The interview: Strategies for fielding common questions

The difference between a successful, job-landing interview and a humiliating experience often hinges on how prepared you are. Here's some sound advice on answering the interview questions you're likely to encounter.
Written by Lamont Adams, Contributor
As we all know, it's the interview that gets you the job. But for most of us, interviews are no cakewalk. Goofing up on an interview can not only cost you a job offer; in the worst-case scenario, it can also make you feel like a complete idiot.
It's helpful to know what an interviewer is after when he or she asks you one of those "interview questions" so that you can be prepared with a good "interview answer." To help you with this interview preparedness, I sought the advice of Builder career columnist Wade Mitchell, who's done more than his fair share of interviews. I asked him what goes through an interviewer's mind when asking common interview questions.

Caution: Minefield ahead!
During an interview, you'll probably be asked quite a few questions about your character. Mitchell calls character questions "landmine questions" because "the interviewer just wants to see if you are dumb enough to step on them." These questions can take many forms. Here are some examples of landmine character questions:

  • "Tell me about two of your weaknesses."
  • "Name one thing you'd most like to improve about yourself."
  • "What do you hate most?"
  • "If you wore a sign about one aspect of your personality, what would it say?"

Obviously, you should avoid mentioning anything like tardiness and absenteeism that might reflect badly on your employability when answering questions like these. You knew that already, right? However, even small things like having a hard time with criticism or not being a morning person could be held against you and should be avoided as well.
A good, time-honored strategy for handling questions like these is to pick a positive character flaw, something like "I tend to be a perfectionist." If you do share something less flattering about yourself, Mitchell suggests that you immediately follow up with something you have learned from your weakness and explain how you address it. Above all, don't try to be entertaining with your answers. You never know what the interviewer might find offensive.
"What is your reason for leaving your previous job?" is another question Mitchell labels as a landmine. He says that the interviewer asking any question like this is looking to discover two things about you:

  • How soon will you leave this job if we hire you?
  • How willing are you to air your employer's dirty laundry?

If the new job would constitute a step up the corporate ladder, you can say that here; ambition is good. Of course, you should handle any question about your former employer with care and never say anything negative about it, no matter how funny a story it makes. If you can't say anything nice, and you left because you simply couldn't stand another day there, Mitchell said the best answer is simply, "It was time to move on."
Some of the landmine questions will appear to be non sequiturs. "What would you do if you won the lottery?" would be one example. According to Mitchell, that's about your dedication to your job. Is being a developer your passion? Would you leave if more money came along? Even if you would, it could be a bad idea to admit it.

Finding out about you
At some point, the interview will move to areas directly related to the job you are interested in, and you'll be asked questions about your skills and experience. Being asked to rate yourself on technical skills is fairly common, and the temptation to exaggerate to make a good impression can be strong. Don't do it. Nobody wins when candidates get a job they are not qualified for. Be honest instead and try to justify your rating so the interviewer can get a good idea of what you know.
Oddly enough, the questions that Mitchell said he's seen a lot of developers trip over are the common ones that are asked during any interview. The most problematic ones go something like "Tell me about the nature of your work in your previous position" or "Tell me about a technical problem you had to solve and how you solved it."
Mitchell said that you have to use these questions as opportunities to spell out to the interviewer why you think you're qualified for the offered job and distinguish yourself from the other 50 or so candidates on the interview schedule. Show off a bit and be prepared with your answer before the interview. An answer like "I built an app that's a lot like the one you have here. Having accessed your customer interface via the Web, I can already see some ways I could improve it, as I had the same issues at my old job. In fact, I got a commendation letter for my work" will get you much farther than "Well, I developed a database for banks to use…so…I think I can do the job.”
A similar invitation for you to sell yourself is a question like "Why are you interested in working here?" This is where you prove that you've done your homework—and you did, didn't you? Show the interviewer that you know something about the organization and relate that to your desire to work there.
The questions themselves can tell you a lot
Some questions can give you useful information about the culture of the organization you are interviewing with. "How do you feel about ever-changing priorities and goals?" for example, tips you off that your responsibilities will often change. That can be a sign that the department is understaffed, that it's just very busy, or maybe even that it's a complete madhouse. Whatever the underlying reason, if you can't cope with that sort of situation, you should seriously reconsider your desire for the position.
If the subject of money comes up during your first interview, it could be a bad sign. Perhaps the company is desperate to hire staff due to turnovers so it's accelerating the process—which might mean that the working environment is bad. It could also be that the interviewer thinks you're under- or overqualified. At the very least, Mitchell warned, bringing up salary in the first interview is a protocol violation and should make you cautious.
A number of other questions are inappropriate and should not be asked during an interview. For instance:

  • "Do you have any children?"
  • "Tell me about your family background."
  • "Are you married?"

Such questions should set off definite alarm bells for you, Mitchell said. If you are asked one of these questions, he suggested that you say you would rather discuss your professional qualifications and leave it at that.

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