How to answer these tricky job interview questions

Congratulations. Your killer resume and impeccable credentials have landed you an interview. Here's how to nail it.

tough interview questions

Tough job interview questions and how to answer them

If you want to be prepared for your next interview, you need to practice. But don't ignore seemingly innocuous questions because you think they're no-brainers; sometimes the most benign questions can make or break your chances of landing a role. Here are the 15 trickiest interview questions and how to nail your answers.

1. Can you tell me a little about yourself?

1. Can you tell me a little about yourself?

This seems like a no-brainer, but it's trickier than you think. You don't want to start waxing poetic about your knitting hobby or your cat; nor do you want to launch into an unabridged employment history, says Rick Gillis, job search strategist, consultant, speaker and author of Job! and Promote! Your work doesn't speak for itself. You do.

Gillis recommends an accomplishments-based resume that highlights the top four most impactful achievements to catch the eye of hiring managers; this is where you have the chance to talk those through in more depth.

"You want to show instances in the past where you've made a company money or saved a company money. Give a concise and compelling pitch about how you've added value," Gillis says. Then, you can segue into how those accomplishments and experiences uniquely qualify you for the role.

2 how hear about us

2. How did you hear about the position?

This is another question that seems benign, but is actually quite loaded. Since most employers feel referrals make the best hires, here's where you should play up your connections to the company, says Dan Schawbel, partner and research director at Future Workplace. The recent Active Job Seeker Dilemma survey, from Future Workplace, a research firm and workforce management consultancy and Beyond.com, a career and hiring marketplace, polled 4,347 U.S. job seekers and 129 HR professionals and found 71 percent of HR pros surveyed felt referrals were the best way to find candidates. Leveraging your network also signals to a potential employer that you have the necessary soft skills to succeed, Schawbel says.

"[Communication, networking and teamwork] are skills that you need not just on the job, but for your entire life. People have to understand how this works -- it doesn't have to be a family member or a good friend, just someone you know. Figure out how to get some common ground and set up a lunch or a coffee date with them. Leverage that relationship to figure out how you can work together," he says.

If you learned of the position through an event or article, or if you stumbled on the listing randomly, explain what it was about the position that caught your eye and why you're the perfect candidate to fill the role.

3. What do you know about the company?

3. What do you know about the company?

You should already know to do your homework and research potential employers, but don't stop with general information, says Gillis. Check out business publications, newspapers, even SEC filings (for public companies) to see what the company's up to and to try and gauge their strategies and initiatives, as well as discern the mission and values behind that. Culture's obviously a major differentiator, too, so make sure you know at least a bit about the company culture and make sure you would be a good fit within that.

"This kind of effort puts you at an advantage over other candidates, because it shows you're knowledgeable about not just what the company is, but where it's going. And then you can tailor your responses to make sure you fit into that growth pattern," Gillis says.

4 greatest professional strengths

4. What are your greatest professional strengths?

Here's another opportunity to hammer home your accomplishments, achievements, skills and experience, says Gillis. Try and tailor your responses not just to what you think the interviewer wants to hear, but to those that are relevant to the role and are more specific than things like, "communication," he says.

5. What do you consider to be your weaknesses?
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5. What do you consider to be your weaknesses?

It seems obvious, but don't lead with "I'm always late" or "I don't work well in teams." So is, "I don't have any weaknesses." The ideal answer here is one that shows you're self-aware, understand where you struggle in a professional setting, and adds what you're currently doing to improve on that weakness. For example, if public speaking isn't your strong suit, but you've joined Toastmasters or another professional organization to sharpen your skills, that's a great tidbit to share.

[ Related story: 7 tips for making a good impression at your new job ]

6 greatest achievement

6. What is your greatest professional achievement?

This question gives you another chance to highlight your accomplishments and achievements and back them up with greater detail and hard data, says Gillis. If you need to, go back to your former employees and quantify how much time, resources and revenue you saved or made.

"I had a client who went back to a former banking industry employer and discovered that a piece of software he'd written for them ended up saving the company millions of dollars and reallocated thousands of man-hours -- freeing up personnel and resources. He was shocked! As much as you can, quantify and verify data like this; employers want to know how you'll make them money or save them money," Gillis says.

7. Tell me about a challenge or conflict you've faced at work, and how you dealt with it.

7. Tell me about a challenge or conflict you've faced at work, and how you dealt with it.

Work's not all sunshine and rainbows -- as if you needed a reminder. Conflict will happen; challenges will arise, and employers want to know how you'll respond. How do you deal with people whose personality clashes with yours? How do you make or respond to difficult decisions? The best way to answer this is to set up the situation, then explain how you took action and -- preferably -- how that situation was resolved satisfactorily.

8 where see yourself

8. Where do you see yourself in five years?

As succession planning becomes more important to businesses, it's critical to have your own vision for where your career is going, says Schawbel. Hiring managers want to know that you're setting realistic goals for your career as well as gauge your ambition and whether or not the role aligns with your goals and plans for growth. It's an area companies are starting to pay greater attention to, according to the survey from Future Workplace on The Active Job Seeker Dilemma.

"If employees don't see a path up, they will start looking for a path out. It's in companies' best interest to make sure they're making their workers' skills, experience and interests a priority and to help them navigate and nurture a growth and development plan. It can help in areas like cultural fit, where companies often struggle -- if you have great people within the company already, you have to do whatever you can to keep them, because it's hard to find," Schawbel says.

9 current job

9. Why are you leaving your current job?

This is a tough one, but you need to be honest and positive but whatever you do, don't bash your past employers. Instead, craft a response that shows you're eager to take on new opportunities and explain why and how this role and company is a better fit than previous positions. If you were let go or were laid off, that's a perfectly acceptable answer.

10 why fired

10. Why were you fired?

This one is much tougher, especially if your termination wasn't on the best of terms; again, be positive, don't slam your previous employer and remember that being fired doesn't have to be a deal-breaker. Share what you've learned from the experience, how you've grown and how the experience will shape how you will tackle your new job and your life as a result.

[ Related story: 4 tips to help build your professional brand ]

11 why gap employment

11. Why was there a gap in your employment?

In the mind of an employer, any gap in employment is seen as a negative, even in an unsteady economy. Address the issue honestly, directly and frankly and then move on. Share what you've been doing during your unemployment -- you should have been volunteering, taking classes, writing, speaking, blogging, for example -- and explain how and why those activities will benefit you in your new role.

12 explain career paths

12. Can you explain why you changed career paths?

Again, this doesn't have to sink your chances for landing a new role. Explain why you made the career decisions you have, and how and why your new direction is a better fit for you. You also can make sure to highlight the ways in which your previous experience is relatable and transferrable to your new potential role, Gillis says.

13 salary requirements

13. What are your salary requirements?

This question's extra tricky, especially for women and minorities, who don't tend to negotiate as well as they should. You should do your homework on sites like Glassdoor and PayScale to find out what an expected salary range is, and then aim for the highest part of that range that applies based on your skills, experience and education. If you're working with a recruiter, be honest with them about how much you are or were currently making, and leave the hard-nosed negotiations to them.

14. Are you planning on having children?
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14. Are you planning on having children?

Questions about your marital/family status, sex/gender, nationality, religion or age, are illegal -- but they still get asked. It might not be intentional or malicious, but if these questions come up, be prepared to redirect the conversation gently back to professional matters. You could say something like, "I'm not really thinking along those lines at this point in my career, but I'm very interested in learning about career growth at the company. Can you tell me more about that?"

15. Do you have any questions for us?

15. Do you have any questions for us?

An interview should be a two-way conversation, so don't squander your opportunity to ask questions that can help you decide if a job is the right fit for you. What do you want to know about the position? The company? The department? The team? While many of these will be covered in the actual interview, have some unique questions in your back pocket, like, "What's the best thing about working here?" "How long have you been at the company?" Or ask about new projects, products, initiatives or strategies the company's pursuing - and that you learned about when doing your homework.