January 15, 2010

Looking at the hidden meaning of common interview questions

First of all, I apologize for not posting any new articles within the last month. I've been working on a new layout for the blog - one that makes it easier to navigate, find specific posts, and look at current job opportunities - and I'm excited to upload it this weekend.

Anyways, this morning, I came across an interesting article on MSN.ca Careers page, What Do Common Interview Questions Really Mean?. Written by a staff member at Robert Half International, the article discusses what the real meaning is behind some commonly asked interview questions.

Often, I'm asked why interviewers ask specific questions, as it's never really something that job seekers give much thought to. Yet it is vitally important because if you understand why they are asking specific questions, then you'll know what they are looking for - and then you'll know to highlight it if you've got it and downplay it if you don't.

And keep in mind that thinking about the real meaning of interview questions goes beyond the obvious topics I've discussed before - how to handle common, off-beat questions and what some of the hidden tricks employers use during interviews.

And so here is an excerpt from the article that I think is worth reading - and remembering during your next interview.


Question: "Why do you want to work here?"


Many people talk in vague terms about how they think they could excel in the role, why the job sounds appealing or what they admire most about the company. But hiring managers want you to cover more than the basics in your response.


What it really means: "How much do you know about this company, and why are you hoping to work here instead of for one of our competitors?"


When answering this question, mention specifics. You might note, for example, that you're excited by the firm's cutting-edge research, a recent merger or the company's corporate social-responsibility programs. A detailed response will tell the interviewer that you are interested in more than just a pay check. At the same time, showing that you've done your research lets the hiring manager know that you came prepared and are serious about the opportunity.


Question: "What are your strengths?"


Answers such as "I work well with others" or "I have a can-do attitude" may in fact be strengths, but many job candidates make the same type of statements, and a generic response will do little to distinguish you from other applicants.


What it really means: "How have you used your strengths to add value to your employer?"


The interviewer wants to know how the particular talents you bring to the table will benefit the firm if you're hired, so put your best qualities in context. Talk about how your strengths can help meet a prospective employer's specific needs. In this economy, many firms are trying to cut costs, for instance. Your experience negotiating vendor contracts, for instance, could be a boon to your chances.


Question: "What are your weaknesses?"


People usually try to list weaknesses that can actually be seen as strengths, such as "I'm too much of a perfectionist" or "I never say no when people ask for help." These types of answers can seem canned and could make the interviewer wonder what you're hiding.


What it really means: "How honest and self-aware are you?" and "How have you successfully dealt with a challenge in your career or adversity on the job?"


Everyone has weaknesses, but not everyone will admit to it. Employers look for workers who can recognize their own weaknesses and also take steps to overcome them. Show the hiring manager you can do both.


If one of your weaknesses is a fear of speaking in public, for example, you could point out how you had to speak in front of your executive team to present a project proposal. Although nerve-racking, the situation forced you to confront your weakness and take steps, such as first presenting at smaller meetings with your colleagues, to improve in this area prior to the big meeting. Since then, you've also joined Toastmasters International and continue to improve.


Question: "Would you rather work alone or in a team?"


This borders on being a trick question, because it's rare that someone would be required to just do one or the other in today's workplace.


What it really means: "Can you work with minimal direction?" and "Can you describe a time when you worked with a colleague or group to solve a workplace challenge?"


Managers seek individuals who can take the ball and run with it. They may not always have the time to walk you through a project step-by-step, so you need to be able to work autonomously and devise solutions on your own.


At the same time, you need to be able to work with individuals from different levels, departments, offices or even companies, so the hiring manager is trying to gauge how well you can collaborate with others. You might cite an instance when you led a project team, for instance, to improve your chances of securing the job offer.

Ultimately, as the article goes on to conclude, because hiring managers tend to interview many people for one position, if you know what exactly interviewers are trying to get at with specific questions, you put yourself in a more commanding position during the interview.

Granted, you cannot just have what I call "common stock and canned answers" - that is, answers that sound like you have rehearsed them for days.

And so while it's important to understand what is being asked and any hidden meanings the hiring manager might be trying to imply, it is also important that you stand out during the interview process.

As I've always said, for an interview, be prepared, be yourself, and most importantly, be unique - in a professional way though!

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