Mastering interview questions

“Tell us more about yourself,” and “What sort of salary are you expecting?” are make or break questions that determine whether you get called back for a second interview, or have your resume lost forever in a dusty pile, together with other forgotten candidates.

You don’t want to be a forgotten candidate, so here are some tips on answering those tricky questions so you can ace that career-changing interview!

Tell me about yourself

This is what kicks off a typical interview – and this is your chance to market yourself, so do it well. A little homework is required before you answer. Find out what skills the company prizes – people, technical, etc – and write down a few of your own achievements that gel with what they want. For example, if the position is for sales, then do highlight instances in your life or previous job(s) when you managed to do well in sales.

Remember, though, that rambling on and on about completely unrelated things (“… And then my dog died and I was absolutely devastated …”) is a big NO. Stay articulate and try to stay on track as much as possible. If you run out of things to say, just wind it down to a graceful halt instead of desperately running on and on while trying to think of something else to say!

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

Please refrain from answering “I can benchpress X kgs,” or saying things like “Er … I don’t like cockroaches.” This is one question that you absolutely cannot escape from, so there is no excuse for coming unprepared. Do your homework: list down at least two of each.

Strengths: This is where you can talk about how you have such-and-such quality that you feel will really benefit the company, and stress that you will be an asset to the company. Things like punctuality, leadership, and a determination to succeed are all qualities that cannot go wrong, especially when backed up with examples. Only talk about them if they are true, though! If you proudly state that you’re punctual, but show up 15 minutes late every day, your boss WILL remember and you can be sure your first assessment will be a tad uncomfortable.

Weaknesses: Nobody likes to admit to having weaknesses, but there’s not much point saying you don’t have any! The best thing you can do is state a few of your personal or professional weaknesses, but follow them up by sharing how you’re turning them into strengths, as well as the steps you’re taking to improve yourself.

Where do you see yourself, a few years down the road?

Even if you’re privately thinking “As your boss,” it’s best to give a more tactful (but still true!) answer – tailor it to suit the natural career progression path in the company. Don’t mention planning to quit in five years to set up your own – rival – company, or leaving to be a full-time parent. Companies look for commitment, and they definitely would not warm up to the idea of helping you on your way to a rival company.

Why are you leaving your current position? / Why did you leave your previous company?

With this question, it’s tempting to start bashing one’s previous company/boss/colleagues but it reflects better on you if you refrain from doing so. Badmouthing just makes you look bad, or worse, like a sore loser (even if what you’re saying is true!).

If you were laid off due to economic woes, it’s fine to be upfront about it. You don’t have to go into great detail; giving a brief rundown on how X number of people, including yourself, had to be let go due to a company/departmental restructuring.

If you are currently employed, though, you could give a simple reason – “I’m looking for greater challenges,” “I feel like I can handle more responsibility,” etc are good enough, unless they ask you to elaborate further. Avoid negativity though, as stated earlier, badmouthing never reflects well on you. Try to also avoid stating salary as your primary reason for leaving, as it will indicate that your motivation stems from money alone.

Do you have any questions?

Aside from your elevator pitch right in the beginning (“Tell me about yourself”), “Do you have any questions?” is your last chance to shine a spotlight on your best qualities: in this case, your insight and analytical abilities.

Based on the information you’ve gleaned throughout the interview, ask well-thought out questions regarding the company (the hours, dresscode), and ways you could contribute. Of course, this will be based on your own judgment so the number of questions, etc, is up to you. Try to avoid simple questions that would just require a yes/no answer.

Do try to avoid questions that make you sound like you believe you’ve already got the job. If they haven’t brought up salary, you shouldn’t bring it up either. A good rule of thumb is to focus more on what you can bring to the table that benefits the company, not the other way around.