Tackling Interview Questions That Put You to the Test

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Knowing how to respond appropriately to interview questions can mean the difference between remaining a contender for and being eliminated from a job. While you can’t anticipate every question, there are some you’re bound to hear. By considering your approach and practicing your answers to these queries in advance, you can be more relaxed at the interview and give confident responses.

Here are six common or tricky questions and tips for handling them with finesse:

Tell me about yourself.

All candidates should be ready to answer this one because it’s likely to come up in many — if not all — interviews. This question isn’t an invitation to share your life story or discuss personal details. Instead, keep your response brief and focused on professional goals and interests. For instance, you might mention that you’ve been working as a network administrator for five years, concentrating in network security, and that you recently earned your Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) designation. Follow up with a short overview of what you enjoy most about your career and how you could add value to the position for which you’re interviewing.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

This one can be tricky to answer: You want to seem ambitious but not so much that it seems as if you’re after the hiring manager’s job. Additionally, you don’t want to sound inflexible with set plans in mind. The best response is one that reflects a logical future step in your career. For example, you might express interest in a role that will allow you to challenge yourself by managing entire IT projects, including creating the necessary teams to support them and overseeing implementation.

What is the biggest mistake you’ve made in your career?

Don’t say that you’ve never made a misstep because that will raise red flags for the interviewer. Everyone has made mistakes in their careers, so be honest. Think of a situation in which something didn’t go as well as planned. Maybe you recommended a product to your boss that didn’t perform as expected. Then explain what you learned from the error and how you corrected it. Hiring managers look for employees who constantly aim to improve and are able to solve problems.

Why should we choose you over other candidates?

Avoid cliché answers such as, “Because I’m the best person for the job,” or worse, “Because I need a job.” Instead, highlight your strengths and how they could benefit the company. A good response would be something like, “It sounds like you need a database developer who can hit the ground running and meet tight deadlines. I have extensive experience in this role and have worked at firms with high expectations. I’m a great problem-solver who has the SQL server skills needed to make an immediate impact.”

Describe your nightmare boss.

You need to be very careful with this question. You should think of qualities that make a bad manager, but you don’t want to come across as unrealistic or negative. You also don’t want to inadvertently describe a potential boss at the company. The safest answer is one that addresses universally unpopular concerns, such as having a supervisor who lacks enthusiasm or treats others in the organization with disrespect.

What is your favorite color M&M and why?

Off-the-wall questions such as this one may seem silly, but it’s still important to take them seriously. Interviewers ask these to test your critical thinking skills and see how you handle surprises. It’s best not to overthink these questions, and give a short, honest response. You’re not likely to be eliminated from contention if you say you prefer brown M&Ms and the hiring manager likes green, but you could be if you can’t develop a thoughtful response.

Interview questions don’t have to derail your chances of landing the job. If you are unsure what to say, it’s OK to ask for a minute to consider your response. Stay focused on the fact that the person mainly wants to know if you are a good worker who can fulfill the necessary responsibilities. If you listen carefully to the questions and try to match your answers to the company’s needs, you’ll stay on the right track.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. She can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

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