An interview room

Clichéd interview questions: dealing with the obvious

How you respond to a clichéd question alone might not win or lose you a new position, but nonetheless it is important to be adequately prepared for them.

Many candidates make the mistake of answering such a question with one of their own which certainly won’t earn you high marks. The key to answering clichéd questions is to understand what really lies behind them and what the interviewer is trying to find out.

Often they are intended to test your self-awareness or your ability to think on your feet rather than to extract specific information so it is vital you aren’t fazed by them. The best way to prepare for the situation is to anticipate such questions in advance and have replies ready but also to ensure you apply standard interview good practice.

What kind of questions can you expect?

There are a number of classic clichéd questions for which you can prepare. Although there are no standard answers consider how you can provide a genuine, meaningful and personalised response. We’ve picked out five questions that invariably come up and offer some guidelines as how to shape your responses.

Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

You might think a clever quick-fire answer to the first one is “as managing director of the company”. While it definitely demonstrates ambition it is far better to show that you have a clear career path in mind and explain why you think this position will keep you on course in pursue of it.

If you have an ultimate ambition, say so and certainly don’t shy away from aiming high but back it up by talking about some of the other key positions, skills and work experiences you need to acquire on route to achieving it. Discuss your plans with confidence but ensure it doesn’t come across as cocky.

What are your strengths?

When it comes to strengths, make sure these relate to the role for which you are being interviewed and come up with specific examples of how you’ve applied them.

Also major on personality traits/behaviours that you consider are required to do the job, not just technical acumen. Mark Edwards, operations director of the engineering division of specialist recruitment agency, Machtech, reckons there is an increased focus on competency-based questions that look for both behaviours and team fit.

“Engineers who aren’t used to demonstrating their behaviours outside of the technical functionality of the job find these difficult,” he explains. “The most challenging questions tend to be contra-indicator competency based questions that seek out negative behaviours. It’s always uncomfortable for candidates to discuss something that they did wrong or are not competent in. However, it’s important to realise that employers want to hear about these difficult situations you’ve found yourself in – as how you coped with this situation says a lot about you.”

What are your weaknesses?

As a young professional, the interviewer will not expect you to be the finished article so don’t be afraid to acknowledge any skills gaps or experience but do demonstrate that you understand how these can be filled. Also avoid dwelling on any downsides and aim to turn any perceived personality flaws into positives. Stubbornness, for instance, could be better described as being focused or determined.

“What is your biggest weakness is a simple question but it can turn an interview on its head,” says Edwards. “Candidates often go into interviews prepared to sell themselves and keep the focus away from any weaknesses so interviews using this simple question can put them on the spot. Answers can range from the worst type: ‘I don’t have any’ to a candidate panicking and reeling off too many.”

Why should we give you this job?

Try to go beyond merely listing skills and talents. During your preparation, think about how you can add value and even bring the organisation competitive edge. If you’ve undertaken thorough research on the company, you will know its mission and aims so try to align your answer with these. If for instance the company seeks to champion innovation provide evidence of your creative thinking; or perhaps it wants to break into international markets so formulate a view on how they might achieve this.

How would you deal with a difficult person or situation?

Answering this can be difficult for those who lack work experience but as an alternative recall a difficult situation you dealt with while working as part of a team on a college project. In such circumstances, Edwards recommends using the technique called STAR: situation, task, action and result.

“This will enable the candidate to make sure they answer the question in a full and proper manner, whilst demonstrating a full understanding of the problem they faced,” he says. “It’s important to avoid use of the word ‘we’ when answering these questions, as the interviewer will be looking for what you did and not what the team did.”

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