Job Interview: Questions in a Down Economy

James Clear

One of the many downsides of a bad economy is that the job market is filled with highly competitive candidates. If you're one of the lucky few to actually land an interview, then you need to take full advantage. That means you need to be prepared for everything the interviewer is going to throw at you. The competition is high enough as it is, there's no point in hurting yourself because you're not prepared.

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It's all about the story. Before we get into the questions, let's cover a crucial suggestion: you need to have good stories to tell. Stories are vitally important to a successful interview for a few reasons. First, they are memorable. We rarely remember all of the facts, but a story that makes us think, laugh, cry, or feel something ... well, that sticks with us long after it's over.

Secondly, they are adaptable. Good stories fit many molds, which means you can use your stories even if the interviewer asks a question that you aren't prepared to answer.

Finally, we assign our own meaning to stories. This is especially important for interviews. We can't read the minds of the interviewer, which means that even if we believe our answer was solid, we're still can't be sure that it was what they wanted to hear. Good stories solve that problem because there are often many lessons hidden within one story. The pieces that stick with the interviewer will make an impact on them even if we didn't plan it that way.

So take some time to think through the past and develop some solid stories that shed light on your abilities, accomplishments, and values.

With that in mind, here are ten difficult interview questions and a few tips on how to answer them.

1. What are your weaknesses? Most people hate this classic question because they only see one of two options. First, they could say that they don't really have weaknesses or they could talk about a strength as a weakness. ("You know, sometimes I just work too hard. I need to give myself a break.")

Second, they could actually tell the truth and state a real weakness. ("It's tough to say this, but I'm not a fan of working in teams. It's not that I don't get along with my co-workers, I'm just more efficient on my own.")

However, a third option--perhaps the best option--is to deliver a truthful response that avoids any character flaws. Instead of talking about your personality weaknesses, talk about a technical weakness that is relatively unnecessary for the job. This should be a skill that you could learn, you just haven't yet.

For example, if you want a job in Human Resources then you could say the following, "Well, I'm just not big on financial modeling and analysis type of projects. I tried a bit of it in business school and it just didn't work with me. I understand the basic ideas, the trends and predictions, but the actual how-to of that skill escapes me. I realize it's important to have people like that in our business and I suppose it's something I could learn if needed, but I prefer to focus my time on my strengths. Like organizational change and culture formation, for example."

Remember, this could be any technical skill that you've experienced in the past. An answer like that avoids severe personality flaws and also reminds the interviewer that your strengths are a perfect fit for the position you are applying to get.

2. Why are you interested in our company? If most candidates are being honest with themselves, the answer to this question is "because you're hiring." The best candidates, however, are the ones who have real reasons and real interests in the company. Tell the interviewer what you like about the company's values and ethics and how they match up with your own. Talk about the challenges and opportunities that the company faces and why your skill set is a good match for them.

Most of all, be specific. Statements like, "you seem like an exciting company to work for" don't go very far. Conversely, if you can clearly describe the top three challenges facing the company in the next five years, then you can really make an impression. If you need some help, then do some research on the type of person that usually works there. Jump on LinkedIn and shoot a message to some previous or current employees and see what they have to say.

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3. Tell me about a time that you failed. It might seem like this question is a trap, but it doesn't have to be. Failure is part of the game of life. We all fail and what is important is that you can show how you recover from failure, how you deal with it, and how you approach things differently because of it. When you're telling your story of failure, do your best to keep things from being super serious. No one enjoys working with someone who can't deal with tough situations. The attitude should be, "I'm not a fan of failure, but when it happens I don't let it stop me."

4. Tell me about the worst boss you ever had. This is one question where you should keep the stories to a minimum. Talking bad about people behind their backs sets a terrible precedent for what you might be like as an employee. No company wants to add an employee that they can't trust to keep their mouth shut. There's no reason to lie, but even if you had a terrible boss in the past, do your best to keep your opinions neutral at worst.

5. What are your strengths? Finally, a question where you can brag about yourself. Obviously, the strengths that you mention in this answer should clearly match the skills needed for the job, but what else should you focus on? Well, numerical results for one. Putting a number to your work not only makes it more understandable and more believable, it also leaves a bigger impression than generic statements.

Think about it. If you work in marketing and you talk about how you "provide increased ROI for the company" what does that really mean? On the flipside, if you can clearly articulate how your marketing efforts resulted in a 14 percent increased in customer engagement year-over-year ... well, then you have something solid to stand on.

Note: This is good information to know regardless of whether you're interviewing for a new job or not. If you're working somewhere, then you should take the time to figure out how you are impacting the business. Having these numbers is crucial to proving your worth in a job interview, annual review, or just everyday conversation. What if you don't know the numbers? Just ask someone who does.

6. Why did you leave your last job? Don't lie, but try to keep the focus of your answer positive and forward-looking. Talk about your desire for growth and opportunity and why the current position offers those things. You're not trying to escape. You're trying to improve. Show them that you're the type of person who moves towards the next thing, not away from the last thing.

7. Are you a team player? You bet you are. Everyone wants a team player as their next employee. What if you're an introvert or if you work better alone? No worries, just focus on how you're great at getting your piece done. "Teams are great because they allow me to leverage my strengths as a role player. Whenever I come into a team environment, I just need an important task to do and I'm off and running. Here's an example..."

8. Why should we hire you? This is a question where you can really let your research shine. Show that you did your homework and spend some time talking about the greatest needs for the company in your eyes. Then, show them exactly why you're the perfect person to meet those needs. If you have had a successful career to date, then you can also mention that the best indicator of future success is past success. It's clear that you have succeeded before, so there is no reason to believe that you won't succeed again. They should have full faith in your ability to handle the job.

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9. Tell me about a time when you made an assumption about someone that was wrong. This seems like a tough question to answer because we usually think that wrong assumptions are the same as bad assumptions. Flip this question on it's head and talk about how you make good assumptions about people. For example, you could talk about how you naturally trust people. Maybe that trust came back to burn you one time and you ended up cleaning up someone else's mess. Or perhaps you worked with someone who seemed to be solely motivated by money. You could talk about how you assumed that they were in business to help the customer and you were surprised when you learned the opposite. There are infinite options, but the goal is to show that you assume the best in people and you're surprised when the opposite occurs.

10. How do you measure success? As many people have said before, you will have to decide what success means to you and then sculpt your answer accordingly. That said, there is one phrase that I heard from a friend a few years ago and it has stuck with me ever since. I think you may find it useful when crafting your own answer. His response to this question was simply, "My goal is to make my children proud. If they are proud of what I have done, how I have acted, and the choices I have made ... then I am successful." Think about the values behind that answer. It tells you a lot about the person. Think about how you can incorporate similar values into your response. (For more suggestions on how to ace your next interview, check out this list of interview tips.)

James Clear is the founder of Passive Panda, a website about earning more money, time, and freedom. For more tips on salary negotiation as well as other proven tactics for earning more money, join Passive Panda's free newsletter.