Determine Why The Interview Question Was Asked


I’m in the process of working with a group of job seekers this week. After some time spent improving cover letters and resumes, we are collectively working at getting those resumes into the hands of employers. The end result we hope is that the interviews are soon to be forthcoming; in fact some have already started getting those precious interviews.

So yesterday at the close of day, I got out the flip chart and asked members of the group to share what they perceived as dreaded questions, or questions they don’t necessarily dread but have no good answer for. By sharing those difficult questions to ask, I can provide some insight and suggestions on how to best structure a reply.

But you know the key thing to start with is some understanding of why the interviewer is asking the question they – and possibly you – find difficult to answer in the first place. And I don’t suggest any applicant answer their question by first asking, “Why do you ask that?” No, you’ve got to figure this out internally. Once you determine why they asked the question, and what it is designed to reveal or share about who you are and how you’ve dealt with things in the past, you can structure an answer and choose what from your past you want to share.

So maybe some concrete examples would be helpful? One of those questions that someone in my group finds troublesome is the question, “Tell me about your greatest accomplishment of which you are proud.” This question is really designed to reveal a few things. First of all, the words, ‘greatest accomplishment’ and ‘proud’ are the keys. Looking at the ‘proud’ first, think about anytime you hear someone speaking of anything they are proud of and it’s clear what you are about to say should be delivered with some zest, some enthusiasm in your voice and a smile on your face. By sitting slightly forward in your chair, your body language will support your voice, and the expression on your face should radiate pride. Now this pride is not vanity, just pride in your accomplishment.

Now to address the ‘greatest accomplishment’ part of the above question. Any accomplishment worth sharing should involve overcoming something in order to actually achieve the end result. After all, if you accomplished something with only minimal effort, it may not be what you decided to share. It’s like scoring a goal in a hockey game when no one is in the other teams net. Yes you scored but the effort to shoot the puck in an undefended net is not as impressive as battling through two defencemen, then putting the puck behind a goalie to win the game for your team. Which is the greater accomplishment?

So in the answer you give, choose a work-related example of being presented with a task, taking it on with some enthusiasm, overcoming a problem or conflict, and the result being something that you personally had a huge part in which does you credit. Now if the skills you used in reaching that accomplishment are transferable and directly applicable to the job you are currently applying for, you’ve got a first class answer.

A second example. Another question put forward was, “Tell me about yourself”. This question, usually the first thing asked, is designed actually for the dual purpose of putting you at ease, and getting you to share whatever you want. Think of it as a chance to share whatever you want about yourself, but keep it relevant to the job you are competing for. It’s also a chance for you the applicant to hang yourself and remove yourself from the process.

Because the interview process is designed to move some people on, it’s also designed to rule some people out! So “Tell me about yourself”, can be an interview killer. Choose to start off with, “Well I’m a single mother of two…”, and you’ve raised the child care flag with the interview. While you may be proud of raising those two children, interviewers are now wondering about your future absences. Not only will you be absent when you are sick, you may be absent when either of them are ill, or have appointments etc. Is that fair? Maybe and maybe not. Do you have arrangements in place for care etc. Maybe, maybe not. However, WHY raise a flag when there are so many other things you could have chosen to share with the interviewer?

And finally, one person in the class said what irked her was when a second question from an interviewer addressed something she had already answered earlier. Interviewers usually have predetermined questions in order to standardize the process. So it could be that you used some example from your past to answer an earlier question, and now are being asked a question that seems to be prompting you to talk about the same issue. It could also mean that they want further clarification of an answer, or to probe deeper in order to reveal more about your capabilities than you previously shared. Instead of getting perturbed and thinking they weren’t listening, just answer the question but with more depth. And if you want, you can ask for clarification.

Determining quickly why a question is being asked of you and what it is being designed to reveal can help you zero-in on the best way to structure your answer.

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5 thoughts on “Determine Why The Interview Question Was Asked

  1. Excellent topic! Along the same line is my favourite “why do they ask that question” question: “Tell us your greatest weakness”. What an interviewer REALLY wants to know is “what have you DONE about a weakness”. Even better is going into an interview with the knowledge that many questions are going to be asked in some form or another. The interview isn’t really a big mystery at all and original questions that come out of left field are not frequent. Interviewees CAN prepare and be ready. Knowing this can reduce the natural anxiety of going through the interview process. Its almost like getting the answers to the big test in advance!

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  2. If you get asked a question to irks you or some oddball question like, “If you can be any animal, what would it be?” you can also prepare a better answer for the next time you are asked it by sitting down after the interview and figuring out why the question was asked? This gives you more time to come up with how to answer it.

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    1. Thanks for the commentary Deb. I wrote a blog on those odd questions and actually used the animal scenario as my example. These questions are really designed to observe you thinking on your feet for something you couldn’t have predicted. The choice of an animal whose characteristics mirror those in the job you are applying for is good advice. Being a Beatles fan, I immediately think, “I am the walrus!”. So I’m adaptable (they live above and under the water), loyal, sociable, (so I work well in groups), and they can defend their territory, (and I can defend my clients through advocacy).

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      1. Great article Kelly. I really appreciate your insight into these types of questions. I was just thinking to myself earlier, what in the world would my answer be if I’m asked, “If you were a tree what kind would you be?” Haven’t come up with an answer yet but will now take the time to ponder the question.

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      2. Okay so you posed the question and I’ll give it a shot on a first dry run without taking any time to think it through. Let’s see how I do. If I were a tree I’d be a White Pine. Why? Well a White Pine allows the wind to pass through the needles without being losing it’s needles unlike a Maple or broad-leafed tree which would have it’s leaves blown off. So like it, I’m resilient. The white pine is also one pine with softer needles, so like it, I am resilient but encourages others to approach. And let’s not forget a white pine keeps the greenery all year, and the ones on my property are covered with Christmas lights this time of year. So you’ll find me colourful all year round and I light up when it’s darkest around me!

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