Some interview questions are meant to see just how tough you are. Here’s how to prepare for them.

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Headed to a job interview and worried about bombing?

First, remember that someone has always done worse.

Second, and by far more important, remember this: HR pros often ask questions knowing you might screw them up.

In fact, trying to make you screw up is the whole point: I’ll just throw this little hand grenade and see if she can defuse it before it explodes.

How to train for combat? Rather than preparing generic answers to the same old questions everyone can expect (“What are your weaknesses?” “Why did you leave your last position?”), the savvy interviewee—that’d be you!—should have both ears open for questions that are designed to throw them off their game.

Here are a few to watch for, and how to handle them shrewdly:

1. The most innocent-sounding doozy? “Tell me about yourself…”

As many as 80% of all interviews begin with this breezy landmine. It often leads to the most common interviewing faux pas: revealing too much.

So what’s universally accepted as too much?

Sometimes it’s a seemingly inconsequential bit of information that conflicts with your resume.

Or it’s a lack of preparedness.

Or a simple inability to express yourself clearly.

When the interviewer says “tell me about yourself,” what he or she is really doing is checking to see if you’re articulate and professional. The way you answer is as important as the things you say.


  • Keep your game face on; don’t get too personal.
  • Give them the facts, not your life story.
  • Do your homework, know what they are looking for and design your answer accordingly.
  • Ask questions and generate conversation. It’s a two-way street.

2. “Tell me about an instance where you failed or did something you are ashamed of.”

Whatever you do, don’t get defensive. And avoid confessing something you regret—feeling ashamed is a shade different than talking about an error in a calm, unemotional way.

While it’s important you be prepared for this question, it’s equally important to appear perplexed by it. A touch of theater, perhaps—but true, unfortunately. You want to send the signal that thinking of a mistake requires a bit of rummaging through mental files otherwise stuffed with successes.

Start by touting your ability to work peacefully and effectively with coworkers or clients, then pause, have a think and tell the interviewer about your philosophy of dealing with regrettable situations in a timely manner so you don’t have to harp on them for years to come.


  • Keep your emotions firmly in hand.
  • Resist clichéd or generalized answers such as “I’m a workaholic” or “I’m too hard on myself.”
  • Be honest and address the interviewer as a colleague, not a therapist or buddy.

3. The last tricky question is a non-question. It sounds a lot like this: Silence. Cough. Ahem.

Maybe it’s the dreaded silent treatment, or maybe it’s just a deliberately awkward pause. Either way, that quiet lull in conversation has ruffled many feathers, and it’s designed to reveal how you react under stress.

Not all interviewers will play quiet to see if the applicant will launch into nervous, oversharing chatter—but that’s how most people respond.

Luckily, you know better than to ramble.  You’re cool and calm. You’re relaxed and relish the chance to catch your breath. Perhaps you even grab the opportunity to ask a question of your own.


  • Look the interviewer in the eye. Don’t fidget.
  • Resist the urge to fill the space unless you have something important to say.
  • Ask your own questions.
  • Be cool as a cucumber. Because you are.

Tough questions are a great opportunity to flex your muscle and show the employer you’re resilient, solid and made to last. Be professional, be genuine and be ready.

Amy Knapp is a business blogger for InsideTrak. Educated in Law and the Fine Arts, her work champions the marriage of the creative and the corporate.


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  2. Spark Hire

    Good advice, Amy! You mention rambling in your last tip, but giving concise, too-the-point answers is so important in interviewing that I think it should be mentioned again! As you say, human resource professionals and hiring managers sometimes try to be tricky with their questions, so interviewees should always remember to take a deep breath and calmly think of an answer before blurting just anything out.

    • Amy Knapp

      Thanks, Spark Hire. It takes such practice to be concise and learn not to ramble. Can be so hard for candidates to resist when they are nervous or thrown for a loop.

  3. Anonymous

    I guess they don’t like my questions either, like “Did you accept a bailout from the government?” or “Has your CEO or management team been indicted for insider trading?”

    Deal-killer baby!

    • Amy Knapp

      Oh man, good questions! It’s great to hear about candidates who are also not afraid to ask the hard questions.

  4. Mark L. Clark

    Good article and advice.

  5. Susan Nee

    I have a question regarding about the temporary interview. How come I did not get the tempoary job at the bank of new york mellon? recruiter chose another candidate instead of me.

    • Amy Knapp

      Hmmm…did you have to deal with any of these questions? How did you feel about the interview? Brazen has some great articles on how to gauge your success in an interview. Sometimes it just comes down to a good feeling about a certain candidate.

    • Amy Knapp

      Hmm…did you have to field any of these tough questions? How did you feel about the interview?

  6. Laurie Bluestone

    Solid, real world examples.
    I was asked in an exploratory conversation/interview “Do you curse?”
    Hated it at the time but in retrospect recognize it as an interesting portal.

    • Amy Knapp

      That’s a great question! What did you answer?

    • Bob Nawrocki

      I think I would have to answer f@$k. No

    • Laurie Bluestone

      I responded “Unfortunately, yes. Rarely, but not as rarely as I would prefer.” At the time two thoughts flashed through my head. One, is it to see if one is disciplined in their words (the role in question involved working with the customers of a 70 yo manufacturing firm) or two, is it a query to see if I would flinch when a potential cohort would inevitably curse. Later I realized it was a &#$@ fine question!

    • Vincent Kernaghan

      When is it incorrect to ask for some context clarification? So many of these types of interview questions seem manipulative and vague without framing them in some way. Why isn’t it considered unprofessional of HR to say something, ask something, or act in a way they wouldn’t appreciate directed at themselves?

  7. Susan Nee

    I did pretty well for this question. the recruiter did not chose me because it was a temporary position. he sees that I want to get permanent positon. can you give me some suggestion where I can get some experience in the human resource? I have less than 2 years of experience in hr.

    • Evaline Auerbach

      If your spoken English is as bad as you written sample here, that is probably the reason you were not hired.

    • Reza Mousavian

      I didn’t think someone could be a written sample (“you written sample”). For a Professor of English, your written English isn’t that proficient either.

  8. Mary Smith-Hansen

    Amy- Excellent advice. even old timers can use a little coaching for an interview.

  9. Jason Shinn

    I disagree slightly on point #2, but this is probably highly dependent on both how I carry myself and my chosen profession (software developer/architect). I have no problem talking about wrong paths I’ve gone down that I had since recognized and dealt with, and my work history is littered with such instances, playing coy is not only disingenuous but anathema to the impression I want to give.

    The key is to embody the concept that experts in their field have become so by making most of the mistakes their field has to offer. I also come across as incredibly candid, building the impression that I’ll always tell you as much as I can about exactly what’s going on and will take ownership of problems and their solutions.

    This approach worked particularly well for me in my most recent job change (last month), as my new company is dealing with a lot of problems that I’ve already dealt with in the past. I’ve been able to display an instant understanding of where they are and represent access to one or several possible solutions, by being fully candid about the mistakes that I myself have made.

  10. Harmony Kuller

    Your article could not have come at a better time! I have had several interviews recently and this article will most certainly help me do better on future interviews!

  11. Paul Garcia

    Recently had the “Silent Treatment.” Very interesting.

  12. Lisa Howe

    I have to admit, I had an interviewer ask me about an instance where I was ashamed or failed…and yes, I was a bit emotional because I took the question to heart and answered honestly. Afterwards, I felt like an idiot because I have never done that (become a little emotional at an interview). It was interesting to say the least. However, upon reflection, it made me take a deeper look at myself, which I appreciate as a growing experience.

  13. Kim Patterson

    This is good. That non-question point is so true, and pretty easy to fall for. Great article overall!

  14. Tom M. Southern

    This is useful information and I’ll definitely recommend it to people I know who are going for interviews.

    I think it’s all about marketing yourself in a way your potential employer wants to have as part of their community.

    Work places are communities just like anywhere people spend time in other people’s company. It’s also a false community in that most members of these communities would chose to spend time in the company they do.

    It’s important to realise that a job interview is a gateway to a community’s established boundaries. They want to know they’re not letting “enemies” in. You have to reassure them you’ll be one of them, productively.

    In the past, I’ve used Question 1 to illustrate how I’ll fit in productively to their community. I restrict my answer to 3 areas where I’ve put what they’re looking for to work, and what the results were.

    To Question 2 I do the perplexed look (as you suggest) and responded with “I don’t think I’ve failed or been ashamed by anything I’ve done, but I do think there have been times when, on reflection, I could have done things differently. Such as… [and given examples that show how I’m always looking to improve, I take constructive feedback well, etc.].

    As for the silent treatment. I’ve not experienced this since the ’80s when they were all the rage, especially here in the UK. If I did meet this kind of thing I usually knew I didn’t want to work there as it seemed theatrical and faddish. Sometimes I’d respond with something like: “Well, if you don’t have any more questions for me, perhaps I can ask: How do you feel your acquisition of XY has been proven a good thing for [name of employer’s company]?

    In the end, it all comes down to doing your research, knowing what you want from a job, and being confident in your own abilities.

    Tom M. Southern

  15. Ariella Kory

    I once went to an interview where there was a giant oil painting of Hitler in the interview room. The person giving the interview didn’t mention the painting at all. Never heard back from them.

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