Coping with Difficult Interviews and Questions

Early in my career, I interviewed with a woman whom I knew outside of the professional arena. She told me I could come in to discuss working with her. Because we knew each other, I figured she had a good grasp on the fact that I was qualified to do the job. I naively thought that we would be talking about a start date, salary, and the like.

The first question she asked me was, "Why do you want this job?" Embarrassing as it is to admit, I did not have an answer. After stumbling around for a few minutes, I finally said, "I don't know." As you can imagine, I did not get the job. (I also avoided her for a while after that out of sheer embarrassment.)

"Why do you want to work here?" is one of the easy questions. Obviously, you need to be prepared to answer this, as well as much more difficult questions, when going into the interview. Here are tips on some types of interview situations you may encounter, as well as how to deal with those tough (and not-so-tough) questions.

Types of Interviews

This is a good place to remind you that most people you interview with have not been trained in the art of interviewing. Also remember that many of those conducting interviews find the process to be just as uncomfortable as you do. Another reminder is that while company representatives are trying to determine if you are a good fit for the position and the company, it is also a time for you to determine if you like the people and the company that you are interviewing with.

One-on-One Interview

Many of the interviews you will be involved with will be between you and one other person, at least initially. This can both work for you and possibly against you. On one hand, this is a nice situation because you are with only one other person, which can help alleviate nerves. The flip side is that if you do not hit it off with this person, you do not have other interviewers with whom to develop a rapport. But fear not; with some practice, you can learn to communicate with all types of people. This will help you not only in your interviewing but in your subsequent career as well. The fact of life is that we all have to work with all types of people. The mirroring technique is perfect for this situation. Try to build a rapport as early as possible with your interviewer, and it will help the remainder of the interview go smoothly.

For the most part, the one-on-one interview will be the least nerve-wracking and a great way to gain interviewing experience. Just because the interview is between you and one other person does not mean you can be more casual or put less effort into the process. It just means that chances are good that your nerves may not be as shaky. Keep in mind that there is a good chance a second or even third interview will take place if you interview well in the first round (another reason not to take a one-on-one interview less seriously). These subsequent interviews often involve additional people.

Board Room Interviews

Being interviewed by more than one member of the company is extremely common. In this situation, you will be interviewed by more than one person. How many more? It all depends on the company. Ideally, you will be able to sit around a conference table so that you will be able to clearly see everyone and to use the table to take notes.

When being interviewed by a group of people, try to shake each person's hand and get their names before you are invited to sit. If you get a chance, make a note of each person's name so you will have them available for your follow-up thank you letters. Obviously, you will not be able use the mirroring technique in this situation; however, because more people are involved, you may be able to build a rapport with one or more of the interviewers. This does not mean that you need to focus solely on these people; you want to have eye contact with each person involved. You also want to address each person in the room as you speak. One person will probably be leading the interview; do not allow yourself to fall into the habit of only addressing that person.

The Unscheduled Interview

Say you walk into an office to make a cold call and drop off your résumé. The receptionist asks you to sit while she delivers your résumé to the boss. Moments later she returns, saying that the owners (all 10 of them) would like to take a few minutes to speak with you. Then you find yourself sitting around a table being questioned. Unrealistic? Not entirely. While this situation is not likely to happen often, it can, and has, happened.

As you are conducting your job search, you need to be "on call" at all times. Remember the networking blurbs you composed earlier? You will want to review these and have your sales pitch ready to go on a moment's notice. A networking contact may introduce you to someone in the company in the middle of an informational interview. An interested employer may call you out of the blue and start asking you questions right then and there before scheduling an in-person interview. Your practice sessions will, once again, come in very handy in these surprise moments. So will the time and effort you put into being prepared. Know your strengths and be able to talk about them anytime, anywhere.

Phone Interviews

Sometimes an interview must take place over the phone for whatever reason. Remember that most of our communication takes place nonverbally? This obviously presents a problem when interviewing over the phone. You cannot see the other person's reaction, so you have to try and determine from the conversation how you are coming across. Acting your most professional is an absolute must with the telephone interview. You also need to pay much more attention to your voice and try to make the best word choices possible. Are you speaking with energy? Are you talking directly into the receiver? Do you have access to your notes about the company? And just as important, are you able to clear the room from any background noise? Loud roommates or screaming children do not make the best impression when part of a phone interview.

Ideally, the interview will be scheduled so you can have your notes and list of questions in front of you. There will be times when an employer might catch you off guard, however, so keep notes, a notepad, and a list of questions for potential employers near the phone at all times.

Some coaches recommend that you stand while you talk so that you are able to take deeper breaths. Walking around may also help you think and it lets you do something with your nervous energy. Because you cannot talk with your hands in a phone interview, remember to use your most powerful examples of who you are and what you have done.

And never, ever, eat, drink, or chew gum when conducting a phone interview.

Group Interviews

This type of interview is different in that not only are you likely to be interviewed by more than one member of the company, but you are also being interviewed at the same time as your competition. A company may call a group of you in a separate room or interview all of you at once. You will likely be asked to introduce yourself to the whole group and give a brief summary of who you are. You will also have to answer interview questions in front of everyone else. For those who are shy or do not like public speaking, this interview may be extremely uncomfortable. This is what employers are looking for. This type of interview will likely be used for positions that require working with the public, making presentations, or interacting frequently with others. You may not know ahead of time if you will be facing this type of interview. If you walk into this situation, try not to let it take you off guard. Remember that everyone else there is in the same boat as you and they are likely feeling nervous about it, too.

What is the benefit for you in this type of interview? It is the one situation where you get to size up your competition! In almost all other interview situations, you have no idea who you are up against. But when you are interviewing at the same time as everyone else, you can observe what others do and make an effort to present yourself better. Keep in mind, however, that employers will also be watching you to see how you interact with the other candidates. You still want to be friendly and treat everyone with respect. If you act superior, ignore others, or are blatantly rude, you will eliminate your chances of being called back for a second interview.

Job Fairs

Take advantage of job fairs offered through your school. Some situations will require that you register through the career services office. Others will occur on a "walk in" basis. When you register through career services, you will likely have scheduled interviews with visiting companies. The open fairs allow you to peruse the booths and speak to recruiters as you are able. Either way, you need to show up prepared.

Patty Broadbent of Everything Careers ( is a former college recruiter for a large accounting firm. She notes that many students do not take advantage of the career fairs offered at their schools. Large companies that come to these fairs are actively recruiting and have developed a working relationship with the school. Why would you not take advantage of this opportunity?

When "working" the booths, Broadbent recommends that students visit every employer and be open minded about the process. Be prepared with a 20–30 second "blurb" to introduce yourself, state your major, what year you are in school, and what you are looking for. She then recommends that students take the initiative and ask recruiters to tell them about opportunities at the company rather than simply waiting for the recruiter to respond. Have copies of your résumé available to distribute because recruiters do look at them. This is a guaranteed opportunity to have your résumé read by a company that is hiring.

Broadbent reminds students to come to the job fair prepared just as they would be for any other interview. This means dressing appropriately, having an agenda, and being prepared to answer questions. The behavioral-based interview is common practice at job fairs just as it is anywhere else; students need to be able to provide concrete examples of their accomplishments. "Their past predicts their future success," she says. A recruiter may ask a question such as, "Tell me about a time when you've been effective in a team environment." Participants need to be ready to answer. Broadbent recommends that students look to their experiences for those qualities that are transferable and demonstrate teamwork, a positive attitude, and a strong work ethic.

The Questions

Many questions will be straightforward (How long did it take you to complete your degree?) Others will be vague (Tell me about yourself.) Some may seem completely irrelevant (What is your favorite color and why?) Some will test your skills, and others will seem like they came out of left field. Many resources exist on types of interview questions and how to answer them; such an in-depth discussion is beyond the scope of this section. It would be to your advantage to go to the library and borrow some books dealing strictly with interview questions and tips on how to answer them. This section will address some types of interview questions you might face and the areas that employers will likely ask about given that you are a new graduate and/or new to the workforce.

Aside from the relatively straightforward line of questioning, there are some interview styles you need to be aware of. The first, and perhaps most common, is the behavioral interview. In this type of interview, the basic premise is that the past predicts the future; more specifically, past behavior predicts future behavior. In other words, if you acted as a superior leader on a project for another company and can demonstrate that you did so, the theory is that you will be a superior project leader for the interviewing company as well.

Where does this leave someone with little or no work experience? That is a good question. Even though the interviewer will know you are new to the workforce, chances are you will still be faced with this line of questioning. "Tell me about a time when you had to resolve a difficult problem on your own. Give me an example of how you have demonstrated the ability to work as a team member and what were your contributions." You will need to mine your past for examples of how you demonstrated desirable skills, attitudes, and behaviors in the past. This may come from volunteer activities, club activities, school activities and projects, summer employment, and any other situation where you demonstrated the required skills. You will then need to show what you did and what the result was. In other words, you will need to tell a story.

When answering this type of questioning, use the STAR or SAR format: This stands for Situation or Task, Action taken, and end Result. When telling your story, relate the situation you faced or the task requiring attention. Describe how you took action to address the situation or task, and describe the end result. Obviously, you want to choose an example that had a positive outcome. No need to inform an employer that you tried something and failed. We have all done this at one time or another, but the interview is not the time to talk about it. Choose your best examples instead.

Another line of questioning is specifically designed to cause you stress. These are, not surprisingly, called stress questions. They may require quick thinking, put you on the spot, or use any number of techniques designed to make you sweat. For example, a group of interviewers may ask a mathematician to describe how to solve a simple, well-known problem. After the candidate gives a correct answer, the interviewers tell the candidate that the answer is incorrect and then watch the reaction. Another example may be if the interviewer picks up a pen and tells the candidate to "sell" it in 60 seconds or less.

The purpose of stress questions is to determine how you handle pressure. The interviewers are not so concerned with the answers as they are the reaction. With this in mind, you can relax a little when faced with stress questions because you understand the motive behind them. (For an in-depth discussion on stress questions, refer to the Knock 'em Dead series by Martin Yate.)

Other "questions" are not really questions at all but a test of your skills. Candidates applying for technical positions may be asked to solve a series of problems. A librarian may be asked to list the corresponding decimal numbers for a variety of nonfiction subject areas. An office manager may be required to compose a sample letter to a customer. Whatever your field, be prepared to be tested on the knowledge you claim to have; and ensure that if you claim it, you own it.

Some tests you may be asked to complete have nothing to do with your skills but with your personality. This type of testing is becoming more widely used to determine if you will be a good fit with the company culture or if the employer is looking for a certain type of personality. An executive may look for an assistant that has a very different psychological profile to help her in the areas that she is weak. Whatever the reason, you may find yourself facing a bunch of small circles labeled A, B, C, D and a number two pencil.

If you are absolutely opposed to taking this type of test, you can refuse, but this may disqualify you from the running. Ask what the purpose is for the testing, who will see it, and if you will have access to the results. Answers to these questions may help you decide what your preference is. If you take the test, remember that many of the questions are designed to trick you; for example, the same type of question is asked numerous times with different wording. In the end, though, most companies are simply looking for a stable individual to join their team and to see if the psychological profile matches what the candidate says about him or herself.

It will be obvious to the employer that you are a new graduate or new to the workforce and that you are most likely seeking an entry-level position. In addition to any number of other questions you may face, some are likely to be directly related to where you are in your career, your educational background, and your interests. Be prepared to answer questions along the following lines:

  • How long did it take you to complete your degree? Why?
  • Did you work your way through college?
  • What did you like the most/least about your summer employment?
  • Have you ever had conflicts with a boss? Did you like your previous boss?
  • Are your grades indicative of your potential?
  • Why did you choose your major? Why did you choose this career path?
  • What attracts you to this company? Where do you see yourself in five years?
  • What did you learn from your volunteer experience?
  • What would your professors say about you?
  • Why should we hire you over someone else?
  • What can you contribute to this position immediately?
  • How long do you think it will take you to be comfortable in this position?
  • What other positions in the company are of interest to you?
  • How long do you think you will stay with the company?
  • Tell me about your technical expertise.
  • Do you plan to pursue further education?

Many of the questions are designed to trip you up or make you say more than you intended to. For example, the answer to "Where do you want to be in five years?" can have multiple effects. On the one hand, the interviewer wants to know if you will leave for another company after this one has invested time and money in training you. On the other hand, he or she may also be fishing to see if you want his or her job down the road. The interviewer may also be looking to see if you provide a more interesting answer than "in management" or "in a leadership position."

You will need to have a good grasp of your history and concrete examples to provide when answering questions. To do this, you can use a few tools in the interview to help you out.

Freddie Cheek of Cheek & Cristantello Career Connections ( offers some very helpful suggestions when answering questions. One technique is "answer plus one." This technique allows you to answer the question asked but also introduce an additional skill or selling point that you want to be sure to mention during the interview. Say that you want to discuss your project leadership skills, but the question you are asked about is what kinds of relevant coursework you took during college. You could say, "I took list classes, AND as the project leader of a parking lot design team (name project) in Civil Engineering 401 (name of class) I was able to direct our team to develop the only project later used and developed by the city." This way you answer the question but also demonstrate that you have leadership skills, something you would not have mentioned had you answered by just listing courses.

Cheek also recommends a similar technique, "trait plus answer." This technique is used when discussing "soft skills," or personality traits that are easy to talk about but rarely quantified in an interview. This technique allows you to say, I'm name soft skill because I do name action demonstrating the trait. For example, you may include somewhere in an answer, "I'm trustworthy because I regularly work with large amounts of money unsupervised in my role as cashier." Cheek says, "Validate the skill by backing it up with actions, duties, and responsibilities that you provide."

The final recommendation from Cheek is to present ways in which you are a job filler. In other words, show that you meet the needs of the company. Ask the interviewers to describe the ideal candidate, and then speak to how you meet the requirements. Ask what the other candidates have been lacking, and show that you have those skills. Ask about the main projects that will be taking place immediately in the position, and then talk about how your experience is directly related to that kind of work. Employers want to know what you can do for them. Use these techniques not only to demonstrate what you can do, but also to help control the direction of the interview in your favor.

Your Tools

Take extra copies of your résumé: one for each of your interviewers, if needed, and one for yourself. By having your résumé in front of you, will you have an instant reminder of your most impressive accomplishments, as well as a general reference when it comes to dates or other specifics you may draw a blank on when feeling under pressure. Many interviewers will also refer to your résumé as they proceed through the interview. When you have it right in front of you, you can follow along and not miss a step.

Perhaps the most important tool you will take with you is a notepad and pen. Use this to take notes throughout the interview, both for reference during the process and afterwards as you compose your follow-up correspondence. If you get funny looks from your interviewer(s), simply say that you would like to take notes because the interview is important to you. How can anyone argue with that?

Kevin Cox recommends using the notepad in a few helpful ways. First, you can jot down reminders of the most important things you need to remember for the interview: your achievements, skills, and topics you want to cover when appropriate. You can also write down your list of questions for the employer for that inevitable question toward the end of the interview: What questions do you have for us?

But perhaps one of the most useful tools for the notepad is that you can use it as both your cheat sheet and point of focus when answering questions. When faced with a tough question, take a moment to pause, look at your notebook (and steal a glimpse of your notes), and then answer the question. This will help you in that you not only have a cheat sheet in front of you but something to do rather than look around nervously. You can take that moment to reflect (which is also a sign that you are taking time to think rather than simply blurting out an answer), take a breath, and proceed with your response.

Another good technique is to answer the question with another question. If you would like clarification, ask. If the question is really vague, such as "tell me about yourself," you can ask if the interviewer would like to know about your academic background, employment background, or both. By returning a question you can buy yourself a few moments to prepare your answer.

Your Questions

There are a number of canned questions that you may have heard you should ask of your interviewer. Frankly, these are good questions; but after these initial questions, seek to ask a few original ones as well. This is also the time to ask for clarification on any points that you would like more information. An example of a question that everyone asks is, "What are you looking for in a candidate?" or something along those lines. This is a great question if you are sincere; however, because everyone has been told to ask that question, it can come out sounding like something you read about in a book. Try to get creative when wording your questions or at least more direct. "Do you feel I meet your desired criteria for the position?" is one way to reword this question to your advantage. If the answer is yes, you are obviously a serious contender. If no, ask for clarification, and then explain why you do in fact meet the needs. If the interviewer says you lack technical skills, for example, show that you are a quick learner and give an example of a situation when you needed to learn something quickly, how you went about doing so (action) and succeeded (result).

Because you did your company research before the interview, you can have a list of questions prepared that you would like to ask. Undoubtedly, some of those questions will be answered throughout the interview, but not all. Ask those that are still unanswered. Also take notes throughout the interview and make note of questions that arise. You can ask those questions as well.

One question you should never fail to ask comes at the close of the interview. This is when you ask, "What are the next steps?" or "When can I expect to hear from you?" Do not leave the interview open-ended. Find out what the timeframe is and what the next phase of the interviewing process will be. Restate your interest in the position and thank your interviewers for their time. Then go home and write your thank you letter or letters.

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