During your next job interview, you will almost certainly be asked some of those standard, clichéd questions that have been asked in interviews almost since the Spanish Inquisition.
Some guidance to help you ace them:
Q: Tell me about yourself.
Unimpressive answer: A biographical filibuster that rambles on about your entire career and includes personal information that is irrelevant to your target job. Save that spiel for your retirement party.
Impressive answer: A concise, logical summary of your relevant credentials — even if they’re covered in your resume. Emphasize recent (over ancient) successes, show your fire-in-the-belly, and conclude by describing how you would contribute to your target job.
Q: What are your weaknesses?
Unimpressive answer: Anything that will confirm your unworthiness for your target job. Consider that everything you say can and will be held against you. Avoid clichés like: “I don’t have any weaknesses,” “I’m a perfectionist,” or “I work too hard.”
Impressive answer: Use some time-tested techniques for demonstrating self-awareness, and humility of commitment to self-improvement:
*Describe how you stay current in your field, and identify some training goals.
*Describe a non-deal-breaking gap you fixed. For example: “I previously underestimated the importance of X. So now I emphasize it more.” Or, “I used to avoid public speaking. So I joined Toastmasters, and now enjoy it.”
*Acknowledge that, as a new employee, you would have a lot to learn about your target organization, and prove that you are up to the task.
*Say: “In order to avoid repeating mistakes, I inventory lessons learned after each project with my staff.”
Q: What are you most proud of?
Unimpressive answer: I know a fed who answered this question by referring to his role as a husband and father. In response, “my interviewer’s face fell,” he recalls. He didn’t get the job.
Impressive answer: Describe a high-impact project that parallels the demands of your target job, explain how your contributions to it improved operations, and cite resulting positive feedback. That’s what the proud husband and father did when asked that question in another interview. He got the job.
Q: Why should we hire you over other applicants?
Unimpressive answer: “I don’t know the other applicants so I can’t compare myself to them.” Your interviewers will hit the eject button. Don’t be meek, overly humble or apologetic.
Impressive answer: Describe your best credentials, your work ethic, and team-friendly approaches. Also leave copies of recent excellent annual reviews with your interviewers, if possible.
Q: Can we call your boss?
Unimpressive answer: “We don’t get along. Please don’t call him.”
Impressive answer: Don’t want your current boss to sabotage your prospects? Say, “I would prefer not to inform my boss about my job search. Here’s a list of other references, including several previous bosses.”
Q: How do you deal with conflict?
Unimpressive answer: “I won’t compromise when I am right.”
Impressive answer: “I look for common ground and ways to compromise. For example … Also, I believe that disagreements should not become conflicts. Colleagues should be able to discuss disagreements amicably. When I get overruled or overrule others, I just do it graciously, and move on.”
Q: What is your management style?
Unimpressive answer: “I’m the boss and I expect my staff to follow my orders.”
Impressive answer: “I am a decisive, effective, and fair manager who creates a collegial office atmosphere. To ensure that my office’s work gets done, I strive to understand the work, the people who do it, and relevant obstacles. And I give my staff the guidance and resources they need to do their jobs.”
Q: What would you do during your first week as a manager?
Unimpressive answer: A pledge to buffalo through the office and immediately overhaul it.
Impressive answer: “I would initially talk to as many people as possible and read as much as possible to understand the organization and its constraints before making any major changes.”
— Lily Whiteman is a public affairs officer at the National Science Foundation and author of “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job.’’ Her Web site is IGotTheJob.net. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily represent the views of the National Science Foundation.