“Tricky” Interview Questions

Preparation is the key to avoiding interview pitfalls.

Many questions are asked with the underlying objective of exploring your attitudes and motivations. The following are examples of questions whose answers may appear simple at first glance, but could "trick" you if you don't think about them ahead of time:

  • Why are you looking, or why did you leave? Answer this question in both a positive and a forthright way. The most common mistakes made when answering this question are either a vague response, which implies you are hiding something, or a negative, defensive reply.
  • What do you want to be doing in five years? The best way to answer this question is to communicate what your goals are without being overly specific. Those without a clear answer to this question appear to lack a sense of direction. Candidates who are too specific may signal a red flag if their answer doesn't match what the company has to offer long-term. If you are in search of rapid advancement, be sure to point out that you understand the commitment necessary to achieve your objectives.
  • What do you know about our company? Be prepared to tell the interviewer three things you learned from your research about the company, such as what the company does, what the sales volume is and a brief observation about a recent, positive news story about the company.
  • Tell me about yourself. This request is sometimes phrased as "Tell me about your background," or "Tell me about your accomplishments." Regardless of how the question is asked, we suggest that you create a one-minute sales pitch that describes your professional background, accomplishments, strengths and career aspirations. Then take it one step further and relate how these make you a good fit for this particular position.
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses? Be prepared to talk about two or three functional strengths and one or two intangible characteristics that you regard as strengths. It helps to frame your comments by saying: "My supervisor said…" or "I feel that.…" It is best to address the weakness by saying: "I'm working on…" or "I would like to learn more about…" or "In my last performance review my supervisor suggested.…" The "I can't think of any weaknesses" response may give the interviewer the impression that you are afraid to admit weaknesses or you are not coachable.
  • What salary are you looking for? The further you are in the interview, the more specific you should be. If this is asked during the first interview, you probably don't know the nature of the long-term opportunity and the overall benefits yet, so you are not in the position to give a specific number. However, you must answer the question rather than avoid it. One way to answer might be:

    "My current base is in the low $60s, and I am eligible for up to 10 percent in incentive compensation. Of course I would like to move forward, but my primary motivations are the experience I will get and the opportunity to keep learning and growing."

    Note that the interviewer now has an idea about the range of salary you would entertain, but you have left your options open to accepting a higher or lower offer, depending on how interested you are in the overall opportunity. In addition, you minimized the chance of shutting yourself out of the job, because you didn't give a specific number that was outside of their hiring range.
  • Why are you interested in our company? Provide a specific reason why the position fits your career plan, and point out something about the company that appeals to you.
  • Tell me what you like to do outside of work. Many employers ask this question to be friendly and break the ice. In addition, they may use it to see what kind of work/life balance you are looking for and to determine whether your outside interests will conflict with your job. At the same time, it is important to describe a couple of activities to show that you are well rounded.

When it comes to answering the tough questions, keep the following general advice in mind:

  • Don't be afraid to ask for clarification. If you don't understand a question, it's better to ask the interviewer to explain than to risk stumbling.
  • Don't "over-answer". Be careful not to give too much detail in answering questions. If the interviewers want more detail, they will ask for it. At the same time, there are very few if any questions where a simple "yes" or "no" answer is sufficient, so give examples or explain briefly whenever possible.