Too many people go into interviews hoping to ‘wing it’ on the day, believing that because an employer can ask anything, it’s impossible to predict which questions will come up. In reality, with a bit of careful planning, you can predict most interview questions. Begin by matching your evidence against the employer’s shopping list. Take a piece of A4 paper and draw a line down the middle. In the left hand column write down everything you believe an employer wants (look at the job ad, the job description, information from the employer’s website). Highlight the things that seem to be particularly important, but prepare evidence to match all of the items – mini-narratives which you can deliver in under 2 minutes. Some questions come out of the blue, but most questions, including difficult questions, are straightforward to predict. Plan to do well in an interview by having basic information at your fingertips. Plan to do even better by thinking in advance about the most difficult questions.
Tell us about yourself.
Sometimes this is the opening question, and it’s deceptively simple. An employer wants to ask questions so will be frustrated if you talk for more than a few minutes. Don’t make the mistake of unpacking your entire work history and talking too much. Offer a quick overview of the shape of your career and summarise your key skills, and mention at least one personal thing that will make you easy to remember.
Why do you want THIS job?
Employers like to hear career stories that make sense. Don’t apologise for your CV or suggest that it’s a series of random events. Rehearse a quick summary of your career which shows how it is one story with different themes which knit together, and then talk about how this job on offer is the perfect next step.
How did you handle working with someone you didn't like?
Avoid criticism of past employers or bosses as it will probably rule you out. Everyone’s working style is different, so it’s best to show how you don’t let personality issues get in the way at work; give examples of where you have worked with a range of colleagues and bosses. Explain different strategies you have used to communicate with people you found difficult.
Why are you on the market?
An employer wants to know whether you are moving on from choice or circumstances. If you were made redundant, mention this briefly but move on to talk about the kind of work you want to do next. If you have been unemployed for some time emphasise your continuing learning and the range of organisations you have looked at. Keep your answers brief and upbeat.
How do you respond to supervision?
Employers are looking for flexible employees, so show how you (a) respond positively to direction and coaching from others and (b) are perfectly capable of working alone once you have been given clear goals. Have a good example of a time when you have worked for a demanding boss and kept your cool.
What did you like and dislike about your last job?
Likes - make a good match between the things that motivate you in work (e.g. people, challenges, new learning) and the key things on offer in this new role. Dislikes – talk about things that frustrated your work performance like bureaucracy or computer failure rather than talking about individuals.
How quickly do you pick things up?
Employers want a fairly quick return on the time and money they put into recruitment, so they love fast learners, people who can hit the deck running and can get up to speed with minimal supervision. Talk about a past job (or study experience) where you got on top of a difficult problem quickly, organised your own learning, and got results quicker than expected.
How do you respond to criticism?
Employers don’t have time for ruffled feathers or workplace squabbles. Treat this question as if it is really asking about how you respond to feedback. Give examples of times when you have adjusted your working method or tried new approaches. Don’t complain that the criticism was unjustified.
What is your impact on others?
Your impact on colleagues and customers may make all the difference in a job. Impact can be positive, if you naturally encourage and motivate others, or negative if you are cynical, a gossip, or someone who sees the down side of every situation. Think about what your work colleagues would say about working relationships. Are you a natural persuader and influencer, or are you a relationship builder? There’s always something positive to say here – just don’t give the impression that you prefer working entirely alone.
What do you add to teams?
You don’t have to be a leader, or even outgoing and dynamic, to be a member of an impressive team. Offer examples of where you have been a team member and what your (varied) contributions have been (Organiser? Researcher? Encourager? Worker bee?). Have a back-up story about what you did when the team wasn’t working or when objectives weren’t being met.
What are you most proud of in your working life?
Employers like staff who are proud of what they achieve. Get used to talking about achievements and high points, even if some of them are outside work. Good examples show employers that you are motivated and proud of what you have done. Have at least one good work example where you rescued a situation, delighted a customer, or handled a difficult project.
What have been your greatest challenges?
Your willingness to seek out challenges is a good indicator of your work performance. Offer examples (which might be from your learning or leisure activities as well as work) of times where you have been pushed outside your comfort zone and stretched. Talk positively about these experiences – say what you learned and what you would do differently next time.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
This question comes up all the time. Plan to talk about 3 or 4 strengths which are required by the job (with good examples ready to hand). If there are any gaps in experience, emphasise that you’re a quick learner. Don’t linger on weaknesses or talk yourself down - name one skill which you would like to develop further.
How do you respond to stress and pressure?
An employer wants to know what you will actually be like in a busy place, and how reliable and calm you will be when things start to go wrong. Give examples of times when you have met difficult deadlines or handled tricky people, kept your cool, and got the right result.
Most people getting as far as the interview probably have the skills and knowledge to do the job, so an employer quite reasonably wants to know who stands out enough to get the job offer. Remember that a great deal of this is about personality – make a strong, warm impression and you are nearly there. Talk about the mix of skills, experience and attitude that makes you special – and leave no doubt at all about your enthusiasm for the role.
John Lees is the author of How To Get A Job You’ll Love and The Interview Expert. See www.johnleescareers.com for free career tools and tips.