Sunday, 26 August 2012

The Interview: Answering those open-ended but strangely difficult questions

Before commencing with the questions, most interviewers will encourage you to be yourself and tell you to answer the questions "as truthfully as possible."  They give off the impression that they just want to get to know the real you and for assurance will often say, "There's no right or wrong answer."  


There are only certain answers they want to hear and if your's don't fall within this band of acceptable answers you will not be shortlisted.  In the real world an interview is a game - often a very pretentious exercise in corporate BS - and if you want to be shortlisted you need to tell them what they want to hear.  

As over-used as they are, most job interviews still include those vague, open-ended questions that can be answered in many ways.  These questions can lay you bare with their openness and the very freedom they allow is the reason most people fumble, when they actually present opportunities to paint yourself favorably.  These are unquestionably the four most popular:

Tell us a bit about yourself

Be very brief about your hobbies and preferences when this opening request is asked of you.  They are not too interested in your personal life.  What you really need to talk about is your professional life.  Start off with the high school you attended, highlight any key points or achievements during that time, then make mention of your final year high school results if they were good.  Swiftly move on to the degree/diploma you may have attained at university or college, then finally describe your work life.  Talk about the companies you worked at and the roles you performed, in chronological order.  Spend two to three sentences on each job: be careful not to repeat your whole resume.

Use action words like performed, analysed and produced when talking about your work duties.  In the same vain use the word 'I' as much as you can.  The people interviewing you are not interested in what your team has done; they want to know what you did.  You must get it across to them that you are hands on and a self-starter.

Why do you want to work for us?

This is where you need to sing the praises of the company interviewing you.  Do your homework and find out about them.  Don’t regurgitate what you read on Wikipedia or their website, but talk about the sector they are in and how their line of business interests you.  Say that you can see yourself serving them in the “long term.”  This is not the time to mention why they should hire you just yet: it’s only about explaining why you applied to work for them.  And don’t talk about how the salary entices you.  An interview is a pretend game that everyone’s playing: you applied because you want to get paid - everyone knows it - but you just can’t say that because it makes you look unprofessional and greedy.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

If the interviewer doesn’t specify how many strengths and weaknesses to give, then give 3 strengths and 2 weaknesses.  Keep your strengths and weaknesses pre-meditated.  For strengths go beyond saying things like “I’m hard working” and “I work well in a team.”  Those answers are pretty much meaningless.  Be more creative.  “I work quickly and efficiently under pressure” and “I am able to adapt to different personalities in a given group” sound so much better.

With weaknesses, mention things that are not truly weaknesses.  You can’t be honest about your weaknesses if one of them is that you don’t enjoy working under pressure.  Again it’s a game of pretend: nobody enjoys pressure, but you have to put up a facade of bravado and pretend that you take it in your stride.  Say that you hate working with difficult people or don't enjoy stress and you will be written off immediately.  Mention smaller things that aren’t really weaknesses, like “I won’t leave something until it’s finished, and sometimes that can delay me.”  Really now, there are many worse things you could do than being obsessive about finishing your tasks.  What's more after each weakness you list, talk about how you are working on changing that weakness.

Important: Don’t be too specific about your strengths/weaknesses here.  You should talk about your work habits rather than specifics.  Your particular strengths for the job in question must be reserved for the next question…

Why should we hire you?

The mistake many make is they give their general strengths when this question is asking for specifics.  If you’re applying for a programming job, then your high proficiency at Visual Basic programming would be something to mention, for instance.  Give every reason substantiating why you can do the actual job properly.  It’s about specifics.  Broad reasons like “I will treat this company like it’s my own” and "I work hard" may sound heart-warming but you aren’t really answering the question.

Closing Comments

All you can do in an interview is play the game as best as you can.  Ultimately the interview panel has to decide.  If you found that the interviewer gave you a lot of uphill, then consider that it’s best you don’t get the job, no matter what the paycheck is.  This is also a time to suss out whether you want to work with the people interviewing you.

You need to be a multi-tasking, pressure loving, team playing, eloquent speaking individual that doesn’t merely work for a salary, but instead works because you are passionate and hungry to add value to the company.  Any selfish intentions, however true, mustn’t come out.  Interviews are a game and you need to play ball if you are to win.

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