How to answer open-ended interview questions

3/26/2018
By Arnie Fertig, Contributor 
 

You'll likely never know all the questions you'll encounter in a job interview, but you can be certain that no matter what kind of job you are looking for, you will encounter three specific probes.

At the beginning, you'll be asked something like, "Tell me about yourself," and at the end, any polite interviewer will inquire, "Do you have any questions for me?" And, somewhere in the middle, you'll be quizzed about your salary or overall compensation requirements.

Often, the reason why people interview poorly is that they think the interview is really about themselves rather than homing in on what the employer is looking for and presenting yourself in those terms.

At the beginning. The open-ended question, "Tell me about yourself" gives you room to either hang yourself at the beginning of the conversation or show yourself to be highly focused on the role you are seeking. The difference is all in how you interpret the question.

If you take it as an opportunity to share the whole chronology of your professional story, you are likely going to give lots of irrelevant information that will bore your interviewer to tears. You'll be prone to meander all over, hoping that something strikes the right chord. And you'll be wasting time that can be better spent to your advantage by getting into the heart of the interview.

Alternatively, you can interpret the question as "Who are you at this moment in time?" Skip a long prologue about your whole professional development.

Start with something like, "I see myself as a very competent [fill in the job title]. I have experience in A, B and C [include the key skills listed in the job description that you possess], and I've accomplished [insert some things you've actually done that are called for in the job description]. That's why I think the things I've done would pair well with your needs as I understand them at this point, and I'm thrilled to be here today to have this conversation." Full stop. Keep it short, sweet and highly focused. This way you present yourself as the answer to the company's problem.

Compensation. Almost all employers want to know your expectations up front, and you'll likely encounter this question at your first phone screening interview. The longer you can keep your options open, the better your chances for negotiating a higher salary.

The question is a minefield because early in the process, employers can tend to focus on who will be the cheapest employee to hire rather than who will be the best fit. Ask too much, and you can eliminate yourself. Ask too little and you can leave money on the table. If you provide a range, rest assured when the offer comes it will be at the lowest point on your range. Be hostile and refuse to answer, or play coy, and you'll create frustration for the interviewer and you risk being labeled as an uncooperative candidate.

Instead, try to reframe the question by acknowledging the employer's need to know if you and they are speaking in the same ballpark. You can suggest that the real reason you are having the conversation is to evaluate if the employer feels like you are a potentially good fit, and if you feel the company is a place where you will feel highly motivated to contribute. You can say, "I'm sure you agree that if this isn't a good fit, any number either of us give will be irrelevant. I understand that roles like this pay in the range of X, and this fits with my prior experience. But, of course, we can talk specifics when it makes sense to do so later in this process. Am I in the right ballpark?"

The questions you ask at the end say much about you. Sure, you want to know about the process, the timeline for an employer decision, when they want you to start and how many weeks of vacation you'll receive. But these are all the wrong questions to ask!

This is the time for you to show your motivation, and really learn more about the "real" job versus the formal job description. The killer question for you to raise is something along the lines of: "If I'm hired, what are the key benchmarks I have to hit in the first year to earn a stellar review?"

This way you force the employee to envision hiring you and parse through all the gibberish and identify the key objectives you need to reach. And, it shows you are not looking to come on board just for a paycheck, but rather because you want to rise to the top of the pack and show your real worth to the company.

Of course, there will be other questions specific to the skills and experience relevant for the position, and behavioral questions that seek to elicit information about you that an employer can use to judge your values, character and the degree of fit you have for the position overall. But if you are secure in the knowledge of how to reframe the key questions as means to show you are the answer to an employer's needs, you are expecting a reasonable salary and you aim to be a stellar achiever, you are well on your way to acing your interview!

Happy hunting!

 
 
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