fired or laid off. In those cases, be straightforward, but still positive, and prepared (in the case of firing) with a calm, simple explanation of the circumstances.

“Why do you want to work here?”

Another steer-between-the-hazards question. The main principle that should guide your answer here is: “it’s not about you”. While it may be true that you need a job, and this one sounds okay, or that you really want to get access to their technology (or their top-drawer benefits plan), the company’s goal is not to make YOU happy. Your answer to this question should be about what you can offer rather than about what you’ll be getting.

Talk about your hopes to contribute your particular skills to this company’s projects, and how you plan to grow your capacity and skills in a way that is useful for them. (“I have a lot of strength in creating client relationships, and I want to use it in an organization where clients are making long-term buying decisions,” or “I enjoy an environment where I get to have a lot of different irons in the fire, and I’d really like a chance to use that in a company that demands a lot of versatility in its employees.” Demonstrate your willingness to grow with them.

If you really want to shine, now is the moment to show that you’ve done some homework on this employer – you know the business they are in, you know who their competitors are and how they position themselves against those competitors, and the major challenges they are currently facing. But don’t get carried away – enthusiasm is good, but working yourself into a frenzy of flattery for this employer will leave them wondering if you were a golden retriever puppy rather than a job candidate.

You’ll have noticed a common theme in our advice for all these questions. Do your homework. Think things through ahead of time, and try out different answers out loud, and to a friendly audience. Every hour of preparation increases the odds that you’ll come off as polished and prepared rather than flustered, vague… or worse!

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