More Interview Questions that Are Trick Questions.

questionmarkWhen I say “trick questions,” I’m talking about two things:

1) what the question really means and how to match your answer to that

2) the fact that many commonly-asked interview questions take first-time interviewees by surprise so it’s a matter of being prepared for any and every commonly-asked interview question

Earlier I posted about broad, general interview questions that are trick questions.  Today’s post will cover specific questions that require details to answer, such as:

  • Do you work better independently or in teams?
  • What are your weaknesses?
  • Tell me about a time you failed at something.
  • Tell me about a time you worked in multicultural teams.  

These are trick questions because the right answer is always “both” or “none”, or “never.” Yet these questions are so common that most answers interviewees give have become clichés: “My weakness is that I’m a perfectionist workaholic!”

Language students, you are are in luck! You can use experiences with language and cultures to stand out against the competition in an interview situation.

These questions provide an opportunity to provide nitty gritty answers in the form of a detailed story that you wouldn’t have room for in your written job search documents (and that you don’t have time for with those broad, general questions).  

Here is where you can show that you have all those traits employers are looking for:

  • leadership,
  • flexibility,
  • strong written & oral communication skills,
  • teamwork skills,
  • ability to synthesize & analyze,
  • ability to behave in culturally appropriate ways in a variety of situations.  

BUT you can’t just say that you are any of those things–everybody can say that they are flexible team leaders with superior communication skills. You have to illustrate that you are those things with a clear, concise, detailed story. Then say what you learned from the experience & how you will apply it in the employer’s organization.

Here is an example from my recent experience: I received a phone call from an employer because I was listed as one candidate’s reference.  I told this story:

She was part of a team of students who had to approach small business owners  to be profiled on the website of a community group that was promoting economic development among Hispanic microentrepreneurs. The team had to work quickly to identify small businesses, then divide them among the various members in order to complete interviews and submit complete profiles within one academic semester. She communicated with other team members to avoid overlap and duplications, then conducted more than a dozen interviews in Spanish with Hispanic business owners in various neighborhoods. The task would be daunting to anyone: entering a neighborhood or business alone, and then striking up a conversation with the owner in Spanish. She was turned away often, but persisted. She commuted throughout a large geographic region to talk to business owners. Often she would arrive and find out the owner had stepped out for the rest of the day. So she returned later, showing patience and flexibility.  Despite setbacks, she quickly became comfortable, which in turn allowed her to be confident in her Spanish-speaking capabilities. At the end of the project, she was able to clearly articulate the balance of her experience: on the one hand she felt like a complete foreigner in these businesses that were right in the middle of “her own” community, but she also took steps to cross the cultural divide she experienced, taking her entire family to an ice cream and popsicle shop where she had earlier interviewed the owner.

That one anecdote addresses most of the specific questions above (and could be tweaked to focus more specifically on one aspect to the exclusion of other details). It:

  • addresses the balance between team and independent work,
  • provides an example of overcoming fear & failure,
  • mentions communication skills (and Spanish proficiency!), and
  • threads comfort in multicultural environments throughout–she had to step outside her own comfort zone, embrace what it is like to be a foreigner, and then bridge the gap between “her world” and that of the Hispanic business owners.

I had to show how that person was able to do all those things using the example of the community project.  In an earlier post, the example of “besitos” is used to answer the question about failing at something.

(A few minutes after that phone call, I emailed the candidate. She replied that I must have said all the right things because she’d just been offered the position. Two days later she accepted the job.)

Now you try it: tell the story of a multicultural experience that by definition involves other people & shows you confronted with a problem that you solved. Think of ways to illustrate that you are comfortable in new and challenging situations. Then say what you learned from the experience and how you would apply the knowledge gained in the future (with a specific organization, if possible). This last step is key–you cannot assume that employers will read into your story that you are fluent in Spanish, comfortable in multicultural environments, a team leader who works well independently, etc.

Think about things like:

  • a missed flight abroad,
  • course projects in the community,
  • volunteer work,
  • lost baggage,
  • organizing a group outing or event,
  • homesickness and how you dealt with it,
  • access to cold water only–or some other comfort of home that you learned to do without.

Post your examples in the comments or send them to me at Let me know if you need help preparing any of your job search or interview prep materials.

Darcy Lear is a Chicago-based career coach specializing in training students to highlight their language studies so they standout in the job search and workplace. For one-on-one coaching or to set up a workshop, contact Darcy:
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6 Responses to More Interview Questions that Are Trick Questions.

  1. Ann Abbott says:

    Another excellent post, Darcy. Your specific example is very helpful. I hope that all students will read this then take the time to actually articulate their own example, not just think of it as something they will come back to later. It’s that important, folks!

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