Career Poll: Hardest Interview Question to Answer?

Wow, not sure if something changed in the LinkedIn Poll distribution mechanism or I just hit a nerve with this particular topic, but my poll question last month attracted no fewer than 789 distinct votes — up, oh, about 1500% from the normal vote tally of around 40-50 responses I’d been getting in previous months!  Pretty wild, really.

Here was the question I posed:

“Which of these five common interview questions do you find most difficult to answer?”

The five response choices were:

1) Can you tell me a bit about yourself?
2) What is your greatest weakness?
3) Why did you leave your last position?
4) What are your salary requirements?
5) What are your long-term career goals?

Again, over 700  people cast their vote on this particular topic, and while you’ll see a small graphic of the results below you can click here to access the full set of results.

The Analysis? For starters, I love the fact that this particular survey attracted such a diversity of different responses, since I think it validates (to some degree) that certain interview questions aren’t inherently harder than others — and that most of it probably comes down to a given individual’s situation and the context of their own unique background.  One person might be highly comfortable “talking money” with an employer, for example, while another gets totally freaked out by that issue.  Or somebody else might hate the thought of disclosing a personal weakness, whereas another person views this question as a golden opportunity to build trust and rapport with the person across the desk.  So I certainly am not going to quibble with the spirit of the survey and the notion that everybody is entitled to their own subjective viewpoint around which questions are harder for them to answer, personally.

What I DID find a little interesting about the poll results was that the two questions that seemed to generate the least anxiety among job seekers were actually the ones, in my opinion, that people tend to do the worst on in the average interview.  And that can potentially do the most damage to a given person’s candidacy.

Take the very first choice above.  The “tell me about yourself” question is often thrown out at the beginning of a hiring conversation and usually has profound implications on how the candidate ends up faring in the meeting.  When faced with this open-ended question, many job seekers flounder all over the place, reciting their resume in excruciating detail and offering up a rambling 5-10 minute answer that turns the employer off for the entire rest of the conversation.  Others, still, talk for about 20 seconds and then clam up, creating an awkward silence and an uncomfortable first impression.  Have you heard the old saying about how an applicant may not land the job in the first two minutes of any given interview, but can easily cost themselves the opportunity?  This is due to the enormous weight employers place on these “opening arguments” and the impressions a candidate’s initial responses cause the hiring manager to form, consciously or unconsciously, about the applicant’s communication skills and confidence level.

As for the “why did you leave?” question, that’s another potentially loaded issue.  If an individual is currently unemployed, and rebounding from some type of layoff or termination event, employers are going to be scrutinizing the answer to this question very carefully to make sure there’s no cause for alarm in terms of why the candidate is now available.  Were they let go due to poor performance or outdated skills?  For political reasons?  Because they had a bad attitude or some anger management issues?  Your next employer will be watching for any signs to this effect — so giving a tight-lipped, defensive, or lackadaisical answer to this question could easily raise a red flag in the interviewer’s mind and sour them on your candidacy.  So even if you feel pretty comfortable with this one, as apparently most of the survey respondees did, make sure not to take it too lightly.  I’d encourage you to read an article I wrote a few years ago (forgive the old photo) that you’ll find here, providing tips on how to jazz your answer up with a more positive spin than you might think to utilize, yourself.

So those are my thoughts on the matter.  Everybody has a right, obviously, to decide for themselves which interviewing questions make them the most anxious.  And 789 people did exactly that, above.  Just make sure that you don’t confuse your anxiety level around various questions with their relative importance in the overall scheme of the interviewing process.  They’re two very different things.  And the “tell me about yourself” question, bar none, is still the most critical answer to outline and practice, since they’ll hit you with it right out of the gate and it sets the tone for the entire remaining conversation.

In terms of a new question for the coming month?  You’ll find my latest LinkedIn poll here, asking the question: “What’s the biggest ‘silver lining’ in terms of how the job market works today?”

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