How to Answer Interview Questions
Responding Confidently While Under Pressure
You're midway through an interview for a role that you really want, and all is going well. Suddenly, the interviewer asks you a question that you're not prepared for and your mind goes blank.
Your heart sinks, your pulse races, and you start to sweat. You start talking without thinking. You know you're not making any sense. But surely saying anything is better than saying nothing or, worse, admitting that you simply don't know the answer, right? You know you've performed poorly and you leave feeling deflated.
If this scenario fills you with dread, don't worry, it doesn't have to be this way! In this article, we explore how you can prepare for and answer even the toughest interview questions calmly and concisely.
Download our list of 50 Common Interview Questions and Answers, and read on for advice on how to answer them!
The Importance of Good Preparation
It's common for interviewers to ask difficult questions. They're not doing it to trip you up, they just want to see how well you can perform under pressure. That's why good preparation is essential.
Putting the prep work in ahead of time can reduce stress and improve your self-confidence. It shows the interviewer that you're organized, thoughtful, and capable of handling pressure – all of which will help you to make a good first impression.
Preparation also gives you an opportunity to reflect on your accomplishments, strengths and skills. These things can be hard to remember when you're put "on the spot." However, if you prepare effectively, you'll have clear, impactful answers ready to go.
Answering questions is only one aspect of the interview process. Employers will also consider other factors such as your résumé, your skills and experience, your behavior and body language, and whether you're a good fit for the team or organization.
Read our articles on Interview Skills, Writing Your Résumé (CV), Succeeding in Test and Assessment Centers, and What Are Cultural Fit and Cultural Add? to learn how to prepare for these aspects of the job application process.
How to Prepare for Interview Questions
Follow these six steps to ensure that you're prepped and ready for your interview:
1. Gather Information
Find out as much as you can about the role. Start by reading the job ad and description carefully. Read the organization's website. And connect online or (if you can) speak to people who already work in the team or organization.
Then, use your research to consider potential questions that might crop up. For example, what knowledge, skills or experience do you need? What abilities have you developed in your current role that can be applied in this one? How will your understanding of the industry benefit the organization? What problems will you be expected to solve?
2. Research Yourself
Spend some time thinking about your reputation at your current workplace and in your industry. What would your team members and boss say about you? Do you spend time with colleagues outside of work, or do people think you're unsociable?
Think about your online reputation, too. What would come up if an interviewer searched for you online? Are there any pictures, comments, profiles, or associations that could harm your professional image?
Researching yourself means there's less chance that you'll be caught off guard by unexpected questions. It also gives you time to update or remove any photos, tweets, blog posts, or comments that you've posted online that are questionable.
3. Think About Your Strengths and Weaknesses
Interviewers often ask about strengths and weaknesses. So, make a list of yours in advance by doing a Personal SWOT Analysis.
Be honest about your weaknesses, but keep your comments short and positive, and focus on what you're doing to overcome them. For example, "My biggest weakness used to be my communication skills. But I've been improving through self-study and practice. Now, I touch base with every team member first thing in the morning to share project updates."
When you talk about your strengths, focus on the ones that apply most to this role. Demonstrate how your strengths will help you to meet the organization's needs. For example, you could say, "My strong organizational skills mean that I have a great track record of managing and delivering key projects to budget and on time."
4. Identify Key Competencies
Look at the job description and identify the key competencies that you'll need to perform the role effectively. For example, will you need to demonstrate customer focus, industry awareness, good communication skills, teamwork, or vision?
Then, think about how you use these competencies in your current role, and prepare some examples. Practice answering a range of competency-based questions. You can find examples of these in our list of 50 Common Interview Questions and Answers, above.
5. Learn to Think "on Your Feet"
Interviewers sometimes ask tough question to test how well you perform under pressure. Questions like, "Tell me about your biggest failure as a project manager" or, "Have you ever had to work through a crisis? How well did you cope?"
They might also throw you a "curve ball" question. Favorites include, "If you were a superhero, what would your superpower be?" or "How many pennies would it take to make a pile as big as the Empire State Building?" These types of questions demand some creative thinking on your part, as well as a good sense of humor!
Thinking on your feet will help you to navigate tricky questions like these. This means remaining calm and cool-headed. So, before you answer a question, take a deep breath and relax. Think about your response beforehand, and don't start speaking until you know what you want to say.
If you're unsure about a question, ask the interviewer to repeat it and don't be afraid to request some extra "thinking time." It can also be a helpful to take some notes during the interview which you can refer to when you give your response.
If you really don't know the answer, come clean! Don't just make something up – the interviewer will likely realize what you're doing and it could damage your credibility. Instead, explain where you could go to find out the answer. For example, could you talk to a data analytics expert or industry specialist?
If you find it difficult to think clearly under pressure, there are many techniques you can use to keep a clear head. See our articles on Dealing With Anxiety, Physical Relaxation Techniques, and Mindfulness in the Workplace for a range of ideas and advice.
6. Rehearse the Interview
Role-playing is a great way to practice answering interview questions. Acting out scenarios with a friend or family member reveals how you might react when you're put on the spot. It also helps you to rehearse your answers and it can boost your self-confidence. However, avoid giving answers that are scripted, as this may make you seem inauthentic.
Examples of Common Interview Questions
In this section, we'll cover seven of the most common interview questions, along with tips on how to answer them. And, if you really want to put the prep work in, see our list of 50 Common Interview Questions and Answers, which gives examples of different question types, as well as detailed advice on planning your answers.
Question 1: Tell me about yourself.
This question is a great conversation starter. But, be aware that your answer can set the tone for the entire interview. So, give a clear, concise and compelling outline of who you are and what you've achieved. Steer clear of personal details. Instead, focus on the skills and experience that you have that are relevant to the job.
A good tactic is to discuss your present, your past, and your future. Start by summarizing your current position. Then, fill in details of skills that you've gained from previous roles. Finally, explain how this new job represents your ideal next step.
If possible, include one or two specific, measurable achievements, such as improvements that you've delivered, or performance targets that you've exceeded. Use this question as an opportunity to demonstrate how you are ideally suited to this role. And show your confidence and enthusiasm from the start.
Question 2: Why do you want to change roles?
Don't use this question to admit to failings, or to complain about your existing role. Instead, put a positive spin on it. For example, you could say that you're looking for a new challenge or to learn new skills. Explain what you've learned from your current role, and how this has helped you to edge closer to achieving your long-term career goals.
If you were let go from your previous job, be honest about it. Remember that such setbacks can be phrased positively – as opportunities to refocus your goals, to learn from your experiences, and to forge ahead.
Question 3: What could you help us to do differently or better?
This is where your research will really pay off. For example, if you know of an area where the company has been underperforming, or where it wants to improve and grow, highlight how your skills and experience could help.
Frame your answer positively. Talk about "additional" opportunities that the organization could take advantage of or ways of working that might improve efficiency. Ask whether the organization has already considered these approaches, too. This demonstrates that you understand that things are rarely as simple as they seem, and that you want to develop well-informed plans.
Question 4: Tell me about a time that you made a mistake.
Resist the urge to say "I haven't" – but steer clear of mentioning any serious missteps. Instead, give an example of a mistake that you were able to fix. This shows that you're open and honest about errors that you make, and that you're able to correct and learn from them.
You can also use your answer to talk about the value that you place on attention to detail, honest feedback, self-reflection, and resilience.
Question 5: How do you deal with pressure?
These kinds of questions are designed to help the interviewer discover more about your personality, and about your approach to work. Your answer will help them to assess your suitability for the role and whether you're the right "fit" for the team.
Emphasize the positives of working under pressure – after all, a reasonable amount can push you to achieve your goals. Explain the strategies that you've used to motivate yourself and others during challenging times. Where possible, use specific examples of when you've had to work under pressure and how you managed it successfully.
Talk about the techniques that you've used. Relaxation techniques, for example, asking for help, or delegating tasks more evenly between team members.
Question 6: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Interviewers expect you to have asked yourself this question already, so don't act as though it's the first time you've considered it! Have an answer ready that's positive and ambitious, but also realistic.
One approach is to think about the skills and experience that you'd like to gain. Describe how this will help you to achieve your career goals. This emphasizes your commitment to the new role and demonstrates that you'd make the most of it – for the organization as well as for yourself.
Question 7: If you were an animal, which one would you be?
This is a fun question designed to draw out your personality. So, approach it with good humor. Also, use it to your advantage! Pick one of your top strengths – one that's particularly important for the job – and think of an animal that exemplifies it.
Perhaps you'd be a meerkat, because you're great at working in teams; or a camel, because of your reputation for stamina during long projects. Mention a few possibilities, to demonstrate your extensive range of valuable attributes.
Practice Active Listening during your interview, so that you can answer questions in an informed and intelligent way. Don't start preparing your response while the other person is still speaking, or you could risk missing something important.
Job interviews can be stressful, especially when an interviewer asks a question that you don't know the answer to. Preparation is key if you want to avoid being "caught out" and to showcase your skills and accomplishments effectively.
Use the following steps to get yourself ready for anything an interviewer might ask:
- Gather information.
- Research yourself.
- Think about your strengths and weaknesses.
- Identify key competencies.
- Learn to think on your feet.
- Rehearse the interview.
If you want further guidance on handling interview questions, take a look at our list of 50 Common Interview Questions and Answers.
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