“Could you repeat the question?” We’re all familiar with that sinking feeling. The interview was going well, you thought every answer was exactly what they wanted to hear and then came the curveball. That tough question that you didn’t prepare for and don’t have an answer to.
Tricky opening questions are a common occurrence in formal interviews. Designed to test your on-the-spot thinking, as well as your research and attention to detail before entering the interview. These questions are sometimes more important than any of the experiences or credentials on your application.
To ensure you ace your next high-stakes application, check out the best way to frame your response to these tough (and common!) job interview questions.
Tell me a bit about yourself.
Perhaps the oldest trick in the book, and yet one of the select few questions that even established professionals tend to ignore. Often an opener to your interview, this is not an opportunity to meander through each point of your application – that’s what your resume is for. Take the time to highlight interests and activities that have shaped your personal and professional character. Always emphasise your most recent and relevant work experience. Above all? Remember this is just a warm up, save the best bits for later.
Why should we hire you?
This question isn’t only looking for the skills and attributes you can bring to the table, but also the research you’ve conducted into the company. Illustrate to your interviewer why you are the best-qualified candidate for their business in particular. What are the core values of the company? Identify these pillars and draw parallels to your own knowledge to reflect this.
Why is there a gap in your work history?
Sometimes you lose a job. Sometimes something happens in your family. Other times? Life just gets in the way. Whatever the reason for your absence from the workforce, be prepared to explain it – especially if it’s a significant time gap. See this question as an opportunity, not an accusation. This is a great time to bring up other side projects you’ve worked on in the meantime. A hobby, volunteer work or adult learning experience are strong places to start.
You have minimal experience, why are you a good fit?
A twist on an otherwise standard interview question. If you don’t have the recommended industry experience, or are fresh out of a junior position and looking to step up into a senior role, it’s time to capitalise on what you can offer. Explain your leading qualities and what approach you will take to bridge any skill gaps they can identify. Thinking about becoming a manager? Learn project management online. Want to think outside the box? A creative arts course could teach you a thing or two.
Explain this to a ten-year-old.
Take a complex subject and break it down, simplify the principle and demonstrate your complete understanding – to the point that the idea is no longer difficult, but easy enough for a child to understand. This question won’t appear in any every interview, but is certainly a curveball to look out for. Brush up on your understanding of their business model and the industry language before sitting down for your interview. This will fill any gaps in your knowledge and keep you confident.
Tell me about a time you struggled in leadership. How did you overcome this?
Many professionals look back through their employment history and pinpoint exceptional examples of leadership, well worth of a mention at the interview. But what about a time where your leadership wasn’t exceptional? How did you turn the situation around? Answering this question well proves that you can acknowledge human error and endeavour to work flexibly, with an open mind and reflective attitude.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken?
Perhaps you started up your own business. Maybe you went travelling solo for a year. Some roles require a higher level of tenacity and resilience, and this question frames the perfect time in your interview to demonstrate your ability to take risks. Grabbing an opportunity is the only way to learn how to pick yourself up after you’ve fallen down. Explain the times when you made a calculated risk, not only to show your determination in the face of failure, but also in finding real success.
Describe a time you didn’t agree.
A tricky question to answer in the moment because there are many times we don’t agree with our coworkers, but that doesn’t always mean we voice or act on this opinion. Remember this question is less about being in the right and more about taking the best approach to resolve a conflict. Did you confront the individual? Was a meeting held? Perhaps you reached a fair compromise or appealed to a higher management – either way, you will need to justify your decision. The resolution will always be more interesting to an interviewer than the original dispute.
Helen Sabell works for the College for Adult Learning, she is passionate about lifelong learning. She has designed, developed and authored many workplace leadership and training programs, both in Australia and overseas.