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How to answer a tough interview question

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All right, you’re sitting in a job interview and they ask you a tough question. What do you do?

Not “What are your greatest weaknesses?” I already have a word-for-word script for that answer in my Dream Job program.

But an even tougher question: One where you CANNOT reveal the answer, or you’ll instantly be disqualified for the job.

How do you answer?

I just recorded a new video showing you what to say.

Do me a favor by leaving a comment below: What’s the toughest question you’ve been asked in an interview?

P.S. If you want more word-for-word interview scripts, I’ll hook you up on my free email list.

P.P.S. Want me to answer your question on video? Submit yours here.

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  1. I do the lifestyle design thing and love to travel, volunteer, and work outside of my profession in order to gain certain skills or experiences. This results in a resume that either has large gaps if I omit certain positions (sprout grower at a holistic healing center) or lack of direction if I include them. As a result, my tough questions are usually about career direction and focus.

    • How do you answer? I’ll critique your answer here if it’s helpful.

    • Personally, I would highlight the fact that you’re a versatilist and have many interests that provide you with a variety of experiences with each one giving you something new and challenging from which you learn. There are many paths, grasshopper. 🙂

    • I would bet you will not be happy in a job where you sit at a desk all day every day, so you should be looking at work which will appreciate your variety. Ideally your profession and passion overlap and allow you to get paid for what you love. If not what you love, at least what fits your personality.

      In any case, you will need to consider the position you are applying for end find ways your multitude of skills will help that company. My guess is a common hook is your interactions with some many different people give you a compassion, or a unique ability to connect with people, speak their language, communicate. All jobs require good communication and ability to work with others, so play up that angle.

    • I’ve been an actor, salesman, blogger, product developer, missionary, and account manager.

      My current career position could only be taken on by someone with a weird hodge-podge of jobs like I’ve had. My recommendation would be to look for positions that are ‘cross-functional’ and play up your ability to be in multiple worlds.

      Put all of your stuff on your resume, then write a strong cover letter emphasizing your ability to live in multiple worlds, and how your varied background has prepared you for this position better than any other person.

  2. I love this concept of you answering questions…and the music in the background!

  3. Right on the dot Ramit. You would say that many people do not have this problem but Im about to go into an interview and this is very timely.

    Thanks for all your good work. Getting around the globe here
    hugs from Panama


  4. Do you think, given your physical disability you will be able to handle the demands of this job? To answer that I focused on the fact that I was able to overcome all of the challenges I faced to get to the point of being able to interview. But is there a better way to handle that issue when you have a clear and visible disability? Thanks 🙂

  5. That makes a lot of sense – my tendency is to always provide information, regardless of how it makes me look… surely not the wisest strategy. Thanks for video, Ramit!

  6. That was a good one,how do you negotiate the pay rate?

  7. Why not answer in a positive way? Something like “I took time off to relax, work on personal improvement, take courses, learn XYZ, stayed at home with spouse worked, etc”. You wouldn’t even have to mention or imply that it was for negative personal reasons. If someone said “Personal reasons that I can’t tell you but resolved.” it’s obviously something bad and embarassing. They definitely didn’t take time off to win a Nobel prize.

    Just my take. Your first question about if there were five equal candidates, the one who had “Secret personal reasons” is probably only a close second to the “Mental health reasons” in being at the bottom.

    • A+ on this comment, Alex.

      I would at least omit “had to” from the script in the video. “I took” is more positive and empowering than “I had to take,” which tells me that you think you are a victim.

      Thanks for getting us thinking, Ramit.

    • Totally agree with you more on this Alex. I feel that if the interviewer is pushing you to by asking “can you explain this in detail a little more” in itself means that he/she wants to know what the exact reason was. Now if you choose to say that the issue is resolved that doesn’t answer the question that he is asking in the first place. Even though the interviewer might leave at that by not pushing any further but at the back of his mind it won’t be answer that he was expecting.

      Something more positive personal reason (but not the exact mental reason) will certainly help and will sound genuine.

    • Alex has his own group of fans here 🙂 What if you said that you had to take time off for medical issues (rather than mental) and now you feel a lot better? Something like, “You know, I had to take a medical leave, but I feel a lot better now. I’m excited about the next step and I’m ready to contribute to this job!” That’s positive, to Nil’s point.

    • I do agree with Ramit though, that mentioning a mental health issue does result in an instant no-hire. It’s not politically correct, and it’s against the law to discriminate on the basis of a prior mental health issue. However, it would be very hard to prove as the employer will simply provide another reason, such as it’s not a good fit, as Ramit mentions. Susan has to sidestep the mental health issue, but tersely saying, “it’s resolved” isn’t going to work.

    • Of course the interviewer may not like the evasion. So what? This isn’t a recipe to get every job offer you interview for, it’s a technique to keep you from disqualifying yourself.

      And the positive stuff is fine, if any of it is true or unverifiable, e.g. avoid “I took a course…” if you didn’t. The problem is that it’s not necessarily going to look good if you say you took time off to do a bunch of nebulous things that don’t produce a direct benefit to your ability to do your job (or are otherwise aspirational activities, e.g. travel, which is also verifiable and should be avoided if you didn’t do it). In that case, “Personal Reasons” is something everyone can relate to as something that was needed outside of the job realm and prevented you from participating in it.

      In that light, I have have no problem with the “had to” portion of the response. All that’s important here is that the interviewer themselves imply an external cause for your absence, when “mental health” is seen as an internal cause, and you give no direction either way.

  8. Hey Ramit,

    So what kind of answer would you recommend for something like taking a leave of absence during grad school to have a baby? I haven’t been confronted with this question yet but I sort of feel it lingering over my interviews, like they must be wondering if I had a health issue or a personal issue. Of course I don’t say anything about it! But if asked, should I leave it at the general “I had a personal issue” or should I be like “I had a baby!” I am inclined not to say I had a baby.

    • I would totally say “That’s when my son/daughter was born” — as opposed to “personal reasons” which might imply that you are the kind of employee who has a hard time balancing responsibilities and is forever taking off for personal reasons.

  9. Near the end of an interview I was once asked by the panel: “If you had to fire one of us here today, who would it be & why?”

    Um…ok? Luckily I happened to know everyone on the panel (the position was for a student leader group at a University) so I somewhat jokingly looked at the Director of the program and said “You. Because someday I’d like to have your job.”

    I don’t think that answer would sit too well with most employers however.

  10. That was really helpful. I should spend more time on your site! Thank you!