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IT talent: 7 memorable responses to classic interview questions
Job hunters know they need to leave a lasting impression – but attempts to stand out can backfire. IT leaders and recruiters share the good, bad, and ugly responses to common questions
Finding the right talent can be a long, laborious task for leaders and hiring managers. After sifting through hundreds of resumes and conducting multiple interviews over several days or weeks, candidates start to blend together, and the same responses to the same questions get old. That’s why a candidate’s quirky or surprising response to a common question can be so memorable.
[ Also read: Surviving the IT talent crisis ]
Memorable isn’t always good, though. You don’t want to stand out for the wrong reasons, but you also don’t want to blend in so much that you’re forgotten as soon as you walk out of the office.
We asked leaders and recruiters to share the most memorable responses they’ve gotten to common interview questions. Their answers offer valuable insights for job hunters on how to make a positive – and lasting – impression.
Do demonstrate confidence – and adaptability
“Why do you think you’re a good fit for this position?” It’s a classic interview question, and most people answer it by listing the skills on their resume, their educational background, and their experience in the field, says Shayne Sherman, CEO of TechLoris.
“The answer that stood out the most was the person who said: ‘I am more than the skills listed on my resume. I am the type of person who rises to a challenge and becomes a creator instead of someone who just falls in line. You can’t learn that in college, though I have the degree. It’s something you’re born with and I’m born with it,’” said Sherman.
Sherman took the response as confidence and insight into what that person felt they could contribute, he said. “Someone who feels they can mold to whatever the job requires of them goes a long way in my book, and I’m willing to give such a person a chance,” said Sherman.
Don’t be flippant
Candidates often attempt to differentiate themselves by answering traditional interview questions in a quirky way, says Sarah Doughty, director of recruitment at TalentLab. But that approach can backfire and cause candidates to stand out for all the wrong reasons.
In response to a question about willingness to learn on the job, one candidate told Doughty she never had to learn a new skill for a past role, but that she was not concerned about learning anything new. “Of course, I asked why she was not concerned, and she replied: ‘Well, if guys who kill their wives can teach themselves law in prison to get off death row, then I think I can teach myself how to do this job.’ The answer was extremely memorable, but not in a good way,” said Doughty.
[ Emotional intelligence is a top skill interviewers are seeking. Read, 5 ways to showcase your EQ on a job interview. ]
“In this case, the candidate’s answer was flippant and failed to match the serious tone of the question. The point made was fair, but could have been made equally as well with a softer example of human’s capability to learn even in the toughest of conditions,” said Doughty. “In the end, this answer, among others, led us to believe she had not prepared for the interview, failed to grasp the scope of the role, and had almost no relevant experience.”
Do show some personality
When a hiring manager asks where you see yourself in five years, the response usually centers around what you hope to accomplish in your career. But what if a family member or friend asks you the same question? You might mention a travel or fitness goal, for instance. Bringing both your work and personal lives into focus can set you apart from other candidates, says Pete Sosnowski, head of HR and co-founder at Zety.
"In response to ‘where do you see yourself in five years,’ one candidate said, ‘I want to be in a place of fulfillment, where I strike a perfect balance between being a great professional, a good father and husband, a friend, and a marathoner,’” said Sosnowski. “The answer struck me as it showed a real person in this candidate. I want to create a company where people are not only competent professionals but are also kind-hearted, trustworthy, and ambitious. I’d rather see that the candidate pursues a healthy work-life balance and success in other aspects in life, rather than someone who tries to convince me that work is the only thing that matters in life.”
Don’t go off on a tangent
Candidates should go into interviews prepared for the inevitable icebreaker: “Tell me about yourself.” It’s a chance to show a little personality and kick off the conversation on a friendly note. Occasionally, however, candidates blow the whole interview in their response.
"The worst answer to this question I ever had was someone telling me about their interest in sharks,” said Rob Morgenroth, executive vice president of Mason Frank International. “It started with the fact that they loved them, before moving on to their favorite species and reasons why, then a breakdown of the different places they’d been to see them around the world. It was an excruciatingly long answer. If I’d asked for a short presentation on sharks, it would have been absolutely perfect, but as an introduction to a candidate it was baffling and left me unsure whether it was a prank.”
The response also sent up red flags about the candidate’s soft skills, said Morgenroth.
“I admired their enthusiasm but had huge doubts about their communication skills and ability to read a room,” he said. “And as soon as an interviewer has doubts about you, it’s difficult to reverse that. It’s always worth remembering that you’re in a work-based scenario, so your answers should reflect that. Unless the role is relevant to the personal information you’re sharing, keep your answers focused.”
Do say what the job would mean to you
Salary negotiations can be an uncomfortable part of the interview process. Both sides often have a firm number in mind, and pride and egos can get in the way of productive dialogue. That’s why one candidate’s take on self-worth over compensation stood out to Cliff Milles, lead technical recruiter for Sungard Availability Services.
“I was interviewing a mature IT trainer who was towards the end of his career and was recently laid off after 20+ years in the same job. I asked him if the compensation range and 60-75 minute commute would be worth it for him,” said Milles. “He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘I really need to work for my sense of self-worth, and this position will offer me that.’ Being much younger than this individual, working for self-worth was not on my radar, but when he said it, it struck me to the core. He demonstrated incredible sincerity and transparency in this response and during the interview."
Additionally, the candidate went above and beyond to demonstrate how important the opportunity was, said Milles. “His interview with the technical team was scheduled on a day that a severe winter storm took place. I assumed that he would reschedule, but he made it to the interview, and the hiring manager made a decision to hire him that day,” he said.
Don’t be honest to a fault
Honesty is not always the best policy. Especially when your honest answer indicates a lack of interest in the job and disrespect for the people in the room.
In another memorable interview moment, Doughty asked a candidate why they wanted the role. “The candidate very honestly answered with ‘because I have been applying everywhere, and no one else got back to me.’ It was a terribly cringy answer,” she said.
Doughty explained why this response backfired. “First, it created an awkward moment and manipulated the whole hiring team into feeling guilty if we didn’t proceed with the candidate,” she said. “It also showed the candidate had very little genuine interest in the role itself. That’s a much bigger issue, and one that most hiring managers would refuse to overlook, for good reason. An engaged employee who genuinely enjoys their work is far more likely to be highly productive, go above and beyond for results, and create happy working relationships. We felt that if he had truly cared about the process, he likely could have found one thing beyond his own situation to highlight as a compelling reason he wanted to work with us. We decided to pass, as the candidate was obviously not interested in the role or our company.”
Do show passion
Passion has a way of coming through responses to even basic interview questions. A candidate only needed one sentence to convince Chris Morgan, co-founder and managing partner of Lantern Partners, that he was right for the job. By demonstrating passion, that one sentence spoke volumes about the candidate’s aspirations, values, and potential.
Morgan explained, “One of the most memorable answers to a more standard interview question came from a candidate interviewing for a COO position who was asked, ‘what are your long term goals?’ Giving him the hypothetical name of ‘Smith,’ he responded by saying, ‘I really want to exit my career having developed the “Smith” way of doing something.’ This answer characterized a person who would not be complacent or satisfied with status quo. He not only conveyed his strong desire to be successful in the short-term, but to do so in a way that would have a lasting impact at the organization. This candidate did get the COO position and went on to become CEO.”
[ Want more interview pro tips? Download our cheat sheet to prepare. ]