The most difficult interview questions are the ones you aren’t prepared to answer. Often, these questions fall into two categories.
1. There are questions you wish won’t be asked because you haven’t come to terms with or become comfortable with the answers. These include “why did you leave your last job?” when you were laid off or fired, “why are you interested in this field?” when you really want to change fields because you hated your last one, “what did you like least about your old job?” when you hated your old boss and are tempted to bash him or her. If you don’t exactly match the job description requirements, it can be tricky to explain why you are still the best candidate.
The best preparation for handling these questions is rehearsing the answers with someone else, until you are comfortable – honest and not defensive or attacking. An interview is not the place to criticize a former employer, ever. Figure out how to phrase things in a positive way, as in “this situation was challenging and I realized that I would be able to contribute much more in a role similar to this one.”
If you can, return the focus to the job for which you’re interviewing. I was fired and had to develop an answer that indicated that I was not to blame, that it was run-of-the-mill organizational politics, and besides, I’d accomplished all I intended there, so it was actually a good time to leave and find something that offered me new challenges, such as this job.
Salary questions also can be difficult. My clients now say “I’m hoping to make between x and y, and of course am flexible because I really would like to work at this organization.”
“What’s your biggest weakness?” is always tricky to answer, as is “what’s the most difficult work challenge you’ve faced and overcome?” It’s best to thread in a little self-deprecating humor there – if you say you have no weaknesses, the interview will think you’re arrogant or blind to yourself. I like to say “weaknesses depend on the job, of course – I’d like to think I have none but of course I have some! I find myself apt to give people more time to prove themselves on the job when it might be better to let them go.” To me, that is a real weakness cloaked in kindness. Then I add “so I’ve learned to establish very clear monthly benchmarks at the beginning of their employment. That way, I can tell very quickly if someone is or is not going to work out.” That’s the trick – to follow up any discussion of a weakness with a description of how you have learned to compensate for it.
“Tell me three words that describe you” is another fun one to prepare for, as is “what would one of your employees tell me about your management style?” That last one was one of my favorites, because it asked people to step outside of their own perspective and look a bit more objectively at themselves.
2. Other difficult questions are those clearly related to the specific employer. Perhaps they ask you to respond to an imaginary scenario and tell them what you would do in that situation. The response clearly should involve some knowledge of the company, but you might not have gone through the website in enough depth.
The best preparation for an interview is reading through the website and taking notes on things you might be curious about, re-reading the job description to make sure you have a good grasp on the most important items (usually top 4 to 5 duties and requirements) and how you match them, and putting together a list of your own questions.
In the right setting, I suggest bringing a pad of paper on which you list your questions, and putting on the table in front of you. The best interview is one that evolves into a conversation, so hopefully your questions will be answered during the interview. Usually, the interviewer will give you a chance to ask questions near the end of the interview. You can go through the list, saying “you’ve answered most of them already, I just have this one (or two).” If you haven’t gotten most of your questions answered during the interview, ask just the one or two MOST important ones, and leave the rest for a second interview. You might also wonder if you want to work at a place that remains so opaque after an interview…