“What are your greatest weaknesses?”

“Tell us about a time where you made a difference in your company?”

“Do you think you can manage this job and your personal life?”

Craptastic interview questions come in all shapes and sizes. From the awkward to the downright illegal, these questions can make  most confident interviewee second-guess their responses and search for solace at the bottom of an ice cream pint. Luckily, there are strategies  to artfully navigate difficult interview questions, and while this isn’t an exhaustive list, it should help reduce your post-interview ice cream binges.

1. Tell me about yourself

One of the most common opening questions is “so what brings you here,” or “tell me about yourself”. There are two big pitfalls here. First, divulging too much personal information that is actually illegal for them to ask (marital status, age, religion, children,) and second, not using the question as an opportunity to highlight your strengths. Consider thinking of a single sentence, or even a single concept that you can use as the key message of the interview. By keeping your message simple, the interviewer is more likely to remember you amidst the  ocean of other applicants. When I prepare, I think of a Home Base and three related traits that I can continually touch back to throughout the interview.  I first encountered this concept in the late Trip Froclichties’s media relation’s class, but it works amazingly well in interviews too! My home base is “service to students,” and my three related skills are: “creativity, communication, and curriculum.”  It sounds like this:

“I’m a  educator entering my 15th year of teaching. I really love this field because I get to make a real difference in the lives of my students. I do that through fostering good communication, providing creative learning opportunities, and constantly assessing and developing new curriculum.”

2. What is your weakness?

This along with “what is your greatest strength?” are two of the most asked interview questions. Interviewers don’t need to know your deepest darkest secrets. They want to know your ability to self-critique and problem solve.

The temptation is to say,  “I just work too hard…. or  “I’m a perfectionist.” No matter how true, the last ten applicants said the same thing. It gives them no information.

Another mistake is to throw a red flag by over divulging. For example, “I really struggle dealing with people,” since most companies are populated with humans, this won’t help you.

So what do you say instead?  Pick a real weakness that you’re actively working on, and that is not a deal breaker. If you are going for an accounting job, now is not the time to divulge your dislike of addition.  For example, when I interview, this is my response:

“I sometimes struggle with organization, but, I spent about a year working on improving task and project management, and I’ve seen a real improvement. I’ve even passed some of that information on to students, who really like the extra tips.”

3.  Tell me about a time: The dreaded behavioral interview question:

While they are annoying as all get out, behavioral questions are still an HR favorite, and it does make a lot of sense. Interviewers want to know what you’ve done, not what they want to hear. At first, this can seem impossible to prepare for, but there is a pattern for these questions.  If you can find five core stories, and commit them to memory, you can answer almost anything.

Try to pinpoint a time when you

  • went  beyond the call of duty at your job. If you don’t have one, you can always pull from volunteer work
  •  solved a problem without relying on management
  •  dealt with a customer or co-worker conflict
  •  were innovative or creative in doing your work
  •  worked with a group to complete a project

When you recount the story, use the SAR pattern. Situation (what happened), Action (what did you do), R result (what was the outcome). Make sure to focus mostly on the action and result, and never tell war stories or badmouth an employer!

4. So, do you have any kids?

This question, and others like it, are really dicey because they are often illegal. There are some differences state-by-state (link), but in general, if someone goes fishing, you should find a way to gracefully answer. You are always welcome to say, “that’s illegal, I’m not answering,” but your odds of then getting the gig, are pretty low. Instead, I’m a fan of a popular tactic used in media interviews, the bridge and flag.

In a bridge/flag you quickly answer the question, then transition into something that pulls the question back to one of your strengths.

So, if I’m asked, “do you have children.” I’ll say, “I do have a family, and the opportunity to contribute to the community in which we all live, is one reason I’m so excited about this position.”

In the end, most interviewers are looking for someone who can do the job and be someone they want to see on a daily basis. Be human, and show them how awesome you are, and you’ll be a rockstar!

I wish you wonderful interviews and celebratory ice cream!

P.S. Only 11 percent of candidates send thank you letters….just putting that out there!

Author: Lisamariepavia

Lisa Pavia-Higel is a St. Louis based writer, educator and performer. By day, she’s a mild mannered Communication and Media professor at a local community college and runs her own small jewelry company, Geekery Gal. By night, she’s a stage combat fighting, comic reading, critique writing, productivity advice giving mama. She loves trying things that she’s really not very good at, like sewing, painting and writing succinct biographies. She is indulged by her little geeklet Sofia and intrepid feminist, geeky husband Matthew. She’s too long winded for Twitter, but you can tweet to her at @geekerygal