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60-Second Answers to Tough Job Interview Questions

Smart, snappy responses to 6 you may be asked


Featured Expert
Featured Expert

(This article is adapted from 60 Seconds & You’re Hired! by Robin Ryan.)

There are four components to successfully answering job-interview questions:

  • Advance preparation
  • Giving short, concise, specific answers that never exceed 60 seconds
  • Demonstrating ability to perform the job
  • Exhibiting traits of the ideal worker persona

To help you with the first two components, below I’ve answered six tough, tricky questions you’ll likely encounter when applying for work.

Why did you leave your last job?

I guarantee you’ll be asked this. Good reasons to depart include wanting more challenge or growth opportunities, relocation, layoffs or reorganization or downsizing that affected your duties.

Discuss a skill you were weak in and then add how you’d taken a class and worked on mastering this skill and now it’s something you do quite well.

A typical answer might be, “The company went through a downsizing; that’s why I’m available.”

Another answer might be: “My current employer is small and I’ve gone as far as I can with their organization. I’m looking for a challenge that will really use my abilities and strengths so I can continue to grow and make a contribution.”

What is your greatest weakness?

Pick something that has nothing to do with your ability to accomplish the job. You could try to turn a weakness or fault into a positive, appealing trait, like this:

“Well, you know, I can be pretty type A when I’m working on a project. I just get so absorbed, I forget to look at the time. Before I know it, the time to leave has long gone by and I’m still there. I guess that’s a weakness.”

Try to choose something that’s not going to hurt your chances of getting hired.

Another approach is to discuss a skill you were weak in and then add how you’d taken a class and worked on mastering this skill and now it’s something you do quite well. Other acceptable responses include admitting you’re a workaholic, that you are a perfectionist or that you get impatient with your own performance sometimes are too hard on yourself if you make a mistake.

You have a lot of experience. Why would you want this lower-level job?

The employer fears you are overqualified and will get bored and want to leave the job quickly if he hires you. Or he may suspect that you are simply burned out and looking for an easy job now and won’t be productive.

Stress why this job fits you now. Talk about life changes, the need for more structure or a desire to make a long-term contribution.

Create a reasonable explanation. You must show not only that you can do the job but that you want to do it.

Why have you changed jobs so frequently?

Job-hopping has become more common as we have become a more mobile society, particularly with all the downsizing and failed businesses. But job-hopping is also a red-flag issue, something that really concerns an employer, especially when it takes months to learn the job.

Often the truth works best. If you have moved a lot, try:

“My husband’s position required us to move quite often. I’m eager to get my career on track and bring long-term contributions to my employer.”

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Or if the job changes came from obtaining better positions, you could say:

“Each position allowed me to learn new skills and every job was on a promotional path. Most have been with very small companies, where leaving was the only option for advancement. I’m now looking for a larger (or growing) organization where I can stay and make a long-term contribution.”

You’ve been unemployed for a while. Why haven’t you obtained a job before this? And what have you been doing?

Most job hunters underestimate the length of time the job-search process requires, so they take extended vacations or regroup because they are too drained by the layoff or fairing. If you’ve been unemployed for more than a year, you need a very good reason. An appropriate response might be:

“I did take some time to evaluate my career and focus the direction of my search. I took a few classes, to enhance my skills. I’ve been actively job hunting for several months now and am meeting with employers to find a position that will utilize my skills and allow me to be a contributing part of the company’s team.”

If you’ve been out of work more than six months, explain how you’ve used some of that time productively. It’s best to discuss a new skill you’ve learned. For example:

“I just completed Rosetta Stone’s Spanish course to help me on my job when I encounter Hispanic customers.”

Another approach might be to discuss how you stayed sharp by volunteering at a charity or for your professional association and then explain what you accomplished or what duties you performed when volunteering.

How old are you?

It is against the law to discriminate against an individual because of age, but that doesn’t stop some employers from asking illegal questions. When the employer asks how old you are, it’s because he or she thinks you may have lost the drive and are only looking for a paycheck.

You haven’t got much choice but to answer this question. In the case of one client in his early 50s who said almost every interviewer asked him if he still had the “fire in his belly,” he mentioned his strong track record, his ability to motivate his team members and how well he handled clients. He commented that he had recently implemented a new process at his job that saved the company a significant amount of money.

In other words, he showed that he’s innovative, has creative ideas and still has some drive left.

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