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How to Ace Common Interview Questions
There are few things which cause such conflicting emotions as finally landing a job interview. You feel triumphant: “filling out all those job applications finally paid off - woohoo!” You may also feel nervous: “Uh-oh, now I've got to double check every word of my application to see how far I bent the truth to fit the job." Then, you feel proud: “Someone has finally recognized my worth and wants to see me!” And finally, you feel terrified: “But that someone is going to examine my every statement and judge me on my every word - oh no!”
How do you prepare for an event which you simultaneously long for and dread?
Presumably, you already know a little about the company and the role based on the job description, and you are (hopefully) qualified for the position. You can of course dive headlong into research online before your interview - where the company is, how to get there, how long your journey will take, who to ask for when you arrive, what documents you need to bring with you, and so on. That's the easy part.
But what about the unknowns - essentially, what questions you will be asked? How can you possibly prepare to answer unknown questions asked by an unknown person? This is where a little bit of preparedness comes in.
How to Stand Out From the Crowd
There are common questions which almost invariably come up at every interview, so you can prepare to a certain extent your answers in advance. But remember this: every candidate for the position will be anticipating the same questions, so you need to make sure that your answers go beyond the obvious and show some originality.
Your mission therefore, is not to just merely answer these expected questions. What you need to do – in fact, what you must do - is to make your interviewers sit up and take notice. This is even more vital if your interview is later in the day when they will have already seen half a dozen candidates before you, and will have heard all the usual standard answers.
So, what might come up? Here are some likely options:
"Tell Me What You Know About Our Company."
“Well,” you say, “you have around 10,000 employees spread across your offices in 12 different U.S. states. Your company specializes in leasing small aircraft to those who want the flexibility of private air travel without the responsibility of aircraft ownership. Do I get the job now?”
Yawn. Your interviewers are nodding off already. They know all this. They work in the business, of course. What you've just said is 100% correct, but anyone can memorize and regurgitate facts and figures from a company's website. So you need to go beyond the statistics.
Here’s how: find out who their competitors are; whether their aircraft-leasing business is on the up; what their position is on today's market. Read their latest annual report and find out what problems and setbacks they may have encountered, what their current business plans are. Go on their Facebook and see how much money their employees raised for charity at the local Bike-a-Thon. Check out their Twitter and see what they’ve been tweeting about lately.
Imagine that your interviewers have already seen sixteen applicants who all recite the same facts and figures. But candidate number seventeen (you!) points out that the company is currently only at number three in the American market, but that you know what strategies are in place to increase their market share, and you could assist in this by doing XYZ.... you get the picture. You have immediately made yourself seem more knowledgeable (and hopefully, more hireable) than your rivals. A second interview is now more likely to be in the bag.
"Why Should We Employ You, Rather Than Another Candidate?"
What the interviewer doesn't want to know is what you think your rivals' negative points are, or how amazing your last boss thought you are. What you are being asked here is what unique qualities you have that would make you ideal for the role. If you have carefully studied the job description, you will be able to pick out specific aspects and describe what experience you have and what skills you possess which would make you a perfect fit for the position.
Never be worried about appearing to boast in a job interview, provided you do so in an honest and genuine fashion. This is the time to really sell yourself. For example, if the job is in customer service, you could describe a previous encounter with a dissatisfied customer and how you handled it, emphasizing how certain traits of your personality (being patient, polite, being a good listener) helped you diffuse and resolve the situation. These are traits which are ideal for the job you’re interviewing for.
Don't be afraid to put forward ideas about how the job could or should be done. Interviewers love candidates who demonstrate they have initiative and have thought long and hard about what they could contribute. The more senior the position you are applying for, the less likely it is the interviewing panel will know exactly what they are looking for. So sharing your views on how you see the role and what you could bring to it shows you have spent some serious time thinking about it.
"Can You Summarize What You Did in Your Last Job?"
“Why are they asking me this?” you think. “Surely they've read my resume, so they already know the details of my employment history.” Forget that; instead imagine that your interviewers know nothing about your previous job, and that you are describing it to them for the first time. (Some may not; if you’re being interviewed by more than one person at a busy company, the second person may not have had time to read your resume before the interview.)
To impress your interviewer here, you’ll need to have thought in advance which specific aspects of your last job will grab the attention of this particular employer. So explain how you came to learn the skills which the job required and how you improved on them.
Maybe you learned how to delegate tasks within a team; or to advise clients on the most suitable product for their needs; or you became proficient at arranging and scheduling appointments. Your interviewers are not interested in hearing every detail of your day-to-day duties; what they want is an account of the main skills involved, skills that are directly transferable to the new role, and how by using them successfully you contributed to your previous organization.
Above all, you need to show that you are capable, confident and enthusiastic. So talk about what you most enjoyed about the job and how you would like to take these elements further within the new role and develop your skills more fully. If you can show your interviewers that you progressed during the course of your last job, they will know that you are someone who is keen and willing to keep on learning and developing.
"Describe a Setback You've Experienced, and How You Dealt With it."
If you're not ready for this question, you could easily trip up here. After all, you've come prepared to sell yourself and your previous successes, not to describe errors you've made or mishaps you've encountered. This question is enough to make even a seasoned Senior Executive nervous.
The trick here is to have a ready-prepared example of a time when your initial approach to a situation, or your method of handling it, proved not to be quite as effective as you had expected. This will build you up rather than put you down, in the hiring company’s eyes - an ability to identify and acknowledge your own failings is essential, as long as you can demonstrate that you have the flexibility to change your approach if it isn't working in order to achieve a positive outcome, and the humility to honestly admit your shortcomings.
So - firstly, outline the situation. Then describe your initial approach to it, at what stage you recognized that you weren't achieving the result you hoped for, and then explain the alternative solution which eventually succeeded. Finally, identify where you went wrong in the first place, and show what you have learned from the experience. Job done.
"Do You Have Any Questions?"
“What? Surely this isn't a serious question I should prepare for?” you may think. Actually, it is, especially as it shows the interview is drawing to a close. When you leave the room, usually the last thing you say will stick the most in your interviewers' minds.
Most people will “Um” and "Er” here, then impulsively ask 'What's-In-It-For-Me' questions about practical matters such as salary and benefits. However, these are details you can find out once you’ve been offered the job, so aren't really relevant at this stage. Worse, asking about benefits before you even have the job may make the interviewers think you are more concerned about what the company can do for you, rather than the other way around.
Your sole aim at this final point in the interview is to advance your candidacy, hopefully to the point where you will be asked to attend a second interview, or even be offered the position. So come up with questions which not only give you more information about the company’s needs and wants, but which make you stand out from other candidates by showing a genuine interest in the hiring company.
• Why is this role available? How many people have held the position in the last couple of years and where are they now - have they been promoted or did they leave? Or is this a newly created position?
• What are the opportunities for growth, both personal and professional, within the company? What training is available?
• How often are performance evaluations given? Will we be monitored regularly and given guidance on our performance, including advice on ways to improve and progress? (Interviewers like to be reassured that you will always welcome and accept constructive criticism.)
• To whom will I report? Who will be my manager, and will I get the opportunity to meet them and discuss their expectations of me and how I should fulfil this role?
• How long has the interviewer been with the company? Why did they join? What keeps them there? (Interviewers are seldom asked about themselves, so if time allows will probably enjoy the novelty of giving a brief account of their own professional background and what motivates or enthuses them. Unless they are in a rush to move onto the next candidate, they will usually relax and enjoy this part of the conversation, and remember you more favorably.)
Make a Memorable Exit
It's always a huge relief to finally escape from the interview room. But make sure you leave in style. Approach the interviewer or the panel, give them a firm handshake accompanied by a smile (not a panic-stricken grin), thank them for the opportunity of this interview and say you look forward to hearing from them. Exit smartly, and close the door behind you gently for the interviewer's privacy if he or she doesn’t offer to escort you out.
Once the door has shut behind you, you can then breathe a sigh of relief and relax. Inevitably you will evaluate your own performance, which hopefully will lead to a celebratory drink, not an evening in the bar drowning your sorrows. And then all you have to do is send out a polite ‘thank you’ email to the interviewer (try to do this as soon as possible after the interview, preferably the same day), then wait for the phone call or email which tells you that all your preparations have paid off.
And do not - repeat, do not - be discouraged if your interview doesn't result in a job offer. If possible, ask for feedback, learn what you can from it, and then move on to the next application.
As Alexander Graham Bell shrewdly observed: "When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us."
Tune in next Tuesday for more great resume, cover letter and interview tips! Same time, same place!