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Tough Job Interview Questions and How to Answer Them

Updated on September 15, 2014
A job interview does not need to be a source of intimidation or anxiety. Preparation is key to handling tough questions with grace and confidence.
A job interview does not need to be a source of intimidation or anxiety. Preparation is key to handling tough questions with grace and confidence. | Source

The Tough Interview

While there is rarely an easy, stress-free interview, some questions are much harder than others. Being prepared to answer tough questions--especially about sensitive issues such as terminations, or employment gaps--can mean the difference between getting hired and passed up for a job. Thus, it is a good idea to practice the hard interview questions prior to the big day.

General Questions

Tell me something about yourself.

This is a deceptively tricky question. Is is advisable to not answer in any way that gives away your marital status, religion, or political views, so you want to keep your answers general, but interesting. You may way to answer this question by talking about interesting hobbies--such as crafts that you like to create. Likewise, you could discuss topics that you like to read about in your spare time, such as history or art. Discussing any non-controversial volunteer work may also be a good way to show that you are dedicated to giving back to the community.

What is your best quality/greatest strength?

Only you know the answer to this question and there is no single right or wrong answer. If you are still having difficulty identifying strengths that employers appreciate, consider whether the following traits apply to you:

  • Dedication
  • Attention to detail
  • Ability to work in a team/outgoing
  • Intellectual curiosity
  • Self-awareness
  • Ability to learn from your mistakes
  • Creativity/ability to think outside the box
  • Respect for diverse opinions/open-mindedness

What is your biggest weakness?

While it is never good to focus on too many negatives in a job interview, glossing over this question is not a good idea, either. You may have heard that you should flip this question to a negative, by saying something like "I work too hard," but honesty is the best policy. However, it is good to choose a negative that can indicate a desire to grow and would not preclude you from doing your job well. For example:

  • Sometimes I'm too self-critical and need to step back and look at things objectively
  • At times, I need time to think before I speak and some people see that as being aloof
  • Sometimes I get caught up in the details, so a good team structure helps me stay focused on the big picture
  • I often get excited about big projects and can come across as dominant when working on a team, even though I want to hear everyone's opinion

Why do you want this job?

"Why do you want this job?" is just another way of asking why you are a good fit for the position and the company. Before you go into your interview, thinking about what, exactly, is is that makes you enthusiastic about the position. Is it working with a team of skilled professionals that can help you grow your skills? Do you believe strongly in the company's mission? Are you passionate about the kind of work that the job requires you to perform? Does the company have a good reputation in the community? Do you like the kind of work environment the company provides--for example, a small office and friendly work environment?

While this question may seem simple, it's a good chance for you to show off your enthusiasm.


Questions about Past Employment

Why did you leave your last job?

This can be a relatively straightforward question if your situation was not complicated. Perhaps your company closed down, or you relocated to another state. Maybe you are a recent graduate and are looking for a job in your new field. Things get more complicated if you left your last job on bad terms or were involuntarily terminated. In such situations, it is never advisable to lie. Be honest, but show that the experience has helped you grow.

If you did not get along with your boss or co-workers and quit, you could answer some version of the following:

  • "The company culture was just not a good fit for my personality." Go on to explain, in neutral terms, what those differences were. Perhaps you work best independently and the majority of your job relied on working in teams. Maybe you are the kind of worker who appreciates consistent feedback and your boss was very hands-off and did not give you a lot of feedback on your work. Ultimately, employers typically understand that not every job is right for every person.
  • "There was little room for advancement." if you are looking for a long-term position but were in a job with little room for you to grow with the company and expand your skills, prospective employers may respect this and see it as a sign that you are a motivated employee.

If you were involuntarily terminated or fired from your previous job, the answer to this question can be tricky. In such cases, be honest, but keep your answers short and simple. For example, you might say, "My boss and I had a conflict that led to my termination. I see now that I should have handled the situation much more calmly. It was certainly a learning experience for me."

If you were fired for poor job performance, you may frame the job as a poor fit for your skill set. For instance, you could explain that the responsibilities of the job were not what you expected from the beginning, but you tried your hardest, even if things did not work well in the end. You might also offer ways that you have improved your performance as a worker--for example, if you have taken any courses or completed any reading on issues in your field.

Even if you were wrongly terminated or were fired because of a misunderstanding, never say negative things about your boss or former co-workers in an interview. This can be a deal-breaker for prospective employers.

Your interview answers should demonstrate that you are capable of dealing with stress and high-pressure situations, even if you have made career mistakes in the past.
Your interview answers should demonstrate that you are capable of dealing with stress and high-pressure situations, even if you have made career mistakes in the past. | Source

Work History Questions

Could you explain the gaps in your work history?

If you were unemployed for several months (or even several) years, this may be a red flag to employers, but you will almost always have the chance to talk about it during your interview. In many cases, employers are understanding about typical circumstances, such as taking care of family issues or dealing with personal medical issues. If either of these situations was the cause of your work gap, be as general as possible to avoid focusing too much on the personal, such as disclosing anything about your personal medical problems, diagnoses, family problems, marital status, or parental status, as employers do not need to know about any of this during an interview. Thus, keep your answer short and simple. For example, you might say:

  • "I had to take time off to care for a family member, but that situation is no longer a factor."
  • "I had to take a medical leave, but those have been resolved."

If you have a disability that does require you to have workplace accommodations, address those only after the hiring process, not during your interview.

If, during your time out of work, you volunteered, took any courses, or engaged in any activities that helped you maintain your skills, focus on these instead. You can also emphasize that your time off energized you and make you even more enthusiastic about reentering the workforce.

Likewise, if you took time off of work to travel, talking about your learning experiences may mitigate the negative effects of time spent out of the working world. You can always spin these experiences into positives that show cultural awareness and adaptability.

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