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by Vault Careers | September 26, 2016


No matter how hard you practice interviewing or how long you prepare, chances are you'll face questions in any interview that you didn't expect. Although this might not bring you much comfort, the good thing is there are several things you can do before and during an interview that will allow you to better handle these situations. To that end, below are several tips that will help you deal with difficult interview questions.

1. Bring an extra copy of your résumé—for yourself

To your interview, take extra copies of your résumé: one for each of your interviewers, as well as one for yourself. By having your résumé in front of you, you'll have an instant reminder of your most impressive accomplishments, as well as a general reference when it comes to dates or other specifics you may draw a blank on when feeling under pressure from a tough question. Many interviewers will also refer to your résumé as they proceed through the interview. When you have it right in front of you, you can follow along and not miss a step.

2. Bring paper and pen

Perhaps the most important tools you will take with you to an interview is a notepad and pen. Use these to take notes throughout the interview, both for reference during the process and afterwards as you compose your follow-up correspondence. As the interview progresses, you can make notes of points you want to return to or cover at some point in the interview, and also make a list of questions for the interviewer. At some point, during or toward the end of the interview, you will be asked if you have questions about the position, company, or anything that was (or was not) covered during the interview. It is possible that questions you had prepared in advance were answered during the interview, but new questions are likely to arise. Jotting them down will ensure you don't forget.  

And perhaps one of the most useful functions for the notepad is that you can use it as both your cheat sheet and point of focus when answering questions. When faced with a difficult question, take a moment to pause, look at your pad (and steal a glimpse of your notes), and then answer the question. This will help you by allowing you to review your notes, as well as give you a focal point, rather than looking around nervously or staring blankly at the interviewer while you collect your thoughts. Take that moment to reflect (a sign that you're taking time to think rather than simply blurting out an answer), take a breath, and proceed with your response.

3. Answer a question with a question

Another good technique is to answer a tough question with another question. If you'd like clarification, ask. If the question isn't all that tough but merely vague (such as "Tell me about yourself"), you can ask if the interviewer would like to know about your academic background, employment background, or both. By returning a question to a question, you can buy yourself a few moments to prepare your answer.

4. Consider the motivation behind the question

When faced with a difficult question, consider what the real motivation is behind the question. If you get an oddball request like “What kind of animal are you?” the reason behind the question likely has nothing to do with the interviewer really wanting to know what type of animal you want to be. Instead, what they may be looking for is more along the lines of whether or not you are aggressive, which might be the impression if your answer is “a great white shark,” or lazy if you answer “a sloth.” Granted, these are exaggerated answers, but they make the point. Some questions are designed to get at underlying, less obvious issues. Stress questions are also designed to create just that—stress. How you handle the questions can give the interviewers a sense of how you might handle—or crumble under—stress on the job.

When faced with tough questions, then, try to get a sense of what the interviewer really wants to know. If they ask how much overtime you put in at your last position, they may be curious to know if you're simply looking for a paycheck, or if you're devoted to the company and willing to put in some extra time when needed. Similarly, if you're always working overtime, they may have concerns about work/life balance and if you'll burn out. If you're asked about your previous boss, the interviewer may be testing you to see if you will bad mouth your previous manager and company, or if you discuss that person by showing respect. How you discuss your previous employer provides a sense of what you might say about your new one. If you badmouth your last employer, you create a negative impression, even if the situation was genuinely negative. Rather than focusing on the negative, then, state what you learned from the position and how those experiences prepared you for the next step—which involves continual professional growth in the new position.

5. Keep a sense of humor

What do you do if you can't answer a question or prompt? This depends in part on the situation. If you're asked a question and don't have an immediate answer, or draw a blank, do your best to take the situation lightly and ask if you can return to that question. That way, you have some time to consider the question. However, you also run the risk of not fully addressing follow-up questions if you are too distracted trying to come up with an answer. When you're stumped, aim to keep a lighthearted approach. If you're completely stressed out over the question, the interviewer may feel that you won't be able to handle stress on the job. If possible, laugh a little, and try a casual response such as, “That is a good question. Let me think on it for a bit.” In doing so, you avoid awkward silence, and you can potentially keep the interview moving forward.

If you're able to maintain a sense of humor and remain conversational, you'll make a more positive impression, even if you're unable to respond to a particularly difficult question. This shows that you handle pressure, are human, and can deal with challenges. Even if you can't answer the questions one hundred percent, if you're likeable, interviewers will take notice. They, like you, want to work with someone who's personable. This can be more important than knowledge or experience, as you'll be working together on a daily basis. When you can build rapport and laugh at yourself, even when stumped, you show that you're someone others can relate to. Everyone has their tough moments; it's how you deal with those moments that demonstrate who you really are.

This post was adapted from the new Vault Guide to Resumes and Job-Hunting Skills.

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