When I wrote about the STAR technique for acing competency questions, I asked if this was a post people would like to see, and many said yes. So here we are!
I remember my very first job interview. First of, the invite had said, “We’d like to invite you for a chat…”. So I turned up wearing a pair of jeans and a shirt. Wrong move.
Then I got asked the question “Tell me about yourself”. Still with the mindset of this being a chat, I shared some generic information about myself, my family background and the fact that I was 2nd out of 5 kids, my general education history and why I wanted to be a lawyer. It was an okay answer – one that would have sufficed if I was trying to know a friend or perhaps on a 10 minute speed date. It evoked a few laughs from the interviewers, but it definitely wasn’t a stellar response.
I’ll compare this to the latest interview I had, where I was asked the same question. And my response dealt more on my educational background, my previous experience, my strengths and future professional aspirations as well as why I thought I’d be a perfect fit for the role. I ended with saying something along the lines of “That’s pretty much me, but I could share a few more personal details if you’d like to know”. They laughed heartily and said there wasn’t any need.
While I think that no good interviewer aims to trick you, some questions are by their very nature slightly tricky. I’m by no means a HR expert, but I think interview questions fall into 3 categories:
The technical bits: Well, no one can really help you here. Whether you’ve claimed to have a BSc in Economics, a corporate lawyer with 3 years experience or an IT expert with the latest coding skills, it’s only right that you can defend what you say you know. Afterall, that’s arguably the main reason you’re about to be hired.
The Competency Questions: Technical skills are necessary, but these days a lot of organisations pay a lot of attention to soft skills, because these matter. And competency questions are used to explore just how you’ve demonstrated these skills in the past. From initiative, to leadership to creativity and so much more.
The Tricky questions: Any question that doesn’t fit into the above two categories has the tendency to be a tricky one. And because of that, it’s hard to give a one size fits all answer.
But the one thing I’ve personally identified with these tricky questions is the need for balance – if not, there’s a possibility you’d go off on a tangent.
Let’s consider some really popular ‘tricky’ questions:
1. Tell me about yourself
This one is almost always certain. The best approach is probably to have a few statements memorised in your head and ready to go.
Wrong answer = Hmmm, where do I start. I was born in the late eighties in the small town of…..
It’s also the same approach for questions such as “where do you see yourself in five or ten years”. Make it much more professional than personal. Don’t start it with saying you think you’d be a millionaire, married with 3 kids and enjoying life. You want to say how you think the job will provide you with so many opportunities, such that in 5 years, you’d be in a particular position within the organisation. Explain what value you hope to have added within that time as well as how you could also have improved yourself professionally in that time. I personally think It’s okay to add at the end other lighter stuff, like “I’d also like to have bought a home and learnt to ride a bicycle!”
Wrong answer = The CEO, or On the other side of the desk conducting the interviews!
2. What is your greatest weakness
I remember watching an Instagram comedy where the man being interviewed said his greatest weakness was his favourite food – fried plantains! I laughed so hard. But I won’t be surprised if many people have in actual fact given similar answers. I really do hope I’m imagining it – but I wonder if I have actually once said that my greatness weakness was sleep.
Truth is no interviewer cares about these silly weaknesses so to speak. They’d like to hear a professional weakness. But much more than a professional weakness, they want to hear how you’re overcoming that or how you intend to overcome it.
So a simple answer like “I’m a bit of a perfectionist so I tend to over analyse and always wait till everything’s is perfect” is only 1 of 3 of a decent response. It doesn’t say why that’s a weakness or how that is being addressed. So in addition to that one could say “…this often leads to a bit of time wasting and not getting along with people. But I’ve realised that this is counter productive so while still paying great attention to detail, I’m happy to go ahead with majority opinion in many cases”.
But don’t get tempted to use generic responses. Realise what your own weakness is. And as long as it shows problem solving skills, you’re probably fine.
Also someone pointed out that it need not be a present weakness. It could very much be something in the past that you’ve now corrected. “In the past 2 years I had difficulty with being organised and meeting deadlines. However by adopting the use of a planner, an online calendar, colour coding and reminders, I find that I’ve been able to be much more organised and meet 90% of my deadlines”
So weakness + how you’re addressing it = strength
3. What did you hate about your past job?
This is tricky because well, if you truly did hate your past job – it’s tempting to spill all of the beans and say why you hated your boss, the work, the timing – all of it! But with that, you’re basically setting up yourself for a disaster. Because the interviewers already begin to picture you sitting elsewhere and literally dragging their name and their organisations in mud. So no. Exercise caution, and remember – balance.
You actually want to say that on the whole, your last job was beneficial in so many ways as it afforded you the opportunity to do a lot of things. However, there are a few things which you could have changed if you had the opportunity. You then go on to pick on or two. You could explain that the role was not challenging enough, or the culture could have been a bit more friendly and less back biting or the salary could have been better. Be careful however not to make claims that aren’t true or that are too personal. If possible avoid names or direct bosses.
It’s also a good idea to explain why you think this role you’re currently seeking will be a better fit i.e. having done your research, you know it’ll be a more challenging role, everyone has such great things to say about the friendly culture, the salary is more inline with the requirements of the job etc.
This response can also be adapted to questions relating to why you want to leave (or left) your current role. But as much as possible, such responses should be more about the requirements of the job itself. To ensure you have a good bargaining power, you could also note that although you don’t necessarily need to leave, you would consider leaving if the right opportunity came by – and this opening seems to be a great one.
4. How much are you looking to be paid?
Anything that has to do with money can be tricky! At that my very first interview, I remember simply saying “Two Hundred Thousand Naira”. The interviewers burst out laughing and in retrospect, as I think about it – even they were probably not earning that much.
You obviously want to do your research about the role and the industry as to what is regarded as standard. But at the same time you need to be careful not to undersell yourself. While a company may not actually offer you something higher simply because you asked for it, it’s very possible they offer you the low amount you asked for. If you’re currently underpaid in your current job, it’s probably also best to leave that fact out – else they’d view any little upgrade as one you should be willing to jump at.
So you could actually just give a generic answer about how while salary is important it’s not the sole factor to be considered, and as an organisation you’re confident that their entire benefit package will be competitive and you’re willing to discuss further when the time is right. Once you’ve got an offer and you’re certain you’re wanted, you can then drill into the details!
5. Why should we hire you?
A friend and I were having a conversation recently and she noted that interviews can be tough. You’re sitting there trying to come up with a million and one reasons why you love the organisation and you’re a perfect fit and they should hire you. When all you really want to say is “I just need a decent job and I need the money!”
How true is that though? Sadly that won’t work, so please don’t attempt it. This question is a chance to sell yourself in a structured way.
Explain your understanding of the requirements of the role. Why based on your academic background, technical & soft skills you’re a perfect fit and how you intend to add value to the organisation. That’s it!
6. If possible, what animal or pizza topping will you be?
Yes. Some interviewers try to be intense and ask these kinds questions. From pizza toppings, to literary character to animals!
Obviously I don’t really think a response to such questions will make or mar the interview. But at least, it’s helpful to have a response and a well thought out one at the least. So basically try to analyse what your response would say about you. If you said a mouse, would they be tempted to insinuate that you’re too meek or timid? You decide.
With interviews, there’s not a one size fits all. And the best approach is often to practice! On the spot thoughts and responses hardly ever come out as hoped!
Hope this was helpful! What questions do you often find to be tricky, how do you deal with these?
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