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How to answer 5 tough interview questions

We all have interview questions we secretly pray a prospective employer won't ask us. Whether you find them vague and confusing, or you think they are uncomfortable topics, or you simply aren't sure how to approach answering them, for some reason these questions always trip you up and jeopardize your chances of getting hired.

But with proper preparation, a little practice and the right approach, you can master even the most daunting questions from across the table.

Here are some of the questions job seekers most dread, and tips on how to handle them.

1. Tell me a little bit about yourself

This question is asked in nearly every first-round interview, yet many job seekers still struggle with it. Given the question's open-ended and broad-scope phrasing, plus the fact that it's often the very first "official" interview question, its not surprising interviewees stress over finding the "right" answer. The key is preparation and brevity.

"Don't waste time talking through your entire resume down to every detail, as they already have that information in their hand. Avoid personal and irrelevant information as well," says Jennifer Lee Magas, vice president, Magas Media Consultants. "Instead, provide your elevator speech – a concise 30-second overview of who you are, what you have done—jobs, internships, volunteer opportunities, sports, leadership roles—and how this can help a future employer."

2. Why should we hire you?

This common question often trips up candidates because it's blunt and to the point. Once again, this question requires a bit of preparation—in particular, a clear understanding of the job description, requirements and expectations.

"People don't do well with this one because they don't review the job qualifications ahead of time. The interviewer wants to know what you will do specifically for this position, not general statements about yourself," Magas says. "Organize your thoughts using the PAR acronym, or Problem, Action, Results. Quickly illustrate your worth by outlining a problem you dealt with at work, what specific action you took to solve that problem, and how your solution ultimately benefited the organization in terms of saved money or time."

3. Why are you leaving your current company?

Past actions are a good indicator of future ones, so discussing your current employer during a job interview can be tricky. The best way to approach this is to not dwell on the negatives.

"Absolutely 100 percent stay positive when asked why you are leaving your current company. It should be about opportunity [and] growth," says Ricardo Estevez, director of Career Services at The Art Institute of Washington. "Make sure the job you're applying for is moving forward. If you are changing careers, you can express how passionate you are about the new field into which you are transitioning."

"You should never bash a previous supervisor, or employer in general," agrees David Bakke, career expert at Money Crashers. "You could say something like your old boss was a stickler for details, but that it ultimately made you a better employee."

4. What are your salary expectations?

Discussing money is something of a taboo in our culture, so it's understandable that so many job seekers struggle when the question of salary comes up in the interview. It also happens to be one of the most crucial—raises, bonuses and even future job offers are usually based on your salary.

"Usually you know what your value on the market is, or at least a range. You also know how much you need to live comfortably and pay your bills," says Heather Neisen, HR manager at TechnologyAdvice. "Ultimately, this question is best answered with 'Here's what I'm aiming for in my search and why—I now have my master's, I now have the experience, etc.' Just like every part of the interview, you and the employer are looking for a fit. Don't waste their time or your time. State what your salary range is and if they can't be flexible, you have the ability to end the process."

5. How many ridges are there around the edge of a quarter?

Or, if you were shrunk down to the size of a pencil and put in a blender, how would you get out? What about, how many traffic lights are in Manhattan?

Sometimes interview questions are just plain weird. If you're faced with a question that seems both unrelated to the job and more like a brainteaser or riddle than an interview question, don't panic. In many cases the interviewer is less interested in what your answer is than in how you answer.

"Companies like Google are famous for asking very unusual interview questions, so don't be surprised if it starts happening more and more with smaller firms as well," says Tim Backes, career adviser, resume expert and hiring manager at Resume Genius. "They are looking for someone who will give an answer and not just stumble over their words and repeat the question a dozen times as well as someone who shows both a clear train of thought, no matter if it's based solely in logic or it's creative. They also want to see confidence, but not arrogance. No matter what you do, remember to keep your composure and answer any unusual question to the best of your ability."

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How to be thankful for the work you do

There are plenty of benefits to loving your job, which can reach far beyond the actual hours you’re on the clock.

As Ray White, author of “Connecting Happiness and Success,” says, “When people love what they do, they are happier and more successful. They work longer hours, make more friends at work, spend most of their time thinking about how to do things better and talk to everyone about what they do, which provides them with lots of diverse ideas on how to do their job even better. Their job becomes intertwined in their life rather than separate from it, and they excel because of it.”

Even if you don’t love your job, it can still have a positive effect on your life. “The job may not be your passion,” White says. “It may just enable your passion. Your job can be how you earn enough money to surf or play music. So you are not passionate about the job, but you are passionate about what it enables you to do. The key is to put your job into the perspective of your passions or dreams.”

Craft your job
Whether you’re passionate about your work or what it enables you to do, there are ways to improve your career outlook and how you spend your time in the office. White suggests “job crafting,” or reshaping the responsibilities you hold, as well as your attitude toward them.

“How can you make adjustments in your job so it leverages your strengths, calls on your passions and changes the boring and routine tasks?” White says. “I often use the example of our janitor who doesn’t think her job is to clean bathrooms, it is to keep the ‘kids’ — her name for our young workforce — happy and productive. She makes sure they have coffee in the morning, clean dishes and re-arranged furniture to help them be productive. Last week she pulled furniture out of an old storage room and set up shelves for the people whose desks were getting overcrowded. She changed her job to be something she was passionate about.”

This kind of attitude adjustment can be as large or small as you’re willing to try. “As part of job crafting, you can also turn boring routine tasks into contests with yourself or others,” White says. “If you did 100 entries yesterday, how can you do 150 entries today and maintain the same quality?”

Make connections
Improving how you do your job and how you see your responsibilities is a critical first step in loving your job. But what else can you do to ignite the passion? White recommends looking for the connections. His challenge to job seekers and workers alike: “Do they connect with the vision and values of the company? Does the company purpose give them something bigger than themselves to pursue, for example, an alarm company making the world safer? Do they connect with their friends and teammates at work? Can they be passionate about helping their co-workers succeed or help their team complete a big project? Can they connect with all the things they can learn on the job or the opportunity for travel and/or career advancement? Can they get excited about the opportunities for them to take on and accomplish huge projects with seemingly insurmountable challenges?” These are all questions you can ask yourself, and if you don’t like the answer, you have a great jumping off point for what to change.

The bottom line is not to look at everything you hate about your job, but to find what your job provides for you. After all, as White says, “It is not about the job; it is about how they look at the job and how they choose to create the connection between their jobs and their lives.”

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