How to Answer Tough Interview Questions

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Job interviews are always nerve-wracking. You can prepare for every single common interview question, but more often than not you’ll get an unexpected question that may catch you off guard and throw you off a little. This isn’t the interviewers trying to be mean and make you fluster – the way you handle the situation under pressure is what the interviewers want to see. Although you can’t prepare an exact answer for a question you don’t know, what you can prepare for is how to deal with these tough questions and how to answer or solve them without losing your cool.

Many people go into interviews thinking that the interviewer wants to know more about their education, previous experience, and skills relevant to the position on offer. More often than not, interviewers actually want to know more about you, outside what is written on paper. They are interested in things such as your personality, whether or not you’ll be a good fit for the company and team, and how you deal with difficult situations under pressure. Even if you don’t know what will come up in the interview, you can still prepare for how you’ll handle certain types of questions – here’s a short list to help you out.

The Prediction Question

These questions ask you for a ballpark figure of something that may be unusual. For example:

“How many people watched YouTube in my country in the last hour?” - Interview question for a Search Quality Analyst position at Google

“Try to estimate the revenue from sale of tickets at Olympics 2012” - Interview question for a Business Analyst at Bain & Co.

The Prediction Answer = Calculated Figure + Reasonable Hypotheses + Pragmatic Logic

For these questions, the interviewers are looking out for the following:

  • Your reaction
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Logical thinking
  • Numerical ability
  • Common sense

All under pressure and done on-the-spot! They are not looking for the right answer. In fact, they are looking at how you approach the problem, the assumptions you make, how you talk the interviewer through your thought process - essentially everything leading up to the final answer that you calculate. Yes, calculate. DO NOT say the first number that comes to mind, nor guess from the top of your head. Instead, take a step back, breathe, and follow these steps to help you come up with a solution. We'll answer the above question “how many people watched YouTube in my country in the last hour?” as an example.

  1. Make a note of what numbers you need to know to solve the question by breaking down the question. Look at how you can get numbers for different parts of the question. For example, to know how many people watched YouTube in your country in the last hour, the first thing you'd need to know is the population of the country. You'll also want to know how many people watched YouTube, but it may be easier to take a step back to see the bigger picture, and then going into specifics. Before estimating the YouTube users, perhaps it's better to look at the percentage of internet users in Hong Kong, and then of this number, have a think about the percentage of internet users who use YouTube, etc.

  2. Get the numbers you need. You may have these numbers randomly in your head, but if you don't know, make a reasonable guess. You may or may not know that the population in Hong Kong is about 7 million, and that about 75% of the population use internet. Trying to come up with a reasonable guess alone might be stressful as you don't want to be wrong but don't panic - it's OK to be honest and tell your interviewer that you don't know the number, just state the number you will use and move on.

  3. Calculate your answer. This is where you'll be using your numerical skills but this should be basic maths involving the basic operations, and calculating percentages etc. If you think you need practice, make sure you practice before the interview!

It's important to note that there is no right answer or method when solving these types of questions. The most important thing is to have a logical reason behind each decision you make, and be vocal about your thought process.

The Analysis Question

These questions often require your knowledge of the industry and the market, as well as your understanding to the company. For example:

“Where do you see the future of Facebook?” - Interview question for a Product Manager at Facebook

No matter how prepared you are for the interview, you won't be able to give a perfect answer - because a perfect answer doesn't exist! As with the Prediction Question, the interviewer is not looking for a specific answer, but more your thought process and justifications behind each statement you make. However there is an expectation for you to have knowledge about the industry and market you are going to be in.

The Analysis Answer = Trend Prediction + Professional Opinion + Personal View

You should at least familiarise yourself with the following information relevant to the company:

  • Achievements in the industry
  • Current business operations
  • Relationship between demands and supplies
  • Future development and direction
  • Competitors and their products

You can ask yourself the following questions to help you:

  • What does the future market demand for and what can the company do to meet these demands?
  • Is the company currently developing, transforming, or shrinking in the market and industry?
  • Do the existing products of the company cater to the need of the present and future market?
  • What do existing customers think of the company and its products?
  • Are there any expected difficulties that the company may face?

The Explanation Question

These questions will require you to explain a complex or technical concept in simple Layman' terms. For example:

“How do you explain a vending machine to someone who hasn’t seen or used one before?” - Interview question for a Global Data Analyst at Bloomberg L.P.

“How would you build an engine from scratch?” - Interview question for an Engineering Role at Rolls-Royce

The Explanation Answer = Using simple language to explain technical concepts

This is a straightforward but highly valuable skill to have which can add great value to your career if you are in a technical or specialist field. This skill is part of the skillset that makes you a great person to work with, and a great team player.

People working in technical roles will inevitably have to explain their work to people who are not specialists in that field. This could be your supervisor, an investor, or a colleague from a different department.

To answer these questions, use the following as a guideline:

  • Mention any background and purpose behind your explanation, to give context for your audience.
  • Don't assume anything. Don't assume that your audience has basic technical knowledge - ask questions to clarify the technical level of your audience.
  • Don't bombard your explanation with too much data or numbers. Only use key numbers that directly link with what your audience needs to know.
  • Avoid giving redundant information. Only give a broad overview with key information. If you need to go in to more detail, the interviewer may prompt you.
  • Avoid using technical terms.
  • It may help to use simple day-to-day analogies in your explanation

The Association Question

These questions may seem odd, but are surprisingly common. They ask you to associate something (which may be unusual) with yourself. For example:

“What songs best describes your work ethic” - Interview question for a Customer Sales Role at Dell

“Name a brand that represents you as a person.” - Interview question for a Brand Strategist at Twitter

It may be quite easy to let your guard down with these type of questions but you have to think carefully about your response! It may go without saying but associate yourself with positive and non-controversial things. Play it safe but also be true to yourself. If you are picking a song, don't pick an upbeat pop song because you think this is what the interviewer wants to hear, when you know this song is not a reflection of your personality.

The Personal Experience Question

These type of questions are used to understand the personalities of the interviewee and to know if they are sincere. Work experience comes with time, but personal endeavours can shape a person and one can learn a lot of things on their personal journeys that perhaps cannot really be learnt in the workplace. Here are some example questions:

“If I took your resume and removed the name at the top, what line on your resume would make your friends read it and recognize you?” - Interview question for a Consultant position at Boston Consulting Group

“Throw your resume aside and tell me what makes you you.” - Interview question for a Sales Executive role at Zillow

Most people will prepare answers for common experiences such as tackling obstacles - perhaps they were once shy to speak in front of a crowd but after attending public speaking lessons they were able to overcome this fear. Unfortunately, these stories are all too common and the interviewer has probably heard it before! This is your chance to stand out against other candidates with unique personal stories.

The Preference Question

These questions are for the interviewer to find out what you like and dislike, and possibly what you want out of your career. They may seem like honest questions but your answer can quickly give off a bad impression, like this question for example:

“What kind of people do you dislike the most?” - Interview question for a Sales Representiative role at Stryker

You can see that if your answer too truthfully here, it may backfire. You may be getting too personal and you may come across as someone who may be difficult to work with. If the question has a negative tone to it, it's okay to be truthful but at the same time be sure not to spiral downwards with a long list of your dislikes - try to spin as much of your answer into a positive. Perhaps discuss your steps to managing this dislike and how you work around it to improve your approach or mindset.

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