How to answer those tricky interview questions - including the jelly bean challenge

In previous articles, we explored how to prepare for interviews. But what about when you are in the interview itself. Here are some tips on how to structure winning interview answers.

Watch our latest short 9 minute film in our series or read how to handle those interview curve balls:

Question type 1: Introduce yourself

“Tell me about yourself?”

Interviewers are asking you this question to give you an easy start so you can settle into the interview. Prepare this answer well, because while exact wording of the question may vary, this key idea is easily the most popular way to open an interview. The secret, is to keep your answer relatively short – we recommend no more than 2-3 minutes – but to use it to carefully introduce topics you would like to speak about later in the interview. Our favourite methods are:

  • The ‘Past – Present – Future’ method: Talk about your work history, your current role and your future ambition (which should be linked to the role to which you are interviewing for).
  • The ‘Academic – Work – Interests’ method: Talk about your education, your most relevant work experiences and finally, your hobbies and interests outside of work.

In either case, this framework enables you to introduce your topics of strength that you want the interviewer to pick up on and come back to for deeper questioning. Use body language to clearly signpost your progress through this answer. Make it clear to the interviewer that you’re going to give a quick 2-minutes summary and also when you’re transitioning between the three parts of your answer.

Question type 2: Competency Test

“Can you describe a time when you…..?”

This is the classic competency question. e.g., “Can you describe a time you led a team to achieve outstanding results despite difficult circumstances?” Candidates are expected to demonstrate their future potential by describing one or more of their past experiences. The winning approach here is to structure your response using the acronym “C.A.R.” – Context, Actions, Results.

Many interviewees will skip the Context, jumping directly into their Actions. This is a mistake. Elaborating briefly on the context enables you to quickly inform your interviewer about the drama and difficulty of the situation in which your subsequent answer is set. Be sure to paint a picture of a difficult scenario here so your achievements, in contrast, are even more impressive. Then explain the “A” of “C.A.R.”, the 3-4 sequential main actions you took which led to the, ideally wow, “R” – the Results.

In this kind of answer your use of detail in each stage of the “C.A.R.” model is critical. Detailed facts and figures will bring your story to life and add credibility to your answer. Be sure to prepare multiple examples for core skills because interviewers frequently want more evidence of fundamental skills for the contract.

Question type 3: Motivation Test

“Why do you want this contract?” 

Here, your interviewer is looking to test your motivation. It is important to have thought this through in advance because it is very difficult to create convincing and comprehensive answers under pressure. Good answers lend themselves well to numerical structures. e.g. “There are 3 specific reasons I’m interested in this contract. Firstly…, Secondly…, Finally…” It works well if these motivations are consistent over time and build on earlier career steps or specific interests which you can reference.

Question type 4: Qualification / Experience Test

“What makes you qualified for this contract?”

Your interviewer wants you to justify why you would be good at the contract. Again, multi-part answers work well. e.g. “There are 3 reasons I’m particularly well qualified for this role…Firstly, Secondly, Finally…” Such a list may draw on qualifications, work experience and passion for a relevant interest. Detail, logic, structure and keeping these answers concise will help you to be successful. Use body language to signpost when you transition between points in your answer.

Question type 5: Challenge

“What is your biggest weakness?”

This question has become something of a cliché. However, it is worth having an answer planned so you don’t get caught out. The most clichéd response is, “I’m a perfectionist”.

The idea being that it’s clever that even your biggest weakness creates perfection. We recommend avoiding this answer. Your interviewer will be looking to understand your genuine weaknesses. No one is perfect, so do not feel the need to hide the truth.

Select a weakness in a skill which is not core to this role. For example, if your contract will require attention to detail, giving your weakness as ‘carelessness’ will likely cost you the role, or lead to extensive further questioning.

You may also be asked, “What would your current boss want you to improve?” A good answer will highlight a skill which is non-core to the role you are applying to. It will state the nature of the weakness and then demonstrate how you have already purposefully addressed that, perhaps through training or practice, to achieve a marked improvement in recent times.

Question type 6: Random

“How many jelly babies would it take to fill a double decker bus?”

What? Some interviewers like to ask challenging, random questions. Their motivation is to test your thinking and confidence under pressure. While it is impressive if you calculate or know the actual answer, that is rarely the most important factor. If you do not know the answer, rule one is “Don’t panic!” If necessary, ask for a little extra thinking time. If you can, calculate your answer or give your best guess. If you do not know the answer, the next best thing is to suggest how you would approach finding or calculating it to demonstrate your thinking. 

You can watch the accompanying film here

How to structure winning interview answers


To discover more about mastering interview preparation and interview performance, check the previous articles in this series.

Next time we’ll be looking at how to optimise your LinkedIn profile.