How to answer those awkward interview questions

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Brilliant! You’ve got an interview for that job you really want. You’re elated, beaming, feeling rather chuffed and then… it hits. You’ve got an interview. An interview. A simultaneously painful and important meeting on which your total future happiness relies (slight exaggeration, but you get the gist; this is a big deal).

Naturally, you’ll prepare: research the company, iron that killer outfit and get insider info from your recruitment consultant. You’ll check times, directions and get a good night’s sleep. Yet still, your stomach is in knots. Why? Because you know you’ll be asked ‘the dreaded interview questions’.

You know the ones – those that seem innocuous, like friendly chit-chat or a quick afterthought, but are actually the questions to which your answers are heavily judged and scrutinised. The questions that could make or break your chances of landing this incredible job. They’re probably the questions below, so here’s our advice on answering them:

1)  Talk me through your CV / tell me about yourself.

Only brave interviewers ask this question as it can go one of two ways:

The wrong way:  “…and then I got a part time job at the Woolworth’s café while I saved up to go travelling, where I went to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia. And then…”

The right way: “I’ve been a Data Analyst for seven years. My career highlights have been….”

The interviewer has read your CV and knows your GCSE grades, so don’t go over it word for word. Instead, pick out relevant highlights and expand on them. This is your chance to illustrate your passion for the industry and talk about achievements which may not otherwise be brought up.

2) Why do you want to leave your current job?

Most people leave their current job because it’s time to move on; you want to do something else, progress and earn more money. Maybe it’s a personality clash or you just don’t want that awful commute anymore. There’s nothing wrong with any of those reasons; it’s about how you convey them.

The rule of thumb is never slag off your current employer or manager – it makes you look bad, not them. Rather than saying: “I’m underpaid for what I do and treated unfairly”, say: “I would like to work for a company which has values that align with my own and demonstrates a positive culture of inclusion and wellbeing”, etc. Of course, you’re also looking for that ‘next step which allows you to develop professionally and put your skills to good use’. Nailed it.

3) What motivates you?

You may or may not have heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s a well-known motivation theory which explains, in the most basic terms, why we do what we do. For instance, we want to earn a decent salary so that we can fulfil biological and physiological needs of providing food, drink and shelter for ourselves and our loved ones.

To prepare for this question, it’s worth turning to Maslow. You could then say that your motivation includes working with people you respect and receiving respect in return; doing a good job and feeling a sense of purpose; being part of a productive team which works towards a shared goal; enjoying the reassurance of job security, or being pushed to your limits to continually develop. You might want to answer: “To save for a deposit” but the Maslow-esque version would be: “financial stability”. Taking this approach makes your reasons appear far more measured and reasonable, not flaky.

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4) Where do you see yourself in five years?

This is an awkward question which, in some situations, can border on discrimination if misinterpreted (i.e. people or near retirement age). If this one is flung your way, it’s best not to be too specific. Our advice is to focus on the short term: "First of all, I'd like to come in, work hard and prove myself in the role." 

Perhaps follow this up with something like: "The long term would depend on your organisational plans. Do you have any plans for the future? Can you talk me through them?... Wow, that sounds great, I'd love to be a part of that." You're welcome. 

Your reply should demonstrate you’re ambitious but also that you want to a) remain in and b) enhance the company. It should also show that your expectations aren't too high and so keep you firmly in the running.

5) Anything you’d like to ask us?

Yes there is; there always is. In fact, our training manager Derek Goff shared an example of an interview where a great candidate was rejected because they didn't have any questions (they'd all been answered along the way), which the interviewers interpreted as a lack of sufficient preparation. This is your opportunity not only to show off how much research you did about the company pre-interview, but to show that you’ve thought about the wider elements of the role and are therefore clearly a serious contender. Some questions might be answered as the interview takes place, but it’s always good to have a few more up your sleeve. These are good ones:

- “Can you tell me more about how the team is structured?”
- “What opportunities are there for training and development?”
- “I noticed that [insert CEO’s name] recently talked about X on social media, is this an important issue for the company?” 
- And this doozy, posed to the interviewer: “What is it about the company that you love?”

If nothing else, the last question should earn you some super-candidate Brownie points.

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6) What salary are you looking for?

Yikes. Last but not least, THE question. How can you possibly answer this? You don’t want to appear greedy and price yourself out of the running, yet you can’t risk sabotaging your chances of a decent increase by giving too low a figure. This is tricky, there’s no denying. If you haven’t discussed salary levels freely with your recruitment consultant, your options are probably one of the following:

  1. a) Turn the tables and ask them what the salary range is, then plump for a figure which seems reasonable.
  2. b) Be honest, tell them what you’d like and, should you feel the need, your reasons why, i.e. to cover the cost of travel.

Remember, there may be room for negotiation as and when you’re offered the job, so this is unlikely to be the final discussion on the topic.

Interviews are tough. Even the most resilient and confident candidates can feel nervous at times. However, the key is in the preparation and with answers to some of the most terrifying interview questions in your armoury, you should boost both your chances and your confidence. Now go and get that job!

CTA