Handling Interview Questions Effectively
Putting Yourself in the Best Light
You're midway through an interview for a promotion you really want, and you think you're doing well so far. Suddenly, the interviewer asks a question you don't know how to answer, and this throws you off guard.
Your heart sinks, and you start talking without knowing how you're going to finish the sentence. You don't need to see the interviewer's face to know that you handled this question badly.
How you respond to questions in an interview can make or break your chance of getting a promotion. In this article, we'll explore how you can answer even the toughest questions gracefully and intelligently.
The Importance of Preparation
It's common for interviewers to ask difficult questions. They're not doing this to trip you up, they simply want to see how well you perform under pressure and whether you can think on your feet. This is why preparation is so important.
When you prepare thoroughly for an interview, you feel less stressed and your self-confidence grows. It helps you make a good first impression, and it shows that you're organized, thoughtful and capable of handling pressure.
Preparation helps you reflect on meaningful workplace experiences, including accomplishments and stories that will showcase your strengths and skills. It can be difficult to think of these things on the spot, and you might miss an important opportunity to demonstrate your abilities if you draw a blank during the interview.
The questioning process is only one aspect of an interview. Your résumé, experience, knowledge, skills, behavior, personality, body language, and appearance will also be assessed. Read our articles on Interview Skills, Succeeding in Test and Assessment Centers, and Writing Your Résumé to prepare for the promotion process.
How to Prepare for Interview Questions
Interviews don't have to be stressful; the more you prepare, the less nervous you'll be. Follow the six steps below to handle interview questions effectively.
Step 1: Gather Information
You need to gather further information about the role. This can help you predict the questions you may face during the interview, especially ones about your strengths and weaknesses and past failures and successes.
Take time to read the job description carefully, and speak to people who work in the department or team that you're being interviewed for. Brainstorm questions that interviewers might ask, based on what you find. For example, what knowledge, skills or experiences do you need? What abilities have you developed in your current role that will help you? How will your understanding of the organization benefit your new team? What problems will you be expected to solve? Who will report to you?
Step 2: Research Yourself
What is your reputation within the organization? 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? Read our article on What's Your Reputation? to understand how people see you, and to build the reputation you want.
Even if you have a great reputation at work, do you know what would come up if an interviewer searched for your name online? Are there any images, comments, profiles, or associations that could damage your professional image?
By researching yourself, you can find out what your interviewer will see, and you'll be less likely to be surprised by a question you didn't expect. It also gives you the chance to remove, or prepare thoughtful responses to, any photos, tweets, blog posts, or comments that are questionable or negative.
Our article on Maintaining a Positive Online Reputation offers strategies you can use to strengthen your online presence.
Step 3: Think About Your Strengths and Weaknesses
The interviewer will likely ask you to talk about your strengths and weaknesses. Make a list of these beforehand, so that you can provide a quick, honest answer that puts you in a good light. (You can use the StrengthsFinder self-test or perform a Personal SWOT Analysis to identify these.)
Be honest when you talk about your weaknesses, but keep your comments short and positive. Focus on one that you've been working on, and provide examples of your progress. For example, "My biggest weakness used to be my communication skills. But I've been improving these through self-study and practice, and I now touch base with every team member first thing in the morning to share project updates in person."
When you talk about your strengths, concentrate on the ones that you'll use most in this role, and frame your response to illustrate how specific ones help you meet the organization's needs.
Also, spend some time thinking about your own career goals and how this position will help you achieve them. Interviewers want to know about your passion and what motivates you, so you need to be able to articulate clearly how this role will help you progress.
Step 4: Identify Key Competencies
Analyze the job description carefully, as this will help you identify the competencies needed to perform the role effectively. Look at advertisements for any other jobs in the same department, as these may also use the same competency framework. For example, will you need to demonstrate accountability, customer focus, industry awareness, good communication skills, teamwork, or vision?
Reflect on how you fulfill these in your existing role, and prepare five to seven examples to demonstrate this. Next, practice answering positive and negative competency-based questions. Make sure that you can recall these, but avoid memorizing them by rote – otherwise you'll sound inauthentic.
Step 5: Learn to Think on Your Feet
Many interviewers will put you on the spot to see how well you perform under pressure. They usually do this by asking a tough question, such as, "Tell me about your biggest failure as a project manager."
You need to know how to think on your feet, so you can respond appropriately to difficult questions. Start by taking a deep breath; this will flood your body with oxygen and help you relax. Then, take a few seconds to think about your response, and don't start talking until you know what you want to say.
Repeat the question slowly to confirm that you've understood it, if you need longer to think, or ask for clarification. You can also request additional time to formulate your response.
Step 6: Practice
Using role-playing is one of the best ways to practice answering interview questions. You can discover how you might react when you're put on the spot by acting out scenarios with another person. It also helps you rehearse dealing with stress and thinking on your feet, and it can boost your self-confidence.
Practice is essential if you want to feel comfortable, confident and authentic during your interview. However, avoid giving scripted answers, which will likely make a poor impression. So, practice until you feel confident and prepared, and then stop.
As you're preparing for the interview, reflect on what you are finding out about the job, and whether it fits your strengths and talents. If it doesn't, you may be better off looking for another role.
Common Interview Questions
Below are four strategies you can use to answer typical interview questions.
1. "Tell me about yourself."
This is a common and predictable interview opener. Use this opportunity to tell the interviewer about your interests and experience, but make sure that they're relevant to the role. Talk about your education, work history, key accomplishments and awards, and future goals. Don't spend too much time talking about non-work related subjects like family or hobbies, unless the interviewer asks about them.
2. "Why do you want to change roles?"
This is a tough question, and it's important to keep your answer positive. Don't use this as an opportunity to verbalize your complaints, even if you had a bad experience with your last boss or department. Instead, explain what you learned, and give positive reasons for your job transition.
3. "Why are you interested in this job?"
Your answer should demonstrate why you're a good match for this position. Explain why you're excited about using your strengths, skills and expertise to help the organization grow and achieve its goals.
4. "Tell me about the worst boss you ever had, before you joined this organization."
Interviewees cringe when this question comes up, and with good reason. It's difficult to answer because you don't want to bad-mouth a former boss, but that's exactly what you're being asked to do.
Answer honestly by talking about one aspect of this person's behavior that created challenges for you, then explain how this helped you grow. Don't make the mistake of talking about a boss or leader within the organization!
For example: "My boss was always late to our staff meetings at a previous company. So I began in her absence, to make sure that we stayed on schedule. She appreciated my initiative, and this also helped me get over my fear of public speaking."
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 risk missing something important.
It can knock your self-confidence when an interviewer asks a question that you can't answer. This is why getting yourself ready to handle common questions will help you showcase your skills and accomplishments. Take the following steps to make the best impression:
- Step 1: Gather information.
- Step 2: Research yourself.
- Step 3: Think about your strengths and weaknesses.
- Step 4: Identify key competencies.
- Step 5: Learn to think on your feet.
- Step 5: Practice.
While it's important to prepare some answers, don't rehearse scripted responses. Interviews are a chance to show the hiring manager who you really are, so leave yourself some room to answer spontaneously and creatively.