Recruiter tips: How to answer tough job interview questions

14 September 2022 Sharyn Waterworth

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​We all get nervous in job interviews from time to time, especially if it feels like a high-stake situation. If you really want the job, you’re going to want the interviewer to like you - or at least see your value - so some nerves are natural.

But when we’re nervous, we often do ourselves a disservice. We might speak before we’ve had the chance to slow down and think. Or, we might struggle to answer a question at all.

When you’re in that situation, the best thing to do is take a pause, breathe and remind yourself that this is just a conversation. In fact, try telling yourself that you don’t want the job - even if it’s not true. This takes the pressure off and allows you to perform at your best.

But the secret to formulating great answers to interview questions happens before you even set foot into an interview. It’s all in the preparation stages. Because when you know what questions you’ll likely be faced with, you can practice your answers and craft a memorable reply, knocking those interview nerves on the head.

The questions you’ll want to spend the most time preparing for usually require a high level of self-awareness and reflection. Other tough ones might require you to advocate for yourself or think ahead.

To learn how to respond to the most commonly asked tough job interview questions, keep reading.

Why do interviewers ask tough interview questions?

Behavioural questions are some of the trickiest questions to answer in a job interview. Typically, they’re used to determine how you act in certain situations.

They’re not a straightforward “yes” or “no” and they require more thought than a simple recall of your work history and skills. They demonstrate your logic, knowledge and, you guessed it, your behaviour in the workplace.

Interviewers use these questions to determine your future performance and whether you’ll be a good cultural fit in the company. What makes them so difficult is the fact that they call for a real-life example.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember what I did on the weekend come Monday - which is why preparing for job interview questions and brainstorming is key to your interview’s success.

Tough interview questions to prepare for

  1. What’s your biggest weakness?

This first one can be a real head-scratcher.

We’d recommend choosing a real weakness, but not a weakness that will interfere with your ability to do the role well. For instance, if your role requires a lot of maths, saying you don’t feel comfortable with numbers is going to be a red flag for your interviewer. Instead, you could say you struggle with your confidence at work sometimes.

It’s important to acknowledge your weakness but follow up with how you’re overcoming it; for instance, you could say you’ve realised that reflecting on your wins helps you feel more self-assured. This shows your interviewer that you’re self-aware, proactive and willing to be open with them.

  1. Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

If you don’t have a five (or ten) year plan, it’s okay! It’s perfectly normal not to have your entire life mapped out.

The reason interviewers ask this question is that they want to know what your career goals are and if they can facilitate them. And, more importantly, if they align with a future at their company.

This question is also used to determine how long you see yourself working at the company (if you get the role, of course).

Before your interview, brainstorm what your career goals are - they don’t have to be detailed or presented in a linear fashion. You might want to move into management eventually. Or, maybe, you don’t have a concrete role you’d like to work towards, but there are skills you’d like to develop or types of projects you’d like to work on. These are all valid responses.

  1. Tell me about a big mistake you’ve made on the job and how you handled it.

You might be asked a version of this job interview question because an interviewer wants to see whether you’re not only capable of admitting to your failures, but growing from them.

We’re human - it’s an inescapable fact. And that means we’re going to make mistakes at work. The important part is how we recover from them.

When you’re brainstorming an example, make sure you settle on one that’s not too big and not so inconsequential that it doesn’t take some vulnerability.

Your answer should explain the situation, but focus predominantly on what actions you took to rectify your misstep. From there, discuss the positive results you saw and the lessons you learned. Maybe the mistake forced you to get better at time management or suggest changes for streamlining internal procedures.

  1. Describe a time when you disagreed with a team member. How did you resolve the problem?

This question may feel like a trap, but it’s not. It’s a way for interviewers to understand how you conduct yourself in a professional environment, what your conflict resolution skills are like and how emotionally mature you are.

Disagreeances are always going to happen - and they’re not necessarily a bad thing, either. Usually, people disagree at work when they want to deliver the best outcome possible. People approach situations with different personalities, experiences and opinions. What matters is how you handle the disagreement.

When you recount the disagreement, make sure you keep to the facts and leave the judgemental footnotes out. For instance, undermining or criticising a previous boss or coworker doesn’t leave a good impression.

Your example should demonstrate the respect you have for your coworkers, as well as your ability to find a solution. Sometimes, managers do need to get involved, but in most cases, you should be able to resolve a disagreement peacefully yourself.

  1. Tell me about a time you overcame an obstacle.

Interviewers obviously have a certain kind of candidate in mind for a role, and this question helps them identify if you possess the resourcefulness, creative thinking and problem-solving abilities they’re looking to hire for.

Choose an obstacle that is relevant to the position you’re applying for. Read through the job listing and decide which skills you can call attention to with your example.

We’d recommend going with a scenario that could occur in this job. This gives your interviewer a good idea of how you’d actually perform in the role. If nothing springs to mind it could be a scenario as simple as an unexpectedly urgent deadline.

Once you’ve set the scene, describe the actions you took to overcome the obstacle and what you learned from the experience. This shows the interviewer you’re self-aware and can get things back on track.

  1. Why should we hire you?

Your initial response to this question is probably, “because I need a job!”.

But putting that (completely valid) thought aside, this question is asking you to differentiate yourself from other candidates and advocate for yourself. Which, for most people, can be uncomfortable territory. But, that’s another reason why interviewers ask it - it’s a tricky question to answer!

To make the question feel more manageable, let’s reframe it like this: what skills, experience and knowledge can you bring to this company? What makes you stand out? Why would you be a good fit?

Make sure to tie your answer back to the role and what the company is looking for. If they’re looking for a customer service representative with excellent communication skills, it would be worth highlighting your experience and how you shine in customer-facing roles.

You might be great at data entry, but if the role doesn’t require that skill, it’s not relevant to point out. Look for commonalities between what the company is looking for and what you can provide - as well as additional qualities that would help you succeed. This lets interviewers imagine you in the role and see you as a potential good fit.

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