Difficult interview questions

Skill: Speaking Theme: Job Interviews
Level: Upper Intermediate/Advanced (B2-C2)

There are three golden rules for succeeding at a job interview:

1. prepare, 2. prepare, and 3. prepare.

But there are some « out of the box » questions that you may never have thought of.

In a typical year, slightly more than 2,000 highly driven people are interviewed for admission to the prestigious MBA program at Harvard Business School.

There are often questions that can take a person by surprise.  The following list of the ten most unpredictable questions was submitted by current Harvard Business School Students who have successfully gained admission.   Thanks to John Byrne who first published this list at Poets and Quants.

  • Explain to me something you’re working on as if I were an eight-year old
  • Describe something that you should start doing, do more of, and do less of.
  • What’s the one thing you’ll never be as good at as others?
  • What are the two best pieces of advice you have been given, and why?
  • What do you want to be remembered as?
  • What is your definition of a leader?  How do you fit that definition?
  • How do you make big decisions?
  • How would your parents describe you when you were twelve?
  • What is one thing I’d never have guessed about you, even after reading your application?
  • What is the one thing you would like me to remember about you?


Read the questions.  Consider how you would answer each of them and make some notes in your own language.

Choose questions at random and practise answering them in English.

Remember that as much as possible your answers to interview questions should be structured.  Certain questions lead easily to structured answers as they contain several elements to respond to, e.g. « something you should start doing (1st point), do more of (2nd point) and do less of (3rd point).  Other questions tend to lead to waffly answers if you don’t manage to keep a clear structure in mind.  For example, for the question « What do you want to be remembered as? », one efficient way of answering the question would be to think of two or at the most three qualities that you believe you demonstrate.  Speak about each quality in turn, making sure that you give clear examples:

Firstly I would like to be remembered as an innovative person.  In my previous job I created a completely new system for organising tools in the workshop, which increased efficiency by 20%, and I look forward to bringing the same kind of innovation to this new position.  I’d also like to be remembered as someone who is generous with knowledge and expertise.  I’m a great believer in the fact that an effective organisation is a learning organisation, and passing on what I have learnt to others is one of the things I enjoy most, as demonstrated most recently in my role as team leader in the logistics department.


How to prepare for a successful telephone interview

In these days of decentralised workplaces, telecommuting and extreme mobility the traditional face to face interview in an office is increasingly being replaced by telephone or webcam-based interviews.

If English is your second or foreign language, telephone interviews can be particularly challenging. Whether by telephone or face to face, many of the same principles for effective interview technique apply, including the golden rule:

Prepare, prepare, prepare!

In this post we’re going to look at some particularities of preparing for phone and webcam interviews.

What is a phone interview?

Telephone interviews are real interviews, sometimes used as a preliminary interview to sift out applicants who will then be invited for a face-to-face interview.  They may also be used as a final interview in the case where the work is telephone or Internet-based, where telephone skills are paramount, or where you are applying for a job abroad.

The length of phone interviews varies from 20 minutes to about an hour, with the average length being half an hour.  The advantages for the employer: they are time and cost-effective, they test the candidate’s verbal communication skills, and also their ability to cope with the unexpected.  There are also advantages for the candidate: the ease of referring to your CV and application form or letter during the interview, the possibility of being interviewed in a casual or informal environment (in your pyjamas if you prefer!), and the fact that there is no time or money wasted in transport.  Actually – wearing pyjamas is not such a great idea. You will feel more professional if you are seated at a desk, and dressed for action.

Telephone-only interviews have some disadvantages too.  You don’t have the same visual clues to help you gauge the reactions and responses of the interviewer.  They can also seem very short, not allowing much time to think about your answers.  There is not much of a lead-in: very little small talk or ice-breaking at the beginning. Often the interviewer launches straight in to the difficult questions.

What’s the best way to prepare?

If at all possible, make an appointment with a specific time and date for the call.  There is nothing worse than a prospective employer calling you when you are doing your grocery shopping, about to take the dog for a walk, or just hopping out of the shower.  If you are given a general time slot rather than a specific time, ensure you keep your mobile with you, charged, topped up and switched on.  If the interview will be held using a landline that you share with other users (family members, flatmates etc.), ensure you prime anyone who answers the phone to try and sound professional.  You may also want to replace any joke answerphone messages with something you would want a prospective employer to hear, just in case they call at a time you are not able to answer the phone.  You will need as quiet and private a location as possible for the actual interview.

During the interview

 Keep a copy of your application and company information handy, along with what you need to take notes. Where possible access to the Internet may be helpful if you need to check any details about the company, for example.

 Make a list of your USPs – unique selling points.  What makes you better than most of the other people who will be applying?  But don’t just read out your notes – it will make you sound unnatural.

 If not using a webcam, smile as you speak – it will make a positive difference to your tone of voice, and make you sound more lively.  Also, remember to use verbal signals to communicate that you are listening, such as « ok », « uh-huh », « I see », « I understand », « yes » etc.  You can also reflect back what the speaker is saying to show you are listening, with phrases such as « I hear what you’re saying », and « So, if I’ve understood correctly, … »

 Speak clearly, and not too fast.  If English is your second language, remember that SPEED is not the same as FLUENCY.  The interviewer may not be familiar with your accent, and will be more impressed with your clarity than how fast you can speak.  Have a glass of water on hand – you don’t want your voice to crack up at a crucial moment.

 If you know you will be having a series of interviews, immediately after the interview make some notes on the questions you were asked, and think about how you could do better next time.

What questions will I be asked

They will probably be the same as what you could expect in a face to face interview.  Here are some examples of the more difficult typical questions. These are the kinds of questions that, if you don’t prepare the answer, you are unlikely to answer well:

  • Why do you want to work for our organisation / in the job you have applied for?
  • What qualities do you think are important for the role you are applying for?
    KEY POINT: don’t ever talk about qualities without giving evidence to back it up.  It is no use saying you are « motivated » without demonstrating exactly how or why. If there is no proof, you may come across as being superficial.
  • What do we do?
    KEY POINT: don’t bother attending an interview of any kind without first finding out as much as you can about the company.
  • Tell me a time you have demonstrated good teamwork / communication skills etc.
  • Tell me about a time when you have had to cope with pressure.
  • Tell me about a challenge you have faced.  How did you meet this challenge?
  • Tell me about a challenge you faced with a co-worker.
  • What is your greatest strength?
  • Tell me about one of your weaknesses.
  • Why shouldn’t we hire you?
  • Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?
  • Do you have any questions for us?
    KEY POINT: « No thanks, I’m good » is never an appropriate response to this question.  Make sure you have some intelligent questions to ask the interviewer.

Do you have any other tips for effective interviews over the phone or webcam? What are some of the more difficult interview questions that you have heard? We’d love to read your thoughts in the comments.

For further reading:

How to tackle three of the toughest interview questions.

6 questions to ask during your interview.

photo credit: SanShoot cc

Make your CV more dynamic with action verbs

When a prospective employer is working his way through a huge stack of CVs on his desk, for the sake of time he has no choice but to find a quick way of singling out the three or four best candidates.  It seems quite arbitrary, but there are certain phrases that make CVs likely candidates for the bin, such as:

I worked with…

I was responsible for…

An employer doesn’t want to know what you were responsible for.  They want to know exactly what you did and what those actions produced.  A good CV expresses work experience in a dynamic, interesting way, and as briefly as possible.  A varied vocabulary might also be more effective in convincing an employer of your English skills than a TOEIC or IELTS score.

This is where action verbs come in.  Some examples of work experience, and verbs you might consider using:

 Imagine you developed a campaign for saving energy at your university.  Instead of developed…

Launched / Designed / Implemented / Championed / Pioneered / Masterminded a campaign for campus energy saving.

 Let’s say you organised classes in computer skills for a voluntary organisation.  Instead of organised…

Managed / Introduced / Directed / Orchestrated / Spearheaded a programme to train job-seekers in basic computer skills.

 Or perhaps you were involved in a new procedure for dealing with complaints the tourism industry.  Instead of I was responsible for…

Established / Streamlined / Formulated / Generated / Structured a new procedure for logging complaints for hotel receptionists.

You’ll notice that in each of the above examples there is no subject in the sentence.  It is common in CVs to omit the subject, and start the sentence with a past simple verb – indicating that you are referring to a past experience with a past time reference (usually because the CV is organised chronologically).

There is a wealth of other action verbs you could use to spice up your CV:












drew up




A few tools that may help


Visual Thesaurus

Just the word (useful for checking collocations or word partnerships, with examples of how different nouns and verbs are associated).

Europass CV template  (this won’t help you with vocabulary, but is a useful template for getting started in CV writing).

Action verbs will definitely make your CV stand out.  Have you found any other similar tools to help you expand your vocabulary?  Let us know about them in the comments.

Photo credit: the Italian voice, cc