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Answering Questions

Career Resource Center

Answering Questions

5 things about you that an interviewer wants to know

  • Do you have the qualifications, skills, abilities, expertise, and experience to do the job? This is why detailed preparation of your accomplishments is so important. You do not want to miss any opportunity to highlight your qualifications.
  • Do you have the experience and skill set? When considering your credentials, interviewers may ask you about traits like leadership, team involvement, work ethic, motivation, performance standards, and communication skills.
  • Are you a match for their culture and environment? Positive attitude, dedication, reliability and integrity are critical factors when evaluating your cultural fit. If you do not fit the culture, no matter how talented and hard working you are, you will not be successful in the company.
  • Do you fall into their salary range? An employer will consider your salary requirements and realistically assess if they align with your qualifications and the requirements for the position. It is important not to “overprice” yourself, which in turn could eliminate you from consideration. Conversely, “underpricing” yourself, leaving money on the table, may leave you feeling discontent.
  • Why should they hire you? The employer wants to feel confident you have set yourself apart and can offer more to the position and to the company than other candidates. They are looking to see if you possess something extra, whether it is a unique attribute, or a sought after skill, that sets you apart from the other candidates.

Traditional questions: samples

  • So, tell me a little bit about yourself. 
    Candidates sometimes fear this question because they might be unsure about the context for their response, as this is your moment to show who you are as a professional. Is the interviewer asking about your personal interests and values or does the interviewer want to hear solely about one’s work history and achievements? A well-crafted answer will touch upon all of these topics. A candidate might open his response with an interesting personal fact, as a bit of an “ice breaker” as a way to set a more personal tone. That personal intro should lead into career highlights- a synopsis of career achievements and skills that you possess that are most critical for the position. Tell them something they can’t see from the resume that sets you apart from all the others. The response should be 60-90 seconds long, and should address the big view of your career highlights – not the tiny details. Sell yourself, be honest, and be brief. End your answer by inquiring about the goals and objectives of the position.
  • What is your greatest accomplishment? 
    When considering your answer choose an accomplishment that was important to you and benefited the success of the company you worked for. The accomplishment you present is not nearly as significant to the employer as is what your answer indicates about you as a prospective employee. The following parts should structure your response: First, describe the accomplishment. Second, give concrete examples of your action plan, how you carried this out, and how you achieved the desired result. Third, explain the experience, skills required, and what was learned, gained from the experience. Fourth, discuss how this experience has best prepared you for the position. Finally, end with a question such as “Would you like me to give you more details about this accomplishment?”
  • What are five adjectives or short phrases that best describe you? 
    The purpose of this question is to measure your level of self awareness. Beforehand, develop a list of 10-12 qualities that best capture who you are. Identify the 6 that most closely relate to the position, and be prepared to discuss these. For example, are you a hard worker, good communicator, team leader, change agent, etc.
  • What is your greatest weakness?
    It is sometimes advised to answer this question by discussing a weakness that is actually a positive trait, or turning a weakness into strengths such as “I am a perfectionist, and I spend countless hours analyzing my work to make sure it is usually of the highest quality.” Interviewers rarely see this as genuine, and it is usually ineffective. When asking this question, the interviewer is not focused on what your weakness is. What matters most is how you handle this question and what your answer says about you. When considering your answer, structure your response with the following parts. First, confidently showcase your strengths for the position. Second, highlight an area that you are just developing in, or want to improve upon (an example could be a new software, an advanced reporting technique, a new financial tool). Third, describe what you are doing to overcome this weakness. Fourth, explain how this new skill, or action, will improve your value and increase your contribution to the company. Finally, end with a question such as, “Did I answer your question completely, or do you need me to elaborate on this?”
  • What is the most significant challenge you have faced in the past year? 
    A well-structured answer to this question will first provide a clear understanding of the situation you faced. Then you should tell about three or four actions that you took to address the challenge. Finally, you should indicate the outcome, of the actions taken. The challenge that you choose to speak about should have a positive outcome. Indicate what you learned from the experience.
  • What would you like to be doing five years from now? 
    Knowing exactly what you will do in the future is difficult, but have an idea about what direction you want to develop toward and a relevant time table for advancement. In your own way, explain that you want to be the most knowledgeable, most effective person in the given position. Then explain that through continued learning in your position, you will feel fully prepared to take on any greater challenges.
  • Why do you want this position? 
    If you are prepared, this question will work in your favor. Use the research you’ve done about the company, to help distinguish you as the best candidate for the position. Explain your desire to be part of a company that provides a valued service, educates a certain part of the population, or advanced technology in their given field. Find something specific about the company and their mission that speaks to you so you can expand upon it in your answer and make it part of your goal.
  • What motivates and inspires you?
    Think about what part of your previous jobs gave you the greatest sense of accomplishment. Use this knowledge to give at least two examples of what motivates you. These examples should be as relevant to the position as possible. Employers are aware that happy, motivated employees are most likely to be positive, long term contributors. Your answer to this question helps the employer determine if they can realistically provide an environment that will motivate you.
  • What do you like to do outside of work in your spare time? What are your outside interests/hobbies?
    This question uncovers a candidates quality of work/life balance and reveals character traits that may be highlighted in how one’s time is spent outside of work. Keep answers brief and somewhat connected to your professional focus.
  • What have you learned recently? 
    Companies strive to hire individuals who are eager to learn. Your answer should address any knowledge, or skill that you have gained in the past few years which is relevant to the position. Present an outline of what you learned and explain how it would enhance your success in the position.
  • How do you react when you are in stressful situations?
    Think about how you react in the workplace under trying circumstances. Explain to the interviewer in a precise, honest and positive manner, how you handle stressful events. Keep in mind that if stress is a repeated topic, it may be a red flag toward an atypical stress level in the position – and something to consider before accepting a position.
  • How much of your time are you willing to commit to the company? 
    Putting in extra hours is expected when working on a special project, or meeting a deadline. However, some companies encourage long hours on a continual basis. If a healthy work/life balance is a considerable factor in choosing a position, you must be prepared to address how many hours you are willing to work on a regular basis. Most companies are looking for individuals who are willing to allow for some flexibility in regard to hours, and are able to give a little extra time during a critical time.
  • What common denominators are you looking for in a prospective employer? 
    Think about what values are most important to you. Be prepared to explain these, and how they are a match to the values of the company.
  • Have you ever had to discipline an employee? 
    If so how did you approach the situation? This is an expected question if you are interviewing for any type of a management/supervisory position. Explain how you used a proactive problem solving approach, with listening skills and mentoring skills to guide the employee. Share the outcome of the disciplinary action. Did the employee’s performance improve? If not, explain how you followed the standardized policies and what the end result was.
  • Are you more suited to be a leader or a contributing team member? 
    Reviewing the job description helps to determine how much leadership is involved in the position. Embrace your strengths, and be truthful in your answer. Remember it is okay to be are a leader but never embellish the depth of your experience.
  • Describe values that are most important to you. 
    Employers ask this to learn if a candidate’s personal principles are a similar match to the company’s culture. Core values include traits such as integrity, honesty, open communication, family as a priority, company profitability, and many others. Look at a company’s mission statement (often found on the company’s website or literature) which describes their core values.

Challenging questions
Typically, difficult questions are those that could potentiality bring up a subject or event that might present you in a less than favorable way. Practice your answers to these questions and make sure that you have created an honest answer with the best possible, positive spin. Write down any questions that you are concerned about so they can be adequately addressed. If you are concerned about the best way to handle a question or a particular line of questioning, make sure to prepare thoroughly. Listen carefully to the question and wait until the interviewer is finished and ask for clarification if needed. Look relaxed and actively listen. The interviewer may give you some clues, as to what is the right or wrong answer.

  • Tell me about the worst manager you’ve ever had. Again, be tactful, and don’t give into the temptation to air any past grievances. Simply say that while none of your past managers were terrible, there were some that you connected easier with, and some who taught you more than others did.
  • Why did you leave your last position? Present the situation in a positive way. An interview is never the place to complain about your former company or manager. Use discretion and give a professional explanation of the circumstances. Some areas of focus for your answer might include: advancement opportunities were limited, a need for more challenging assignments, looking for an company that provides greater support for its employees (training opportunities), desire for more of a leadership role.
  • Why were you laid off? Remember to stay positive. Do not discuss interpersonal conflicts, and limit your talk to economic conditions. Be brief, unless you are asked to explain further.
  • What are your salary expectations? It is okay to share what you are presently earning, adding that salary is one of many factors you are considering. Emphasize that opportunity and responsibility are your major driving forces toward a change. If pressed for a more detailed response, you can also say, “I am currently earning $_ and I am sure that if I am the right candidate, you would make a fair and reasonable offer.”
  • Can you share an example of a time when your work was criticized? Explain the situation, emphasizing how you addressed the criticism, modified your work, and now it is no longer an issue.
  • Why haven’t you found a position before now? Explain that you are more interested in finding the right opportunity, as opposed to finding any job. Geographical location and current economic conditions may also have an impact.
  • If you have you ever been fired or terminated from a position, why did this occur? Answer the interviewer in a straightforward way. You should be honest, concise, and professional in your answer. Do not vent your grievances or portray yourself as a victim. Be positive about it in all aspects, especially body language, with strong eye contact. Give a brief but thorough answer that explains the circumstances in which you left the position. Address any measures you took to improve your work performance, if appropriate.
  • What part of your last job did you like least? Prepare for this question beforehand by thinking about the things you are no longer willing to do, parts of your job that you have outgrown, or no longer feel challenged by. Then, present these aspects in a positive way, such as stating how you have confidently mastered all there is to learn in a specific area, and now are ready to experience a new challenge.
  • What would your former employer say about you? Contact your former managers and ask for their input if necessary. Some examples of traits that might be mentioned include, team player, enthusiastic, pro-active, and dependable.
  • Unique/different questions- What is your most prized possession? If you could have dinner with 3 famous people, dead or alive, who would you pick? If you were a tree, what kind would you be? What was the best purchase you ever made? There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer to this type of question. The point of asking them is to see if you can come up with an answer when put on the spot. Don’t think about your answer too much, and trust your instinct. Never be too serious, feel free to laugh and always keep your answers light and somewhat brief.

Inappropriate/illegal questions

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate against any individual on the basis of that individual’s race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The Civil Rights Act also created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency given responsibility for enforcement of the Act.
  • It is okay to ask if you are a United States Citizen but not okay to ask if your citizenship is of a national origin.
  • It is discriminatory to ask how one learned to read, write, or speak a language, but it is acceptable to ask the language one speaks fluently, and if one speaks a foreign language.
  • The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 prohibits discrimination “because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment related purposes, including receipt of benefits under fringe benefit programs, as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work, and nothing…shall be interpreted to permit otherwise.”
  • Everyone should be suspicious if they are asked questions regarding relationships, marriage, children, pregnancy, childcare, marital status or childcare accommodations.
  • Generally an interviewer should not ask your age during an interview. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of age against anyone over the age of 40. Some states and local governments also have laws that enforce age discrimination.
  • With rare exceptions, the only age appropriate question they should ask is if you are over the age of 18.
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1992 protects qualified individuals with a disability against discrimination in hiring, advancement, discharge, compensation, training or other terms and conditions of employment. It requires that reasonable accommodations be made to the known physical or mental limitations of qualified individuals with a disability, unless to do so would impose an undue hardship on the employer.
  • As a general rule you should not be asked about your use of lawful medication and/or prescription drugs.

Sample questions that may be asked

  • How do you intend to get to work?
  • Do you have the legal right to remain permanently in the U.S.?
  • Are you willing to relocate?
  • Do you have any family, business or social obligations that would prevent you from working consistently or overtime or prevent you from traveling?
  • Can you or are you willing to lift “X” number of pounds?
  • Are there any other names under which your employment may be verified?
  • What foreign language so you speak, read or write?

Sample questions that may not be asked

  • What is the nationality of your parents or spouse?
  • How did you learn to speak a foreign language?
  • What color is your complexion or skin?
  • What religious holidays do you observe?
  • What parish do you belong to?
  • Did you ever have any other name than the one you are using now?
  • Of what clubs have you been a member?
  • Do you plan to marry?
  • Do you plan to have children?
  • Who will take care of your children?

What to do if you are asked an illegal question
Rarely are interviewers pre-meditated in asking discriminating questions. Many hiring managers are not experienced interviewers or often don’t know what questions are out of bounds. Often they realize their question was not proper immediately and retract the question. The objective is to handle the question and its response with professionalism. You have three choices:

  • Answer the question. If you don’t have any concerns answer the question without any elaboration. Your goal should be to answer quickly and move on.
  • Don’t answer the question directly. Attempt to find the root of the question and answer in a way that gives the interviewer what they want to know.
  • Object to answering the question. You may question the relevance and the legality of the question to the position you are interviewing for. This response should be used sparingly when the question is clearly off limits. By not answering you are likely going to diminish your chances of being a finalist for the job.

Salary questions
In most situations, it is not appropriate to discuss salary, vacations, retirement, etc. The interview is a process and you need to learn more about the employer and the position, not the salary and benefit package.

  • If you are asked your salary requirements, your response should be “I currently earn $_ and am sure if you believe I am the best candidate you will make a reasonable and fair offer” or “I am sure that if you feel I am the right candidate, you would make me a reasonable offer.”
  • Know your salary requirements before you start the interview process.
  • Never be the first to initiate a discussion about salary/benefits, as it could identify you as a person solely motivated by money.
  • Don’t tell them your minimum salary requirements.
  • If you do provide a salary number, you will be locked in to that number, if you provide a salary range the only number they will remember is the lowest number in your range.
  • Emphasize that opportunity and responsibility are your major driving forces towards a change.
  • If the employer asks about your current compensation, be both specific and honest.
  • The stronger you interview, the higher your value to the hiring manager correlates to a strong offer.
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