With unemployment still hovering at staggering levels, this is a great time to brush up on your interviewing skills. Recruiters today are inundated with resumés that all look alike and have a tough time picking the right candidate when so many people are applying for the same jobs. So, how do you stand out? You ace the interview. Simple, right?
There are tons of resources on the web that cover how to put your best foot forward in an interview, but let’s get specific and talk about some of the really tough interview questions.
Recent surveys have reported that employers believe there is a large gap between the critical thinking skills in the applicant pool and those needed to be successful on the job. To stand out from the crowd, you must demonstrate your critical thinking skills at every opportunity including your answers to tough interview questions.
Here are a few examples:
1) “Tell me about a time when you had to make a difficult decision. What was it? How did you handle it, and what would you do differently if you were faced with the same situation today?”
In this question, the interviewer is not really concerned with the decision per se, but how you approached the situation. Did you take time to think it through or did you select the easiest option? Did you research alternatives? Did you seek out advice from knowledgeable sources? How/when did you draw a conclusion? Have you taken time to reflect on the situation since then?
To ace this interview question, you want to show that you use a structured methodology to made decisions objectively. For example, you might say “I happen to study the RED Model of Critical Thinking, so when I’m faced with a decision such as (and name a decision you’ve made in the past), I start by Recognizing my own Assumptions. I evaluate where I may be cognitively biased or predisposed to believe a certain way. In this situation, I realized that… (and reveal some of your own personal biases as part of the decision). Then, I Evaluated the Arguments. I weighed the pros/cons, evaluated the risks/benefits, examined the time allowed for me to ponder the situation, and gathered more information from reliable and unbiased sources. Finally, as I came to a Conclusion, I thought about the long-term impact of my decision and how it would affect others. Even after I made my decision, I took time to reflect on the situation and monitored the results to see where my thinking was correct and identify my blind spots.”
This answer reflects the fact that you are able to break down a tough situation into manageable steps, think objectively, reflect, and learn from your own experiences.
2) “Tell me about a time when you made a mistake. What went wrong and how would you handle the situation differently today?”
This question is exceedingly difficult because in an interview you are trying to impress the interviewer. Talking about mistakes seems counter intuitive. However, the worst possible answer to this question is “I can’t think of any mistakes that I have made.” Everyone makes mistakes…every single day. What matters is how you address that mistake. Here’s a great answer I once heard from someone seeking a facilities job.
“I received a call that I was needed urgently in another part of the building to resolve a conference room double-booking issue. While I was on my way to that building, I walked through the warehouse and noticed someone had spilled a soda on the floor but did not clean it up. Since the original call was noted as “urgent” I kept walking and resolved the conference room situation. When I got back to the spill site, someone had slipped and hurt themselves. In the moment, I had mis-perceived the urgency of the conference room situation in comparison to the safety risk presented in the warehouse. No one was in danger in the conference room mix-up, however I knew that any delay would result in frustration of high-ranking executives. In the end, though, the safety of our employees should have been more important. If I could do it all again, at a minimum, I would have stopped and placed a caution sign over the spillage and asked a nearby employee to mop up the soda. Or I could have taken a few extra minutes to clean the spill myself and then explained to the frustrated executives that the safety of our employees is my first priority, and that I came as soon as I could. From this mistake, I learned to more quickly perform a risk/benefit analysis and prioritize the requests I receive based on the core values of the company.”
This was a great answer because she acknowledged where she made the mistake, identified an alternative resolution, and showed that her reflection on the incident will help her avoid the same mistake in the future.
3) “Tell me about yourself.”
I think that of all the loathesome interview questions in the world, this ranks highest in my book. This open-ended, generic question often leads to an awkward answer. People stumble because they’re not sure if they should give an executive summary of their resume, share personal characteristics, or talk about their hobbies.
My suggestion is to prepare 3 bullet points about yourself:
1) Your greatest personal asset. Based on the current research, I would ALWAYS say that my greatest skill is critical thinking because the demand for critical thinking skills in the workplace is so strong. However, you have to back that up with truthful information. You could explain how you subscribe to a Critical Thinking methodology (such as the RED Model of Critical Thinking) and how you apply it in every day life situations in order to continue building your skill set. Give examples of how your critical thinking skills have helped you make decisions, solve problems, and innovate in the past.
2) Talk about your career aspirations. Give the interviewer an overview of where you’ve been in your career and what actions you are taking to prepare for the next step. Share the goals you have set for yourself and how this particular job works into that overall long-term career plan.
3) Share something more personal that the interviewer will remember. For instance, if you’ve won any awards at work this would be a great time to mention them. You could also share something you do in your free time. For instance, I might mention that I consider myself a cupcake connoisseur. Before I travel to any city, I research the local bakeries and try to taste the finest cupcakes each region has to offer. Then again, I will probably stick out in that recruiter’s mind as “That cupcake girl.” But that would be fine with me….
The key to acing this question is to prepare. The awkward silence and rambling that you will experience if you don’t have a few bullet points in mind will linger with you for the rest of the interview. Be prepared and you will find that the interviewer will quickly dive into the real interview questions.
The big key to acing any interview is showing that your basic skills are transferable. Focus on the “how/why” behind the “what.” It’s not “what” you did in your last job, but how you did it that matters. Are you a former Air Force pilot who is looking for a managerial position? Then instead of focusing on your flight times, focus on how you had to be an agile problem solver and handle an immense amount of incoming information to make rapid decisions. Those skills matter on every job.
If you focus on your basic skills, you can never go wrong.
What is the toughest interview question you’ve ever experienced?
To learn more about why critical thinking matters in the workplace, download the Critical Thinking Means Business white paper here.