If you’re like most people, you’ve gone into your fair share of interviews feeling pretty good about yourself, only to be thrown off by a question or two you wish you had answered differently. Despite all that practice you did beforehand, you leave the meeting with a pit in your stomach.
As hard as this might be to believe, there are some things that hiring managers don’t actually expect (or want) the “perfect” answer to. Because, it turns out, not everything has a perfectly pre-scripted response option—such as these three common questions:
1. What Was Your Process for Solving That Problem You Just Described?
Here’s the thing—if you bring up a challenge you overcame during an interview, the hiring manager is probably going to want to know more about how you solved that problem. And in an ideal world, I bet you would want to say something like, “Well, we were losing a lot of money, so I built a new app that brought in a billion dollars, and everyone lived happily ever after.” The only problem? Most challenges are a lot more complicated than that, which makes the answer to this question a little dicey. And that’s perfectly fine.
The hiring manager’s looking for a willingness to dive into a problem, rather than for proof that you’re capable of solving the unsolvable. In past interviews, I often stumbled through answering this one because I was attempting to do so much at once—look like the smartest person in the room and make it obvious that I could replicate it on the fly. But the goal here is simple: Focus on getting the fact across that you’re not going to run away from even the most impossible challenge.
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2. Can You Tell Me About Something You Wish You Had Done Differently?
When it comes down to it, interviewers who ask this question know they’re about to make you very uncomfortable. Rehashing these details is an awkward exercise, and it’s clear that no matter how you spin it, you’ll be talking about something you didn’t do well. However, that doesn’t mean you’re always expected to have a perfectly manicured answer to this question. Quite the opposite, actually.
When I used to ask this question as a recruiter, it typically came right after I asked candidates to tell me about something they were proud of. Which I knew would be really, really jarring. I did this because I wanted to make sure that even great contenders were willing to be open about a mistake they made in the past. Interestingly enough, the overly-scripted answers told me two not-so-great things: that the candidate really didn’t want to talk about it and that he was possibly trying to hide something.
The best answers? Those usually came from candidates who were thrown off guard by this being my follow-up, but were willing to open up about what went wrong. This is not to say you shouldn’t prepare an answer for this question, but instead that you should make sure it’s a realistic example that doesn’t end with a groundbreaking lesson.
3. What Are Your Interests Outside of Work?
Anyone who’s asked this question might think something along the lines of, “Oh wow, this is an easy one, but wait—what if I like something that this hiring manager hates?” And as hard as this might be to believe, the truth is that the interviewer really just wants to know more about the things you do when you’re not at work. So don’t feel the need to say you’re interested in restoring old muscle cars just because the person you’re speaking with has pictures of his 1957 Corvette plastered all over his desk.
While most people won’t mind hearing that you’re into something they’re also passionate about (my boss and I are both long distance runners), they’re also not looking for it. All they should want to hear is what you’re actually interested in when you’re not at the office so they know you’re a nice, normal person who would be fun to work alongside. As long as you don’t go into a story about those long Friday nights at the bar, don’t be afraid to open up about yourself—even if that means owning up to the fact that you still collect comic books.
The kicker to all of these questions is that while you shouldn’t beat yourself up if you don’t sound like world’s most accomplished speaker, you should be prepared to answer them. However, you shouldn’t let a not-so-manicured answer make you worry you blew your chances. After all, the hiring manager knows you’re human and, more often than not, is looking for proof that you can think on your feet and get through awkward and uncomfortable situations with grace.
Photo of interview courtesy of Shutterstock.
Richard Moy is a Content Marketing Writer at Stack Overflow. He has spent the majority of his career in talent management, including a stint as a full-cycle recruiter and hiring manager. In addition to the career advice he contributes to The Muse, he also writes test prep and higher education marketing content for The Economist. Say hi on Twitter @rich_moy.More from this Author