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Anticipating Generic Interview Questions

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Interviewers frequently ask questions related to weaknesses. Sometimes the questions will be fairly direct: "What do you take to be your major weaknesses?" Or, "In what areas have you tended to get the lowest marks on your performance evaluations?" At other times, they will be somewhat more subtle and will come in the form of follow up questions related to incidents you have recounted. In any case, many interviewers will want to explore weaknesses for the obvious purpose of seeing whether you have any that might affect your performance significantly. Perhaps less obvious are underlying concerns about your honesty and your ability to see yourself objectively. Because of these underlying concerns, you should not try to be coy or evasive in supplying answers.

You may have heard the advice that when weaknesses come up in interviews, talk about a weakness that is really the flip side of a strength. "I'm something of a workaholic" or "Sometimes I have unrealistically high expectations of others because I demand so much of myself" are frequently given as examples of such weaknesses. Unless you are talking to an idiot, however, such replies are transparent as attempts to evade serious discussion of the issue. You do not, on the other hand, want to say something that will seriously jeopardize your chances for a job or that will suggest serious problems in the area of self confidence.

The best way to deal with questions about weaknesses is first to anticipate them don't be caught off guard when they come up. Second, when filling out your preparation sheet, give serious consideration to those areas in which you probably are a weak candidate for a given job compared with other possible candidates. Third, always restrict your discussion of weaknesses to those that are clearly job related and always talk about how you can (or have) compensated for them.

Anticipating questions and possible topics of discussion is an important part of preparing for interviews. Many books and articles give lists of frequently asked questions, and these can be helpful in your preparations. However, you will waste a great deal of time if you try to come up with brilliant answers to the questions on such lists because you will find that few interviewers will be obliging enough to ask any of them in the form for which you have prepared your answers. Also, you will probably have a tendency to script your answers and will either create unnecessary anxiety for yourself in interviews as you try to recall your script, or you will memorize the script with the result that your answers lack spontaneity and sound unnatural.

A better way to anticipate questions is to put yourself in the position of your interviewer. What would you want to know about candidates for a given position? Sit down and list 10 to 15 tough questions you would want to put to yourself if you were the interviewer. As you do so, bear in mind that interviewers often ask questions about major life decisions and transitions because the answers often reveal a great deal about a candidate's process of thinking and acting. They show how candidates have generated and analyzed alternatives, made important decisions, and implemented personal priorities. They reveal something about the candidate's tolerance for risk, ability to recover from setbacks, and capacity for learning from experience. Be sure, therefore, to review each of the major transitions in your work life, beginning with your choice of college. For each, recall what prompted the change, what alternatives you considered, and how and why you decided on the alternative you chose. Also, be prepared for questions designed to reveal how you work with others bosses, clients, subordinates, and colleagues.

You may also be asked questions aimed at assessing your technical knowledge or skills in specialized areas, especially in the second or third round of interviews, when you are likely to be talking with people in your area of expertise, rather than personnel representatives or general managers. My experience, however, is that most interviewees are amazed and chagrined at how little time is generally spent on technical questions.

They are often particularly anxious about such questions believing they can "wing it" on more general topics and spend an inordinate amount of time dreaming up incredibly complex questions about technical trivia and trying to frame answers for them. You may be asked such questions, but far less frequently than you may imagine. First of all, in most cases you will not even get to the stage of interviewing for a position unless your credentials strongly suggest that you have the fundamental knowledge and skills the position requires. Second, there are far better means of assessing technical acumen than through interviews (tests, certifications, grades, and the like), and most interviewers will be concerned primarily about getting to know you as a person and as a potential co worker.

Hypothetical questions are another broad category of questions you should expect to run into in selection interviews. Sometimes called case questions, hypothetical questions set out a business situation or problem and ask you how you would tackle it. A hypothetical question in an inter view for a consulting position might go something like:

Suppose a client came to you and said he had excess capacity in his plants and was looking for innovative uses and markets for his product, which is chalk.

How would you help the client deal with this problem?

Such questions are among the most challenging to answer, in part because you cannot anticipate what form they may take. They are used most frequently in the consulting industry but are not uncommon in marketing, general management, and many other fields. The most frequent mistake candidates make in trying to answer them is to give too detailed and too final a solution to the problem presented or to panic because they realize they cannot give such an answer. If you don't hap pen to know anything about chalk or the chalk industry and most people don't you, of course, cannot provide a solution to the problem described in the question above. What you can do, however, is provide an approach to attacking the problem.

In answer to hypothetical questions, it is reasonable, therefore, to talk about what kind of information you would want to get about the client and about the industry and how you would use this information in problem solving. You might even discuss the possibility of reformulating the client's perception of the problem to broaden or narrow its definition. As you answer, remember that the interviewer is trying to learn more about your analytical abilities, ability to think on your feet, and your imagination. She or he is not interested in your ability to solve problems of chalk companies. If you anticipate interviewing for consulting jobs, positions in strategic planning, or in marketing management, read any of Michael Porter's books on industry and competitive analysis. Porter, a Harvard Business School professor, presents many very helpful analytical tools and approaches that are invaluable in fielding hypothetical questions.
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