Just breathe: Answering the correct question at interview

Recently I was interviewing and I noticed something about the way the candidates were answering the questions. In fact, it was one question in particular that seemed to cause the trouble. It was along the lines of ‘tell me about a time when___ and tell me what you learnt from this experience’. Now this is a common interview question and if you’ve never been asked it before you are likely to be asked it in the future so take note. Indeed the specifics of the question don’t matter, because in fact the problem could be said to be the same for pretty much any interview question. Every candidate either answered the wrong question or only answered half of the question. Now I know what you are thinking – ‘that would never happen to me’ – right? Well everything that we know here at Careers & Enterprise tells us it’s a common occurrence, and an understandable one.


Wrong question

Take the first issue, answering the wrong question. You prepare so much for an interview, you run through all the questions you might get asked and practice your answers. You know your examples inside out. So somebody mentions ‘customer service’ and away you go. But in your nervousness and keenness to show off the great examples of when you’ve given excellent customer service, you fail to notice that the question was actually about your experience of bad customer service. Your answer was great, really fantastic in fact. But on my marking scheme I can’t give you any points because it was simply an answer to a different question than the one I asked.

Half the question

As for the second issue, again, it’s very common when you get caught up in the nervousness of an interview setting that you forget the other part to a question. This is why you should use the STAR technique – Situation, Task, Action, Result. It’s as much for your benefit as for the interviewer because if you follow each step it makes sure that you don’t forget the crucial end bit, the result. How a situation made you feel, what you learnt from it, what you would do differently in the future – these are all things that an interviewer wants to hear, and in some ways are far more important than the actual event/task itself.

And relax

Now in some situations an interviewer might interject to point out that you haven’t answered the actual question or they might say ‘and what did you learn?’. But some companies have to abide by very strict rules when interviewing, and might not be able to give you any prompting. So, you can’t take any chances. Our advice is to listen carefully to the interviewer; ask them to repeat the question if you didn’t quite hear it or if you need time to quickly gather your thoughts; prepare in advance, of course, but don’t assume you’ll be asked specific questions; use the STAR technique to structure your answers; and above all try to relax. Easier said than done I know, but by relaxing, and trying to think of the interview as a conversation, you are much more likely to listen better and answer precisely.


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