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How to handle four common tricky interview questions

March 14, 2011

It’s summer internship interview season, and the best way to build up the confidence that will sell you to an employer is to be prepared. Here are four common — but potentially difficult — interview questions and some strategies for tackling them the right way.

“Can you tell me a little about yourself?”

It seems like a simple question, but remember that the key word here is “little.” The interviewer doesn’t want your parents’ names, background on your childhood friends or your favorite ice cream flavor. Really, this question should be seen mostly as a test of your ability to communicate clearly and concisely. Briefly mention some things that are listed on your resume to create a consistent narrative, but fill it out with some hobbies and maybe a short description of someone who has been influential in your life. Most importantly, wrap it up in about a minute or so.

“What do you feel is your biggest weakness?”

This is obviously a tough one, because it makes you choose between two traditionally unwise interview strategies – getting defensive or admitting something that employers are likely to find unattractive. You might try a third route: “admitting” something that’s not commonly seen as a weakness. I wouldn’t recommend it, though, because many employers will find that disingenuous.

There’s no perfect way to address the greatest weakness question. One strategy that might cause the least damage is to talk about a time you came up short in some way because of a perceived weakness, so that you’re not necessarily casting it as a pattern of behavior. The, immediately talk about how you worked to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.

“Where do you see yourself 10 years down the road?”

Even if you have concrete career goals in mind and a timetable to achieve them, this question can throw you for a loop if you don’t think it over beforehand. Obviously, you’d like to be seen as an ambitious candidate, but if your answer is too brash, it can plant the perception that you’ll quickly become restless and dissatisfied with the job you’re interviewing for.

Proceed carefully here, and try to tailor your answer to what you know about the company’s needs. If they desperately need to fill out a team in the short-term, scale back your answer. Otherwise, having a specific plan of action can do a lot to raise your stock for an employer that keeps an eye out for talented future leadership candidates.

“Why did you leave your last job?”

Absolutely avoid criticizing previous employers in this situation. If you really did hate your old workplace, cast your reason for departing as a difference in personal philosophies, and use language that isn’t judgmental.

If you voluntarily left, you’ll want to create a persuasive argument that whatever factors contributed to your leaving won’t be an issue for this employer if you’re hired. If you were let go for economic reasons, be sure to stress that. If you were fired, this question is not what you want to hear – the best you can do is characterize it as a learning experience.

If it was a temporary internship, this one’s pretty easy.

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