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5 Job Interview Questions You Can't Afford to Get Wrong

The stakes are especially high for older workers facing ageism in the hiring process

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En español | The mass layoffs the coronavirus pandemic has caused have forced many people into the hunt for a new job. That includes older adults: More than 683,000 people age 55 and older stopped working during the four-week period covered by the March employment report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Landing a new job often involves an interview, a conversation that can induce anxiety at even the best of times. For older adults, who may not have had a job interview in years or may experience age discrimination in the hiring process, the stakes during a job interview might seem especially high.

But with preparation and an understanding of why an employer may be asking certain questions, you'll have a better shot at acing your next interview. Here are some strategies for responding to five common job interview questions you can't afford to answer wrong:


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1. How do you feel about being laid off from your previous job?

In the past, this question was one way interviewers would probe to figure out whether you had any problems on your previous job. That's less likely to be the case now, because it's widely recognized that millions of workers have lost their jobs through no fault of their own due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Still, even though the interviewer may be trying to be sympathetic, remember that this is a job interview, so put your best foot forward.

"Say that it is never easy when a decision is made for you, but sometimes it is the push you need to take the next step,” says Regina Rear-Connor, founder of Regina Recruits, a consulting firm that helps companies find workers. “Focus on what experience you gained at that last role and talk about what you bring to the table for the future employer."

2. Tell me about yourself.

It may be tempting to treat this question as the usual small talk you might make with someone you've just met. But the interviewer, who has to make the big decision on whom to offer the job, is likely to take everything you say very seriously. Be prepared for this common interview question.

Steer clear of personal details about your life or family — especially things that might reveal your age, such as stories about grandkids or references to when you graduated from school. Instead, focus on your work experience and why it's relevant to the job.

3. Where do you see yourself in five years?

Job seekers of all ages get asked this question, but it can take on a different meaning for older candidates. Employers sometimes think older applicants are planning to retire in a few years and are just trying to make some money until then. If they assume that's the case with you, they could be more likely to choose a younger candidate who they think might contribute to their company for many years to come.

"It is always good to talk about your willingness to keep up with your industry and skills, especially tech skills."

— Regina Rear-Connor, founder of Regina Recruits

"I would say something like, ‘Five years is a long time from now, but I see myself continuing to learn and grow while contributing to your organization,'” Rear-Connor says. “It is always good to talk about your willingness to keep up with your industry and skills, especially tech skills."

One way to get ready for this question is to look at some typical career paths connected to the job you're targeting. One place to check is O-Net, a helpful website sponsored by the federal Department of Labor. Enter the job title into the site's search function, click on the job, then scroll down to the section on “Related Occupations.” Another option is to go to LinkedIn, type the job title and company into the site's search box, then look at the profiles of people who have filled that position at the company. Once you know the skills and steps others have taken to grow through the job, you'll be able to answer this question with confidence.

4. You have so much experience. Are you sure you'll be comfortable in this position?

"Overqualified.” That label that has hindered many older adults when they apply for jobs, and that might be what the interviewer is thinking in asking you this question. According to one Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll, as many as one-third of people 50 and older who had looked for work had been told they were overqualified for the job.

Answer this question by offering a clear and concise explanation about why this new role would be a great opportunity for your career now.

"There are a few ways to go with this one, and one is to own up to the fact that in this stage of your career you are not looking to be CEO,” Rear-Connor says. “Emphasize that you are willing to get into the weeds and learn some new skills while bringing years of experience to a team."

Rather than talking about the challenges of finding a job that matches your level of experience, you might say the new position would enable you to use the skills you developed earlier in your career that helped you advance. The key is to convince the employer that you are genuinely excited about the job and not settling because you're having difficulty finding a higher-level job.

5. What are your salary expectations?

Talking about income with strangers is rarely comfortable, and it can be even more anxiety-inducing when you are wondering whether your answer might knock you out of the running for the job. Some employers might assume that older applicants will want a higher salary than younger candidates, or that older workers might be more expensive for the company's health care plan.

Your answer should assure the interviewer that you understand what the salary range for the job might be and redirect the conversation back toward the skills you can bring.

"I usually tell my older clients to avoid giving a number,” Rear-Connor says. “Talk about how what is most important to you is having the company's vision, mission and values of the organization align with yours. If they still push, I say give a range and tell them that includes total compensation,” with benefits, 401(k), options, salary and bonus.

On a related note, you should be aware that some states and cities recently have barred employers from asking about how much you made at your previous jobs. Advocates of these laws note that the question can trap some candidates — particularly women and racial minorities — into lower salaries over the course of their careers. If you're asked about your salary history prior to a job offer discussion, try to politely turn the focus back to the position you're interviewing for and your willingness to consider the salary it might offer.

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