How to Answer Tough Questions in an Interview

Three Methods:Before the interviewAt the interviewMore Interview Help

There are no tough questions in an interview––it just seems that way if you're ill prepared. Rather than leaving yourself open to tough questions, do your research and practice beforehand so that nothing can sneak up on you. Here is how to prepare yourself for that moment.

Method 1
Before the interview

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    Do your research. It will help you a whole lot more when being interviewed if you have done your research into the job's background and know what it involves, why you are likely to be a good fit and what you are going to be able to bring to the job. Check out the employer's website thoroughly, read any relevant reports and staff information publicly available and know some of the basic facts and figures.
    • Do some research about the company and the position you're interviewing for. If possible, talk to someone who has a similar job and find out what the companies look for in an employee. Don't lie about who you are, or your motives. Instead, position yourself as the ideal candidate and be willing to listen.
    • During the interview, refer to things you've learned about the company. This tells the interviewer that you have an interest in the company and understand its mission, giving you an edge over applicants who simply "walk in".
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    Know yourself. Consider your strengths and weaknesses––while some firms are steering clear of this question, most still raise it as a way to work out if you've considered this aspect of yourself.
    • Be aware of the qualities you offer a potential employer. Write down a short list and memorize it.
    • Think about how your past experiences have helped you. This is especially important for situational interviews that ask you about how you've handled such and such an experience before.
    • Don't over-emphasize weaknesses. Most employers want to hear how you've overcome minor weaknesses; few want to learn about major ones, let alone ones you're continuing to struggle with. If you have hurdles like not knowing particular software or lacking a specific diploma even though you have generalist degrees, show openness to being trained as you're working. This can take care of tricky questions revolving around things you're supposed to know as part of the job criteria.
    • Look over your résumé before the interview. Many question are based on your resume, so be ready to answer them. If you've applied for so many jobs that you have started to take your CV for granted and have forgotten its contents, beware! Both the CV and your memory of its contents should be refreshed regularly, preferably with each job application.
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    Face the questions before the interview. Before the interview, think about (or write down) all the possible questions you could be asked, and come up with answers to them. You can find lists of potential interview questions (including tough ones) in books or websites on how to do a job interview. Read a few lists and tailor the suggested questions to the background research on the company that you've done.
    • Practice asking yourself questions in a mirror. Do what all US Presidents, court witnesses and executives do to prepare for tough questions: Use a role-playing format and ask yourself the same potentially tough questions, giving you the opportunity to practice your answers and delivery. Allow yourself practice to work through not only the best answer but one you're most comfortable delivering.
    • Have a friend test you. Give the friend free rein to ask you all sorts of tough questions. Listen to his or her feedback on your responses.
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    Think like an interviewer! What "tough" questions would you ask if you were doing the interview and how would you like them answered? Doing this can help you to understand that "tough" is very subjective––reasons for feeling questions are tough can range from lack of knowledge of the subject matter, assuming the worst of the interviewer or not realizing that the question is taking a subtle approach to asking you hard ethical or moral dilemmas. You might even like to read up on how to conduct an interview, to stand in the interviewer's shoes and realize what's really going on.

Method 2
At the interview

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    Recognize that the interviewer is interested in you. (Else you wouldn't be there.) Understanding this should help to make questions easier to answer––this is your chance to shine!
    • Don't sell yourself short; realize that you have something valuable to offer.
    • Avoid turning the interviewer into an ogre or a superior in your mind. Try to connect on an equal footing, human to human. Hierarchies might matter later if you get the job, but in that interview room, use the usual respect you'd accord anyone without being ingratiating or defensive.
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    Seek to answer all questions as positively as you can. The interview is a chance to show people your best, and that includes being positive and engaged throughout the interview. You may have reservations but don't let these show now––such issues can be dealt with as part of the job negotiation process if you do get that far. Turn potentially negative answers into positive ones:
    • A common example is the question: "Tell me about your weaknesses." The worst answer to give is "I haven't any". That sounds arrogant and it shows a lack of self-awareness. Instead, find a weakness that you've improved upon and use that for your answer to this common question. For example: "I learned in my previous position that my computer skills were not as strong as I would have preferred. I have since completed classroom training in that area, and have greatly improved." Remember, the question isn't meant to determine what the "weaknesses" are––it is meant to determine what you have done to correct them.
    • Don't speak negatively about former employers, former companies or former management. If you are asked about how you got along with people in your former/existing workplace, be circumspect. For example, "So how did you find working direct to your CEO?" Rather than saying "He was a demanding, mean-spirited and thoughtless slave driver", say something positive. For example: "He expected high standards of all working direct to him and I am pleased to say that I achieved ninety-nine percent of what he asked of me in time and to a high standard. I became a more competent sales clerk under his mentoring."
    • If you were retrenched, maintain a positive attitude despite the pain you've gone through. You might say something like: "I really loved working for X Company. It was a very sad time when their bad sales in the electronics division meant that it was no longer viable for them to keep that area. I still keep in touch with everyone in my section––we were a great team." Sure, it might sound like you're an apologist for the company's failure to think ahead but it doesn't impress the interviewer if you sound bitter or slighted––it's not an appealing quality in someone you're going to spend many hours alongside in the future. Interviewers like to see signs of "resilience" (the ability to bounce back).
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    Bring questions full circle back to your stated achievements and qualifications. The point of the interview is to prove your suitability to the role, and your achievements and skills should be emphasized whenever you can.
    • When the interviewer asks a "How would you handle xxx?", a good answer would be "I had a similar situation in a previous position, and I handled it by..."
    • Whenever a positive result was achieved, it is imperative that you note it. For example: "My actions resulted in a decrease of operating expenses by 15% while increasing revenues by 25%."
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    Use the STAR method. When you're asked questions that seek to elicit how you coped with negative situations, the STAR method will come to your rescue. It allows you to go through Situation, Tasks, Actions and Results in a logical sequence that answers this tough question nicely.
    • For example: "Have you ever been in a group that did not work well together?" This is a fairly common question that seeks to elicit your ability to work with disharmony.
      • You can discuss the situation: "Oh yes, once I was part of a team that had to stuff blue bears for a charity. One member of the team felt she had a better method for stuffing than the one we were assigned to follow and this caused a lot of tension."
      • Then, discuss the tasks: "So we had to stuff these bears following the boss' instruction sheet. This particular team member stuffed the bears from the other end. We stuffed one way, she stuffed another."
      • Next, talk about the actions: "I realized that she was actually stuffing the bear faster than we were. She had 50 stuffed bears to our 20. So I went over and asked her to explain her method. I realized it was far better. I went to the boss, along with this team member, and we asked if we could change to her method. The boss agreed, relieved that we could work faster and make the deadline."
      • Finally, discuss the result: "So, rather than assuming she was wrong, I found it was important to look into it further. When I realized she was doing something better, I knew I had to convince the boss. The result was that a team member felt that she was listened to, the boss got a better method for stuffing bears and we stuffed them all ahead of deadline!"
    • It's okay if the situation ended badly. Things do! Discuss what you learned and how you would have handled the situation differently. What matters in this instance is your self-awareness that you'd do it do it differently next time.
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    Talk about the future as much as the past. Avoid discussing uncomfortable things from your past and focus most on what you can do for the company and why you want to work there.
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    Take your time. If caught off guard by a tough question, don't answer right away. Take some time to compose your thoughts, and then answer as best you can. In your mind, go through a logical sequence of answering before you respond, and try to keep your mind's eye on that checklist.
    • If you don't understand the question, it is alright to ask the interviewers to repeat it rather than assume you can fake your way through an answer. People usually rephrase a question the second time through and that can give you an edge. (Equally, if you don't hear the question, don't act as if you did! Ask again.)
    • Don't ramble, especially when answering a tough interview question. Answer the question––get in and get out of it! If you seem unsure, the interviewers may continue the same line of questions that is making you uncomfortable, as any sign of uncertainty spells possible problems to them too. It's not meant to rattle you (even though it might)––it's meant to work out if you're going to be able to do what they need you to.


  • Don't name-drop in an attempt to build yourself up. The interviewer will not be impressed that you had lunch with a local celebrity or played golf with the mayor. Be aware that this can be a nervous habit––stop yourself before it comes out of your mouth!
  • Consider having fun with way out questions. Some interviewers like to really test the boundaries and your creative reactions by asking super weird questions. If this happens to you, don't get shaken; instead, see it as an invitation to play with the answer. For example, you might be asked what you'd do if you discovered a python in the photocopier room. Show them your ingenuity, creativity and sensibility all rolled into one with your answer!
  • Give yourself plenty of time to get to the interview. You don't want to be late or rushed––arriving early will allow you to enter the interview calm, cool and collected (and ready to answer questions).
  • Keep in mind that a job interview is not "just about you". It is also your opportunity to determine if the company is one you wish to work for. When the interviewer asks if you have any questions, the worst thing you can do is say no. Always have at least two or three job or company related questions ready.
  • In this day and age, it's not often possible to be too choosy about a job––not everyone is going to be working at their "passion" and not everyone is going to be working in the field they majored for. Realize that if you're uncertain or indifferent about the job, then all of the questions will seem tough.


  • Do not go to a job interview desperately wishing for the job. The anxiety of wanting it badly will produce sweat, stupid answers, etc., as anticipation is not a good thing. Go there to show these interviewers what they will be losing if they don't hire you. Prove how good you are. Do not humiliate yourself––just convince the company you are a good human and they will want you. Easy.
  • Pay attention to your body language. It is saying things about you without you even realizing––which is why getting yourself into the right mindset matters a great deal.
  • Don't appear arrogant or the interviewer will try to stump you by asking even harder questions.
  • Don't try to impress the interviewer by using vocabulary you don't know. If you don't know what a word means, don't use it. Otherwise you will come across as ignorant and insincere.
  • Even if you don't really care for the job but desperately need it to survive, find at least one good angle (other than income) for why you want the job, so that your enthusiasm shows.

Things You'll Need

  • Research notes from internet, corporate reports, telephone chats, etc.
  • Resumé/CV
  • Practice questions

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