Dear New Shrink,

I have an interview coming up and I have no idea how to prepare. I have had several interviews in the past, some have gone really well and others have been a complete failure. I seem to struggle with broad questions and have no idea where to go with my answer. Can you share some common interview questions and ideas about what I should talk about in my answers?

Signed,

Curious Interviewee

Dear Interviewee,

Congratulations on your offer to interview; in a tough job market securing an interview is a notable accomplishment. Many people get nervous about interviews — the key is to make sure that this does not keep you from putting your best foot forward. Before the interview, make sure that you have thoroughly researched the company and the position you are interviewing for. The more you know about the company — their mission and goals, competitors, and successes — the better prepared you will be to handle their questions.

To start off the interview, you should be prepared to answer a broad question about your background. This question often manifests itself as “tell me about yourself” and is designed to get to know you beyond your application materials. In crafting your response you should think about the key skills and accomplishments that you want the employer to know about you. You have complete control over your response but need to make sure that your response is clearly articulated and relevant to their hiring needs. Identify the key takeaways you want the employer to remember and integrate them into your response.

A good structure for your reply might be past-present-future. Start by talking about your past training and experiences (i.e. educational training or first experiences in the industry), then move into your present role and accomplishments. You can close your response by telling the employer what made you decide to apply to the position and your current or longer-term goals. Your answer should be targeted to the needs of the employer and address your key skills. There is no right or wrong answer so use this as an opportunity to tell the employer more about your unique qualifications and interest in the position.

Another common question revolves around one’s strengths and weaknesses. Spend time thinking about your strengths as they relate to the position. Use this as an opportunity to highlight your abilities and focus on qualities that the company values. A strong response to this question will articulate your abilities but also focus on the value. It is simply not enough to just list your strengths; you should also provide examples of how you have applied those skills.

When handling questions about weakness it is important that you actually answer their question but at the same time do not eliminate yourself as a potential candidate. We all know of those stereotypical answers like “I’m a perfectionist” or “I take on too much” which do not tell the employer anything about you. Instead focusing on sharing an authentic weakness but not something that is directly related to the position you are interested in. Your response should be sincere without revealing too much or showing an employer that you might be a risk. The best answer is to share a minor weakness and focus on how you are working on this limitation or your actions to improve or mitigate the weakness.

Some employers will use behavioral questions to get a better sense of your experience and abilities. Behavioral questions ask you to tell an employer about a specific experience you’ve had in the past and how you handled that particular situation. An example would be “tell me about a time when you disagreed with a team member.” Your answer should focus on providing the employer with a sense of the context, players involved, actions you took, and most importantly the results of the experience. The best answers to these questions will focus on the role you played and the results you attained. If things did not go well focus on what you learned and what you would do differently next time.

Employers may also ask you questions about your goals or future plans with a goal of understanding your long-range planning, your drive and commitment, and to better understand how the position they offer fits into your overall career goals. I would encourage you to focus on your short-term and intermediate goals. You do not need to provide a play-by-play of your entire professional career. Make sure to draw in the responsibilities of the position you are applying for and detail how this will play a role in your professional development.

Finally, as you craft your responses to their questions think about drawing your experience back to the skills and qualities they ask for in the job description. Ultimately you should focus on your unique strengths and qualities and what you can do to improve the company.

KATRINA DAVY, M.A., Ed.M, is a Santa Monica-based professional career counselor. She holds degrees from Columbia and Cornell universities. Visit her online at www.kdcareer.com.