Tell me about yourself.
This is really more of a request than a question. But these few words can put you on the spot in a way no question can. Many quickly lose control of the interview during the most critical time- the first five minutes. This is not the time to go into a lengthy history or wander off in different directions. Your response should be focused and purposeful. Communicate a pattern of interests and skills that relate to the position in question. Consider your response to this question as a commercial that sells your autobiography. Provide an answer that includes information about where you grew up, where you went to school, your initial work experience, additional education and special training, where you are now, and what you intend to do next. One of the most effective ways to prepare for this question is to develop a 60-second biographic sketch that emphasizes a pattern of interests, skills, and accomplishments. Focus your response around a common theme related to your major interests and skills. Take, for example, the following response, which emphasizes computers.
“I was born in Canton, Ohio and attended Lincoln High School. Ever since I was a teenager, I tinkered with computers. It was my hobby, my passion, and my way of learning. Like most kids I enjoyed computer games. When my folks gave me a computer as a reward for making honor roll my sophomore year, I mastered DOS, Windows, and WordPerfect within six months. I then went on to teach myself programming basics.
By the time I graduated high school, I knew I wanted to study programming. From that point on, everything fell into place. My life revolved around computing. By my junior year at Syracuse, I decided I wanted to work for a major software manufacturer. That is why I had an internship last summer at FastTrack Software.
I now want to work for a major player so I can be at the forefront of breaking trends and new technology. When my college roommate told me about his start in your department, I hounded him until he helped me get a referral, which brought me here today.
I am prepared to answer any questions you may have about my education and experience.”
This response sets a nice tone for starting the interview. The interviewee is able to say a lot within 60 seconds by staying focused. The message is clear: the interviewee has both passion and focus relating to the position. He stays on message and concludes by leaving the door open for additional questions about his education and experience. Unfortunately some candidates get off on the wrong foot by rambling on for several minutes about their childhood, family, hobbies, travels, and interests.
Repeat Key Accomplishment Statements
Throughout the interview you will be asked numerous questions about your attitude and ability to do the job. Whenever possible, talk about your accomplishments in terms of what you did and the results of your actions for employers. Give examples of your effectiveness, which should include specific skills and statistics.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
This open-ended question is one of the most difficult and stressful ones job seekers face. Employers ostensibly ask this question because they are looking for people who know what they want to do and who are focused on specific professional goals. If you lack goals, you will have difficulty answering this question. Be sure you arrive at the interview with a clear vision of what you want to do today, tomorrow and five years from now. Be consistent with the objective on your resume and the skills and accomplishments you’re communicating to the interviewer. Your answer should be employer-centered. For example,
“In five years I hope to be working with an employer in an increasingly responsible position, that enables me to utilize my talents and work closely with my colleagues in solving important problems. I see myself taking on new and exciting challenges in an enjoyable environment and hopefully this will be with your company.”
Do not indicate that you hope to start your own business, change careers, or go back to school. Such responses indicate a lack of long-term interest since you do not plan to be around for long. While some may respond that they honestly haven’t really thought that far ahead, the interviewer infers that the applicant lacks vision and goals.
Describe a major goal you’ve set for yourself recently.
Give an example of a goal you both set and achieved. Ideally, this should be a professional goal; such as improved time management skills, achieved new performance targets, or learned a new skill. A personal example can also be appropriate if it reinforces your pattern of accomplishments. For example, if you take a great deal of initiative and quickly move into leadership positions, you might use a personal example relating to your recent community work: organized a community walk-a-thon that raised $30,000 in matching funds to purchase new computers for the local library. Talk about results of achieving your goal. This indicates you set realistic goals and that you can focus on outcomes. Select an example that has interesting outcomes related to your efforts. The example should showcase your skills and abilities.
Now that you’ve had a chance to learn more about us, what would you change about our company?
Be careful here. Most companies don’t want you to come in and shake up the place. At the same time, they don’t want someone who says, “Nothing, everything looks great here.” Seek a middle ground by focusing on one or two non-threatening issues that may have come up in your discussions. For example,
“From our discussion of the problem with the southwest accounts, I think we should look into the possibility of consolidating them the LA office. However, I think we need to do a thorough cost-benefit analysis of this region before making such a move. We may find the Phoenix office to be more beneficial.”
Such an answer indicates you are open to making changes but you also have a certain non-threatening decision-making style. Your response should sound sensible and innovative.
We all have weaknesses. What are some of your major weaknesses?
This is not the time to confess all your problems nor to confidently say you have no weaknesses. The best way to handle this question is to mention personal weaknesses that are outside the job or a professional weakness that you have already improved upon. For example,
“I have a real weakness for chocolate that tends to go right to my waist! I’m watching my calories carefully these days!” or “I’ve never been good with accounting. I’m glad this job doesn’t involve accounting.” Or “I have a tendency to take on too much on my own. I am working on this by delegating more.”
What type of decisions do you have difficulty making?
Show that you are generally decisive but mention that there are situations that give you time to pause or you are learning how to better make decisions. For example,
“I sometimes have difficulty choosing between two equally good ideas.” or “I used to have difficulty saying ‘no’ to people until I learned to better set priorities.”
What is your biggest failure?
Focus on something outside your work or something that happened on the job that you later fixed. Do not admit to any personal quality that might hamper job performance, such as procrastination, laziness or lack of concentration. Choose something that will not reflect badly on your ability to perform in the given position, such as one that took place early in your career. For example,
“My biggest failure was not being selected as a SEAL because I was diagnosed with night vision problems. When I was 18, all I wanted to be was a SEAL. But I’m glad I didn’t, because I may have overlooked an exciting career in information technology” or “When I was working at CL Advertising Associates, I lost the $2 million Jettler account after only six weeks on the job! I felt awful and thought I would be fired. I was determined to get the account back and did after six months. Today the account makes up 1/3 of CL Advertising.”
What are the major reasons for your success?
This is not the time to become extremely self-centered and arrogant. Keep in mind that employers are often looking for team players rather than Lone Rangers. A good response to this question may relate to a mentor/and or philosophy of work or the people you work with. Also, use this question as an opportunity to inquire about an appropriate “fit for success” with this company. For example,
“Many years ago I learned an important lesson from Bob Nelson, who was my first supervisor and really became my most important mentor. He told me his secret to success was to ‘Look at each day as a new opportunity to be your very best. Set high goals, be honest, never say no, and work with people who share your passion for doing their best.’ I’ve always remembered that advice and try to live it every day. I am very self motivated, determined and honest. I really love what I do and I try to surround myself with people who share similar passions. I thrive on this type of environment. Am I likely to find this environment with your company? Can you tell me a little more about the characteristics of successful people at your company? What do you see as some of the key success factors for this position?”
We’re considering two other candidates for this position. Why should we hire you rather than someone else?
Do not be distracted by the mention of two other candidates, you don’t know anything about them and they could be fictitious. Focus on what strengths you bring to the table. These should be consistent with the four things most employers are looking for in candidates during the job interview: competence, professionalism, enthusiasm, and likability. Remember, they are looking for chemistry between you and them. Be prepared to summarize in 60 seconds why you are the best candidate for the job. Also, let the employer know you want the job and you will enjoy working with them. A lack of interest in the job may indicate a lack of enthusiasm for the job and them.
How do you spend your free time?
This question may have several purposes. The interviewer may be just curious about your personal life without getting into illegal questions. He may also want to know how well rounded you are in your personal and professional lives. Focus on some of the standard hobbies or activities that most people engage in: golf, tennis, boating, reading, music, opera, collecting, gardening, or cooking. If you are operating a home-based business as a sideline, you may not want to reveal your entrepreneurial spirit-it may indicate you are planning to leave and go solo as soon as the business starts doing well.
Source: Haldane’s Best Answers to Tough Interview Questions, Bernard Haldane Associates, 2000.
Why do you want to work in this industry?
Tell a story about how you first became interested in this type of work. Point out any similarities between the job you’re interviewing for and your current or most recent job. Provide proof that you aren’t simply shopping in this interview. Make your passions for you work a theme that you allude to continually throughout the interview.
“I’ve always wanted to work in an industry that makes tools. One of my hobbies is home-improvement projects, so I’ve collected a number of saws manufactured by your company. I could be an accountant anywhere, but I’d rather work for a company whose products I trust.”
How do you stay current?
Demonstrate natural interest in the industry or career field by describing publications or trade associations that are compatible with your goal.
“I pore over the Wall Street Journal, the Times, Institutional Investor, and several mutual fund newsletters. And I have a number of friends who are analysts.”
Why do you think this industry would sustain your interest in the long haul?
What expectations or projects do you have for the business that would enable you to grow without necessarily advancing? What excites you about the business? What proof can you offer that your interest has already come from a deep curiosity-perhaps going back at least a few years-rather than a current whim you’ll outgrow?
“The technology in the industry is changing so rapidly that I see lots of room for job enhancement regardless of promotions. I’m particularly interested in the many applications for multimedia as a training tool.”
Where do you want to be in five years?
Don’t give specific time frames or job titles. Talk about what you enjoy, skills that are natural to you, realistic problems or opportunities you’d expect in your chosen field or industry, and what you hope to learn from those experiences. You shouldn’t discuss your goals in a fields or industry unrelated to the job you’re applying for. This may sound obvious, but too many candidates make this mistake, unwittingly demonstrating a real lack of interest in their current field or industry. Needless to say, such a gaffe will immediately eliminate you from further consideration.
“I’d like to have the opportunity to work in a plant as well as at the home office. I also hope to develop my management skills, perhaps by managing a small staff.”
Describe your ideal career.
Talk about what you enjoy, skills that are natural to you, realistic problems or opportunities you’d expect in this particular job or industry, and what you hope to learn from those experiences. Avoid mentioning specific time frames or job titles.
“I’d like to stay in a field related to training no matter what happens. I was too interested in business to work at a university, but I believe that teaching is somehow in my blood. I’ve been good at sales because I took the time to educate my clients. Now I look forward to training the new hires.”
Tell me something about yourself that I didn’t know from reading your resume.
Don’t just repeat what’s on your resume. Think of a talent or skill that didn’t quite fit into your employment history, but that’s unique and reveals something intriguing about your personality or past experience.
“You wouldn’t know that I’ve managed my own small portfolio since I was sixteen, but I believe that it’s important for you to understand my interest in investment sales. I’ve averaged a 12 percent return over the past eight years.”
Tell me what you know about this company.
Describe your first encounter or a recent encounter with the company or its products and services. What would be particularly motivating to you about working there as opposed to working the same type of job in a different company? The recruiter will look for evidence of genuine interest and more than just surface research on the company. Reciting the annual report isn’t likely to impress most recruiters, but feedback from customers and employees will.
“I served as an intern to a restaurant analyst last summer, so I followed all the steak-house chains closely. What you’ve done especially well is focus on a limited menu with great consistency among locations; the business traveler trusts your product anywhere in the U.S. I’m particularly interested in your real-estate finance group and expansion plans.”
What have you learned about our company from customers, employees, or others?
Describe how your interest has grown from personal dealings with the company representatives. Think creatively in preparing for job interviews. For example, prior to your job interview, speak with retailers or workers at other distribution points about the company’s product line. What can they tell you? Give one or two examples of what you’ve learned to explain why you’re interested in this company. What’s the most compelling example you can describe to prove your interest?
“I actually called several of the key accountants mentioned in your brochure. Two of the customers I spoke with explained why they continued to buy from you year after year. Your distribution operation is phenomenal. Are there any service improvements you think could still be made?”
Tell me what you think our distinctive advantage is within the industry.
Describe things you believe the company does very well, particularly compared to its competition. Explain how the financial strength of the company is important.
“With your low-cost-producer status and headquarters operation in a low-cost area of the country, you seem in a better position to be able to spend aggressively on R&D, even in a down year compared to your closest rival.”
What other firms are you interviewing with, and for what positions?
Often the candidate will try to impress the employer by naming some large firms in unrelated industries with completely different types of jobs. This is a big mistake! What employers want to hear is that you’re interviewing for similar jobs in the same industry at similar firms (such as their competitors). This illustrates that you’re committed to finding a job in your field of interest and are likely to be a low-risk hire.
“Actually, I’ve definitely decided to pursue a career as a restaurant manager, so I’m applying for restaurant management-training programs. I’ve recently had interviews with several other large national fast-food chains, such as Super Burger and Clackey’s Chicken.”
Do you believe you’re overqualified for this position?
Most people don’t expect to be asked if they have a great deal of experience. This question could quite easily catch a candidate off guard, which is exactly the interviewer’s intention. The candidate doesn’t hesitate in answering this question and shows complete confidence in his or her ability.
“Not at all. My experience and qualifications make me do my job only better, and in my opinion, my good design skills help to sell more books. My business experience helps me run the art department in a cost-efficient manner, thus saving the company money. Finally, I think I’m able to attract better freelance talent because of all my industry contacts. My qualifications are better for your company, too, since you’ll be getting a better return for your investment. Again, I’m interested in establishing a long-term relationship with my employer, and if I did well, I would expect expanded responsibilities that could make use of even other skills.”
What would you do if one of our competitors offered you a position?
The interviewer is trying to determine whether the candidate is truly interested in the industry and company, or whether he or she has chosen the company randomly. Contrast your perceptions of the company with its competitors, and talk about the company’s products or services that you’ve encountered. In the long run, which players do you believe are most viable and why? This is also a good place to ask the interviewer for his or her opinion.
“I’d say no. I’m not interested in other players in this industry. I want to work for Nike because I won a number of races wearing the Nike brand. Because of my positive experience with Nike, I know I’d be convincing selling your product to retailers.”
What’s your dream job?
This is your ideal chance to sell your aptitudes that fit the job description. Show an interest in finding new ways these skills can be put to use in a new job with additional responsibilities. Tie in the industry, size of company, or other factors where appropriate.
“My dream job would include all of the responsibilities and duties in this position you’re trying to fill. I also thrive in a fast-changing environment where there’s business growth. Your plans call for expanding internationally during the next year, and this would satisfy one of my ultimate goals of being involved in an international corporation.”
What motivates you to do this kind of work?
The interviewer will want to know about your belief in the products or services of the company. Use personal experience to demonstrate your interests and strengths. In an interview for your ideal job, you’d be highly motivated to get paid for working at something you liked. The interviewer will want to know if your natural interests are compatible with its particular job.
“I’ve been fortunate in my own schooling; I had wonderful teachers. I want to be that same kind of teacher-who not only encourages kids to learn but also sets an example that inspires others to want to teach. In the long run, that’s our best chance of turning around the quality of education in this state.”
Why should I hire you?
Don’t repeat your resume or employment history. Offer one or two examples to explain why you’re talking to this particular company. What’s the most compelling example you can give to prove your interest? This question often remains unasked, but it’s always in the back of the recruiter’s mind. Even if this question isn’t asked, you should find an opportunity to use your prepared response sometime during the interview, perhaps in your closing remarks.
“My uncle had a company that was a small-scale manufacturer in the industry, and although he later sold the business, I worked there for five summers doing all sorts of odd jobs. For that reason I believe I know this business from the ground up, and you can be assured that I know what I’d be getting into as a plant manager here.”
What are your strengths?
Describe two or three skills you have that are most relevant to the job. Avoid clich�s or generalities; offer specific evidence. Describe new ways these skills could be put to use in the new position. If you have to talk about weaknesses, be honest without shooting yourself in the foot-avoid pointing out a weakness that could be a major obstacle in landing the job. For example, it might be wise to mention you barely have the required work experience for the job; the interviewer has surely noticed this much, and then you can explain how you’re qualified nonetheless.
“My strengths are interpersonal skills, and I can usually win people over to my point of view. Also, I have good judgment about people and an intuitive sense of their talents and their ability to contribute to a given problem. These skills seem to me directly related to the job. I notice that you require three years’ work experience for this job. Although my resume shows I’ve only two years’ experience, it doesn’t show that I took two evening college courses related to my field and have been active in one of the professional societies. I also try to gain knowledge by reading the industry’s trade journals. I’m certain that my combined knowledge and skill level is the equivalent of that of other people who do have three years’ of work experience. I’m also currently enrolled in a time-management course; I can already see the effects of this course at work on my present job.”
How do you explain your job success?
Be candid without sounding arrogant. Mention observations other people have made about your work strengths or talents. This question is similar to the question “What sets you apart from the crowd?”
“I never assume our customers are satisfied with our product, so I do my best to follow up with every customer. This feedback has provided valuable insight into the quality and characteristics of our products. The customer, as well, always appreciates this follow-up, especially when something hasn’t gone right and you still have the opportunity to correct it on a timely basis. In addition, I’m able to pass on information to our design and production units to help improve both process and product.”
Would your current boss describe you as the kind of employee who goes the extra mile?
Be ready to offer proof that you persevere to see important projects through and to achieve important results. Share an example that demonstrates your dependability or willingness to tackle a tough project. If you describe “long hours of work,” make sure you demonstrate that the hours were productive, and not just the result of poor time management.
“Absolutely. In fact, on my annual evaluations she writes that I’m the most dependable and flexible person on her staff. I think this is mostly because of my ability to juggle and prioritize. Would you like an example?”
Tell me about a time you didn’t perform to your capabilities.
This question forces the candidate to describe a negative situation. Do so in the context of an early career mistake based on inexperience; then demonstrate the better judgment you now have as a result of that learning experience.
“The first time I had to give a presentation to our board, I failed to anticipate some of their questions. I was unprepared for anything other than what I wanted to report. Now my director and I brainstorm all the what-ifs in advance.”
How do you manage stress in your daily work?
It might be helpful here to describe a stressful project you’ve worked on and the specific actions you took to organize each step and see the project through. How do you keep yourself calm and professional under pressure?
“I try to get out for lunch at least once during the week to clear my head. I also have a personal rule that stops me from reacting to a problem until I feel calm about it. I think, then act-but I’ve learned to do that over time.”
How do you regroup when things haven’t gone as planned?
Describe a time when some obstacle forced you to change your original plan, but you were still able to achieve the desired result. Did you rally the support of others to make this happen? With hindsight, how might you have better predicted the obstacle?
“I start by trying to imagine the worst possible outcome; then I back up and identify precautions I can take to avoid that scenario. In this way I usually end up with a result close to the original goal. The training example I described earlier is proof of that skill.”
Why is service such an important issue?
The interviewer is trying to determine if the candidate understands the importance of customer service in establishing a positive image in the marketplace, and its impact on new business sales. Outstanding customer service is also a great help in establishing long-term clients and repeat business-the profitable company’s bread and butter. The longer the relationship, the greater the possibility for profit.
“Service is a major contributor to customer satisfaction. Just as important as, or maybe even more important than, cost. If a customer isn’t receiving a level of service that meets or exceeds his or her expectations, that customer won’t be a customer for very long. In addition, that customer’s experience with your company may affect how potential customers in the marketplace view your company. People do talk and share information. This may affect not only profits but future sales as well. In many instances service may be the one thing that distinguishes a company from the competition. A bad reputation for service may compromise a company’s position in the marketplace.”
Tell me about a time when you had to deal with an irate customer. How did you handle the situation?
How you react when others lose their temper or become upset is very important in most positions, especially those in service industries. The interviewer will be looking for evidence of your aptitude for work that involves a great deal of contact with the public. Give an example of a time when you were faced with a difficult person and how you handled it. Your answer should illustrate your maturity, diplomacy, and awareness of the needs and feelings of others.
“My customer service position at the telephone company involved dealing occasionally with irate customers. When that happened, I’d try to talk in a calm, even voice, in order to get the person to respond in a businesslike manner and focus on trying to resolve the situation. Most times I was able to rectify the problem and pacify the customer, but I remember one incident in particular in which the caller became verbally abusive. I tried to remain calm and professional and not to let my personal feelings enter into the situation. I didn’t respond to the abuse, I just made a not of it and continued to help he customer as best I could. When the abuse persisted, however, I politely asked him to call back and ask for my manager, because at that point I knew I shouldn’t resolve the problem.”
How do you manage your work week and make realistic deadlines?
To answer this question effectively, describe in detail how you establish priorities, set deadlines, and determine schedules.
“I always reserve two hours of dead time every day to handle any unanticipated problems that may occur. I used to plan for eight or nine hours of project time, but now I find that I’m able to manage my own projects, as well as whatever my boss and staff need from me.”
What personal skill or work habit have you struggled to improve?
This question is similar to “Describe a professional skill you’ve developed in your most recent job.” However, here you probably want to discuss an improvement from the earliest days of your career or from your relatively distant past. Make sure you convince the interviewer that this particular work habit is no longer an obstacle.
“I had to learn to say no. I used to be helpful to the point that other staff abused my goodwill. Now I offer to help by countering with something I’d like help on in return. On balance I believe the trade-off is more equitable, and cooperation in our office has improved over time.”
What color is your brain?
Be aware that you’ll probably be asked zany questions. The point is not to stump you, but to find out what makes you tick. When the standard interview questions are asked, people are prepared, and it’s harder for the recruiter to get to know the real person. An advertising recruiter, for example, tries to avoid this. There is no right or wrong answer to this type of question. In fact, the recruiter won’t even really care what your answer is. He or she just doesn’t want to hear something like, “I don’t know, I guess it’s blue because that’s the way I imagine it.” The point is to see how creative you are and how you think. Be sure to explain why you answered the way you did.
“My brain is red because I’m always hot. I’m always on fire with new plans and ideas.”
If you got on an elevator where everyone was facing the back, what would you do?
Interviews in creative fields like advertising and graphic design are different from other types of job interviews. Advertising recruiters tend to have a different interview style and process, usually conducting more of a behavioral interview. Recruiters ask questions like these to figure out what your behavior might be in a particular real-life situation.
“I think I’d face the front anyway and say aloud, ‘It’s really much more comfortable facing forward, you know.’ “
What’s the most creative or innovative project you’ve worked on?
Provide examples of your initiative and resourcefulness. Discuss how your leadership skills have helped you accomplish your goals. Give a specific example that shows a creative, new, or unusual approach to reaching your goals.
“During my summer job at Cellular One, I noticed that the sales inquiries were distributed haphazardly to all the marketing assistants in the office. I decided to set up a system grouping inquiries according to region or according to company size. This approach enabled the entire marketing team to come up with better and more creative solutions to our sales problems.”
Consider the following scenario: You’re working late one evening and are the last person in the office. You answer an urgent telephone call to your supervisor from a sales rep who’s currently meeting with a potential client. The sales rep needs an answer to a question to close the sale. Tomorrow will be too late. You have the expertise to answer the question, but it’s beyond your normal level of authority. How do you respond?
This response shows that the candidate is confident in his or her ability and can be counted on in an emergency. Similarly, your answer should indicate that you’re not afraid to be the decision maker in a tough situation, even if the situation’s beyond your normal level of authority.
“I’d get all the pertinent information, taking well-documented notes. I’d answer the question based on my knowledge and the information provided. I’d leave my supervisor a note and fill him or her in on the details the next morning. I’d be sure to explain my decision, as well as the thought process behind it.”
Give me proof of your persuasiveness.
This is a question about leadership, but try not to use an example in which you were the designated leader. If possible, describe a time when you didn’t really have authority but instead used your powers of persuasion to get people on your side. Describe your goal and the outcome of your efforts. Why did people trust or believe you?
“During my summer internship I was assigned the task of conducting a benchmarking study for all the communication expenditures for a major utility. I had to get the consensus of employees in several different departments. Unfortunately, they resented the fact that I was just a summer intern, and they refused to cooperate. I had to schedule individual meetings with every employee and persuade each one that I was doing what would be ultimately to his or her own department and to the company. After a frustrating month, I finally got everyone’s cooperation, the project went flawlessly, and in the end I received a bonus for my efforts.”
What’s your most productive or ideal work setting?
The interviewer wants to know the impact that the candidate’s working environment has on his or her job performance. How well would you fit the position, physical layout of the department, and attitudes of the particular work group? Emphasize your ability to work in a variety of settings and how you’ve managed to be productive in less-than-ideal work environments.
“I like having at least one hour of uninterrupted time in the early morning to plan my day. I usually start around 7 a.m. Otherwise, I enjoy an office with open doors, constant feedback, and lots of energy and activity. It helps me work more productively when I sense how busy everyone else is, too.”