You got your suit dry-cleaned. You know your resume backwards and forwards and you have an anecdote at the ready for every one of your accomplishments. You’re poised. You’re prepared. You’re ready to walk into an interview and absolutely crush it.
Handling the Tough Questions
If you’ve ever stumbled and stammered out some vague non-answer based on what you think the interviewer wants to hear, then you’re not alone. The things that will trip you up most in an interview aren’t the objective questions. You can master those and give definitive answers. What interviewees truly dread are the subjective questions, those questions not about your skills and experiences, but about you.
What interviewees truly dread are the subjective questions, those questions not about your skills and experiences, but about you.
Remember, determining your ability to actually do the job is only part of the interview. The other part is deciding if you’re someone the hiring manager wants to work with. Since he or she will be spending upwards of 40 hours a week with you, they need to make sure you’re a good cultural fit for the company, as well as a decent human being.
1. “So, tell me about yourself”
This one’s a major cliche, but it’s almost guaranteed to come up in every interview you have. It may be phrased somewhat differently (“So, tell me your story”), but the principle is the same. This is a lazy way for an interviewer to get you to talk about yourself without asking a specific question. What they’re looking for here isn’t a monologue on your hopes and dreams. They’re looking for a quick, snappy description of who you are as a human and how that intersects with the job you’re interviewing for. How you field this question may make all the difference; the hiring manager is probably interviewing five or six other people with your same skill set, so choosing how you differentiate yourself from the pack is critical.
How to prepare
Make a list of three to five things you want an interviewer to know about you. They should reveal something about your personality (but not too much) and give an indication that you’re a great person to work with. Don’t be too quirky, but don’t be too boring, either. “I’m really into Finnish noise rock” is out, but so is, “I’m an avid golfer.” Once you’ve nailed those three to five things, try rolling them up into a tight narrative like this:
“I was always very interested in art, and I dabbled in painting and photography. When I got to college, I became fascinated with the way people interact with art and design. That led me down the graphic design path, and from there I worked my way up the agency side for several years. These days, I’m really interested in how great design leads users through a digital experience. I still paint, though.”
Short. Punchy. Concise. It gives a snapshot of your background and humanizes you all at the same time.
2. “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
The age-old conundrum: do you brown-nose or do you answer honestly? Do you go with “I see myself being very devoted to your organization, striving to add value daily, and hopefully working my way up,” or do you say something more ambitious, like “I’d love to move up to a director-level position by then, and I think leveraging what I’ll learn in your organization can help me do that?”
If you’re worrying over what the hiring manager wants to hear, stop. All they want to hear is the truth. They’ll see right through any piece of BS you toss out because they’ve heard it all a thousand times. They know you’re not going to retire from their company. It’s likely — especially in digital — that the hiring manager assumes you’ll stick around for two or three years and then move on to the next challenge. That doesn’t make you flighty or opportunistic; it makes you normal. The hiring manager understands that, because he or she is likely doing the same thing.
How to prepare
This one’s pretty simple. Do some serious introspection and come up with where you’d actually like to be in five years. Then, develop a narrative that gets you there by making great contributions at the company you’re interviewing for. Show the interviewer how their company fits into your master plan with something like this:
“I see myself as a VP of Product at a small or mid-size start-up with a focus on mobile. Your company is one of the leading innovators in mobile right now, so I think it’s the perfect place for me to get the experience I need to move to that next level.”
Remember: there’s nothing wrong with ambition. The hiring manager is ambitious. That’s how he or she got to be the hiring manager. They want to hire ambitious people, because ambitious people are smart and driven. Just make sure your ambition involves making a serious contribution to their company along the way.
3. “What’s your biggest weakness?”
The granddaddy of them all. It might be phrased differently (“Where are your gaps?”), but it’s definitely coming. This question is a great way for an interviewer to separate the wheat from the chaff. Giving horribly trite answers like, “I’m just too dedicated to my job” or “I get too invested in my projects and neglect my personal life” are a great way to exclude yourself from the next round. Just like the question above, interviewers will spot your BS in a heartbeat. They may even call you on it. Also like the question above, the best answer is the honest one.
How to prepare
Start by identifying the places where your resume looks light. If you’re strong on editorial but weak on the digital nuts and bolts like SEO or content management systems, be ready to own that. The interviewer has already spotted it, and you can help your chances by getting in front of it early. Share your weakness honestly, and then discuss how your other skills would compensate for it. Also, have a definite answer for how you’re addressing that weakness on your own.
“I’ve spent the last five years entrenched in managing editorial for digital and print, and having my head down in that space has really limited my exposure to SEO and social media. However, I’m confident that my ability to impart best practices around efficiency and time management for your staff can free up a resource to help me with those issues. I’m also taking a few classes at NYU to help close that gap. I’ve already learned a ton.”
These questions may seem like sweaty-palm nightmares now, but they’re really the easiest part of the interview process to prepare for. All you have to do is be honest. Sure, you need to be tactful and very strategic about your honesty, but at the root of it all is the simple truth. Decide what’s true for you on each of these questions, then spin it in a way that benefits the interviewer and the company. Don’t lie, hedge, or self-aggrandize. The interviewer will see through all of it.
Acing the interview can be tricky, and there’s still plenty to learn. We’ll share some foolproof interview strategies that will help you land the job.
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