Answering the 5 Toughest Interview Questions

There are so many people pounding the sidewalks looking for a job that I thought another post on interviewing might be helpful. Take heart, your job awaits you...all you have to do is make it through the interview...

You’ve sent out so many resumes and maxed out your cell phone minutes doing follow-up calls. Just when you began to doubt it would ever happen, you’ve finally done it: you’ve landed a job interview.

Are you nervous? - Interviews make virtually everyone nervous. Whether you’re looking for your first professional job, you want to take a step forward on your career path, or you’re trying to get back into the game after a layoff, most of the stressors are the same:

  • You’re about to be faced by one person or a group whose job is deciding whether or not you’re a fit for their company.
  • And you have just one shot with them to make a good impression.

Good News: You’re not the Only One in the Interview Room Stressing Out Over a Difficult Situation

The good news for you as a job-seeker is that your interviewer has a stressful problem too. They want to hire someone, and to do so as quickly as possible so they can get back to the rest of their job. They want to find the best person possible, of course. But if possible, they would really prefer to be able to hire you and be done with it.

So while you really want this job, the interviewer really wants someone in this job. For both interviewer and interviewee, conducting an interview is like trying to fit a piece into a puzzle; your task is to be the piece that fits.

Keeping this perspective in mind can de-stress the situation for you somewhat — and it can provide a useful way to approach answering many tough job interview questions.

How to Answer the Five Toughest Job Interview Questions:

1. “Tell me about yourself”

Much as this sounds like a personal question, your interviewer doesn’t want to hear about how much you loved your goldfish or how you wish you could get a puppy like Sasha. Nor should you spend an hour discussing your love of science fiction.

The consensus from the experts is:

    • Keep your answer short: 1-3 minutes
    • Don’t fall into the trap of disclosing personal details “about yourself” the interviewer wouldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) ask about directly, e.g., marital status, children, etc.
    • Focus on things about yourself that make you a good candidate for the job for which you’re interviewing
    • Rehearse your answer
2. What is your long-range objective? (Or, where do you see yourself in five years, etc.?)

This can be a particularly tough question in our current economy, where “hopefully not unemployed” feels like the only honest answer.

However, one reason interviewers ask this question is to gauge whether or not you’re likely to stick around — or whether they’ll be interviewing for this position again in a year or two.

    • Frame your response in terms of the company you’re interviewing with as much as possible.
    • For example, you could say that your five-year goal is to be your company’s expert on internal finances/company communications/etc., and talk about the things you’re currently doing and have done to be in a position to achieve that goal.
3. What is your greatest strength/your greatest weakness?

Your interview is no time for false modesty. If you’re asked about your greatest strength, be prepared to sell yourself well.

    • Be sure to frame your answer to fit the job for which you’re applying, e.g., “My greatest strength is my attention to detail, which I believe makes me a solid candidate that can help resolve any problem that may come up in your accounting department.”
    • Make note of a time or two when your greatest strength benefited your current employer or a past one.
    • Even if the question is framed in terms of just one strength, it won’t hurt to quickly give a few others as well.

When it comes time to talk about your greatest weakness, be honest — but also talk about the steps you have taken and are taking to counteract the weakness. And again, try to structure your answer so that it fits the job for which you’re interviewing. But avoid transparent weaknesses that are really strengths to an employer (like “I’m a workaholic”!)

4. Please explain the (one month, three month, six month, etc.) gap in your work history.

Given the recent economy, more employers are going to understand that work-history gaps are a fact of life.

However, this is not the time to tell your entire hard-luck story! If your employment gap involves dealing with a family emergency, mention that but don’t go into detail about how many times your mother has been in the hospital in the past six months.

Instead, focus on the things you have done and are doing during your “gap(s)” to improve your employability — any classes you’re taking, work-related Web sites/journals you’ve been keeping up on, etc. — especially those that help prepare you for this particular job.

5. What are your salary requirements?

First, make sure to do your research.

    • If you can find out what this firm pays others in the position you’re interviewing for, great.
    • If not, what do their competitors pay?
    • These data points will help you name a range that won’t make your interviewer blink.
    • Refrain from giving a specific dollar amount instead provide a range. Make sure your range is reasonable and the low to high is within five to ten thousand dollars. i.e. starting salary requirements are within the range of $65,000 - $70,000.

However, do not answer this question with just your salary range. Your primary interest in the job may be the salary, but don’t be too blatant about that. Instead, also talk about how much you’re looking forward to helping the company save money/function more efficiently/solve problems. That way, you’re letting your interviewer know that you are committed to providing value, not just receiving it.

Your Mom is right... practice makes perfect. Practice your answers and hopefully you will not be taken off guard if asked one of these question. Most importantly, relax, go with the flow, and before you know it, you'll be in your next job.

Resources that will put you ahead:

"How to survive in an Interview and …Get the Job!" a DVD series developed by Human Resources Professionals. Click here to watch a video clip.

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