Job interviews: Nobody likes them, but they inevitably stand between you and your dream job.
Unfortunately, "What's your greatest weakness?” is no longer the only hard-to-answer question hiring managers will throw your way.
New techniques, designed to do everything from measure your ability to handle criticism in the moment to downright intimidate you, are now being wielded more frequently by HR managers.
Life and Career Coach Anna Goldstein, founder of SelfintheCity.com, walks you through eight curveball interview techniques you might encounter, and the best way to ace each one.
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1. Subtle Scare Tactics
It’s not just in your head: Your potential future boss did not smile at you. And if she's using intimidation techniques in an interview, she might wait a few beats after you answer a question before responding to what you've said.
"These are all external distractions over which you have no control," says Goldstein, "but what you can do is control how you react."
First, realize that she's trying to destabilize you, likely to see how you behave under pressure. To counteract her approach, anchor your feet to the floor and take a deep breath before you answer each question slowly and calmly. The goal is not to let these scare tactics intimidate you, so beware that you're not playing with your hair, fiddling with your jewelry or shifting from foot to foot, all classic signs of anxiety.
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Then, tune into your feelings, and ask yourself if you like the environment or whether you could see yourself working at the company (or for a boss who likes to keep you off-balance). Remember, job interviews are a two-way street–-it’s also an opportunity to see if the company and the position would be a good fit for you.
2. "Stress" Interviews
You’re probably thinking, “Aren’t all interviews stressful”? But stress interviews are a different breed. They could include an interviewer suddenly lobbing an oddball question like, “If you were to get rid of one state in the U.S., which would it be and why?”
Your interviewer might also start rapid-fire questioning or adopt an aggressive or argumentative attitude. And the degree of stress applied will vary: A mildly stressful question might be: “What makes you think you’re qualified for this job when you’ve had minimal relevant experience?” In the most x-treme versions, you might have to react to a response like: "That's the worst answer to that question any candidate has given."
What to do? First, don’t just write off the interviewer as a total jerk. Consider that job candidates can predict most interview questions and have a prepared response for each one; by resorting to bizarre questions and comments like the above, they want to see how the "real" you reacts to something.
And, perhaps more important than what you answer is the fact that you're being assessed on your creativity, your ability to think on your feet and your capacity for handling criticism. Your mantra? Grace under fire.
If you find yourself in this situation, relax. Consider it a challenge—and a chance to impress your potential employer. If you get choked up, take a deep breath and collect your thoughts. It’s better to have a moment of silence than rush into an answer. And above all, don’t become defensive; instead, act professional. Your confidence and composure are sure to impress.
3. The Weakness Question
“What’s your greatest weakness?” This is the classic old-school interview question we know we'll be asked but continue to dread. So, how do you answer it?
Don’t give the cliché answers: “I’m too much of a perfectionist,” or “Frankly, I just work too hard.” Your hiring manager could practically paper her office walls with these oft-repeated replies and can see right through your rehearsed response.
Your best bet is to be honest. The perfect compromise is to put a positive spin on your weakness, without seeming too perfect. "Explain your weakness and how you’ve been able to manage it," suggests Goldstein. For example, you might say that sometimes you tend to work too independently, so, to correct that, you now make a point of consulting your manager before making big decisions without input. Show that you’re a problem solver by going through the steps you've taken to combat this flaw. And be sure to point out how the quality also has a positive spin: In this example, you're a leader who likes to take ownership of projects.
One caveat: Just make sure you don’t try to explain how you've improved on a flaw that makes you seem downright incompetent, like trouble meeting deadlines, or a lack of judgment that's cost your company money.
4. The Early-Onset Salary Question
Usually the salary question comes later, but sometimes a hiring manager will throw it at you in the first meeting. After all, their goal is to hire the best person they can who falls within the position's prescribed budget.
How do you keep yourself in the running if the money question comes up early? There are two options you can try, depending on the situation you're in: Either deflect the question for another time, or name a number in the higher range.
For the first option, ask if you could wait until a later date to discuss salary. Say that you're incredibly interested in the role, but would rather discuss compensation when you've both determined that you’re the right candidate for the job.
However, says Goldstein, "your answer should reflect the flow of the interview." If possible, give a figure that’s on the higher end of your position’s stated salary range. Before you name your price, look up standard industry rates for similar positions on sites like Salary.com and Glassdoor.com.
5. "Imagine You ..." (The Hypothetical Situation)
Another hiring manager favorite? Asking an interviewee a scenario-based question to see how they would handle a particular situation. For example:
- How would you react if a team member was not contributing to a project?
- Imagine you have a deadline and you are running out of time. What would you do?
Your technique in answering this type of question is fourfold: First, know the job you're applying for, and the skills that are required (or desired). Next, think of a time when you encountered a similar situation, even if not exactly the same one being set up for you. Then, calmly walk your interviewer through how you handled the situation, and what your thinking was.
For example, in response to the first question above, career site redstarresume.com advises you try a reply like this:
"Unfortunately, I have been in this situation before, and it was detrimental to the whole team. First, I would try honest communication. What I've found is that the more you ignore the problem, the worse it can get. Speaking with the employee in a nonconfrontational way is the best approach. Often the reason a team member isn't contributing comes down to not understanding the work or what's expected of them. That way, I am at least able to find out the cause of the problem and work toward a solution."
That way you're exhibiting both your prior experience and your problem-solving skills.
6. Seemingly Innocuous Inquiries About Your Personal Life
“What are your hobbies?” It’s a seemingly innocent question that allows insight into your personality and can help determine if you’re company material. For instance, if you and the interviewee both enjoy table tennis or mountain climbing, that’s a common interest that can make you stand out.
Just don’t be too enthusiastic. We know of a candidate who was passed over for a job because he seemed more excited about his side job than about the job he was interviewing for.
If you’re a mom, you may not have the luxury of “me time.” You might be tempted to gush about your kids, but resist the urge. "Leave your personal life out of your answer," says Goldstein. Legally, employers are not supposed to discriminate against you if you do have a spouse or children. However, that doesn’t mean they won’t.
If asked what you like to do in your free time, do feel free to mention a hobby that is entirely separate from work, but shows your creativity (like photography) or persistence (like running marathons).
7. “Do You Have Any Questions for Me?”
Always, always have questions for your interviewer. And yes, you will be judged on the amount of research you've done about them and the company, as well as your thoughtfulness. A few good rules of thumb: Research your interviewer, and the jobs they've held in the past. At a bare minimum, read up on any recent press releases the company has written or new products they've launched. Then, stay present and engaged throughout the interview so you have relevant questions to ask at the end.
There are also some greatest-hits questions to bring. Ask about the biggest challenges the company is currently facing, Goldstein says. Their response will give you a sense of how you could be part of the solution.
Other insightful questions include: “What do you consider the best and worst features of this job?” and “How do you imagine that this role will evolve over time?” Stay away from questions that involve compensation, the time frame of the interview process, and other applicants who may have applied.
8. Speed Interviewing
A short interview does not signify a bad interview. Recently, for example, Pizza Hut was conducting 140-second job interviews!
But why do quick interviews seem to be more common? It could be that employers are really busy and don’t have the luxury of chatting for an hour, Goldstein says.
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Another reason: First impressions can be made relatively fast. One NYU study showed that impressions are made within the first seven seconds of meeting. Which means you don't need to be in someone' s office for an hour for her to decide that you're right for the job.