Job Interview Tips: How to Answer the Questions

Last Updated Jan 11, 2010 11:34 AM EST

After getting laid off from his health care operations job in New Jersey in January, Mark Williams was delighted to get called in for an interview with a major hospital system in March. His initial interview went well, and over the next four months, Williams met with everyone from HR to senior management to the CEO. All in all, he had nine interviews, and was told along the way that he was an "outstanding candidate." But in June, the 53-year-old Williams found out the job had gone to someone else.

“It felt as if the rug was pulled out from under me,” Williams says.

Unfortunately, Williams’ experience is far from unusual. The job interview process has become nasty and brutish, without the benefit of also being short. Knowing that you might be their only hire for a long time, managers do everything short of polygraph testing to make sure you’re the best person for the job. Multiple interviews, either conducted consecutively or in panels, have become the norm, while old-school “where do you see yourself in five years”-type questioning has given way to inquiries of the “what can you do for me right now” nature. And the whole process can take six months or more.

“It’s like entering a five-mile race, getting there, and then seeing it’s extended to eight miles, 10, and then 12 miles,” says David Lewis, CEO of Operations Inc., a human resources consulting firm.

It takes stamina and skills to navigate the new interview. So follow these five steps — and follow our Twitter feed, @InterviewGoofs, to read about actual interview miscues and gaffes encountered by recruiters and hiring managers.

1. Take the Screening Call Seriously

Overwhelmed HR departments have turned to pre-screening phone calls to reduce the number of candidates. Make no mistake: Your interview starts with that call. Unless you are completely ready, ask to reschedule.

“You have to be as prepared for this call as you would be for an in-person interview,” says Ellen Gordon Reeves, author of Can I Wear My Nose Ring to the Interview?, a guide to how to look for and land a job now. The good thing: This is an open-book test. Have your research, resume, and examples of your past accomplishments handy; some candidates keep their laptop open to the company’s Web site. Whatever you do, don’t be too casual. (Note to self: The words “awesome” and “totally” do not exist.)

2. Prepare to Run a Gantlet

In today’s interviewing process, you could be vetted by seven or eight people, sometimes all on the same day. Or you might face an Apprentice-style panel of interviewers, alone or accompanied by other interviewees. Multiple interviews increase stress, but thorough preparation and a smart strategy can help you get through them.

When you set up your first interview, request the names and titles of everyone you’ll be seeing and do your research on every one. For consecutive one-on-one meetings, maintain a consistent message across your interviews, and look for opportunities to refer back to comments and observations made by previous people you’ve spoken to, says Deborah Markus of Columbus Advisors, an executive search firm. Doing this will make you seem like a good listener who’s facile with new information.

For panel interviews, address your answer to the lead interviewer, but be sure to pan the room and make eye contact with everyone else as you answer each question. If you’re in a group interview, try to be the first to make your killer point, but don’t hog the airtime, advises Reeves. Give others their turn or you’ll come off as being too pushy.

And a quick practical note: A long day of multiple interviews may not include lunch, so pack an energy bar or two to snack on between rounds, suggests Mitch Wienick, CEO of Kelleher Associates, a career counseling firm.

3. Focus on How You Can Help the Company — Today

Odds are the first question you’ll be asked is, “Tell me a little about yourself.” But the question behind the question, according to Reeves, is: What about you can help me? You’d better have some ready responses.

One of the best strategies for answering interview questions is the STAR (situation, task, action, resolution) system. The idea is to demonstrate that you’ve successfully handled a variety of problems related to the job you’re interviewing for.

For example, according to Wienick, if you’re asked “What sort of things have you done to grow a company in the past?” you might respond “In my prior role as CEO (situation) of a company trying to turn itself around (task), I convinced the board that we needed to put together a small M&A team to explore acquiring other businesses (action). As a result, I was able to accelerate growth from 3 percent to 10 percent and profitability by 20 percent (resolution).”

If you’ve got 10-plus years of experience, mine your resume for at least a dozen detailed STARs (half that is probably enough if you’re less experienced). By the time you’ve brainstormed, framed, and rehearsed these examples, you should be able to pull out on-target answers for virtually every question that comes your way. To boost the impact of your examples, Mark Horstman, co-founder of Manager Tools, which offers career-related podcasts, suggests using the same material but starting with the bottom line: “Here was my result. Now let me tell you how I got there.”

4. Prove That You Fit In

Everyone is working longer hours under tighter deadlines. And no one wants to work with a diva or a downer. “One Internet CEO told me he wants to know if he would enjoy having a beer with the candidate at 11 p.m. after a long day at work,” says Martha Finney, co-author of, Unlock The Hidden Job Market: 6 Steps to a Successful Job Search When Times Are Tough.

Try to establish rapport with your interviewer within the first two to three minutes, perhaps through an award or other personal effect on your interviewer’s desk, or through something you’ve learned about them in your online research. Make sure your interest is genuine, though, or your interviewer will see right through it. One fund-raising professional saw on LinkedIn that his interviewer shared his own passion for classical music. “I made a mental note,” he says, and it was one of the first things he mentioned in the interview. He got the job.

Beyond content, your goal is to be animated, energetic, and above all, enthusiastic. You want the interview to feel like a satisfying and flowing conversation, not as if you are a batter, knocking short-answer balls back to the questioner, says career consultant Sarah Stamboulie. By conversing about the overlap between the interviewer’s needs and your skills, your paint yourself as a member of the team already.

Before you leave, don’t forget to state plainly that you want the job — even these days, it’s not a given. And if you’re feeling gutsy, go all-in and tell your interviewer, “I want an offer, and here’s why,” says Horstman. “In today’s market, you have no business ‘exploring’ anything,” he says. “Get an offer, then decide.”

5. Mind Your Manners

Common courtesy may have fallen by the wayside in many areas of life, but friendliness and good manners still make good business sense, especially when you’re one of the few to display them.

You’re going to meet a lot of gatekeepers — receptionists, assistants, etc. — along this lengthy path. These are deceptively influential people whose opinion of you, good or bad, can make a difference. Note their names and treat them with respect. Then when you call for a status report on your application or the best time to reach the manager, you’re likely to get an answer, says Reeves.

Thank-you notes are a given. Besides showing your appreciation, a note gives you a chance to restate your interest in the job and briefly cite your strengths for it. Send a thank-you email within 24 hours and mail a hand-written one by the next day.

Finally, it’s up to you to stay on top of the whole process. “It is a fallacy of the market to say it’s rude to keep pursuing,” says Horstman. He recommends leaving a cheerful voicemail once a week for the first four weeks, then every two weeks, despite whatever timetable you’ve been given. A simple one will suffice: “Hi Bob, I hope I’m still in the running. If I’m not, I’d love a call.”

And as the weeks go by, continue to check in periodically. “You could be the last man standing,” says Horstman.

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