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Answers to Your Toughest Interview Questions
October 2009

Interviews can make even the most seasoned professional nervous. There is nothing worse than sitting in an interview and getting asked a question that you were not prepared to answer. Last month in Career Zone, we looked at the different types of interviews you may encounter and how to prepare for them. I asked readers to send in their tough interview questions, and then reached out to some industry experts, hiring managers and fellow Drexel alumni to chime in on how to best answer these questions.

Q: Tell me your biggest fault.

“The traditional answer to this question is to highlight a positive skill that seems to be a negative, such as overly meticulous, too diligent, says Nick Cervino, vice president, The Fourm Group. Nick has been helping candidates find jobs at Fortune 500 companies for over 10 years and coaches candidates to spin their answers in a positive way. “You really want to make the interviewer always think they are getting the biggest return on investment in you so if you highlight a positive in a negative way it will convey that you always give 110%” says Nick.

Q: Tell me about a mistake you've made at work and how you responded to it or corrected it.

When asked, Jennifer Dalipi, a senior manager of digital marketing at Coty Inc,, describes the approach she used when handling mistakes in her career. “I have made several mistakes, some were large, being several 000's off in an estimate, others small, like sending an email to the wrong person.”

If you are asked this question in an interview, Jennifer suggests what makes a difference is not so much the extent of your error but in how you describe handling the situation. “No matter how big or small the mistake, being accountable for your actions will make all the difference,” says Jennifer. “Being able to apologize and own up to a mistake, no excuses or deflection, goes a long way to regaining trust in any type of relationship. It also builds strong team bonds as no one is ever thrown to the wolves.”

Jennifer encourages you to prepare your response by describing how you apologized, what you did to come to the table with solutions for the mistake you made and how it provided you with an opportunity to turn the situation around into a positive situation quickly.

Q: Where do you see yourself in five years?

When asked to address the question “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Dana Cappell, executive director of recruiting and placement for the NYC Workforce Career Center Systems thinks you should show that you are looking to have a future and stability with the company. “Leave your aspirations to be the next Top Chef in the kitchen and talk about how in the first year or two you want to not only be successful in the role, but also a subject-matter expert within the company.” Dana further explains how candidates should describe that they want to work for a leading employer in their industry, take on greater responsibility as time progresses, and have the opportunity to make positive impacts on the organizations growth and productivity.

Q: What do your supervisors or managers tend to criticize most about your performance?

Mariaelena Cona, LCoB ’94, customer logistics manager, Campbell Soup Company, thought that the best way to show you how to answer this question is to give you an example of how she would answer it during an interview situation.

I think a common mistake employees make is setting unrealistic deadlines for themselves. I'm the type of the person that when I am asked to do something my response tends to be "no problem" without considering how or when it's going to get accomplished. Once I've accepted the task and add it to my list of things to do, there are just not enough hours in a day. What's the impact? I work long hours to hit the deadline which burns me out or worse, I miss my commitment and jeopardize trust with a coworker.

Over the years, I have learned how to recognize that everything is not urgent and workload should be prioritized. Aligning due dates based on everyone's needs is crucial. Many times I have sought the advice of my manager to review my priorities to make sure I've got them in the right order. Having a different perspective once in awhile taught me the skills I needed to do this on my own.

Question: How do you approach the salary question? Should you try to shoot high, or could it come across badly if you are way out of the employer’s range?

Rosemary Gantz, Vice President of Talent Strategy and Planning at The McIntyre Company believes that when it comes to the topic of compensation during the job interview process, “People are not sure of the interviewer’s motivation…and the interviewer doesn’t know how great you are!” Rosemary says, “Most recruiters ask this question during the phone interview. If you already know the posted range and think you want the job or at least the offer, then tell ‘em what they want to hear. This will ensure that you are not eliminated from the process based on a number.”

When answering the question, “How much money do you want?” Rosemary says that everyone should consider the following factors:

  1. When are you being asked the question? The early stage questions are asked to qualify…the late stage questions are asked to hire.
  2. Who’s asking the question? The boss or hiring manager is paying the bill, so she’s the one who really needs to understand what you’re worth.
  3. How unique are your skills? If you’re Ryan Howard, the amazing Phillies first baseman, employers will be more interested in what you want than in what the normal range might be for first basemen. The career and future negotiating lesson here is clear…if you’re not Ryan, get just as good at what you love to do and you’ll never wonder about how to answer this question again!

“As a general rule, the more senior the role, the less specific you can be with the answers to these early salary questions. For example, an entry level business analyst role will have less salary flexibility and a larger pool of potentially qualified applicants than, say, a senior software security engineer at Microsoft,” Rosemary comments.

Still unsure how to approach the salary question? You should follow one of Rosemary’s three answer strategies:

  1. Tell It Like It Is. Share what you currently make and then what you want or would accept for the role as you understand it. This is a direct and effective approach.
  2. You Show Me Yours and I’ll Show You Mine. This is the classic deflection strategy if you’re not sure what the job pays yet, and you want to make sure that you don’t fall out of the process because your answer is too high or too low. In this case, you say, “You know Brad, I can help you better with this answer if I knew a little more about the role and the targeted range the position pays in your company.” Brad will usually tell you more.
  3. Here’s What Would Make Me Happy. This is the clear “I don’t need this job” approach. Use wisely and win.

Question: What was most challenging about your last job?

Carole Spink, an employment attorney for Baker McKenzie, believes the best way to answer this question is to describe a difficult or complicated situation that you faced at your last job and the actions you took to resolve it. “Be as specific as possible and, of course, use an example where your response lead to a positive result,” explains Carole.

“If you can think of an example where you involved your colleagues, this would be helpful because it demonstrates the much desired quality of being a team player.” Carole believes if your response to the situation led to a positive result for your former employer, such as a new transaction, client or business opportunity, be sure to include this in your response. Potential employers like hear about positive results and they want to be able to envision YOU making good things happen for them.

Question: What did you do during this gap in employment?

In this economy, this is sadly a common occurrence, but do not fret, you are not alone. Kathleen McGraw, vice president, Emanate Pubic Relations says, “Employers and recruiters want to see that despite being without a job, you continue to keep yourself busy, educated and motivated. This comes in many forms including exercising, traveling, networking or taking a class. Doing any or all of these things lets employers know that you may be out of the work scene, but not out.”

Kathleen suggests you check out local, inexpensive educational opportunities such as joining the local Toast Masters organization in order to improve your public speaking confidence. Kathleen encourages, “Make sure to continue networking and meeting new people while challenging yourself. We all need to make ourselves stand out a little more at this time, so be sure you are taking steps to better yourself and have fun while doing it!”

Every interview question has more than one answer, so be sure to think about the job you are applying for and the company who is interviewing you. Take your time and think about how you will approach each interview question and use this Q&A as a guide for you to create your own winning responses.

To complete the interview trilogy, next month the Career Zone will focus on follow up after the interview and crafting your thank you note. Please send in the thank you or follow up note that you use in your job search. A thank you letter makeover will be done for one lucky graduate.