Job seekers: Five tough interview questions

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By Karlene Meister

You’re getting ready for a job interview today and you’re nervous as ever. What would make the experience worse are tough interview questions that leave you feeling tongue-tied. Here are some tips for answering five common interview questions.

Why have you been out of work for so long?


The employer wants to know that you haven’t just been bumming around all this time, or that you haven’t been blacklisted in some way. A good response is that after you lost your last job, you decided not to take the first opportunity that came along.

Instead, you took the time to consider what it is you want out of a job, what you do best, what you really want to do, where you want to do it, and what you want your life to look like, and to then find the companies that could offer you such an opportunity.

You also can factor in the recession and how it affected your industry. You can end by saying that your careful evaluation will result in you finding the right match and that it would be worthwhile in the end for both you and the employer.

Why have you had so many jobs?


The interviewer wants to be reassured that you are not a job hopper, or that you would leave this job just as quickly as you did the others.

A first step is to look at your resume and drop any insignificant short-term jobs; for example, you might have:

  • Job#1, February 1994-March 1995,
  • Job#2, April 1995-November 1995, and
  • Job#3, January 1996-October 2000

Eliminate Job#2, April-November 1995 and instead put:

  • Job#1, 1994-1995
  • Job#3 1996-2000

In other words, eliminate the months and specify your previous positions in rounded years. Describe each of your jobs in terms of them being part of an overall career design. Also, emphasize the jobs you were at the longest and state that this is the type of situation you are looking for now.

How much money do you want to earn?


Before answering this question, remember these guidelines: Research the job market to find out what is a reasonable salary for the position and what you are willing to accept, bearing in mind that most executives look to earn at least 25 percent more than their present salary when they switch jobs.

Never bring up the matter of salary before the interviewer does. Let the interviewer bring it up first. Sell yourself to the interviewer and make him want you first, and your bargaining position will be much stronger.

If the interviewer raises the question too early, state that money is not your main concern. Opportunity and growth are more important to you. The secret is to get the interviewer to talk about what he is willing to pay before you reveal what you are willing to accept. When the salary question comes up, respond by asking what the company’s established salary range is for the position, or by asking outright what the position pays.

How old are you and are you planning to have children?


How do you answer the illegal questions regarding age, religion, marital status, or the neighborhood that you live in? Most illegal questions stem from the fear that you won’t do your job well. Most interviewers are aware of what not to ask in an interview, but once in a while you might encounter the odd person who forgets that such questions are not allowed. Here are several ways to handle this:

First, you can state outright that the questions are illegal, but this might frighten the interviewer and destroy any chances of you getting the job. Second, you can answer the question if you feel it will help you. Third, you can answer the concern behind the question; for example, if they ask about your age, state that there is nothing in this job that you can’t do and that your age and experience are an advantage.

If they ask if you plan to have children, you can state that you are dedicated to your career and that you have no plans regarding children. This way you are not taking a vow of childlessness; you can always change your plans and have children later.

May I contact your present employer for a reference?


You don’t want to appear as if you are hiding something if you don’t allow them to contact your present employer. So a good answer is that you’d like to keep your job search private, that your present employer is not aware of your job search, and that you would like to keep the discussion confidential for the time being, but that when you both agree the time is right, then it would be OK to contact them.

In general, it is best to be upbeat and positive and never be negative. If you are nervous, don’t fight your nervousness, just allow yourself to feel it. Above all, find out what the employer wants and show them how you can help the employer's company get it. Match your abilities with the needs of the employer and you will do well.

Reprinted with permission from

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