Peering Beyond The Interview Veil: Decoding The Message Behind Common Job Interview Questions

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John M. O’Connor (Career Pro Inc.) is a multi-year career coach, outplacement and career services leader based in North Carolina. 

Woman Being Interviewed
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Perfecting answers to the toughest job interview questions seems to be on nearly everyone’s career to-do list. Job seekers often request that we at Career Pro Inc. perform practice interviews with them. When I do, they often bring in lists of questions like the following:

• 12 Tough Interview Questions and Answers

• Tough Job Interview Questions and the Best Answers

• Top 20 Tough Interview Questions (Example Answers Included)

That’s when I like to turn the tables on them and pull back the curtain to peer beyond the veil of the obvious answers. I ask: “How about if we try looking a little deeper at these questions?”

I explain to them that in order to prep for interviews, of course I want them to practice answering questions, but I also want them to begin thinking about why the interviewer is asking certain questions. Close-ended questions like “Where did you go to college?” may not hide ulterior motives and hidden questions but a lot of interview questions do.

Remember it is often how you answer any interview question and not just what you say. Use a little panache, a bit of creativity and insight to advance beyond the typical response. Interviews should be viewed as 10% what questions you are asked and 90% how you respond to those questions.

Here are a few of my thoughts on peeling back the disguises from the toughest interview questions and peering beyond the question itself.

Behavioral Question #1: Describe a situation in which you failed. 

Translation: How honest can you be with me now and how do you handle failure but thrive?

Strategy Recommendation: Don’t fess up to a recent failure and end it with, I guess that’s why they eventually let me go. Okay, I know you won’t do that, but I do recommend you fall on your sword and admit to a real setback. But make it a while ago. Caught unprepared, many interviewees either fess up to recent mistakes or avoid admitting to failure. Both of those are usually no-goes.

Most interviewers want you to demonstrate humility. They want you to show your ability to handle a setback and come back strong. In general, it’s better to reference an older mistake or even a rookie or early career mess-up. Then you talk about what you learned and how you came back stronger and better than ever as you overcame this longer ago error. Give your interviewer the opportunity to see how your perspective shifted over time and how you used that failure as a learning experience. However, if your failure was recent or you avoid this question? Not good. This question also offers the interviewer insight into your recent past and whether or not you will speak negatively about your current or former employer. Don’t do that. Instead, find a way to showcase your imperfections and how you lead yourself and others through mistakes.

Question #2: Why are you interested in our company?

Translation: Have you really gone beyond the typical research on our company and this role or do you just have rudimentary knowledge like everyone else?

Strategy Recommendation: Don’t start your first sentence this way, “I saw on your website that you…” Your interviewer may be saying in their head, “Are you kidding me with this response?” A quality interviewer instantly knows that you did very little to research the role, the company, the people and the mission. You have to go much, much deeper if you want to score the big points here. A better response to this question might sound like, “One of the compelling takeaways from your annual meeting was that your focus now is on…” A recruiter on the receiving end of this answer is likely saying in their mind: “Okay, this person went deeper and has interacted with more insight than anyone I have talked to.” You know the slogans and the other public consumption info about the organization, but you have also dug deeper. Dig deeper and talk about their products and weave your research into every interview answer. Remind them that they are not just dealing with a jobseeker but rather a professional who does their below-the-surface homework every single time, on every single assignment. 

Question #3: Why should we hire you?

Translation: Do you really understand your value proposition to us? 

Strategy Recommendation: Early-career people need to demonstrate their experience and capabilities. Mid-career top performers need to show that this is the time and place for their candidacy. If you are late-career or an executive, this can be seen as an insulting question if presented by a younger, less accomplished interviewer. Above all, and in every age group or generational group, do not — and I repeat, do not — take this question too personally or as an affront.

This question tests your ability to handle a confrontational, competitive question. It offers you an opportunity to really dig into the way you make a difference to others in a positive way — peers, subordinates, senior leaders, vendors and clients. As you know, your stories need to show that your rising tide raises all ships. Those answers should be given in a compelling story form.

Don’t let your Google-reviewed or slick-sounding interview answers distract you from doing your own homework and creating your own original, deeper answers. Don’t try to mimic others in your quest to market the most important product you have: You. Make the interview about them, their needs, their pains and show your interview sophistication by unveiling that their most powerful product will be you.


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John M. O'Connor

John M. O’Connor

John M. O’Connor (Career Pro Inc.) is a multi-year career coach, outplacement and career services leader based in North Carolina. Read John M. O’Connor’s full executive profile here. Read Less