How to answer those pesky job interview questions
In my previous blog – ‘Get that Job – How to impress at the interview’, I explained that although interview questions look completely random there are in fact only three core questions behind any question that you might be asked and these are;
- Can you do the job?
- Do you want to do the job?
- Will you fit in?
I then broke these core questions down into 16 common questions that are often asked at interviews. Although you cannot guarantee that these questions will be asked they are so common that it is worth preparing how you would answer them.
In this blog I will outline how to answer the first 5 of these questions, which address the ‘can you do the job?’ section of the interview.
Just to recap the common ‘can you do the job?’ questions these are
- Tell me about yourself?
- Tell me about your current job?
- What is your main achievement (or what are you most proud of)?
- What are your strengths?
- What are your weaknesses?
I am now going to tell you how to answer these questions in an honest, positive and reassuring way.
Tell me about yourself
Although you should not lull yourself into a false sense of security, this question is such a common start to an interview that it would be ridiculous not to prepare for it.
Lots of people wonder what this question is about and what type of information the interviewer is looking for but really it is just intended to start the interview off on a positive note, help you to relax and give them some background about you. So you might find it helpful to reframe the question in your mind as ‘Could you start this interview on a positive note, that gives us some idea of your background and what prompted you to apply for the position?’
The best way to approach this question is to approach it chronologically starting from an early time in your career, maybe when you left school or university or got established in your career path up until the present day. This will give your answer a clear beginning, middle and end. You should make this no longer than 3 to 4 minutes.
Rather than make it sound like a description of your holiday by saying things like ‘and then I went there and then I went there……’ try to highlight places you have worked, the skills you learnt along the way, achievements that you gained, short memorable stories, significant facts and figures, and relevant training or qualifications that you may have. You don’t have to do all of this – just pick out things from your career that are interesting and memorable. At all times you should remember what job you are going for and identify relevant skills and experience which will make them sit up and listen. You should finish on a positive note, which would be an obvious ‘jumping off’ point for their next question.
Remember that if this question is asked you are in control of how you answer it, so it is worth taking time to prepare your answer and maybe share it with others who can give you useful feedback without judgement – it is surprising how good the feedback can be from someone who knows little about the job or your experience because they can easily identify when you are rambling, being boring or sounding like a travelogue. They can also tell you what sections or words they really liked so that you can gain an understanding of what comes across well. If you talk with energy and enthusiasm the interviewer will pick this up.
Most of us, if we have been working for any length of time, will have some ‘skeletons in our closets’, for example redundancy or possibly a period of ill health. Try not to draw too much attention to them if you can but in the case of redundancy talk in terms of ‘organisational restructuring’ and seeing it as an opportunity to move on to other things and take on new challenges. If you have been off work for health grounds don’t emphasise this in the summary of your career, but if you are asked directly about a career gap just reassure them that it was a period of time in your life and that you are now perfectly well (if that is true of course).
If you have a gap in your CV or resume due to being at home with the children you don’t have to highlight this – although if you have done any part time work, charity work or run your own business during this time you might want to weave that in to your career summary.
You should continue practising the answer to this question until you feel comfortable and confident in what you are saying. You can also record your ‘tell me about yourselfs’ on your smart phone and play them back and improve them until you are satisfied that you are coming across positively and well. Although you may not be asked this question it can be a very stabilising influence, which can help to calm you if you are nervous when waiting to go into the interview.
Tell me about your current job
Unless it is a completely different job from the ones you have done previously you should make your current job sound remarkably like the job you are being interviewed for. Look at the job specification and highlight all the similarities and common skills that are required in both jobs. If it is a customer service job don’t forget to talk about the customers! If it is an accountancy role mention how you structure your work, how you make numbers accessible to managers and use systems to perform your work effectively for example. Your aim at all times is to come across as the ideal candidate for the job.
What is your main achievement? Or what are you most proud of?
Although a lot of people both men and women understandably want to talk about their families or a qualification that they have achieved, please don’t, because if you do, you will miss an important ‘sales’ opportunity. Here you should talk about something that would be of interest and relevance to the job and the organisation. If the job requires excellent customer service skills, you could present your best example of when you have done this. If the job requires project management skills what is the most significant result that you have achieved. Keep everything as recent as possible. If you choose examples from a long time ago it will sound as though you have done nothing of value since.
Remember that unless it is a ‘training’ role, they will expect you to be up and running within the first few months so your aim is to present yourself as someone who can do this.
What are your strengths?
Hopefully if you are applying for the job there will be some similarity between your strengths and the strengths they are looking for in the person to do the job. It is probable that they will have sent you a document called a ‘person specification’, which is simply an organisation’s requisition for a person in which they state the type of person they are looking for. Your aim during the strengths questions is to present yourself as the person who can do the job for them. The best way to work out your strengths is to pick the ones from the job description that are true for you and then add some of your own that they might also be interested in.
It is also worth mentioning that some ‘strengths’ are stronger than others. It is pointless telling the interviewer that you have excellent communication skills when they are sitting in front of you and can make their own minds up. It is also quite hard to ‘evidence’ being a good team worker or being good with people. It is far better to choose strengths like ‘I can see a project through from beginning to end’ and ‘I have managed to reduce costs whilst maintaining productivity and efficiency’, ‘I have a very high attention to detail which enables me to spot costly errors and I have saved my current organisation many thousands of pounds’ or ‘I can solve problems that other people have found too difficult’.
Then when you have identified the skills you want to sell to a potential new employer you need to work out how you would evidence those skills. The best way to do this to avoid rambling is to structure your answer using an approach called STAR which means that you would very briefly describe the Situation, then the Task you had to do, what Action you took and finally what was the Result – making sure of course that the end result was a positive one. You should plan those examples before going to the interview.
When asked the question, ‘what are your strengths?’ I would suggest that you list 4 or 5 skills that you are presenting then hope that the interviewer picks a couple they are interested in to ask you more about them. Some people like to evidence the skills as they are describing them but I think this risks switching off the interviewer with information that they are not interested in. However listing your strengths has a risk too that the interviewer just notes your strengths down and does not ask you anything further. Unfortunately although I can assist you to prepare for the interview and present yourself effectively there is no guarantee that the interviewer will be equally diligent so you might have to play some of the questions ‘by ear’ a bit.
What are your weaknesses?
Although you might be asked this question in the plural you should only answer it in the singular. If you say ‘well one of my weaknesses is……‘ they are sure to ask you what your other weaknesses are. So only present one.
This question literally means ‘please shoot yourself in the foot for me’ so don’t give them the satisfaction of giving them a real weakness. If you do give them a weakness that is true for you, like ‘I tend to find time keeping a problem’ or ‘I can be a bit disorganised sometimes’ the interviewer will ‘hunt’ your answers, asking more and more questions until you end up in a negative downward spiral which it will be difficult to recover from.
So the way to play this particular part of the interview game is to give them a weakness that was true in the past, that you realised was an issue and you have worked on it. In fact it is no longer a weakness and might even be a strength. We all have those kind of situations. In telling your story avoid using extreme language like ‘I used to be hopeless at this’ or ‘it was so bad it kept me awake at nights’. Don’t dwell on your answer, keep it short and end on a high note. For example:
‘When I first became a manager I found it difficult to delegate and I realised that I was holding on to work and not making the best use of my team’s talents, so I took a step back and started to give them work that would play to their strengths and develop them. Now the team is happier and I have more time to work on more strategic issues’.
‘When I first became a supervisor I was not very comfortable giving presentations, so I attended a presentations skills course and took every opportunity going to talk to groups. Now when there is some complex to be communicated I am often asked to give the presentation’.
‘When I first started in the role there was a lot of computer programs to learn with multi level screens which I had to be able to move between. So I stayed late to read the manuals and learn from my colleagues, now I am considered a team expert and I am often asked to train the new starters’.
If you plan how to answer the questions above, you should be able to convince the potential employer that you can do the job. Your next challenge is to convince them that you want to do the job and will be a motivated employee on the first day and beyond.
I will cover how to answer the ‘do you want the job?’ question in my next blog.
With thanks to Jo Grant for permission to use her photographs
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