Preparing for interviews, and in particular preparing for tricky interview questions can be stressful, whether you’re going for a place at a top university or for an exciting new job. After all, it can be difficult to know what you will be asked or what your interviewers are expecting. Elsewhere on the Future Skills Blog we’ve looked at how to best prepare for an interview, but today we’re going to focus on the questions that might just catch you out in the interview itself.
It’s important to remember that interviewers are almost never trying to catch you out deliberately. The point of an interview is to find out whether you are right for a particular job or place, not to try and trip you up. However, it’s still important to be well-prepared for the tricky questions that might come your way. Often it’s not about giving the “right” answer so much as seeing how you deal with the challenge of being asked a question to which there may be no right answer. We’ve split the ones that often catch people out into five categories:
- The classics
- Questions about your weaknesses
- Quirky questions
- Lateral thinking and deduction questions
- Deep questions
Look out for these types of questions and remember too that, each interviewer you encounter will have a unique approach. This article will help you prepare for every eventuality to make sure that you don’t get caught out.
1) The classic interview questions
Strange as it seems, people are often caught out by classic interview questions, not just the questions which seem unusual or shocking. The Balance gives a handy rundown of the most common interview questions, which include:
- Why do you want this job?
- What are your greatest strengths?
- Where do you see yourself in ten years?
These catch people out for a number of reasons. It might be that some questions are so obvious that candidates take them for granted and don’t prepare well enough. On the other hand, interviewees might give a generic, uninspiring answer to a generic, common question.
When preparing for your interview, remember that these kinds of questions require just as much preparation as everything else. Try to make your answers personal and unique so that you don’t fall into the trap of answering typical interview questions in a typical way like any other candidate. For example, when asked about your strengths, don’t just give a list of adjectives, but give concrete examples of how you’ve shown your strengths. When asked why you want a job, don’t just talk about how great the company is, but talk specifically about how it is the right thing for you at this moment in time. If you have qualifications or experiences which are unusual but will make you particularly suitable, make sure you take this opportunity to bring them to the interviewer’s attention. If it might not be obvious why these make you a good fit for the position be sure to include that too. The interviewer can’t read your mind.
2) Questions about your weaknesses
One classic interview tactic is to ask about your weaknesses. Similarly, you may also get asked about potentially problematic topics, such as gaps in your CV. These questions are famously tricky to handle and as a result they catch a lot of people out. Interview questions of this type include:
- What are your greatest weaknesses?
- Why do you want to leave your current job?
- Do you think that you have enough experience for this role?
The reason why these questions are tricky is that you could answer in a negative way. For example, one of the reasons you want to leave your current job might be that you don’t like your boss, but you would never want to say that in an interview. Instead, you could say that you are looking for a fresh working environment and that this position offers opportunities for further growth. It is much better to be positive about the new position than to be negative about what you are doing now, even if you may feel that way.
Similarly, if asked about your weaknesses, remember that these are just opportunities for growth. Rather than saying, “I am not good with technology”, you could say, “I am working to improve my technology skills at the moment”. The trick is to turn a potential negative into a positive. That doesn’t mean being dishonest – after all, your interviewers want to see your desire to improve things as well as your self-awareness. You might also talk about an experience in which had to overcome or work around a particular weakness. Monster.com have a helpful article on how to talk about your strengths as well as your weaknesses in interviews.
3) Quirky interview questions
As well as finding the right answers to traditional questions, it is also important to think about some of the less traditional interview questions that might come your way in an interview. For example, some interviewers like to ask slightly quirky personality-based questions. Not only do these kinds of questions sometimes come as a shock, especially in a formal context, but they can also be tricky to answer well.
Questions like these include:
- If you were an animal, which animal would you be and why?
- If you were an ice cream flavour, which would you be and why?
- What is your favourite colour and why?
You get the idea! These questions may seem a little silly, but it’s worth thinking about why interviewers would ask them. Not only would they want to bring out a different side of you in the interview, but the answers can also be quite revealing. Socialtalent.com has even compiled a list of funny interview questions.
While you might think of yourself as a pussycat, or while your favourite ice cream flavour might be vanilla, it is worth thinking of an answer that can relate directly to what you are applying for. For example, dogs are loyal but they can also be fierce when needed. Raspberry ripple mixes a solid, traditional flavour with a dynamic twist. Of course there is no “right” answer, these questions are usually designed to see how you react under stress, or if you can think creatively under pressure. Think too about the ethos of the organisation – a commercial organisation might value a very different set of skills from a charity working with deprived children for example, so pick an answer which aligns with the aims of the organisation you hope to work for. This might be the moment to try a little humour, depending on the opinion you have formed about how well this will go down with your interviewers.
4) Lateral thinking and deduction questions
Different jobs or places require different skills. For some jobs, deductive or mathematical skills are extremely important and can be easily tested in interviews. In such interviews it is quite normal for you to be given a pencil and paper test. On the other hand, some interviewers might like to ask questions which require lateral thinking in order to see how your brain works and watch you think on your feet.
For example, they might ask:
- How many cups of tea are drunk every day in the UK?
- Which is heavier, a tonne of feathers or a tonne of bricks?
- Why are manhole covers round?
Again, it is worth considering why they might ask this kind of question. They’re not necessarily looking for the right answer (though for certain jobs which require mathematical skills it should be a reasonable answer) but looking to see how you think. Relax, breathe, and talk through your process of reasoning rather than just staying silent or blurting out an answer. The Muse have some real-life examples of these kinds of questions from companies like Google and Apple.
If the idea of this kind of question makes you panic, don’t worry. Remember that more mathematically-oriented questions are only going to be asked in interviews for which they are relevant. What’s more, in university interviews especially, interviewers just want to see that you have an active, curious mind which can tackle new problems in an interesting way. Don’t try to work it all out in your head. Think out loud. Ask if you can use pencil and paper if it helps. If you are stuck at a certain stage say so and they may give you a hint to get you going. Of course they aren’t asking this question because they want to know the answer, they want to see how you would approach a difficult question.
5) Deep questions
Interview questions are often very focused and practical – interviewers want to find out whether you will be a good fit for a position or institution on a day-to-day basis and what experience you have of handling particular types of task, such as working as part of a team or dealing with the general public. However, some interviewers may also throw in some deeper questions in order to see a different side of you and get a sense of some of your long-term life ambitions.
If you’re not prepared, these questions can come as a bit of a shock and catch you out, especially because we don’t necessarily think about deep questions like this on a day-to-day basis. They might include:
- What is most important to you in life?
- What are you most passionate about?
- What motivates you?
Answering questions like these can be tricky. After all, if you say that work is the most important thing or that you are passionate about making a profit, you may come across narrow and greedy. On the other hand, interviewers need to know that you will be committed to your job or studies. As a result, it’s a good idea to give an answer that shows something of your personality but also shows that you will excel in what you are applying for. For example, when asked about what is most important to you, you could say “Knowing that I have always done my best.” When asked what motivates you, you could say “Getting the most out of the opportunities that life presents me, both personally and professionally”.
You can never predict exactly what you’ll be asked in an interview. With any question you’re asked, the most important thing is not to be reduced to silence. You don’t have to answer a question straight away, allow yourself time to think. Don’t say “I don’t know”, but say “I am not sure, but I think it might be….” Use the tips above to ensure you are prepared for any eventuality and ensure that you don’t get caught out by any of the questions that may be thrown at you. Good luck!