Great Answers to Tough Interview Questions

You have a job interview! Congratulations! After the initial euphoria of receiving the call from your target employer, inevitably, nervousness sets in as you begin to contemplate how to prepare for this next step in the hiring process. Well rest assured, because when you receive a call for an interview it is because the hiring team believes you are qualified for the job. Now, your challenge is to prove that you are the best candidate by answering a variety of challenging questions.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to guess all of the questions you may face in an interview.  However, skilled interviewers tend to use a similar strategy when developing their list of questions. They will start with the job description and the list of duties, skills, and other requirements. From there, interviewers will develop one or more questions to test to what extent the interview candidate has performed those duties, skills, etc. Is it possible that the interviewer may still ask you an off-the-wall question like, “If you could be any color, what would you be and why?” Of course. So let’s talk about some of those tough interview questions that you may face and how to answer them.

Basic Introductory Questions
Many interviews will start with questions like, “Tell me about yourself” and, “Where do you see yourself in __ years?” Why is that, you ask? Typically, it is to get to know you and perhaps decrease your anxiety a bit.  To start, always keep the job you are targeting in mind, and avoid bringing up too much about your family and unrelated experiences.

  • “Tell me about yourself.” – For this question, you should focus on how your past experiences relate to the job you are interviewing for.  
  • “Where do you see yourself in five years?” – Remember that it’s okay to be ambitious, but keep in mind that you are interviewing for THIS job, not the one you hope to have in five years. Talk about how you hope to develop your skills and experience, and if you want to move up, then make sure that you are realistic in your timeline. Say that you hope to acquire enough expertise that you are ready for a more senior role so you can add even more value to the organization.

Negative Questions
Employers often like to ask questions such as, “What is your greatest weakness” or, “Why did you leave your last job?” I remember being asked in an interview once why I was currently unemployed.  The answer was that I had just completed my master’s degree, had moved to the area only a couple of weeks before because of my husband’s military orders, and I had not been able to secure something yet as a result of those circumstances (and that we were in the middle of the Great Recession). I remember feeling somewhat offended at being asked that question, but it is a fair question even if it does cause some negativity during the interview.

It is important to reflect on negative situations from your past that could come up in the interview.  As a military spouse, one question I always prepare for is “why have you changed jobs so frequently?” For others, it might be a question about what you left a previous job, conflicts you had with your supervisor, or even a time that you failed at something. Employers may ask questions like these as a way to judge if you can identify times when you were not successful and see what you did when you faced this adversity. In fact, how you respond to negative circumstances is often the most important part of your response and the best way to turn a negative question into saying something positive about you.

For example, consider this response to the “what is your greatest weakness” question:

“When I first started in this field, I had a lot of trouble with staying organized and keeping good notes as a result of the volume of clients I was responsible for. A few months into my first job, I had an embarrassing second meeting with a client where I did not remember all of the details from our first meeting. This quickly taught me the importance of taking good notes and following up, and I’ve never had that problem since.”

Employers don’t expect anyone to be perfect, but they do want candidates who will learn from their mistakes. Be prepared to be honest when answering these negative questions. If you aren’t, the truth will likely come out at some point in the hiring process (perhaps when the employer calls your references), and that can cause an employer to withdraw an offer or even for a new employee to get fired. I have seen it happen.

Think-On-Your-Feet Questions
Another challenging type of question are those like the “What color would you be and why” question mentioned earlier. Employers may ask these questions to create a stressful environment in order to see how you respond. Be prepared for so-called “stress interviews” if you plan to enter a particularly stressful career field like law, finance, or medicine.

For those nonsensical questions like what color you would be, the important part of your response is not whether you say blue or purple, but rather your rationale. Employers are judging how you think and how quickly you can come up with a logical response. Often the first response that comes to mind is the one to go with as long as you have an appropriate reason for your answer.

Practice, Practice, Practice
No matter how much you read about interviewing, network with past employees, and research an organization, nothing can prepare you better for an interview than practice. Do not just read through common interview questions and think through your responses. Instead, say them out loud and practice your oral communication skills. To help with this, consider using UMUC’s two interviewing tools available in CareerQuest:

  • Quinncia: Uses artificial intelligence to personalize the interview to you and provides feedback on your interview’s content, body language, facial expressions, and tone.
  • InterviewStream: Practice answering common interview questions based on pre-prepared interviews or customize your own from a database of thousands of interview questions.

As scary as interviewing can be, always remember what career expert Martin Yate wisely stated: “No one can intimidate you without your permission.”

UMUC Career Services is here to help you prepare for interviews and other stages of your career.  For additional interview assistance, check out the “Great Answers to Tough Interview Questions” webinar in the CareerQuest Webinar Library, where you can hear directly from experienced recruiters about what they look for when interviewing candidates.  

Visit CareerQuest today to explore UMUC’s career tools and resources available to assist in you in all stages of your career. To speak with UMUC’s Office of Career Services, please call 240-684-2720 or email careerservices@umuc.edu.

Kristin Schrader is the associate director of InternPLUS and Military Career Programs at University of Maryland University College. She has a background in human resources and has worked in career services at four universities. Most recently, she was the Lead Trainer in Europe for the Department of Labor Employment Workshop teaching transitioning U.S. servicemembers about the civilian job search. She is very passionate about helping others obtain their professional goals

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