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How to handle tough interview questions

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Updated: 11/15/2012 11:17 am

(BPT) - - When searching for employment in today's highly competitive job market, the process often seems like one hurdle after another. Once you have prepared a letter-perfect resume, you face the hurdle of landing an interview. After securing the interview, the next hurdle poses itself in the form of surprisingly tough interview questions. In the past, job interviews were all about your knowledge and technical skills. Not so today.

Jason Keller, director of Career Services at Brown Mackie College - Indianapolis, offers advice on how to prepare for your next interview. "Interviews today are much different than they were in the past," says Keller, who has 16 years under his belt in the staffing and recruiting industry. "The processes of human resources have evolved to include a different type of question: the behavioral question." These are not so easy to answer.

"Behavioral questions tend to put you in a scenario to find out how you have handled different business-related situations," Keller says. "The prospective employer is trying to figure out future reactions based on your past experiences. This gives the interviewer some hidden information about you - things you can't put on a resume."

Don't be surprised if you are asked to give an example of a time when you had to think out of the box, or when you went above and beyond the call of duty on the job. Monster, an online employment resource, advises candidates to be ready for anything.

"Take your time," says Keller. That's the first thing Keller tells job candidates. It translates to, "Don't say the first thing that pops up in your head during an interview." Those preparing for interviews with Keller learn that it is OK to ask the interviewer to repeat or rephrase the question. It is also OK to repeat part of the question at the beginning of your answer. "It verifies that you understand the question and lets the interviewer know you are listening," he says.

This can help to keep your answers focused on the question. Keller advises job seekers to answer only the specific question asked. "Don't go off on a tangent about other situations," he says. "If it helps, take a deep breath while collecting your thoughts."

When faced with a question about a specific scenario, Keller says, "Never answer with, 'I can't think of anything right now.'" If the question deals with a situation that you have not encountered in your career, be honest about it. Keller gives an example of how to respond in this circumstance. "I haven't experienced that yet in my career. If I did, here's what I would do," he says.

Some of the more difficult questions to answer deal with negative situations, such as working with a co-worker you disliked, or having trouble getting along with a supervisor. This type of question seems to be in direct conflict with the often-given advice to stay positive during an interview. However, Keller advises to put a positive spin on negative questions.

"A simple explanation of differences in work styles can directly address this type of question," he says. "You can say something like, 'My previous supervisor was a micromanager, and I don't work best that way. I tend to work better in an environment where ideas are fostered, and clear priorities are set." This answer addresses the question, yet preserves the wise philosophy of not saying anything negative about a previous employer or co-worker.

One question that many people dread relates to a gap in the employment history. What did you do while you were unemployed? "Be honest," Keller advises again. "Everything you say can be verified. Any falsehoods will be discovered." So what do you work on when you don't have a job? "Do volunteer work," Keller says. "It shows initiative. Help a shelter, a charity, or an industry association while you are looking for a position that would be a good fit."

"Potential employers use the interview to evaluate your communication skills, especially when the position involves interacting with clients, or a health care position where you will be required to interact with patients," says Keller. "Anyone dealing with people must know how to communicate effectively. Knowledge of the field won't help if you can't get people to warm up to you and feel relaxed."

Keller suggests that interview candidates practice answering questions with a friend or family member before the actual interview. About.com provides a list of common difficult interview questions. "I've had people come back and say, 'I never thought they would ask me that,'" says Keller. "It is best to be prepared."

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