Part 2 of “Breaking down the interview”: on tough questions

As a continuation to our last entry, and given that many of you are entering, or will enter soon into the high season of recruiting and interviewing, we present the series entitled “Breaking down the interviews”, where in each entry we discuss a specific section of an interview (which might only last 5 minutes). Today, we discuss the tough questions, also called curve ball questions.

Our basic recommendations are:

  • Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse…and stick to your game plan
  • Remember that some interviewers will just be fixated on your weaker points. So be it. I, for instance, had a strange situation when I just moved to London whereby a headhunter said that he would not present my profile to a UK focused fund because I had “a funny accent”; years later, that same headhunter reached out to pitch his company to bring me candidates to the firm I was working on at the time (I was still working in England, most of the time working with native English speakers). I still had my funny accent and clearly was stronger than what this talent hunter perceived.
  • There are no right or perfect answers. In most cases, it is just about seeing how you react when confronted with a tense moment.
  • Be as thorough as you can, thinking bad scenarios or points on which you have been attacked in the past or that it is just one thing that when asked, makes you nervous.
  • Some usual tough questions
    • Gaps in resume (why there are some months or maybe years with no full time job). Spend time polishing your story and having an explanation for everything in your profile.
    • You have been fired
    • You are trying to change geography
    • You have a poor GPA
    • You are not a native speaker of the language in which you will interview and conduct the job (typical of people moving into New York or London)
    • You attended a not so strong university

Once you had made an exhaustive list of what can be tough questions for your candidacy

  • Take time to answer them in writing properly. Then organize them nicely in a few bullet points
  • Rehearse and re-write
  • Record yourself (audio and video) – When I was trying to change jobs back in 2013, I would record myself answering tough questions as audio notes, and play those on my headphones during commute. It was impressive how, suddenly, answering tough questions in interviews became natural and reduced them to just one more question, other than a drama that changed the course of an interview.
  • Ask your mock interviewers, your partner, your parents, siblings, whoever close, to grill you on these tough questions.

A couple final remarks:

  • Interviewers are human. And human beings have bad days and good days. It might be the case that they are having a bad day and after firing a routine tough question, they just keep drilling when they sensed weakness. And maybe on another day they would have been just pleasant interviewers.
  • Some people are just mean or enjoy awkward moments for the interviewee. You can’t do much if they are like that, probably had a fixated idea about rejecting you since they read your CV. Stick to your plan, always be respectful and think of “the next game”. I, for instance, had an awful interview at a London based bank back in 2010, whereby the interviewer was not looking straight into my face, kept on interrupting me as I wanted to explain my experience and at one point, he stopped me on my tracks of explaining a deal, he said it was nonsense, and threw a pen across the table, telling me to be in silence and write down the yearly cash flows of the investment I was describing. Funny enough, I hated the situation but still continued my game plan, and I ended up getting into the final round and later on, working for a few years with that guy.
  • Your perception versus the real thing: when an interviewee is asked a tough question or poked about a weakness area, she/he can feel that he is bombing the interview, that it’s being a disaster and that there is no way you get the job. Well, that is a perception and if you stick to your game plan, these will be natural parts of an interview and you will be surprised how well you navigate.

The important thing, as I try to instil in every entry and in every piece of advice I give: make sure you give 100% to each moment, that you are professional because even when a tough question (or series of tough questions) does derail your candidacy and you don’t get the offer, if you played by the book, you will still get this kick inside saying “ok, what’s next. I did my part, didn’t work, let’s take on the next challenge”.

See you next time for entry #3 of this series. Keep it up!

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