In a 1981 interview, TV journalist Barbara Walters famously asked actress Katharine Hepburn, “What kind of tree are you?” Ever since then, the tree question has been a byword for out-there interview questions. And while you probably won’t get any tree-based questions in your next job interview, you should be prepared for open-ended questions designed to test your readiness for a job.
Here are some answers and strategies you should have in your pocket for when an interviewer asks you a question slightly outside of your resume.
1. What are some of your strengths and weaknesses?
Relax. The interviewer isn’t expecting a full audit of your personal failures or a speech about how you remind yourself of Mother Theresa and Mark Zuckerberg. When you’re asked about your strengths, make sure your answer is directly relevant to the job you’re interviewing for. If you’re interviewing for a sales position, mention your knack for turning a slammed door into a promising lead. Or if you’re under consideration for a management position, talk about how your leadership led your former group to its best year ever.
For your weaknesses, don’t answer with something that will likely make the interviewer roll their eyes, like “I work too hard” or “I love my job too much.” Instead, be honest—but again, make sure it can be spun as a positive for the specific role you’re seeking. For example, instead of saying that you work too hard, say that you have a tendency to try to solve every problem that comes along.
The key is to make sure the interviewer knows you’re aware of your limitations. In this case, you could say that you tend to take on a lot, but that you’re aware of the need to work with the team to find solutions together instead of putting it all on one person. A little self-awareness goes a long way.
2. What was your reason for leaving your previous job?
Chances are, the interviewer will ask you why you’re looking to leave your current job—or if you’re currently unemployed, why you left your last job. If it’s the former, stress that you’re seeking to grow by taking your skills and experience to the next level with this job. If it’s the latter, and you left your last job under less-than-ideal circumstances (like being fired), don’t panic. Emphasize that the job wasn’t a good fit for you, and you’re seeking a job that fits with your long-term goals (with a bit of explanation of what those are and how they relate to the job you’re trying to get).
3. What are your salary expectations for this position?
Asking what kind of salary you’re expecting may just be the interviewer’s way to determine what you expect from the job. It’s a risky question to answer—too high a salary, and they might think you’ll jump ship for the next high-paying opportunity that comes along. Too low, and that could impact the salary and benefits they propose to you as part of a job offer. It’s okay to punt this one a little—explain that you’re flexible on salary depending on the role and benefits package and would be happy to discuss that further in the future.
4. Tell me about yourself .
When an interviewer asks you about yourself, this is not the time to talk about your hometown, your elementary school spelling bee trophies, or your allergies. They want you to cherry-pick your bio to show whether you’ll fit at their company, in their open position. Here’s where a quick summary of your relevant education would come in handy, along with an overview of jobs you've had in the field or other experiences appropriate to the job itself. This is something you can prepare ahead of time—just a few sentences outlining who you are as a professional and what makes you a strong candidate for the position.
5. Tell me about a time you solved a difficult problem.
Another popular interview tactic is to have the candidate tell a story about a time they demonstrated a particular skill, like problem solving. Before you go into the interview, think about the skills you’d like to emphasize and come up with a few (honest!) anecdotes about how you applied those in real life. Write them down, or at least jot down notes; that will help them stick in your head and make them easier for your brain to “grab” when you’re on the spot.
If you do know what kind of tree you would be, great! You’re all set if that somehow comes up. Much more likely, you’ll see questions like these. The more you think about them beforehand, the more ready you’ll be to answer them like a pro.
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