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Job Interview? Common Questions, Possible Answers

Why were you let go from your last job? And four other stumpers

Tough questions can come up in any job interview, but here are five that are typically asked—in some variation—plus some suggestions on how to answer them. It's helpful to practice your responses in advance with someone else so that you know just what you want to convey.

1. Why do you want to work for us? What interests you most about our company? If you haven't covered this in your pre-interview materials sent to the employer (you did send a cover letter, right?), this is your chance to jump in and show your enthusiasm. Talk up your top three or four skills and match them to the job. Tell them something you know about their company that really puts a fire in your belly. Show how your goals are compatible with theirs.

2. Tell me about yourself. This opened-ended statement allows candidates to choose what they want to impart about themselves. It might be nice to talk about a favorite hobby or where you were raised, but save that for another time. Give only information that will help an interviewer decide to hire you. A good trick is to pretend this is the only question you'll be asked, so decide what is the most important thing you want the interviewer to know about you and talk only about that.

3. What are your strengths and weaknesses? This clumsy question shows up in various forms and what's most interesting to interviewers is the "weakness" part. Interviewers don't much fall for the old trick of thinly veiling strength as a weakness (like "I'm a perfectionist"). Think seriously about an area where a little improvement could be made and talk about your actions or plans for working on it. The trick is to move on quickly to something more relevant about your candidacy. Another tip: Rephrase the question in your mind so that the word "weakness" means "something I can improve."

4. Why were you let go from your last job? Why did you quit? These questions aren't usually too much of a problem if you're looking to find a better opportunity. The rub comes when you left your last job under fishy circumstances. Then, you must take the bull by the horns and fess up to the facts. State your case without emotion or blame (never, ever speak poorly of a former boss) and show how you will or have corrected the problem. Even if you think you were not to blame, state what you learned and move on. Employers understand that mismatches occur and they won't judge you too harshly if you answer this question with grace and humility.

5. What salary do you have in mind? Any question about how much money you want to make will only be asked (by a good interviewer) if you are a serious candidate for the job. No sense wasting time on it if you are not. The trick here is to postpone any talk of salary until all other issues are resolved. If pressed early on, state a range rather than a single figure, so there's room for negotiation when you get that offer! 

Frances Bolles Haynes is coauthor (with Daniel Porot) of 101 Toughest Interview Questions.

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