How to answer interview questions – part 1

There is a simple, three-step process to answering interview questions. These steps are:

  1. Identify the real question; what do the interviewers really want to know
  2. Answer the real question in the way that best shows how you match the criterion being assessed by the question, and
  3. Back up your answer with achievement statements. At least 50% of each answer should describe one or more specific achievements

Take the frequently asked question, ‘Tell me about yourself’. Step 1, what is the real question, what do they really want to know about you? Surely it is to know how you would fit into their team and to assess your motivation for the job.

Step 2, answer the question in the way that best shows how you match the criterion being assessed. Suppose you were applying for a marketing position, they will want to know how you are going to fit into their marketing team. Therefore, your answer may start something like this:

‘Well, I’ve had five years in marketing and I have really loved it. ’

Step 3, back up your answer with achievement statements.

‘Last year, they asked me to coordinate our stand at Agfest. I had a team of three people; we brainstormed ideas on how we could improve on the previous year’s display. We then worked together to create an interactive display that attracted a record number of visitors and resulted in a 23% increase in sales.’

Obviously, it’s easier to answer interview questions well if you have prepared the answers beforehand. How do you know what they are likely to ask? Well, there are a number of frequently asked questions and ‘Tell me about yourself’ is one of them. Then there are questions based on the selection criteria for the position. They are usually of three types:

  1. Knowledge
  2. ‘Tell us about a time when ’, and
  3. Hypothetical

A knowledge question might be something like this: ‘How would you define good communication skills in this sort of role?’ Use the three-step process. Step 1 is fairly obvious; they want to know whether you have the communication skills they need for the role you are applying for. Assuming that this is the marketing role, communication skills would be very important.

Step 2, answer the real question; ‘Communication is essential to effective marketing, not only to convey the benefits of our product to prospective customers but also to coordinate and motivate the team’.

Step 3, the achievement statement or statements;

‘I was talking to one of the management team at Flanagans last month. She told me that they had virtually committed to the Bender system. However, I told her about the advantages of the new Bolton-Turner and last week, they signed a contract worth over $1million to purchase our system.’

The ‘Tell-us-about-a-time-when’ type of question asks for 100% achievement statement so be prepared to tell them a good story. However, do not forget step 1; make sure that your story does indeed tell them about the skills and qualifications that they want to hear about.

A hypothetical question would probably start something like this:

What would you do if ?

and then the interviewer would go on to describe a situation.

Step 1: identify the real question; what is it that they are looking for? Hypothetical questions can assess loyalties, interpersonal skills and other ‘soft’ issues as well as technical knowledge.

Step 2, having clearly understood what the interviewers are seeking, give a brief outline of how you would act in that situation making sure that what you say is in line with the policies and priorities of the organisation.

Step 3, as soon as you can, say something like this:

I faced a similar situation last year when I was

and then go on to tell them a story about one of your relevant achievements. How you reacted in the past is actually much more convincing than trying to hypothesise when you don’t have all the facts of the fictional situation.

The next blog article will cover behavioural questions, especially those that ask for when a project you were responsible for went wrong.

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