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How do I answer that? Be prepared for difficult or unexpected questions from employers

Lynn Elesy

Careers Commentator
Keep your cool and ace those interview answers by knowing how to answer those difficult & unexpected questions in your graduate job interview.

Challenging graduate interview questions

Recruiters and interviewers love to ask questions that are designed to test your ability to think on your feet and apply background knowledge you might – or might not – have.

By thinking ahead you can better prepare for all types of questions that might appear anywhere in the application and interview process.

Here are some popular interview questions, with suggestions for ways of handling them and providing a response that showcases your talents, skills and composure

1. What's your biggest weakness?

  • What they are after? - The interviewer is looking for a demonstration of your self-awareness, analytical skills and ability to improve. This is not the time to sell yourself short or undervalue your abilities; it is an opportunity to show your abilities to adapt.
  • You could respond: “I sometimes let pressure get to me, but I have found ways to cope. I recently took a time management course at university, which has helped me better organise myself and reduced stress. I also have learned to focus on completing projects way ahead of deadlines”
  • But don’t say: “Uh, I don’t know. Um, I guess I have a big weakness for chocolate. No, wait! I get stressed under pressure when up against a tight deadline and tend to procrastinate.”

2. Why do you think you can do this job?

  • What they are after? - You are being asked to match your strengths to the skills needed to do the job. By doing background research, you will know what qualities the employer wants. Revisiting the competencies in the job descrip­tion is a good starting point. Use them to prepare specific examples that show you have the skills and work experience required.
  • You could respond: "I have the right combination of skills and experience. For example, the job description says you need people with project management skills who can work well in teams. I am involved in my university’s drama society. Last year we held a charity fundraiser dinner for the group, and as a member of the committee who ar­ranged the catering and venue, I had to oversee tasks and work with the team. We succeeded by raising enough to pay for new lighting for the stage “ Recruiters don’t just look for evidence of involvement in extracurricular activities; they want to gauge your effectiveness. Providing evidence that helps to quantify your contribution and impact will help you convince the employer that you’re the right graduate.
  • But don’t say: “Because I’m great! Seriously, I’m probably going to end up running the company, and everybody thinks I’m excellent.”

3. Have you ever had a bad experience with an employer?

  • What they are after? - This is a test of your ability to think on your feet and come up with a diplomatic answer. There are two possible strategies here. You could sidestep the question by saying something along the lines of “I always got on well with my employers, as I’m personable and a hard worker.” The recruiter may query your response, but that’s just a way of checking how you respond to pressure, so smile, be confident and stand your ground. But if you have had a bad experience, don’t incriminate yourself or attack your previous employer – answer in a way that shows your potential.
  • You could respond: “I wouldn’t describe this as a bad experience, but it was definitely challenging. Last year I had a summer job where my employer was suffering from ill health and was under a great deal of personal stress. I was able to step up and take over responsibility for running the café in her absence; I even increased the weekly take by five per cent.”
  • But don’t say: “Yes. I had a temp job over the summer and my boss was away a lot, which meant I was basically expected to do her job as well as mine, and I was completely overloaded with really boring, mundane tasks. I posted something about the situation on my Facebook page and got sacked.”

4. Provide an example of a time when you handled a major crisis

  • What they are after? The recruiter wants to know if you can handle pressure and what, if any, initiative you would take when faced with an unexpected problem?
  • You could respond: “During my gap year, I was stranded at the airport due to industrial action. I asked around the departure lounge to see if there were other passengers in the same position and then quickly researched other transport options. After finding one, I persuaded my fellow passengers that this was the best option available. I then arranged and organised payment for us all.” You have demonstrated that your common sense, forward planning, use of initiative, interpersonal skills and problem-solving abilities help you to manage tricky situations.
  • But don’t say: “During my gap year I totally ran out of money while I was abroad. Nightmare! I had to get my parents to wire me out some money to bail me out”.

Other common interview questions

Here are more frequently asked questions you might encounter during the application and interview process. Thinking about them now and preparing responses will put you ahead of the game.

  • Where do you see yourself in five years’ time? - The interviewer is looking for commitment to the job. Research the profession to find out what career progression you could realistically expect and prepare suitable responses. You can also focus on skills you would like to build in the future.
  • What are your strengths?Consider the qualities the particular job requires to frame your answer, and have examples ready to back up your statements.
  • Why do you want to work for us? - Be original. Don’t just rehash what you found on the company’s website – show off your in-depth research of the organisation, the market, its com­petitors and the products or services it provides and how it interests you.
  • What do you think you will like and dislike about this job?If you have carefully researched the company you should know what is expected, so adapt your experience and skills accordingly. When you mention anything you might dislike, keep your answers positive by explaining how you would work through any problems.
  • What is your greatest achievement? - Think of something you have done and how it helped you develop as an individual and provided you with new skills that would be an asset to the job or company.

Scenarios and curveballs

Expect the unexpected. You never know when you might get asked the type of questions below:

  • Sell me this pencil - This is a test of how well you think on your feet. Clue: don’t sell the pencil; sell its benefits such as making erasable marks on important documents.
  • What kind of wild animal are you? - Lion? Eagle? The interviewer is looking for quick and snappy thinking and also looking at how you view yourself. Focus on the positives and make sure qualities you mention align to the role you are interviewing for. Best to avoid cobra and scorpion.
  • Your CV looks a little boring - This deliberately provocative statement is an opportunity for you to justify why your experience and education is impressive, interesting and relevant to the job.
  • Rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 10Say “10” and you’re arrogant, say six or seven and it may seem that you lack confidence. The safest best is eight, and don’t forget to emphasise that you are always trying to improve yourself.