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How to answer difficult interview questions

How to answer difficult interview questions


No matter how well you prepare, there are always certain job interview questions that catch you off guard.

Interviewers are aware of these tricky job interview questions. In fact, they often specifically ask them in their job interviews to gauge your ability to react effectively when under pressure or taken by surprise. So, from an interviewee's perspective, knowing how to answer these difficult interview questions well can help you stand out. We recently spoke to thousands of skilled professionals in Australia for our annual Hays Salary Guide. We asked them to name the difficult job interview questions they never know how to answer. Seven questions were mentioned again and again as the toughest interview questions to answer. Clearly these are the most common interview questions job seekers struggle with the most, so we've listed all seven below, along with our advice on how to answer each one.

The seven top difficult interview questions

1. Where do you see yourself in five years?

Interviewers ask this question in order to understand your career ambition, long-term interest in your field and whether this particular job aligns with your aspirations. They want to know that if they hire you, you’re not going to be looking elsewhere in 12 months’ time. Crucially, they’re also looking to see that you’re realistic – which is why “running this organisation” or “in your job” are answers to avoid.

Most people have an idea of the path they’d like their career to take. Whether your career plan is definitive or tentative, you more or less know what you’d ideally like to be doing. Through your pre-interview research of the organisation and role, and your discussions with your recruiter, you should also understand how this particular job would evolve for a successful incumbent.

The key to answering this question is to link the two and present the result as your "dream job". By finding commonalities between your career ambitions and this job, you'll reassure the interviewer that you're committed to your profession and have goals that align with this particular job.

For example, “In five years’ time I’d like to be seen as a valued employee who has deep expertise in XYZ. I believe I’d have the opportunity to develop such expertise over time in this role. I’d also like to assume people management responsibilities – I read that your organisation has a great leadership training program, so in five years’ time I’d like to have completed it and be further developing my skills to eventually take on a leadership role.”

2. What are your weaknesses?

This tricky interview question is asked to find out how self-aware you are and whether you take action to overcome any technical or soft skill shortfalls.

Before your interview, think of an example of a real life weakness that you are working on overcoming. Make sure you select a weakness that is a nice-to-have skill, not a key requirement of the job.

In the interview, explain how you are working to overcome this weakness. Employers value lifelong learners, so give an example then talk about the improvements you are making to show that you are solutions focused.

For example, “I have been afraid of public speaking for a long time, but I recently completed a Toastmasters course and gave a presentation last week to my boss, which I’m really proud of. I have another presentation scheduled for next week, and I’ve asked a trusted colleague to critique my delivery afterwards so I can continue to develop my skills in this area. ”

3. Tell me about yourself

While some people say this is an easy job interview question to answer, a large number of respondents said it’s so vague that they’re never sure where to start or what details to share. Often this is one of the first questions an interviewer will ask, which means it helps form their initial impression of you. It’s therefore crucial that you provide a good answer.

By asking this question, an interviewer wants to know three things:

  1. Your relevant educational and professional background
  2. The key skills and expertise you have which directly relate to this opportunity
  3. What you are looking for in your next role and why this role appealed to you.

So, to answer this question, talk about each of these three points. Start with a brief overview of your educational and professional background, ensuring you only include those that relate directly to the role. Then mention the relevant skills and expertise that make you suitable for this particular job, making sure to include a measurable example to support your claims. Finally, succinctly explain why you want this role, at this organisation.

Your answer might sound something like:

“I am a Business Management graduate with a Masters Degree in Digital Marketing. Since leaving university I have enjoyed a two year marketing career within the sports industry.

“During my time in this industry, I have been able to build upon my digital marketing expertise even further. I believe that my digital marketing skills are best showcased by an email marketing campaign I recently led, which increased our conversion rate by 10%.

“My previous organisation has helped me develop the digital skills I have today, however, I believe that for the sake of progressing my expertise further, it’s time to move on. Therefore I’m looking for a more challenging role within a fast-paced global organisation, where there’s plenty of room for me to grow as a marketing professional. That’s why I was so pleased to be invited to interview for this role.”

4. Why are you the best person for the job?

Chances are, you're not the only person interviewing for this job. The other candidates are qualified and possess strong technical skills and the required competencies, just like you. This question is your opportunity to show the interviewer why you’re more suitable for the role than others. It allows you to sell the interviewer on what makes you unique.

To answer this question, focus on your unique selling points, or USP. Your USP consists of your top three or four strengths, with an example or details to support each. They can cover technical and soft skills, key experience or top accomplishments. The only constraint is that they must link to the competencies required in the job so that they form a picture in the interviewer’s mind of you excelling in the role.

For example, “I have experience successfully managing projects through to completion, thanks to my stakeholder engagement skills and business acumen. I have the years of experience you require and thanks to an innovative approach to problem solving I increased our customer satisfaction scores by 25% year-on-year. My strong worth ethic and ability to go the extra mile have been recognised through promotions. I’m genuinely excited about this opportunity and the possibility of working here.”

5. Why do you want the job?

At first glance, this interview question may seem similar to the question, “Why are you the best person for the job?” However, in asking this question the interviewer wants to know exactly why you want this specific job, in this specific organisation at this point in time. They want to gain an insight into how this vacancy fits your motivations for looking for a new job. 
 
The key to answering this question is to avoid focusing on financial or non-financial gains. If you say, for instance, that you are looking to increase your salary, improve your benefits or use this role as an opportunity to upskill, you’ll obviously fail to impress. 
 
Instead, frame your answer by talking about your enthusiasm for the organisation and job responsibilities, how this role fits with your career goals and why you are excited to be interviewing for the role.   
 
 

6. Why are you looking for a new job?

Job applicants are commonly asked about why they are looking for a new job in the first place. While this question also touches on your motivations, it is backwards rather than forwards focused. In other words, the interviewer wants to understand what happened in your employment history with your previous role to prompt you to look elsewhere. Answering questions like this can be tricky, because while you should never speak negatively of current or former employers or make a poor employment track record look like an issue with you, you do need to give an answer to why you decided to enter the job market.
 
There are some circumstances, such as redundancy, that are self-explanatory. But often, job seekers find that they have reached the natural end of their current job and need a new challenge. If this describes your situation, make sure you carefully frame the lack of opportunity when you answer the question, otherwise the hiring manager could wonder why your current employer has not bothered to facilitate your growth and retain you.
 
For example, rather than saying “I need a new challenge”, you could say, “My current employer is a small company with limited career progression. They were unable to offer me a role fitting my experience once I became qualified. After three years with them, I’m now looking forward to an opportunity where I can use my new experience and skills to add value to a company.” This interview answer shows that your reasons for leaving your current job will be resolved in this new role.
 

7. What is your salary expectation?

When answering this question it’s important not to undersell yourself – or conversely, price yourself out of consideration. Your best approach is to be open, honest and support your view with evidence. Before the interview, research typical salaries for your job in a current Salary Guide and talk to a recruiter to find out what the typical salary is for the role you are going for. Remember to check the job description for the hiring managers expected salary range. Do not think of how much money you need, but rather how much the role is reasonably expected to offer. In addition, consider how flexible you are prepared to be and if other types of benefits could offset a lower than expected salary.  

You can then confidently tell your interviewer your salary expectations, backed up by evidence. This allows you to answer this question with conviction and puts you in a strong position should you need to negotiate. For example, “Based on my research of similar jobs as well as data from the recent Hays Salary Guide, I am looking for $X. I believe this figure is a competitive one given the duties and responsibilities of the role.”

Remember, our Hays Salary Guide is released in May each year and contains the most up-to-date salary figures for your job function and location. For more, read our advice on how to answer “What are your salary expectations?” 

About this author

Adam Shapley, Managing Director, Hays Technology and Technical Australia & New Zealand, began working at Hays in 2001 and during this time has held significant leadership roles across the business including responsibility for multiple specialisms in various locations across Australia & New Zealand.

In 2018, he was appointed to Hays ANZ Management Board and made Managing Director for Hays New Zealand.

Adam is also responsible for the strategic direction of the Hays Information Technology business across Australia & New Zealand including driving growth across Digital Technology, Projects & Business Change and IT Operations & Support.

Follow Adam on LinkedIn

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