Though the nation's labor market is slowly improving, millions of Americans remain out of work. That means the competition for jobs remain stiff, and job seekers can ill afford to be ill-prepared should opportunity come calling.
Despite the dramatic changes in the job market in recent years, the way jobs seekers get hired hasn't changed much at all, says workplace expert Joyce Lain Kennedy.
It still starts with the dreaded job interview. "Job interviews are still those crucial meetings that seal the deal on who gets hired and who gets left on the outside looking in," says Kennedy, author of "Job Interviews for Dummies," newly updated in its fourth edition.
Questions posed during interviews are a huge source of anxiety for many job seekers, she says, in part because they seem designed to trip them up.
So what are the best responses to interview questions? They are the ones that make an applicant appear the best candidate for the job, Kennedy says. "But recruiters report that high numbers of job seekers blab negative information without realizing they're making a farewell address to a job opportunity."
With proper preparation, however, job seekers are capable of giving slam-dunk answers to any interview question, she says.
With that in mind, Kennedy offers these 10 frequently asked questions and advice on how to answer them:
1. Why have you been out of work so long? How many others were laid off? Why you? This quizzing could cause you to reveal that there's something wrong with you that other employers have already discovered. The interviewer is fishing to determine whether there was a layoff of one and you were it. Or whether your former manager used the theme of recession and budget cuts to dump groups of second-string employees.
2. If employed, how do you manage time for interviews? The real question is whether you are lying to and shortchanging your current employer while looking for other work. "Clearly state that you're taking personal time, and that's why you interview only for job openings for which you're a terrific match," Kennedy says. "If further interviews are suggested, mention that your search is confidential and ask if it would be possible to meet again on a Saturday morning."
3. How did you prepare for this interview? Translation: Is this job important enough for you to research it, or are you going through the motions without preparation, making it up as you go? "The best answer?" Kennedy says. "You very much want this job, and of course you researched it starting with the company website."
4. Do you know anyone who works for us? The friend question is a two-way street. "Nothing beats having a friend deliver your resume to a hiring manager, but that transaction presumes the friend is well thought of in the company," Kennedy says. "If not -- ouch! Remember the birds-of-a-feather rule: Mention a friend inside the company only if you're certain of your friend's positive standing."
5. Where would you really like to work? Doing what? The real agenda for this question is assurance that you aren't applying to every job opening in sight. "Never, ever mention another company's name or another job," Kennedy says. "A short 'Hire me!' answer is a version of: 'This is the place where I want to work, and this job is what I want to do. I have what you need, and you have what I want. I can't wait to get to work here.'"
6. What bugs you about co-workers or bosses? Develop a poor memory for past irritations. Reflect for a few moments, shake your head, and say you can't come up with anything that irritates you. Continue for a couple of sentences elaborating on how you seem to get along with virtually everyone.
7. Can you describe how you solved a work/school problem? This forthright question is tricky only in the sense that most job seekers can't come up with an example on the spot that favorably reflects on their ability to think critically and develop solutions.
8. Can you describe a work/school instance in which you messed up? The question-within-a-question is whether you learn from your mistakes or keep repeating the same errors. A kindred concern is whether you are too self-important to consider any action of yours to be a mistake. "Never deliver a litany of your personal bad points," Kennedy says. "Instead, briefly mention a single small, well-intentioned goof and follow up with an important lesson learned from the experience."
9. How does this position compare with others you're applying for? Are you under consideration by other employers now? The intent of these questions is to gather intelligence on the competitive job market or get a handle on what it will take to bring you on board.
10. If you won the lottery, would you still work? This question goes to your motivation, work ethic and enthusiasm for work. "The 'Hire me!' answer is this," Kennedy says. "While you'd be thrilled to win the lottery, you'd still seek out fulfilling work because working, meeting challenges and scoring accomplishments are what make most people happy, including you. Say it with a straight face."
Bonus advice: What to say when you're uncertain. If a hardball question comes at you out of left field, try not to panic. Take a deep breath, look the interviewer in the eyes, and comment that it's a good question that you'd like to mull over and come back to. The interviewer may forget to ask again. "But if the question does resurface and your brain goes on holiday, say that you don't know the answer and that, being a careful worker, you prefer not to guess," Kennedy says.
"The interviewer probably won't consider your lack of specifics on a single topic to be a deal-breaker," she says, adding, "As with most things, in the world of job interviews, practice makes perfect."
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