Is it always a good idea to answer job interview questions by the book?
February 6, 2014 5:45 AM   Subscribe

Okay, so you print out your resume, business card, and your portfolio. You try to look impeccable for the interview. You try to get into the right mood and you even practice some tongue twisters to avoid stuttering. But what about the interview itself? How do you approach age-old questions without sounding rehearsed?

I'm not saying that your answers should be brutally honest as to endanger the professional image you are trying to project, but how can you get ahead of the crowd if you sound exactly like them? I mean how many answers can you give to “What are your weaknesses?” before you and the other applicants' answers go into a discernible pattern? Is it actually safer to give the interviewers the cookie-cut answers they want to hear because it shows them that you can fit in? For example, if you're a creative person applying for a corporate (say, advertising) job, is it better to tell them that you are built for fast-paced environments or would you rather tell them how meticulous and thorough you are in your research (I know these are not exactly mutually exclusive, but they do leave different impressions in the interviewer's mind). On the other hand, wouldn't it be better to tell it as it is, but describe it in a way that would make it seem advantageous for the job? Don't you think that being honest (without sounding pretentious or cynical) while having an overall positive attitude is more original than going for the “my biggest weakness is: that I work too hard/I'm a perfectionist/my biggest strength/my sensitivity/..” type of answers?
posted by omar.a to Work & Money (14 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know where that chestnut about "I'm a perfectionist" comes from. Anyone who delivered that in my company would be laughed out of the place. The right answer there is to talk about something that you've improved on, or what you do to avoid having your weakness become an issue. Something like "I prefer to work fast, and one time that came back to bite me when (X happened.) So I do consciously slow myself down in the data collection phase now, to make sure I'm being thorough, because I've learned that hurrying in that phase leads to a bad result and delays down the line."
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:55 AM on February 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

*I'm not only talking about the "I'm a perfectionist" thing, I'm referring to the whole mindset.
posted by omar.a at 5:59 AM on February 6, 2014

The whole mindset should be of honesty, enthusiasm, and good sense. Don't share your worst moments - nobody needs to know about the time you accidentally spilled your coffee in the fax machine and snuck out of the room - but don't lie. Tell your best truth.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:04 AM on February 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm not trying to be snarky or unhelpful, but what if you just answered honestly rather than trying to craft some answer you think they'd want to hear? Clearly don't make yourself look like a terrible worker and psychopath, but don't make yourself sound absolutely perfect never flawed amazingpants. They know no one is perfect, and having been involved in some interviewing processes, the people who give the "I'm perfect!!" answers garner more eyerolls than interest.

So do what fingersandtoes suggest. Give honest answers, but just follow up with the things you do to address it and minimize the impact it has on your work.

"I find I sometimes get too excited for the end product/result of a project and look too long-term, which can make me not pay as much attention to the smaller details of the work currently needing to be done. I work around that by creating sort of mini-goals/checkpoints/milestones throughout the project that I work towards, to keep me on track and focusing on what I need to be focusing on."

^^ we actually had a candidate give an answer extremely close to this one, and we hired him.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 6:06 AM on February 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

1. Interview questions are your opportunity for storytelling. Use the question as an opener to tell a story featuring yourself and the skills you're offering. That's what will be original. Make it particular and concrete. With "weaknesses," as others are saying, talk about something that illustrates a weakness ("I have struggled with time management") and how you recognize and address them ("so when I got Big Project X I sat down with my boss and created a schedule of mileposts leading to the main deadline, and then blocked off chunks in my weekly schedule to work on the project at each stage. And I met all those deadlines").

2. Answer the question beneath the question. Interviewers don't ask stock questions like "what would you say are your greatest weaknesses?" to find out what are your greatest weaknesses. They're asking it to find out what your own level of self-awareness is, and whether it seems accurate. It's essentially impossible to manage someone with poor self-awareness, as they can't see what they're doing that isn't measuring up and figure out how to change it. So employers want to know "can this person listen, recognize a flaw or challenge in themselves, and do whatever work it takes to improve it? Is this person adaptable, can they bring about a change in their work habits when that's needed?" So make sure your answer helps answer the underlying question and basically says "I have a good understanding of myself." This is indeed where honesty is important, because the other thing employers are reading for is a gap between their perception of you and your own storytelling about you. If you say "I'm a perfectionist!" and you have spots on your shoes or a typo on your resume, it's going to set of a bell that maybe you're not all you claim. If you're unable to talk about yourself and your challenges comfortably, it might set of an alarm bell that you have an inflated self-image or can't accept constructive criticism. And so on.

Other questions-beneath-the-question include:

- "Where do you see yourself in 5 years?" which is not asked to hear someone say "right here and happy as a clam!" or "in YOUR job" or any other stereotypical answers, but to assess whether you intend to be with this company a decent while (to make your training worth it) and also, whether you envision yourself on a trajectory of growth and increasing professional skill, or just want to be a potted plant in the office.

- "What about this job appeals to you?" which is asked to see if the person has read the job description and understands what the job actually is, as opposed to applying for everything under the sun, having a misperception of the nature of the company, etc.
posted by Miko at 6:15 AM on February 6, 2014 [14 favorites]

I'd pretty much not want to work for a place that's still using those horrible interview questions. But, if you do get asked one of them, Miko has it exactly right.

A weakness is a REAL weakness, and you tell them your weakness, and how you've overcome it.

Where you want to be in 5 years, is a description of your perfect situation, not of a specific job. My answer to this question was "Technology changes things so quickly now, it's hard to say what amazing new jobs will be available in five years. I see myself learning new skills and applying them in a dynamic organization. If someone had told me five years ago that I'd be doing X today, I would have laughed, but here I am and I'm an expert at it!" It's generic enough that you haven't pigeonholed yourself, but it lets you expand on an experience you've had.

Be genuine. View the interview as a two-way street, they get to know you, and you get to know THEM. This isn't an audition, this is a process by which YOU decide if this job would be the right fit for you.

Ask questions relevant to that fit.

1. Describe an average day in the job. (Nearly all interviewers will laugh and say no day is the same.)

2. What kinds of people thrive in your organization? (Listen carefully, they'll likely not lie to you on this one.)

3. Where do you see the company in Five Years? (Do you see what I did there?)

Engage and treat the situation as an opportunity to mutualy find a good fit. That's the most important thing!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:27 AM on February 6, 2014 [8 favorites]

You should go into the interview with a good grasp in your mind of the story you want to tell about yourself. Boil it down to a sentence that includes specific details about why you will benefit this company more than any other applicant. Something like "I am a detail-oriented, thoughtful person who will be able to cut expenditures and increase revenue." or "I am an edgy, modern thinker with a creative flair with a track record of improving social network engagement." or "I am a well-trained, highly-educated surgeon with a well-above-average success rate on my three most successful procedures." You should answer whatever questions they ask you with answers that address that story. Obviously, you may have to divert from it with some answers -- you don't want to pull the politician's trick of "Well, that's an interesting question, but let me tell you about this totally other thing for a minute..." but it is very important to stay on message as much as possible.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:28 AM on February 6, 2014

Make bulletpoints of the four or five things you want to make sure that your interviewers to know about you.

Use those bad questions to give real answers that reinforce your main points.
posted by entropone at 6:35 AM on February 6, 2014

The interview isn't about your answers; it's about making the interviewer like you. Storytelling and engaging in conversation are the things you need to focus on.
posted by J. Wilson at 8:03 AM on February 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

As a hiring manager, I would not say I want an interviewee to make me "like you," but instead "feel confident in you." Every manager wants to make a successful hire.
posted by Miko at 8:18 AM on February 6, 2014 [5 favorites]

We're interviewing at work now, and based on some of the recent interviews we've done, I would say that we can tell when you're just saying what you think we want to hear. It's not necessarily negative, since it makes it clear that you're a competent person who has prepared for the interview and is trying to make a good impression. If you're able to answer with genuine enthusiam or interest, though, it really makes a stronger case for you. Ultimately, even a stock answer is better than yesterday's interviewee, who failed to answer the question, "why do you want to work here?", even though we tried rephrasing it several times.
posted by chocotaco at 8:57 AM on February 6, 2014

One of your assumptions is that people give the answers that a reasonable person would give during an interview. This is not the case. My husband asked a job applicant what his long-term goals were. He said that he wanted to be a musician. The job was not related to music. Another said he wanted to work with robots. The job is not related to robots. People have listed references who said that they totally wouldn't hire that person.

I agree that you should be your best self. I'm honest, probably too honest, but I definitely shade honesty in a light that makes me look good. I have answered for the "what are your weaknesses?" question that I can get very detail-oriented and lose focus of the forest for the trees. It's true and I don't think it makes me look bad, just human. If you don't want to work with humans, I'm not your gal. And when they ask either/or questions ("do you prefer to work alone or in groups?"), don't try to say both, say which you prefer but explain why you're okay with the other thing too.
posted by kat518 at 9:26 AM on February 6, 2014

I don't think it's a good idea to worry about other applicants and trying to answer "outside the box" for these questions. Interviews are hard enough as it is without worrying that how you see yourself in five years is too similar to how the last guy sees himself in five years.

That said, I got some interesting advice for answering interview questions: always remember that the questions are being asked in the context of this job. You should always tailor your answers to the specific job and company rather than answering in general terms.
posted by Sara C. at 10:37 AM on February 6, 2014

I think Miko's bit about confidence in the hire is correct. Over-rehearsed bland answers can give the impression that you're hiding something, or worse - that you're barely able to do the job. The phrase "relax and be yourself" is so often repeated that I'm not sure it even has meaning any more, but if you dig into the impression that gives, it boils down (hopefully) to this person has themselves and their previous challenges under control.

To answer the OP's question - I treat canned interview questions as ice breakers. I find it helps to break open and investigate that particular interviewer's context. That gives you two advantages: 1) you bothered to show real interest in their position/company and 2) it gives you a chance to customize your answers to their specific problems.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 10:45 AM on February 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

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