How to ace 17 challenging interview questions

Though some employers try to tailor their job interviews to the candidate and role, there are certain interview questions that pop up time and again. These basic interview questions are always applicable and revealing, no matter what job is on the table.

We’ve identified 17 common interview questions and an approach to answering each. No doubt you’ve already come across a few throughout your career. If you’ve struggled with them in the past, worry no more. These strategies will help you prepare answers for some of the more difficult interview questions you’ll face.

how to answering challenging interview questions

1. tell me a little about yourself?

This is a common opening interview question. Instead of launching straight into the interview, your interviewer asks you to introduce yourself. Since this question is so broad, what they’re really asking is “how well do you express yourself?” Though there are many ways to answer this question, we recommend you give a brief overview of your career. Things to include: recent jobs, skills, and certifications.

You can cap off your answer with a little insight into your personal hobbies, but it shouldn’t be the focus of your answer. The best way to be prepared for this question? Have a short (1 minute or less) work bio ready; you’ll be amazed at how often it comes in handy. Chances are once you’re finished, something you’ve mentioned will lead to your interviewer’s next question.

2. what interests you about this job?

With this interview question, your interviewer is trying to gauge a) your enthusiasm for the job and b) if you read and understood the job description. An answer that highlights a role or responsibility from the job description is a great way to go. If you blank and can’t remember specifics of the job, an answer about ‘the opportunity to put [insert skill you have] to use’ is always a safe bet.

3. what are your biggest strengths?

This question is most likely to lead you astray if you try to gauge your interviewer and say what you think they want to hear. Your best option is to be honest. Faking an answer for your interviewer’s benefit can backfire. (And set you up for failure if don’t follow through once you’re hired.) Though choosing specific skills that are relevant to the job are ideal, your strengths can also be simple and applicable to every job. Some examples of universal strengths include: working well under deadlines, strong communication skills and punctuality. These skills are always nice to have, no matter what job is on the table.

4. what are your biggest weaknesses?

The reverse of the previous question, this one can tough because you can’t reveal anything too damaging that will be a deal breaker. In this case, being too honest can be an issue. For instance, saying you’re a procrastinator prone to missing deadlines might not go over too well. Instead, try to think of constructive criticism you’ve received in the past that you’ve successfully addressed. Always make sure to note how you’re working on overcoming the issue.

5. what do you know about this company?

This interview question is a clear attempt to find out if you’ve done your research. Show you’re enthusiastic about the job by researching the company before your interview. Chances are your interviewer isn’t going to grill you, so it can be as simple as checking out the company website and doing a quick Google search. Bringing up recent news such as a leadership change, a big company event, or a recent product launch can earn you a gold star from your interviewer and demonstrate you know your stuff.

6. why should we hire you?

This question is a perfect opportunity to highlight skills that are highly relevant to the job you’re interviewing for. If you can think of something that differentiates you from others in your field, even better. Stay away from answers that are 'you' focused, like ‘I’ve always wanted to work for X company’ or ‘this job will help me take the next step in my career.’ Instead, try focusing on the value you bring to the role.

7. how are you different from other candidates?

Chances are most candidates being interviewed have very comparable qualifications, so this question is really just a variation on ‘why should we hire you?’ You approach to answering it should be the same: highlight your skills and explain how you will bring value to the company. Highlighting certifications or interdisciplinary skills that aren’t the norm in your industry is a good strategy here – just make sure you explain how they make you better suited to the job.

8. tell me about a work conflict you experienced and how it was resolved?

One of the most dreaded and difficult interview questions on this list, detailing a conflict is challenging for two reasons. First, it requires on-the-spot storytelling. Second, it has potential to expose a weakness you’d rather not discuss. It may sound like common sense, but the best way to answer this question is to choose a conflict that had a happy ending, ideally one that you were responsible for.

An example: you and your boss disagreed on how to approach a new client. In the end, you came up with a revised strategy that was a compromise that used elements of both visions. In this story, you come out the good guy and highlight positive traits such as your ability to collaborate and be a team-player. Just remember, don’t be disparaging or choose a conflict that makes your former workplace seem hostile. Tearing down others to build yourself up is never a good look.

9. what do you look for in a boss?

When an interviewer asks this question, they’re probably trying to gauge how you’ll fit in with the company culture and current leaders. The best path? Be honest without getting too specific; you never know what type of leaders you’ll be working with. Stick with traits that are universally positive such as fairness, good listener, capable, intelligent, etc. Most managers like to think they embody these traits, so there’s no risk of alienating your potential boss.

10. where do you see yourself in 5/10 years?

This question is asked to determine how the job you’re applying for fits into your long-term career plan. Will you be gone in a few months? Do you have unrealistic expectations of where the role is headed? To answer this question, like many common interview questions, stick with honesty. If you hope to move into a more senior or management role, say so, but be realistic. Most interviewers will appreciate your ambition; after all, 5 years is a long time.

11. why are you leaving your current job?

If you’re leaving for a benign reason, like you’re looking for a more senior role, or to find a job with a shorter commute, by all means, be honest. This question can be a little more dangerous if you were fired or laid off. Even so, honesty is still the best policy, as there’s a chance that your interviewer will follow-up with management at your previous job. Just remember to end on a positive note by explaining what you have learned and how you're making an effort to improve.

Never bad-mouth your former or current employers. No matter how much you disliked the job, no matter how much of a tyrant your boss was, always remain professional. You’d be surprised how small the world can be when you’re looking for a job. A bad attitude can make you seem like a difficult person and be an instant deal breaker.

12. how would your coworkers/boss describe you?

This question presents a great opportunity to sell strengths that might sound like bragging coming directly from you. For instance, declaring that you’re a hard-worker can sound like interview-filler when you say it, but it’s perfectly acceptable coming from a coworker. Best strategy? Think back to actual compliments you’ve received from coworkers and clients.

13. what are your salary expectations?

You don’t want to tie yourself to a specific salary at this stage, so feel free to offer a comfortable range. This gives your potential employer something to work with, with but leaves you with room to negotiate before you sign on the dotted line. It also puts the ball back in your potential employer’s court; it’s up to them to make a compelling offer in your range. Remember: this is only step one of the negotiations. You don’t have to accept the first offer. Check out our blog on negotiating a job offer for next steps.

It’s also important to do salary research prior to your interview. Compare a few different resources before coming up with a number. Also, keep in mind that salaries vary depending on where you live and how many years of experience you have. Need help finding average salaries for your role? Randstad’s salary guides are a great resource.

14. if you were an animal, what would you be?

You may occasionally be asked random brain teaser questions like this. The goal is to get you thinking on your feet. How quickly and creatively can you answer? If you can come up with an answer that ties back to the job, kudos to you, but don’t stress too much about your answer. These types of interview questions are a personality gauge. If you’re having trouble thinking on the spot, bide yourself a little time to gather your thoughts with a response like “That’s an interesting question. I think I would have to say…”

15. what do you think our company could do better?

This question is an excellent opportunity for you to provide real insight and demonstrate that you will bring valuable skills and experiences to solve whatever problem you present. Just make sure to do your research prior to the interview. If you’re familiar with the company, you’ll be able to provide a better answer. Never demur on this question and say you can’t think of anything.

16. how do you handle criticism?

This interview question, much like questions about conflict resolution, put you on the spot about a topic that can often be uncomfortable. No one likes being criticized, but in the workplace, it’s a reality that must be addressed. Fortunately, there’s really only one acceptable way to answer this question: you take it constructively, not personally. If you can think of an example of a time you took criticism and turned it into an opportunity for growth, even better.

17. do you have any questions for me?

Too many job seekers hear this question and breathe a sigh of relief, thinking they’ve made it through the interview unscathed. They’re relieved the interrogation is over, and want to fast-forward to the handshake and goodbyes. In doing so, they miss out on a prime opportunity. This question is your final chance to show your enthusiasm for the role and demonstrate that you’re committed to the job. A ‘no’ can seem disinterested. Not sure what to ask? Here a few options:

  • What will a regular workday/workweek look like in this role?
  • What can you tell me about this role that wasn’t in the job description?
  • How will success be measured in this role?
  • How would you describe the office culture?
  • What do you enjoy most about working here?
  • What would you say are the biggest challenges of this role?
  • Where do you see this role headed in the next few years?

No doubt, these are just a few of the challenging interview questions you’ll face throughout your career. The key to answering any interview question (whether on this list or not) is to be prepared. Interview questions tend to fall into one of three categories: about the company, about your career, and about your skills. If you’re prepared to answer questions about these 3 topics, you’ll be able to answer just about any question thrown at you.

Remember: interviews are about finding the right fit between employer and employee. Interviewers want you to succeed as much as you do. They’re not trying to trip you up or trick you – they just want to be confident they’re hiring the right person! Be honest and thoughtful and you’re already on the right track.

Are you looking for a new job? Randstad has thousands of exciting job opportunities available across Canada.

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