Job interviews used to be largely predictable affairs. “Where did you study?”, “What are your qualifications?”, “What sort of skills do you have to offer?”. If you walked in prepared, you could practically guarantee the position was yours. But these days, savvy interviewers have an arsenal of tricks up their sleeves - sneaky questions that force you to lay bare your soul and expose your embarrassing inadequacies. Often open-ended and creative, these “booby traps” could fell even the most unflappable candidates.
Whether it’s a physical or digital interview, it still helps to be fully prepared. Here’s how to handle these dreaded trick questions.
1. What is your biggest weakness? This is like walking into a minefield. On the surface this question is asking candidates the opposite of what they’ve been doing so far (selling themselves) and to offer some honest selfflagellation. There are innumerable pitfalls at play here but they’re easily avoided, says Denise Taylor, a career psychologist and the author of Find Work At 50+. “First of all, an interview isn’t a therapy session so don’t be too honest or broad,” she says. “Secondly, don’t say something that’s clichéd and possibly offputting like, ‘I don’t suffer fools gladly’ or ‘I work too hard’.
The best option is instead to think of something that isn’t directly relevant to the job description and offer that. “So if something is organisational don’t say, ‘I struggle to organise my time’ – though you’d be surprised how often people jump to the worst thing to say.” What about injecting a dash of humour by saying something like, “Sushi”? “You can do that, but a good interviewer won’t let you take control and move the question away from work. If you want to be funny have something serious in reserve in case they ask you again.
2. How much money do you currently earn? It’s your chance to potentially dictate your new salary, but if you name a huge figure they may not be able to afford you. Be ambitious, while keeping things realistic – and, importantly, vague, Taylor says. “You want to give a bit of leeway so they have to use their imagination, so tell them your salary is based on a number of things, with bonuses and addons and what have you.
“You could even refuse gently by saying you’d rather speak about salaries when you know a little more about the job. But if you have to give figures go a little higher and keep it vague. If your monthly salary is in the low 20 000s, tell them it’s ‘around 30 000’. Not a lie but it will give them food for thought, she adds.”
3. Where would you ideally like to work? The truthful answer in almost all cases isn’t where you’re currently being inter viewed. Fortunately, everybody in the room knows that so they’re just testing how you answer it. “We’re not robots so you need to generate a bit of humour and personality in this one. You wouldn’t have applied if you didn’t think the role was ideal (true or not), so you could see yourself succeeding in that company for the foreseeable future,” Taylor says. Don’t mention you’d far rather work down the road at a competitor, although knowledge of and enthusiasm for the sector are appealing. You’d also be wise to avoid saying you despise all work or mentioning a terrorist group.
4. Where do you see yourself in five years? Similar to the previous one but this time testing the speed and scale of your ambition. Think about where you are now, then go back to 2011. In a job interview then you probably didn’t imagine this. So don’t panic if you haven’t got a clue, Taylor says. “Tell them broadly that you want to make a success of this role and see where it might lead. You have no idea what will happen in five years – it’s a long time – so don’t give anything definite and rather say your focus is on the next two to three years (a good length of time to informally commit to), which will point to the direction you should go.” But whatever you do, don’t tell them you want to be in their seat. “It sounds awful.”
5. If you were an animal what would you be? “This is so, so common,” Taylor says. “And yet it’s asked only by those David Brenttype characters [portrayed by Ricky Gervais in The Office]. To be honest it’s a bit of a red flag – do you really want to work for someone who thinks that’s a helpful question? “But anything will do. The trick is justifying it with some applicable attributes. They probably aren’t even listening to that.”
6. I notice there are gaps in your CV – why is that? Periods of unemployment can happen for many reasons but it’s not easy to avoid the cynical assumptions of your interviewer. “They might just want to know. Sometimes there might have been a payoff where you worked on a personal project or you were forced to take time off,” Taylor says. “If you’re young, though, this question is definitely accusatory – they want to know you’ve done something rather than just waited for a particular job to come up. “Expand your temporary assignments to fill those gaps. Otherwise you’ll need a very good reason and could easily flounder.”
7. You seem overqualified and might get bored here. What do you think about that? You probably think, “Gosh, I’m flattered and patronised by your question.” But don’t be. It’s just another one designed to knock you off your prepared perch. “This one can be particularly challenging if it catches you offguard,” Taylor says, “but there are three key components to answering it well: 1) stating how your experience brings added value to the position; 2) recognising the aspects of the role you’ll need to learn and get up to speed on; and 3) showing your enthusiasm for taking this role (for example, enthusiasm for adding unique value and learning something new).”
8. Describe yourself in three words Very. Annoying. Question. It’s another one where a limited amount of originality is wanted. Too confident and annoying (saying “Your. Next. Hire” or “Handsome. Smart. Successful”) or too weird (“Carrot. Skulduggery. Wherefore”) and you’ll irritate. But too boring (“Ambitious. Resourceful. Team player”) and you’ll seem unimaginative.
“The secret is to use a combination of adjectives the company would want in all strong candidates as well as those that are unique selling points specific to you,” Taylor says. The firm might have words it repeats throughout its marketing that you could use for inspiration, while more creative synonyms for the hackneyed responses might freshen those up. “Be careful not to come across as making too much of a ‘hard sell’ when doing this, and that what you say to explain your words is likely not going to be replicated by other candidates who choose the same adjectives.” Clear. As. Mud? Time to crack open a thesaurus, perhaps.