How to answer tricky interview questions

Congratulations, you’ve been selected for interview – now comes the nerve-wracking part. Get some advice on preparing for, and answering, questions designed to explore your decision-making and reveal your potential

Job interviews are the single most important part of the work selection process – for you and for your future employer. Once your CV has shown that you meet the basic skills and background requirements, the interview then establishes how well you might fit into an organisation’s culture and future plans.

Most interview questions are generally straightforward, unambiguous enquiries, but some interviewers like to surprise you by asking questions specifically intended to explore your thinking and expectations. Or they might try to throw you off guard to see how you react in high-stress or confusing circumstances. Or they may not be intentionally tricky at all. The interviewer may not be very experienced and so ask you questions which seem unrelated to you and the position.

Answering tricky questions successfully could help you gain the position you are applying for, but remember that the nature of the questions, and how your answers are received, can tell you volumes about whether this is a company you would really want to work for.

Prepare for the interview

1. Think about the potential questions

Spend time in advance thinking about questions you might be asked during the interview. Also, study lists of questions that are available online and formulate possible answers. Although you may not be asked those questions specifically, being well prepared will help you feel relaxed, confident and capable.

2. Think about the purpose

The best job interviews are positive encounters that allow a two-way exchange of information. It may feel as though the employer has all the power as it is they who will decide whether or not to offer you the job. But, in fact, it is you who holds the power – it is you who will decide whether or not to accept the job. So, interviews are just as important for you as they are for the interviewer. Keeping this power balance in mind will help you stay calm, dignified, and clear-headed.

3. Think about the interviewer

It is safe to assume that the interviewer is slightly uncomfortable with the process too. Not many people enjoy grilling a stranger. Remember that you may be the 25th candidate this week and the interviewer may be quite sick of asking the same questions and hearing the same rehearsed answers. Remember, too, that the interviewer was once sitting in your seat, applying for his or her job within the company and worrying about the same surprise questions. Establishing some empathy with the interviewer can help to make the encounter more relaxed.

Communicate effectively during the interview

Never lie. Many interviewers do this work for a living, so they have heard all the ‘correct’ answers many times before. Don’t trot out what you think the interviewer wants to hear. Instead, be candid and clear, and use lengthy answers only when you think that demonstrating your thought processes in detail will add valuable information.

Be sure you understand the question. If the question is unclear, ask for clarification. ‘I’m not sure what you mean. Could you explain?’ or ‘could you rephrase that question?’ are perfectly acceptable queries in any civilised conversation. Job interviews are no different. Similarly, if you didn’t hear the question properly, don’t be afraid to ask for it to be repeated.

Be prepared to answer questions about salary. You can politely decline to give details about past salary and future expectations if you wish, but be warned that this is difficult to do without creating a bad atmosphere in the interview. The most important thing is to keep the focus on your worth, not your cost.

Many companies offer salaries only at a certain percentage above a candidate’s previous salary. However, if your previous salary was below the market average or your worth, this doesn’t mean you should be forced to accept a lower salary in the future. Decide before you go into the interview on a salary range that is acceptable to you. Make sure the top of the range is well above the figure you would be thrilled to accept, and the bottom of the range slightly above your predetermined ‘walk-away’ figure.

Deal with tricky questions

There are roughly eight areas of questioning that could pose a challenge in the interview:

  1. Your experience and management skills
  2. Your opinion about industry or professional trends
  3. The reasons why you are leaving your current job
  4. The financial or other value of your past work and achievements
  5. Your work habits
  6. Your salary expectations
  7. Your expectations for the future
  8. Your personality and relationship skills or problems

Identify the topic areas that might be the trickiest for you, then think carefully about how you might answer them. You don’t want to have to try to blag your way through difficult parts of the interview, and you certainly shouldn’t lie. However, you should also be wary of rehearsing answers to anticipated questions word for word, as this is likely to come across as false and insincere, too.

Your solutions to ‘scenario’ type problems will tell the interviewer a lot about you – whether you can make tough decisions, for example, or if you have leadership qualities.

Questions about your weaknesses are usually designed to discover the extent of your self-knowledge. Keep your answers short and dignified. Identify only one area of weakness that you’re aware of and describe what you are doing to strengthen that area to demonstrate your enthusiasm for self-development. Try to avoid using the response of being a ‘perfectionist’ as it is a cliché. Remember, no one is perfect.

This is an edited excerpt from Get That Job: Interviews (Bloomsbury Business, 2022) from the Business Essentials series. Available in paperback, ebook and audio, £8.99 GBP.

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