More Winning Answers to Common Interview Questions


My December column presented common job interview questions accompanied by examples of unimpressive (but common) answers and impressive answers to those questions. Some more:

How do you handle stress?

Unimpressive Answer: Any answer that reveals emotional weakness. (Don’t mention your stash of prescription tranquilizers!)

Impressive Answer: Say that you get the job done and maintain grace under pressure no matter what—and that your references will support your answer. Cite your multitasking techniques, such as prioritizing, tracking progress, delegating if you have a staff, going the extra mile, and just taking a few deep breaths, when necessary.

Describe the types of tough challenges you’ve conquered, such as scrutiny by high-level political appointees and tight, ever-changing deadlines. Cite an example.

How would you help increase this organization’s diversity?

Unimpressive Answer:” “I don’t currently have any authority to promote diversity.”

Impressive Answer: Explain the importance of diversity, describe your knowledge of hiring regulations and programs promoting diversity and explain how you have mentored, hired, promoted and/ or led or worked within teams including veterans, and members of underrepresented groups and multiple generations. State that you would apply this experience to your target job.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Unimpressive Answer: Any answer that includes wild future predictions. (No one wants to hire a Nostradamus wannabe!)

Impressive Answer: It’s normal to show some uncertainty about the future. Also, your answer should reflect realistic goals and staying power at your target job, if hired. You should also reflect some reasonable ambition—tailored to your career stage. If you’re near retirement age, state your intention to keep working without discussing your age.

Example: “I can’t predict everything about the future. But I haven’t been a job-hopper. So if the past is prologue–if hired, in five years. I would expect to be an integral member of your team; significantly contributing to X. I would be keeping current in my field and would have hopefully advanced and be looking forward to many more years here.

Describe your management style.

Unimpressive Answer: Descriptions of your daily activities.

Impressive Answer: Employers usually look for two main qualities: How you: 1) get results; and 2) deal with people. Here’s an opener:

“A manager’s job is to get the work done. To do that, I’m decisive and fair. Also, I make sure that I understand the work and relevant obstacles, understand the people who do the work, ensure they have the necessary guidance and resources, and continually look for ways to improve.

I tell it like it is to employees, and don’t let things get out of hand. I also build teams that are bonded by comraderie.”

You may also describe how you solve problems; show flexibility to employees depending on their needs; provide feedback; deal with problem employees and develop and motivate employees. Provide examples.

If you are interviewing for your first managerial job, refer to projects you’ve led.

Do you have any questions for us?

Unimpressive Answer: The answer “no,” accompanied by an ox-like stare. Also, don’t ask questions about salary or benefits. Everything you say during interviews should be aimed at attracting job offers. Discuss benefits and negotiate salary after you’re offered a job but before you accept it.

Impressive Answer: Questions that, for example, reflect insights about your target organization, potential solutions to its current challenges and aspects of your target job.

More Tips

If you’re asked about a skill you lack, admit it; don’t lie. But describe yourself as a fast learner, and cite a relevant example. A hiring manager advises, “Don’t just say that you can’t do X and leave it at that. Give me something to work with—a reason to think that you’ll be willing and able to rise to the occasion.”

Throughout each interview, be friendly and periodically smile. Personality counts! End each interview by affirming that you would accept the job if offered it.


About Author

Lily Whiteman is a federal communications expert and author of “How to Land a Top-paying Federal Job,” and a trainer of career advancement skills and communication skills. Her website is Ask your career questions by email to or by Twitter to @Lilymwhiteman.

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