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When You are Stumped at a Job Interview

You never know what to expect from a job interview.  Sometimes the questions are easy, while other times they leave you feeling like a deer in headlights as your brain scrambles to come up with a response.  It is important to take a moment to consider why interviewers ask tough questions.  Since they know that you have been preparing for this interview, they may want to catch you off guard so that they can get a better understanding of how you think and your level of experience.  Here are some tips that will help you navigate these tough questions:

Prepare for common tough questions.  Many of the difficult interview questions are easy to predict.  Some tough questions that are commonly asked include:  What are your weaknesses?  Tell me about some mistakes you have made in the past.  Tell me about a conflict that you had with a co-worker.  If you have answers for these questions ready, you will be able to easily navigate them.   

Buy yourself some time.  You might just need a little extra time to get through a difficult question.  If you don't understand the question, ask them to clarify it.  Don't jump into the answer right away; take a deep breath and make a plan for what you are going to say.   

Try to understand the purpose of the question.  Nothing is random; there is a purpose behind every question they ask you.  What information could they be trying to attain by asking you this question?  Understanding the purpose of the question gives you a good idea of how you should approach it. 

Answer the question directly.  Interviewers hate it when candidates dodge tough questions.  It makes you look evasive.  These questions are so difficult because you need to provide a legitimate answer without straying from your key message that you are a great candidate for the job.  Even if you can't find a perfect answer to the question, just do your best with it.  If you are struggling, chances are that the other candidates will struggle with it too.   

Follow up in your thank you note.  If you feel like you didn't handle the question well at the interview, you can address it in your thank you note.  You would only want to use this approach if you feel that the question was significant and that your inability to answer it could impact your chances of being hired.  Here is an example of how you could approach it:  "Thank you for meeting with me today.  In our discussion, you asked me about my biggest weakness.  While I found it difficult to come up with a weakness in that moment, I was thinking about it on my way home.  I believe that my biggest weakness is spontaneity.  I am a planner and when I am surprised, it takes me a moment to recover.  However, I have learned that I need to be more flexible and now I am able to quickly come up with a new plan."

The reality is that as the candidate, you don't set the agenda for the interview.  The employer decides how they want to test you and you are just along for the ride.  The key is to prepare as much as you can but to be ready for some surprises.

(Written by Karen Bivand, Image by