How to Answer Structured Interview Questions

Structured interview questions are here to stay, particularly the classic, "Where do you want to be in 10 years?" (The classic answer, "I want your job." has fallen out of favor in a tight market.) The odds keep increasing that you'll face a structured interview, in which your interviewer fires a steady stream of these questions at you, pausing only to nod thoughtfully or frown.

Why Structured Interviews?
Structured interviews are popular for several reasons. First, managers who aren't comfortable interviewing people can hide behind them. Dotcom managers, who had been promoted really fast and were suddenly asked to hire bunches of people, found that it was easier to stick to a script than to conduct a conversation. Some of them are still around.

Second, there are so many legal constraints on what you can ask in an interview that some otherwise articulate managers are tongue-tied. They can't ask about your family, which used to be a good way of breaking the ice, because they think you'll interpret it as probing for whether you'll have babysitting troubles. They hesitate to talk about sports, because you might think a remark on the relative merits of Roger Clemens and Bob Gibson was an effort to find out how old you were. They're even afraid to ask how you are for fear that you'll take it as a question about your disabilities. If they follow a script that directs them to ask what you consider your greatest weakness, they're protected.

The third reason relates to a different type of litigiousness. An applicant who has never seen a spreadsheet isn't hired for an accounting job, and the next day the applicant's lawyer calls and accuses the company of discrimination. The manager can say, "I asked 10 people exactly the same questions. When I asked them whom they admired most, none of the others mentioned Kim Jong Il."

How to Handle Them
The important thing to remember is that interviews are still chemistry. All the proper answers to all the structured questions in the world won't get a manager to hire you if the two of you don't click, and all the unfortunate answers in the world won't lose you the job if you do.

The canned questions generally don't have anything to do with the way you might do the job if you got it. Therefore, the people asking them don't really care about your answers. The head of accounting doesn't care what your greatest weakness is, unless it's being terrible with numbers. And no one cares where you expect to be in 10 years. So don't think about having the perfect answers. Think about projecting a good attitude.

Since the questions are supposed to be designed to make you think, it's ok to take some time over them. It's no biggie if someone asks you what the worst decision was that you ever made and you only come up with the third worst. You just have to avoid being flippant. No matter how much you want to answer, "Coming to this interview," don't do it.

The best way to handle them is to turn them around so you can make your own point. A good answer to "How do you react to stress on the job?" might be "I try to solve problems right away before they can build up and stress me out. For instance, I recently came up with a great system for tracking the prices of pencils and paper clips." For practice, watch the presidential candidates' debates.

If you can twist your answers around so they reflect your enthusiasm for the job and the company, so much the better; e.g., "What would my boss say about me? Probably that I'm lucky to be interviewing here where there's so much going on." Everyone wants to be loved.

As for those five books you'd take to the island, choose mysteries. The kind with the witty detectives. You wouldn't want to work with someone who picks War and Peace, would you? And someone who selects Who Moved My Cheese? could be downright threatening. Besides, mysteries are full of snappy one-liners that can get you in the mood for job interviews after you're rescued.

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