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Chapter 5 - The Interview

Sub section: Common Interview Questions

Now, let's look at some questions that you might be asked in an interview, some of the common, others of them not so common. Think about how you would answer them, and think of any other questions that you think you might be asked in your field. Prepare answers that should make them like you - project the correct message about you.

(1) "Why did you leave your old job? Didn't you like it?"

Why is this question asked? The employer is looking to see what your attitude is like. A negative attitude of any sizeable proportion is something that should not be displayed. Also, do not be inconsistent. If there was something about that job which you didn't like, which you could be expected to do in the new job, then don't mention it. This would obviously not look good. For instance, if you were at a fashion magazine, and you didn't like photo shoots, but are then going to work at a model agency, then obviously this is something that you shouldn't mention.

The best answer is the positive answer. Say that you liked the job and enjoyed most aspects of it, but that it wasn't challenging enough, or simply that you wanted a change to stay fresh and so on. Something like this is really good and will have them eating out of your hand. Also, try and turn the question into something about the company that you want to work for. They will have probably told you a little about them in the introduction to the interview, so if you can repeat a little of this here, as something that you knew that you wanted to do, then give it now. Perhaps this job is a natural progression up the ladder from your previous job, and with the extra experience that you now have, you feel that you will be in an ideal situation to do it. If this is the case, then by all means say so.

They are not looking for you to destroy their competitors in the interview, if you worked for one in the past. Moaners are generally not good members on a team. Therefore give legitimate reasons for wanting change - the previous company was quite small, and I have worked in small companies all my life, I would like the opportunity to put my skills to work in a different environment in order to help me hone and develop my skills, and at the same time present myself with larger, more ambitious projects with greater scope for growth. An employer would rather hear something ambitious with legitimate reasons like this compared to, for instance "my old employer was a real nightmare. They used to have you working every hour of the day, day in day out. It was really dull and boring and the team atmosphere was non-existent". Even if that was the case, do not say it in the interview.

(2) "So, what attracts you to us?"

This is another classic question, designed to test why you wanted to work for that particular company, in that sector. Variants on that question are often "there are plenty of companies in this sector/area - what particularly made you apply to ourselves?"

This question tests whether you have done any research into that company and, if so, how much, or whether you have just chanced your arm and applied around the board. Therefore here you should use all that lovely research that you have of course done to full effect, and identify a few specific key points that attracted you to the company. Try and be as specific as you can, do not just say something very general that everyone will know about the company - for instance - "I want to work for a big company". Try and narrow it down a bit more - "I am particularly interested in the ground-breaking research you are doing on the structure of DNA at the moment" or whatever it happens to be.

State that you believe that there is a happy and positive work environment at the company where you will fit in; if you have spoken to people that already work there then this is a good place to mention it. Say that you feel that the other people there are like you, in that they have integrity and values and that you feel that you would fit in and would be a great team player. A positive, considerate and well thought out, educated response here can really help them choose between those candidates that know their stuff, and those that have not really bothered to do any research into the company at all.

(3) "Where do you see your future career going?"

This is a bit of an awkward one. Therefore you need to think about it in advance. It is probably best not to say "I'm not sure". This may be the case, but at least add about areas that you feel you might like to go into, this shows more thought, though of course you don't need to have some detailed five year plan. If you really have no idea, then at least put it in a positive light "I believe in being flexible as to the future of my career. Whilst I have some idea about the general way in which I would like to advance, I am careful not to plan in too much detail. As I get more experienced and grow in a role, I tend to find that new avenues are opened to me that I was previously not aware of. As a result, what I see as the future of my career often changes as my role developed. I think I would like to stay in this general sphere and do something related to technology, but as for a specific role, or a dream job, then I feel it is a little artificial to give a definitive answer". Therefore in terms of the general answer, just re-emphasise how important being a model professional and team player are to you, that you would like to be known for your integrity and team playing and things like that.

(4) "Are you susceptible to stress" or "are you comfortable working in a pressured environment?"

Many jobs these days are fast paced, with quite long hours and requiring large amounts of work. If this is the sort of job that you have applied for, then the employer needs to be confident both that you can cope in this environment, and that you are happy to work in this environment. Both of these are important for you to be a suitable and happy employee for them. Therefore your answer should reflect this.

You should in general say that you are fine working in such an environment, and perhaps that you thrive on it, though bring in the importance of time management and retaining a balance in your life.

(5) "Your CV certainly looks quite impressive... but what would you say was your biggest achievement to date in your career?"

Another common question. They would like to know if you can identify important milestones in your career, and why that specifically is what you consider important. it will help them to identify what you value and find important.

It is good here not to completely over-exaggerate, or be arrogant ("well, there are so many, it's difficult to choose(!)", also remember that with this sort of project, they can check whether it is true with the company itself, and are likely to do so if you claim to have single-handedly turned around a company (though some of you might have done). However, in general keep it true but good.

Only you can answer what was the biggest achievement in your career to date. Pick something that you can talk about with some passion - perhaps you restructured one of the processes and greatly reduced costs, increased efficiency and consequently profits for the company. Throw in that you hope your greatest achievements are in the future. Whilst talking about yourself is important, if your team was involved, mention that teamwork and consultation ensured that the procedure was successful, and mention that hard work and determination went into it. This way they will see the qualities that you possess and the qualities that you value. If they are in line with the ones that the company desires in an applicant, then you are sure to do well on the question.

(6) "Obviously there are several candidates going for this job with a variety of skills. Why should I pick you?"

Here you should not start bad mouthing the other candidates - a surprisingly common mistake, where the candidate starts to say about the others not being ambitious enough or something like that. Most times you will not know the other candidates, and it is always best to say "well I cannot comment on the other candidates, nor is it my place to do so, however I can assure you that..."

Your answer should basically be composed from their literature about the job - that is, say that you possess the requisite qualifications, that you have the necessary skills, and that you are interested in the same sort of things as the company - teamwork, personal motivation and integrity. If you can use the interviewer's own description of the job, then so much the better. Also try and pick one or two examples from your past that you feel will stand you in good stead for the current job if this does not involve repetition of previous answers: "And, given that I worked on something similar, though on a smaller scale, with my previous company, I feel that the project you would be looking for the successful applicant to undertake would be something that I could really get my teeth into and I would relish the opportunity to take on this more ambitious, larger project, applying and upgrading the skills that I developed in my previous role".

(7) "Do you prefer working as a team or on your own?"

You should know whether the job requires the one or the other, and if not then you certainly have not done your research. Tailor your answer accordingly - though remember if you have to lie to give the correct answer, then perhaps it is not the correct job for you. If you prefer one but are prepared to do the other on occasion, then this is an acceptable answer - after all, every one has a preference. Just please don't express a strong dislike for teams if that is the sort of role you will be expected to do, and vice versa.

(8) "Do you prefer to give orders or to receive them?"

Ah, a tricky question here. For most roles you should ideally express no strong dislike for the one or the other. Rather you should say that you are quite comfortable with both situations - after all most jobs involve both of these at some stage. If you are subordinate to others, then of course you should be quite happy receiving orders. However, mention also that you like to think for yourself and be creative and challenge traditional processes, and so would always be prepared to challenge an order and debate it if you didn't think it was the best method. This presents this in a positive light.

With regard to giving orders, do not make yourself sound like a ruthless dictator - rather say that you are comfortable with seizing the initiative if necessary, but that you are assertive and not aggressive when it comes to delegation, and will always listen to the viewpoints of others rather than barking orders at them aggressively. The employer will be wondering whether you are a team player - that word again - and whether you are set in your ways and unable to adapt, or more flexible, easy going and open minded.

(9) "Tell me about a difficult situation that you have faced. Perhaps it was a situation where you were in an argument or confrontation with a colleague. How did you deal with it?"

This is another one of those awkward questions, resembling one of those on the employers application form, for instance.

Why are they asking this question? This is always a good thing to ask with every question that you are asked, especially if it is one that you are not prepared for, as this one may be? Remember that you are perfectly entitled to request a moment to think about a question like this. In that time think what they might be looking for here - perhaps your ability to work as a team again - to resolve a problem - so-called 'conflict resolution' can be very important by means of reaching compromise.

If you can't think of anything major, then say "whilst I try to avoid conflict, sometimes it is perhaps inevitable. And one situation where this occurred was when I..." then use the example that comes to mind the quickest. If the difficult situation does involve a colleague, don't name them or put them in a bad light. Rather say, for instance "I was recently asked to give a presentation about the company with a colleague. We are both quite strong minded characters, and decided to go away individually to prepare our answer, with a view to pooling our ideas. however, we found that when we pooled our ideas, we both had taken a different approach to the speech; I had given a witty light-hearted presentation, my colleague a very dry, fact based one. Therefore we couldn't really combine them, as in order to do this we had talked about completely different areas of the business. Therefore through careful discussion, concession and talking through the matter, we reached a compromise where we chose a topic which would allow us to combine the two approaches, whilst still being relevant to the required theme for the presentation and presenting the company in an excellent light"

As long as you show that you stay calm in any sort of difficult situation, and are prepared to act as necessary to resolve it in as fruitful a manner as possible, you will have no problem with this question. But it is the sort where it helps to have a skeletal example in the back of your mind at least.

(10) "I have read your CV, which is full of your achievements to date, but I'd be interested if you would tell me about yourself"

This is a very general question indeed. Essentially the employer simply wants to know how you view yourself. You are in the best place of anyone to give a judgement as to what is really important to you. Therefore rather than give your life history in a few minutes, you should try and stay to the task in hand - convincing the employer that you are right for them. Therefore in what you say about yourself, demonstrate the qualities important to the job, and give examples. For instance "I take my health and fitness seriously, and can often be seen on the tennis court. I used to play county tennis, and this required good discipline in training and pushing myself to be as good as possible. These qualities of determination and ambition to do as well as possible are ones that I hold dear and feel that I could employ well in a job with you." Or, "I love being around people - they fascinate me. I really enjoy the buzz of being part of a successful team. This creates a great, fun atmosphere at work as well as harnessing a very effective and efficient team in which to do work. The reputation that your company has for fostering such a working environment is something that particularly attracted me to the job". That way you talk about yourself, what you have done and what is important to you, whilst relating it to your ability to do the job for that company. Killing many birds with one stone!

(11) "If you were me, what question would you ask yourself?"

This is a bizarre and odd question, but it does get asked from time to time. How to answer it? Well you should identify something that you feel is important to the job, and ask whether it is important to you. For instance "here at company x, we particularly value the ability to work under pressure whilst not compromising quality of work. Do you believe that you will thrive under this environment?" You can really ask yourself anything here. It is usually used by the interviewer to see if you know much about the company, as only if you do so can you come up with relevant questions to ask yourself. This tactic is known as the self interview, and it has been known for the interviewer to request that the candidate effectively interviews themselves for several questions. It may sound easy - you get to ask yourself the questions - but it can be hard to keep focus. Therefore the best thing to do is to pick a couple of the questions that you had prepared for, but which have not come up, and give your answers to those.

(12) "Sell me the chair your sitting in"

This can be used with relation to any item, of course. In many jobs these days you are required to sell. You should think FAB here - features, advantages, benefits. You need to think of a couple of features of the product - well that's easy, look at it. Then think of a couple of advantages, and then the key - the benefits - what it means to the customer. And sell it on these. Hence - this chair has lovely leather seats. The advantage of this is that they are tough and will take much greater wear than some other surfaces, and hence the benefit to you is that they will last much longer and require much less maintenance, whilst purveying an air of class and sophistication.

(13) "What wouldn't you be prepared to do in the job?"

This is an awkward question. You don't want to be too negative or give specifics if you can help it. Therefore you should say that you keep an open mind and will never say 'no' to a job until you are in full possession of the facts. Then say that your moral fibres and structures are important, and hence that if these needed to be compromised, or indeed the law, then you would not do it. For instance, if the company asked you to do something that was clearly illegal then you would not do it. Of course, if the company is disappointed with this answer then it is definitely not one that you would want to work for! If you say that you will do absolutely anything, then this is a weak answer. You should mention some sort of limit to show personal integrity. Having said that, don't say that you aren't prepared to put in a couple of hours extra work here and there. You need to be committed whilst at the same time having values.

(14) "Why should I choose an outsider?"

This may seem like an awkward question, but really it is easy - treat it as the "why should I pick you?" question - and just add something about people coming outside the company can bring a fresh insight, new, creative ideas, as they are not prejudiced by tried and tested methods. This can be an overwhelming positive, and if you are a quick learner, then not being too hot on certain procedures and processes can quickly be corrected and overcome.

(15) "What would you like to ask us?"

At the end of the interview, invariably you will be asked for questions. It is not really an option to say "I have no questions". If you really have had everything covered then say "no thank you - that was a very comprehensive interview and hence all my questions were covered during it"

However, if at all possible, then do ask a couple of questions, related to the job. Make them sensible, and make sure that they are not already answered in the sales literature - hence asking 'how big is the company' is something that is not advisable - you can find that out elsewhere. However, "from your brochure I see that you are working on a particular innovative method of extracting rare metals; would there be any possibility of working on this team, or would I need specialised qualifications?" - something specific that demonstrates interest and enthusiasm is ideal. It is probably best not to mention the money issue at this stage.

Well, above is a good variety of questions, and by now you should see the general approach to take. If there are any questions that you are fairly sure you will be asked, or likely to be asked, that are not covered above - and of course there will be - then do prepare for these as well.

What about unsighted questions - ones that you have not prepared for? Well, if these are ones that you instantly think are quite tough, ask for a little minute to think about them. During the time, and the question - which you must listen to carefully - try and see what they are looking for in an answer, that is, why are they asking the question? If you can answer that then you understand the question, and can go about giving a reply. With harder questions you need always to try and make sure that you demonstrate that you have the relevant skills to succeed in a job in that company, and if you can try and tie your answer in to something specific about the company that it requires in it's workers. For instance, if you are asked about your IT skills, as skills in this area are increasingly important in your chosen sector, then when saying how proficient you are in the area, and how you have designed web sites and written basic programs (or give an answer as relevant), then tie this into the company and how important a part technology will play in the future of the company, and consequently that you are excited by the chance to develop and upgrade your skills that you will have in that area whilst working for the company.

And, hopefully, if you do all of the above, you will truly give an interview performance to remember - for all the right reasons! Stay calm, stay positive, and put your detailed preparation into giving a polished, but sincere and natural, performance. At the end of the interview, smile, maintain eye contact during the hand shake, and thank them very much for their time.

Right, let's move on to immediately after the interview, and what you can really do to make sure that the job is yours! There's some fascinating stuff to come, so if you're sitting comfortably, let's continue...

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