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Smashing answers to common interview questions

By Sunder Ramachandran
August 17, 2006 10:52 IST
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We have, in the past, tested your Interview Quotient through the five most asked interview questions and five knowledge based questions. Based on your feedback, we now have some more guidelines and smashing sample answers to common questions asked:

Question 1: So, tell us about yourself?

Undoubtedly the most frequently asked interview question, and one that interviewees have the most difficulty answering. Your answer should be in alignment with your career objective, which means you shouldn't respond with comments about your hobbies, spouse or extra-curricular activities.

1. Start with a brief introduction. Talk about skills that are key to the position applied for.
Sample: 'During my 2 years of experience as a sales executive, I have mastered the ability to prospect, generate business leads, and motivate my team members to reach targets.'

2. Provide a summary of your recent work history. Keep your response limited to your current experience. Don't go back more than 2 years.
Sample: 'Most recently, at The XYZ Corporation, I was challenged with turning around a stagnant territory that ranked last in sales. I developed an aggressive sales campaign that focused on winning new accounts and nurturing the existing client base. Within six months, my sales team and I were able to increase sales by 40 per cent.'

3. Tie your response to the needs of the organization. Demonstrate how your experience and skills are transferable to the open position.
Sample: 'I have learnt about the challenges your IT department is facing and my background in developing software for leading companies will add value.'

4. Ask an engaging question. By asking a question, you gain control of the interview. Doing so will alleviate the stress you may feel to perform.
Sample: 'What strategies are currently underway to reduce the employee turnover and improve morale?'

Question 2: What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?

Highlighting strengths and accomplishments: Use specific examples to highlight your accomplishments -- explicit numbers, results and outcomes. Generic words are meaningless unless backed by data. For example, instead of using the word 'significant', use a number or percentage instead.

Strengths that interviewers are looking for include:
. Committed: Talk about the times you may have sacrificed a vacation to complete an important project.
. Action-oriented: Quote an example from a past job where you drove the meeting, committee or project that was languishing. Or, when a deadline loomed and you came up with a way to reach the goal.
. Inquisitive/Curious: Show how curiosity has served you well in the last job. For example, when was the last time you knew there had to be a better way of performing a task, closing a particular deal or making a sale to a difficult client? How did your questioning of the situation find a solution?
. Long term approach: Talk about how you were able to see the broader consequences of a decision in your previous company. Your contribution provided a viewpoint that others had overlooked.

The one question candidates love to avoid is, "What is your greatest weakness?" Do not give superficial answers like "I'm a workaholic" or "I'm a perfectionist." These are boring and predictable. Interviewers can even reply to them with, "That doesn't sound like a weakness. Now why don't you tell me about a real weakness?" So, state a true weakness that doesn't have a major impact on your ability to do the job.
Sample -- If you are applying for a non-managerial role: 'In the past, I've had some trouble sharing responsibilities with others. I felt I could do things better and faster myself. This sometimes backfired because I'd end up with more than I could handle and the quality of my work would suffer. But I plan to take courses in time management and effective delegation.'

Or, 'I am weak in accounts and had a tough time when I was asked to work on a project with the finance team. I have enrolled in an online program on basic finance to overcome this.' (NOTE: You would not want to use this example for an accounting or finance position.)

Question 3: Why did you leave your last job?

If you left your last job under less-than-ideal circumstances, you probably dread this question. Here's how to handle it. Never lie. If you were fired, don't say you quit. A background check will reveal this lie easily. Don't say anything negative about your former boss, co-workers or company. Any negativity, frustration or anger will only reflect negatively on you.
Sample -- If you were fired for not adhering to a company policy: 'I was asked to leave for violating a company policy that I feel wasn't communicated to me clearly. I should have taken the responsibility to read all of the company policies and ask questions about those I didn't fully understand. That will be the first thing I do in my next job.'

Any employer would love to hear stories about how employees take responsibility for their actions and learn from their mistakes. Make sure they understand that what happened to cause you to leave your last job was the exception, not the rule. Provide references or letters of recommendation to verify that your job performance is above par.

Question 4: How would you……? (Problem solving question)

The interviewers aren't looking for a 'right' or 'wrong' answer to this one. They are more interested in understanding your thought process. Show your ability to think logically and demonstrate problem-solving capabilities by:
. Asking questions to confirm exactly what the interviewer is looking for.
. Explaining how you would collect the information and data required to develop a solution.
. Telling them how you'd use the information you gathered to develop and analyse alternative courses of action.
. Sharing your solution or recommendation, explaining how you feel it's the best option based on the information you were given.

So, go ahead and create a smashing impression. It's all about the right answers.

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-- Sunder is a training consultant and freelance writer based in New Delhi, who specialises in management, careers and work-life issues .

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Sunder Ramachandran