Some critical questions and possible answers in an interview

What’s your greatest accomplishment?

Many candidates flub this questions. Their most common mistake: responding with responsibilities rather than results.

A poor candidate for an ad director job will say of a triumphal project, “I wrote copy and supervised photography and proof read the layouts”. The better candidate will say, ‘First we looked at the strategy of the company. Then we researched the audience. Then we determined what kind of pay back we could achieve.

This answer describes the big picture; not just the activities. You don’t find many candidates who can do that.

What are your strengths?

Since you may be asked to name as many weaknesses, limit yourself to three concrete examples of strengths, again showing benefits to the company.

Another Executive recruiter asks a tough variation of this question, telling candidates to rank various skills on a scale of one to ten and explain why they rate higher in one category than another. A good explanation reflects on past accomplishments. “I’ve always done a better job of finding ways to cut costs than of drumming up new business”.

What are your weaknesses?

Many candidates try to highlight vague weaknesses that can be viewed as assets. They say “I’m impatient”, hoping the interviewer will see them as a hard charger. Or “I work such long hours that my family life is out of balance”. Don’t try it. Interviewers are sick of hearing these stock answers.

Instead, be honest, but emphasize the actions you’ve taken to deal with a weakness. This type of answer is recommended. “Some times I would push back deadlines to turn in higher quality work. However, I’ve learned to delegate more, and I have only slipped once in the past year”.

Beware: many interviewers fall silent during this question letting a nervous candidate fill in the void by volunteering more information. A candidate who made the mistake of answering this question eight times, talking himself out of the job. Once, you’ve stated one or two weaknesses and their solutions, stop talking.

What about a time you failed?

The best answer has this theme I felt off my horse, I learned what I did wrong, I got back up and rode it better.

The worst answer is: I guess I have been lucky, I haven’t failed yet. When candidates say this, either they’re not telling the truth or they’re not trying enough.

Will you get along with your potential boss?

Some interviewers recommend dodging this question. I concentrate on the job and the results, and I’m flexible enough to work with almost anyone.

If the question is more explicit such as describe the worst boss you worked for touch your answer as a disagreement over a business issue or as difference in styles not as a personal dislike.

Are you likely to marry soon? How old are your children?

You may be offended by such personal questions, but answer them unless you don’t want the job. Chances are the interviewer is really asking how much you’re willing travel or work overtime.

During an interview, a chief executive once asked Susan Gauff whether her husband allowed her to travel. I was taken aback, she recalls. Then I smiled and said, if you’re asking if I’m able to travel on this job, the answer is yes.

In an interview lunch don’t order the cheapest thing on the menu, even if it’s what you want, counsels a business executive. They may not take you seriously or pay you enough. But don’t make the opposite mistake either.

It is possible to recover from an honest faux pas. When Fred Benson applied for a fellowship in 1973, he took a late night flight to make it to his interview on time. Walking bleary-eyed into the room, he was blinded by the sun glinting off a glass table and could make out only the Silhouettes of the panelists. Extending his hand to the chairman, he knocked a pitcher of water into the man’s lap.

In that instant he gave up all hope of getting the position, I feel that I have nowhere to go but from here, so I’m going to be very relaxed in this interview, he told the panel. He was and got the job. Now he helps interview finalists for the fellowship.