How To Answer Interview Questions That Trip Everyone Up

5 tough job-related questions and how to respond like the boss that you are.

So you've seized an opportunity: you spotted a job you want, and you've taken the initiative. You wrote a killer cover letter, brushed up your resume and captured the attention of a potential employer. Congratulations, you proactive person, you!

Now comes the real test: the interview. In some respects, the interview process is a mutual feeling-out process. It's an opportunity for both the candidate and the interviewer to decide if the job is a good fit. But it's also a chance to showcase your real, on-the-job assets from your communication and research skills to your ability to think on your feet.

"The interview is an elimination process," Dr. Thomas J. Denham, a career counselor at Careers in Transition LLC, tells Monster.com. "The employer is trying to weed out those who are not the most worthy of the position."

In a way, the interview is an oral test—if you ace it, you will set yourself apart from the other candidates, but if you don't do your homework, you could find your resume in the rejection pile. Of course, there's no bulletproof way to know precisely which questions a potential employer will throw at you in the interview, but there are some ubiquitous (and tricky) ones you should prepare for. Arming yourself with some sharp answers ahead of time will give you the confidence to conquer any other questions that come your way. To help, we rounded up five eternal interview questions, along with expert advice on how to answer them. Study up, then go forth and land that job.

Tell me about yourself

This may seem like a softball question, but its vagueness can trip you up. Where do you start? What do they want to know beyond your resume? How do you sum up your experience without rambling on and on? Okay, deep breath.

Career coach Hallie Crawford suggests this question is merely an opportunity for potential employers to get to know a little more about you beyond your CV. "Keep in mind that they may have looked you up online and have your cover letter, so do your best not to just repeat something they have already read about you," she tells Fast Company. "Instead, is there a background story about how you got into your industry? Can you explain your unique selling proposition—why you are unique in your industry? Or, you could explain your top three values and why they are important to you."

It's important to anticipate the kind of information your interviewer is looking for, specifically, how your past experience and current interests relate to the position he or she is looking to fill.

"Think about the context from which the interviewer is asking the question, which is to say, you should tailor your answer to the particular role you want," AJ Aronstein, associate dean at Barnard College's Beyond Barnard tells Refinery29. "Tell them what you've done up to this point that makes you a good fit for the position and that should take no more than about 45 seconds to a minute." Short, sweet and to the point, got it?

Why Should We Hire You?

To prep for this question, you need to go back to the original job posting and reread the list of requirements. Find which ones reflect your skill set and prepare to elaborate with concrete examples from your past experiences.

The experts at job hub Indeed.com suggest throwing out some numbers whenever possible to support your case. "For example, if you're applying for a job as an accountant at a company that is looking for someone to streamline processes, you might explain that at your previous company, you implemented a new process for expense accounts that reduced time-to-reimbursement by 25%."

Once you've quantified your abilities, finish off by qualifying them. Is there a personal or professional asset you can bring to this role that others might not? Maybe it's your travels abroad, your volunteer experience, or your managerial success in your last job. Whatever it is, find something in your past that speaks to the job's primary requirements, and use it to suggest you're more than a qualified candidate, but a person who can bring added value to the company.

If you're stuck on what career aspect to highlight, job coach Thomas J. Denham suggests picking three to five notable successes listed on your resume and using them as bullet points in your response. "The notion is that past performance is always the best predictor of future performance," Denham tells Monster.com.

What Are Your Weaknesses?

Oh, the trickiest of trick questions. If you're too honest, you'll incriminate yourself. If you're inauthentic, you'll lose your audience. It's all about finding that sweet spot between vulnerability and strength. Nobody's perfect, we all make mistakes and interviewers know that. What they really want to see is your ability to assess your own performance, and turn potential weaknesses into strengths on the job.

In her book, 301 Answers to Tough Interview Questions, author Vicky Oliver provides one example of how to respond.

"I am extremely impatient. I expect my employees to prove themselves on the very first assignment. If they fail, my tendency is to stop delegating to them and start doing everything myself. To compensate for my own weakness, however, I have started to really prep my people on exactly what will be expected of them."

If you're still at a loss for what to say, Indeed.com has created a formula for answering this question that turns any stated negative into a positive. "First, state your weakness. Second, add additional context and a specific example or story of how this trait has emerged in your professional life. That context will give potential employers insight into your level of self-awareness and commitment to professional growth."

Why Did You Leave Your Last Job?

Maybe you had a bad experience at your last job, maybe you were laid off, or maybe you're still stuck in the worst job ever. Whatever the reason, you can be honest without being negative. "Remember that you want to avoid bashing your current or past employer and the company," Crawford tells Fast Company. "This question is designed to find out why you are looking for a new job. Instead of focusing on them, focus on you. Are you looking for more career growth than what is offered where you currently work? Or a more challenging position?"

Focus on the positive aspects of your last job, or how your role or the company inspired you to pursue greater opportunities like this one. (Flattery will get you everywhere.)

What are your salary requirements?

This question is a doozy. On the one hand, it's a sign the interview is going well—you're being taken seriously as a candidate and your interviewer is ready to talk rates. On the other hand, the stakes just got higher. If you haven't done your salary research, you could low-ball yourself or price yourself out of a position you really want. Moreover, you don't even know what range they're offering. So what do you do when an interviewer tosses you the salary question? Toss it back.

"The first person who mentions a number loses when it comes to negotiations," career coach Bianca J. Jackson tells the Washington Post. "So I would try to get a number from them first. Every position is budgeted, so I would flip the question back onto them: 'What have you budgeted for the role?'"

Even if you don't get a concrete response, you've proven yourself a shrewd negotiator who is intrigued by what the company can offer but in no way desperate. Of course, if you're pressed to provide a salary range, don't undersell yourself. Lean towards the higher end of your salary requirements, while still ensuring your potential employer that you're flexible because the job itself is so enticing.

The bottom line when prepping for a job interview is to do your homework. Study the job posting, tailor your experiences and assets to their hiring needs and sell yourself with confidence. If you can do all that, you'll be ready for any question that comes your way.

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