Ever been thrown off balance by awkward interview questions? Of course you have! Here are 7 of the most hated interview questions, and how to reply…

1. Why should we hire you?

It‘s all too common to trot out the usual Pick me, pick me! -type responses, such as how motivated or team-player-ish you are. Don’t go there. Instead make this a two-way conversation where you learn the specifics of the company’s struggles in relation to the role and can then tailor your response to solve them.

I’ll need to understand what the greatest challenges are in this role so that I can explain to you how I’d go about addressing them. What would you say they are? When they tell you, you can then tell them what you’d do, and draw upon any similar experience you’ve had, making sure you finish with a so that… statement that clearly states how the challenge or problem is solved, for example, …so that each team member fully understands their objectives and how to work together to ensure all project deadlines are met.

2. What are your weaknesses?

The key here is to find two things that you’re already addressing but haven’t quite overcome, and explain how you’re dealing with them. Say what they are, how they’ve impacted you negatively, what you’re doing about working on them, how that’s going so far, and what you’re working towards. This shows some self-awareness and a solutions-focused attitude. For example…

I’m not as strong as I’d like to be in Excel which means I’ve wasted time doing things the long way round when I could have done them a lot quicker. About a month ago I found an online course covering intermediate to advanced Excel skills and I’m about halfway through it so I should be finished by mid-November. I’ve learned such a lot from it already – my work had sped up immensely, I hadn’t expected quite this much impact! – and the goal is to be at an advanced stage by the end of the course SO THAT I work more efficiently and don’t waste any more time doing things the long way round.

(Plus one more.)

3. What attracted you to this role? (When in reality, a recruiter persuaded you.)

If it’s not something you’d ordinarily go for, you can say that, but give it a positive spin.

I hadn’t initially been looking for specifically this type of work so I was surprised when James rang me about it. I wasn’t absolutely sure but he and I have known one another for years and I trust him – he’s never failed me yet with contract placements that have been a perfect fit – and so I listened to his reasons. He was adamant I’m going to love it here! (laugh and shrug)

So, I’d like to understand more about the role so we talk about how my experience can help you…

4. Can you explain these gaps in your CV?

I don’t recommend lying about anything (on your CV or anything else) but it is OK to reduce obvious gaps a bit by being vague about start and finish dates.

Left your last job on the 1st of June, started new job end of July, essentially out of work for two months? Just remove the numbers. Finished June, started July. Nobody is petty enough to ask.

There are ways to spin to your advantage any bigger gaps without actually lying, such as spending time retraining, spending time with family, overseas travel…

Don’t mention a nervous breakdown you might have suffered after your last abusive boss, talk more about how you’d decided the organisation wasn’t for you and how you’d strategically planned to finish all your projects and hand over to the new person, while saving enough money to keep you afloat while you recharged your batteries in Asia, exploring wildlife sanctuaries and new cuisines, before working with a career coach to clarify your career goals. (If it’s true. Don’t lie!)

This shows you’re thoughtful of an organisation even when you’re leaving, that you have an open and explorative mind, and that you’re someone who can plan.

5. How would your friends describe you?

This is a question to check your self-awareness. If it leaves you flummoxed, and you have literally no idea what your friends might say about you, there’s the likelihood you don‘t know yourself very well, don’t practise introspection, and might have some maturing to do. And this could be viewed as problematic for someone working in a team.

I‘m frequently told that I have a very positive attitude toward life in general, and that I’m a good listener. I also know that my friends appreciate my reliability – if we make a plan I’m not the person who cancels at the last minute – and actually, I choose friends who also have that quality.

So, think about the positive comments you’ve had from friends, family, or colleagues, over recent years. What do they like about you?

6. You studied biomedical science (or whatever), so why are you doing something completely different?

It might be instinctual to reply, What, you mean like the other 90% of people out there do? because, seriously, what an infuriating question! It’s normal and common to pivot, so you just need to present it as a positive.

Acknowledge what you learned in your studies and the skills and talents you have that made you study that subject in the first place that link in with the job you’re applying for.

7. What three words would your last manager use to describe you?

Avoid anything generic, where possible. The interviewer will have had a bellyful of the usual motivated, team-player, enthusiastic, hardworking, fast-learner – type rubbish that always gets trotted out by a rookie.

It‘s actually OK to say headstrong if you’re headstrong and your old boss would have said that AS LONG AS it’s backed up with a positive spin…

Be truthful but with confidence and finesse.

Honestly, he‘d have said I was headstrong, challenging and independent and in my first three months at that job I had thought me challenging him on his ideas and instruction might be a problem, but I did it anyway because it’s in my nature. If I see that something that can be done better, I‘m not afraid to say so and of course sometimes some people don’t like that. So I entered my 3-month review with trepidation as I’d expected to be told that I just needed to follow orders. I was pretty shocked when these attributes of mine were presented as a clear strength and I was told to keep it up!

So, don’t list off a bunch of meaningless words that the interviewer will have heard a million times. Tell them how you really are and then back it up either with an example or, as above, with a positive spin.

Remember that, in being real about yourself, you‘re giving the interviewer the opportunity to figure out whether you’re a good fit for the organisation/team, AND you’re gauging their reaction so that you too can determine if this place will appreciate your uniqueness.

With a little advanced preparation, you don’t need to go to pieces in your next job interview or parrot some generic rubbish about how hard-working autonomous you are. Instead, you can have already sketched out in your mind some useful and specific replies that paint you in an honest AND positive light that really do you justice.

Would you like some help preparing for your next interview?

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