Three classic interview questions: spot the hidden agenda and succeed!

It seems that companies sometimes vie to come up with strange interview questions: perhaps to ensure people can’t prepare in advance.

Some also query the value of interviews. The reality, however, is that the traditional interview, which often incorporates well worn interview questions, is here to stay. Whether your interview is face to face or via video, answering them well will mean the difference between success and failure.

However, many interview questions can seem like a bit of a cliché and it’s tempting for a candidate to simply trot out a well-rehearsed answer.

Preparation is of course a very a good idea but what if you’re missing the point of the question?

Here are some we use:

Give me a quick walk through your CV.

Hidden meaning: can you summarise effectively and concisely?

This seems like a soft opening question offering you nothing too tough at the start of the interview! Appearances can be deceptive. There are so many reasons for asking this question it’s difficult to know where to start. One of the biggest is “does the candidate actually stick to the point”. In this case, also note the use of the word “quick”. Candidates can easily talk themselves out of the job in the first 10 minutes. Many senior appointments require the ability to summarise key issues for time short, Board level executives so the ability to answer this question well is crucial. Even if the interviewer doesn’t imply brevity or speed this question is not a licence to talk and talk. It’s actually a great opportunity to be concise and get across key highlights. A common variant is “tell me about yourself” and the same warnings apply. If in doubt why not ask the interviewer whether they require brief highlights or more detail?

What are you looking for in your next role?

Hidden meaning: are your requirements a fit for the job you’ve applied to?

This is a tricky one. How to answer the question might seem obvious i.e. that you align your answers with the role you’re being interviewed for. However, the only thing worse than not getting the job is to end up in the wrong role because you misled the interviewer(s)!

It can be difficult to get really under the skin of a potential opportunity before the first interview but one of the most important areas of preparation can be to consider carefully how well it appears to be aligned with your objectives. Re-read the advertisement or any other job information you have been sent. In the interview, you need to get the balance between candour i.e. outlining the non-negotiable bits that really matter to you, with pragmatism i.e. no job will be a 100% match.

Within reason the primary objective of any interview is to have the option of getting to the next stage in the process. That way you are in the driving seat. While you most definitely shouldn’t waste your time or anyone else’s if the job is clearly not of interest remember your only real decision is when they make you an offer and by then you might be very keen!

Where do you see yourself in 5 years/the longer term?

Hidden meaning: are you realistic and do your ambitions align with ours?

This can seem like another simple and boring interview question but there are many layers to it. If the interviewer thinks you have moved around a lot in your career it could be that you have unrealistic expectations of an employer and role. This is an opportunity to reassure them and emphasise that you want to put down roots. Alternatively, they might have in mind a clear career path and be checking that your proposed direction is the same.

Most employers will want an answer that is a balance between a focus on the job you have applied to (they will be seeking a 2-3 year timescale for that) and the broader ambition to be on an upward career track. Hyper ambition is rarely a good thing in these situations, however because even the most progressive employers may be concerned about your likelihood of sticking around in the role they want to fill. Also, poor answers include “setting up my own consulting firm” and “returning to Italy to join the family hotel business” (both genuine).

For more career and interview advice including pre-interview preparation for candidates see our Candidate Advice Guides.

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