5 tricky interview questions – and how to answer them

Photo: Chris Hondros / Getty.

The interview is without doubt the most nerve-wracking part of the whole job hunting process – an ordeal that can strike fear into the hearts of the most accomplished and confident individuals. You can rework your CV or your application over and over until you’re perfectly happy with it, but you only get one shot at an interview.

Previously on this blog, we’ve had a look at perennial interview questions to prepare for  as well as interview questions you don’t have to answer. There’s a third category of questions which you may well come up against which leave a perilous amount of leeway for panic and waffle if you’ve not considered them in your prep. Here are five of the most common.

  1. Tell us about yourself.

The problem with this question is that it’s just about as open as it gets! What do they want to know? About your ability to quote the entire script of the Return of the Jedi word-for-word? How much you adore your children? How you once appeared on the TV show Pointless?

This is a chance to talk about what you are sincerely enthusiastic about, but remember you aren’t there for the chit-chat, so anything you say should revolve around and lead back to your professional ability. It pays to get a few general statements about yourself down pat, including how long you’ve worked in the relevant field of work, a couple of reasons you are good at what you do, and why you are interested in the job advertised. Keep it top-line – there’s plenty of time for your interviewers to probe deeper. Try preparing an answer that takes about a minute, max.

  1. Tell us about a time when you failed at work.

Ouch, the gloves are officially off! No one likes to admit things they could have done better, especially when a job’s at stake. And it doesn’t show much self-awareness if you can’t think of a situation where you got it wrong either – you’re as human and error-prone as everyone else. So have an example ready that illustrates how you turned a negative into a positive and what you learned from it. Did a sincere apology to a colleague after your blunder have a positive effect on your working relationship with them? Did your gaff highlight room for improvement in a particular area of work and motivate you to undertake training? Learning from your mistakes is a quality any employer worth their salt will be interested in.  

  1. What is your biggest weakness?

With this question, there’s a temptation to present a thinly-veiled strength as a weakness – which an interview panel will spot a mile off. False modesty (“I guess I work too hard” or “I tend to care too much about my job”) is, at best, a waste of an opportunity to demonstrate valuable self-awareness and, at worst, comes across as disingenuous and insincere. Like the previous question, it’s better to choose a genuine personal trait you struggle with and describe how you are tackling it in the workplace. Painfully shy? How are you exercising self-assertiveness? Get frustrated too easily with other people? How are you learning to embrace different points of view?

  1. You seem overqualified. Why do you want this job?

Recruitment is a costly and time-consuming business, so if you have skills in spades, it’s understandable that an employer may be nervous that you’re going to get bored and move on before they've got their money's worth. You need to outline why you are willing to take a lower position than your skills suggest you are capable of, particularly those reasons which demonstrate genuine enthusiasm for the work. Are you impressed by the company vision and the direction it is headed in? Do you share its values? Are you excited about ways you believe you can add extra value to the business? Less altruistic motivations, such as the handsome pension package and good local school for the kids, are perfectly valid but now is perhaps not the best time to wheel them out.

5. How do you explain the gaps in your CV?

It’s unlawful for an employer to discriminate against you at interview because you had time off to have children or through sickness, and you have no need to justify yourself for doing so. Some breaks in your employment history may need a little explaining however – for example, if you took a career break or went freelance for a while. Again, there is absolutely nothing to apologise for, but make sure you describe the time you spent away in terms of how you maintained or improved upon the specific skills needed for the job. Even an extended foreign trip can be couched in terms of self-development, as this blog on taking a career break explains.

Like it or not, interviews are deliberately designed to test the mettle of candidates, so there are bound to be at least a couple of uncomfortable moments. Just remember it’s the same for everyone and it’s actually the difficult questions which, if you prepare fully, will most likely help separate you from the also-rans.

For more general information and advice on interviews and the job application process, visit our Getting That Job section