Tough interview questions (and how to answer them)

Interviews are designed to do just one thing: identify the best possible candidate for the advertised job. And sometimes it may feel that the question being asked have been designed to deliberately catch you out or make you question whether you are up to the job or not. But that’s not their intention. Some questions aim to establish how well you cope under pressure, others will be to reveal your personality or to see what your career aspirations are. Just remember that there is no need to draw a blank or clam up if you have done your research and preparation beforehand.

So if you want to avoid an interview disaster, here are some of the toughest interview questions and their suggested responses.

Q: “Tell me about yourself”

This is perhaps the most open-ended question of them all and is typically used by interviewers as a warm-up question to give you the opportunity to shine. But resist the temptation to start talking about your life history. What your interviewer is looking for is a quick two or three minute snapshot of who you are and why you are the best candidate for the job. So keep your response relevant to the position you are applying for. For example:

A: I started my media sales career five years ago as a telesales representative, rising through the ranks before gaining promotion to sales manager three years later. I am now responsible for training and developing a team of 15 sales consultants that are currently the company’s best performing sales team.

Q: “What are your salary expectations?”

You should have done some research into the average salary and remuneration that this type of position will pay. Try to deflect the question by turning it around and asking the interviewer about the salary on offer. Typically, they will start with a lower figure than they are prepared to offer because they want to keep their costs down. So if you are pressed to give a number, its best to give a range to avoid pricing yourself out of contention. For example:

A: I’m sure whatever salary you’re paying is consistent with the rest of the market average of £23,000 to £25,000.

Q: “Why should we hire you“

This can be a killer question and can make or break your chances of winning the job. And how you answer will depend on how well you have probed your interviewer about their requirements and expectations. So what the interviewer is really asking you is, What can you do for my business?- your response needs to answer that question. For example:

A: As I understand your needs, you are first and foremost looking for someone who can increase your advertising sales and has experience of managing a sales team. I have a proven track record in successfully managing and developing my territory within this sector, having increased my sales from £150,000 to £210,000 over the last two years alone.

Q: “If you were a car…tree…animal what would you be?”

Baffling though it may seem, some interviewers still insist on asking silly questions, such as If you were a car, what type of car would you be and why? There are no right or wrong answers. The interviewer is simply testing your reactions under pressure to see how you will cope with the unexpected in an attempt to gain an insight into your personality and how you view yourself. Don’t get hung up on the implications of what type of car you say you would be, just be mindful that you will be expected to explain your choice. For example:

A: I would probably be a 1962 Alpha Romeo Spider – classy, stylish, driven and fast off the mark

Q: “Why did you leave your last job?”

You know this question will be asked at some stage, so have your answer ready in advance. The rule of thumb is to always remain positive about your current and previous employers because you never know when your paths may cross again. Besides, who are you going to turn to for a reference? For example:

A: I learned a lot from my previous employer and enjoyed my time there. However, promotional opportunities were few and far between and I am keen to advance my career sooner rather than later.

Q: “What are your weaknesses?”

Career manuals are abound with ways to tackle this question. And most of them seem to suggest that you should take one of your strengths and portray it as a weakness. For instance, I work too much. But this will actually work against rather than work for you because it may imply that you do not organise your workload effectively, or that you have poor time management skills. Instead, opt for a genuine weakness. For example:

A: I used to struggle to plan and prioritorise my workload. However, I have taken steps to resolve this and now I have started using a planning tool and diary system on my laptop. 

Q: “What motivates you?”

Short of telling your interviewer that you are motivated by the prospect of earning a footballer’s salary, driving a Bentley or having a holiday home in St Tropez, try and give a constructive answer that will excite your interviewer into understanding what benefit you will bring to his business. For example:

A: I get a real kick out of seeing my team exceed their sales targets and completing the project on time and within budget.

Q: “How would your former colleagues describe you?”

This is a sure sign that the interviewer likes you and is already thinking about contacting your previous employer for a reference. And this is the time when you realise how important it is to choose your referees carefully. So answer this question in the way that you would like to think your employer would respond. For example:

A: I have an excellent working relationship with my manager and we have mutual respect for each other. He considers me to be hard working, dedicated, reliable and able to work well using my own initiative.

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About yourcareermatters
CareerMatters was founded as part of MacKenzie-Cummins Communications in 2006 by Paul MacKenzie-Cummins MICG (Member Institute of Careers Guidance), regarded as one of the UK's leading career's advice and guidance writers and specialist PR consultant for the UK recruitment industry. Since 2006 Paul has been the leading advice writer for Monster.com and CareerBuilder.com - the two biggest careers website in the world -tackling all aspects of workplace and management issues, job seeking, career change and hiring trends. In 2006, 2007 and 2008 his writing contributed to Monster winning the Best Employment Advice on the Internet Award for an unprecedented three times beating the likes of The Guardian, Learn Direct and Personnel Today on each occasion. And his work was a runner-up for the same award in 2009. In 2009 Paul was a nominee in the prestigious HR Journalist of the Year Award and Recruitment, Retention & Motivation Journalist of the Year Award. Paul has been commissioned to write more than 500 careers advice and guidance articles for a number of lpublications, from regional and national newspapers to industry publications and various career-specific websites in the UK and USA. Recently, Paul was the Technical Editor for career psychologist Dr Rob Yeung's Job Hunting & Career Change for Dummies (John Wiley & Son, 2007). Dr Yeung is better known as the TV psychologist for Channel 4's Big Brother and the BBC's Who Would Hire You? series. Clients include: Monster.com CareerBuilder.com MSN Careers (Europe) TheLadders TotalJobs SalesTarget.co.uk IntaPeople Recruitment Lifetracks/YouthNET MediaSalesJobs The Press Gazette

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