One of the most popular services we offer is interview coaching. Most people we work with have one or two ‘killer questions’ that they are dreading the most. So here, based on a random straw poll of careers consultants from across London, are the top 3 interview questions that students and graduates fear the most. And how to prepare yourself to approach them more calmly when you’re next in an interview situation. You’re welcome.
The opening gambit – ‘so tell us about yourself’
This seems like an innocuous question to open with, but it ranks high on the ‘least liked’ list. Why? Because it is so open ended, and there is a sense that the interviewer is looking for something specific but as the interviewee you are not always sure what that is. Rather than risk a long answer that might not give the panel what they want, consider the following preparation tips:
- Write down the key skills, experience and motivation you think the interviewer is looking for in their ideal candidate
- Next write down 4-5 things you could say about yourself in a short answer to cover the following – e.g.
- What you are currently doing (e.g. ‘studying’, ‘working as X’, ‘just back from travelling’ etc)
- Brief history of relevant experience (e.g. ‘whilst studying I did 3 internships related to X’)
- Summary of your anticipated next step (e.g. ‘having had these experiences I am now looking for a permanent role in X where I can use my X,Y,Z skills)
- 1-2 points about your wider interests (e.g. ‘Outside work I am a keen cyclist and like to spend weekends out with my local cycling club’)
- Check your list – have you talked about things that might give the interviewer some of the evidence they might be looking for in terms of the skills, experience or motivation of their ‘ideal candidate’?
The one about your weaknesses
Next stop –the one about your weaknesses. Immediate stress trigger for many interview candidates. Why? Because we are primed to think of an interview as a ‘sales pitch’ – our opportunity to convince the interviewers that we have what they are looking for. Top tips to prepare for this question:
- Identify 2-3 genuine weaknesses that you have in relation to work
- Think through whether any of these are going to be a ‘show stopper’ for the employer (e.g. being anxious about networking for a PR role) and then identify the one that is least risky
- Be prepared to be honest about that weakness, but also to be very clear about what you have done, and continue to do, to mitigate that weakness. It’s not about pretending everything is fine now, but about convincing the interviewers that you are self-aware enough to have strategies for ensuring that your weaknesses do not become a problem in the workplace.
The left-field ‘brain-teaser’
How many toasters were sold in the UK last year? How many hairs are there on a dog? How many strange and seemingly irrelevant interview questions have been used to torment interview candidates in the last year?
These types of questions are usually used for two reasons: a) to test your ability to handle the pressure of an unexpected question which appears to have no obvious answer; or b) to evaluate your ability to think your way logically through to a plausible answer from an uncertain starting point (and under time pressure). Essentially no one knows the actual answer to these questions, but there is usually some way to make an informed, reasonable guess. The key skills being tested here are logical reasoning and common sense in combination. Question: “How many toasters were sold in the UK last year?”
And the key to answering these questions? Pick a reasonable starting point that you have some data on, from which to make some logical inferences. Let’s do a worked example …
Question: How many toasters were sold in the UK last year?
- Step 1. Don’t panic: the interviewers are not expecting the ‘right’ answer; they are more interested in your approach than the answer you end up with.
- Step 2. State your starting assumptions: start off by identifying some possible starting points. This is a logical thinking puzzle with very little hard data, so tell the interviewers what assumptions you intend to start with. In this case it makes sense to think about the population of the UK in relation to number of households and toasters per household.
- Example: “So to try to answer this question I’m going to start with the population of the UK at c.60 Million. I’m also going to assume for the sake of argument that an average household in the UK has 4 inhabitants. Therefore we are talking about 15 million households who might need a toaster, and that typically a household will have one toaster each.
- Step 3: be clear about your logic: be clear about the logical conclusions from your assumptions – the ‘if this, then that’ arguments:
- Example: “If a toaster lasts on average for three years before being replaced then households will be replacing their toaster annually. Therefore I would say that a comfortable estimate would be that c.5 Million toasters are sold in the UK annually.
Not many of us look forward to a job interview, but with a little bit of preparation and a lot of focus on what the interviewer is really looking for, you can turn the tricky questions into opportunities to show what you have to offer.