Having smart answers to tough interview questions will impress your potential employer.
Thomas Barwick/Getty Images
  • Many job interviewers ask tough questions designed to trick you.
  • We took a look at some of the best responses from Vicky Oliver's book "301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions" for a better idea at how to handle difficult situations.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

Some job interviewers ask tough questions designed to trick you. Others want to get a better sense of your thought process or see how you respond under pressure.

Whatever the reason, you'll want to be prepared for curveballs or challenging questions.

In her 2005 book "301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions," Vicky Oliver says that in order to prevail, you need to "trounce your competition."

Previous reporting from Business Insider's Shana Lebowitz includes an ultimate guide to nailing any job interview. Lebowitz reported that speaking at a steady pace and resisting the urge to humblebrag are two key things experts recommend you keep in mind when answering questions.

We've highlighted 30 tough questions you could be asked during your next interview, and examples on how to answer them from Oliver's book, "301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions."

It's important to note that these sample responses are merely meant to help guide you. They won't necessarily work for everyone, in every situation - and you should never lie in an interview.

Vivian Giang contributed to a previous version of this article.

Tips for explaining your work history and education

Q: Why didn't you finish university?

A: At the time, that is, when I was all of 20 years old, I was expected to declare a major. I enjoyed all of the classes that I took equally, and couldn't decide if I should major in English, history, political science, philosophy, or comparative literature.

At the university that I attended, there was no such thing as a "general liberal arts major." I understand that a lot of universities now offer this for students in my predicament. At any rate, the whole decision-making process threw me into a bit of quandary, because I really felt that the major I chose would have major implications for my career choice.

I went home that weekend, sat down with my parents, and discussed my problem with them. My mother encouraged me to take a year off to help me find myself. Of course, what ended up happening is that, during my sabbatical, I fell in with a very talented group of documentary filmmakers. The first documentary that I worked on was submitted to the Sundance Film Festival. And caught up in the excitement and glamour of the documentary film world, I never went back to university.

Q: Why do you think you are qualified for this job? It's not like you have any previous experience.

A: I have a great deal of life experience. Coaching Little League on the weekends shows my ability to relate to people at all different age levels. I have also become very involved in the PTA, which often requires calming down irate people. Finally, I helped my school launch an internship program, spearheaded by both the parents and the alumni. This took management skills, people-assessment skills, and genuine persistence.

So all in all, I think that I have the ideal qualities to become an HR manager at your firm.

Q: You majored in philosophy. How did that prepare you for this career?

A: Philosophy didn't prepare me for a career in architecture at all. But it did force me to become philosophical about my prospects. After two years of trying to figure out what to do with my life, I visited Chicago one weekend and was absolutely spellbound by the gorgeous architecture all around me.

I came home, applied to architecture schools all over the country, and was accepted by one of the best. I've never looked back ... this is definitely the career that I was meant to be in.

Q: Why did you take so much time off from work, and why do you wish to get a job now?

A: When I first had the twins, my husband was working 24/7, and I really needed to be there to raise the kids. But during that time, I really missed working.

Fortunately, I kept my hand in the business during those years by consulting for several of my ex-clients.

Q: You have changed careers before. Why should I let you experiment on my nickel?

A: As a career-changer, I believe that I'm a better employee because I've gained a lot of diverse skills from moving around. These skills help me solve problems creatively.

Q: I see from your CV that you worked at CC&L for four years, and that's terrific. But I also noticed that you weren't promoted during that time. Why not?

A: CC&L is a great company, and thanks in part to my team's contributions, they are doing very well these days. But that wasn't always the case.

During the first two years that I worked there, people were being fired left and right, and just hanging onto my job was a feat.

Once the company began to turn around, [my boss] was offered a terrific job at a rival organisation and it took CC&L six months to replace him and when they did, the new boss was eager to bring in his own people. Once again, I tenaciously hung on to my job, and, even though I was long overdue for a promotion, I really didn't think that the timing was right for me to broach it. No one from the old staff was there to even vouch for my performance!

Tips for tricky interview questions

Q: What is your biggest weakness that's really a weakness, and not a secret strength?

A: I am extremely impatient. I expect my employees to prove themselves on the very first assignment. If they fail, my tendency is to stop delegating to them and start doing everything myself.

To compensate for my own weakness, however, I have started to really prep my people on exactly what will be expected of them.

Q: Why should I hire you?

A: As we've been discussing, your company's website could probably benefit from a complete overhaul. For a first website, it's not bad … It covers all of the pertinent information that you want your customers to know about your business. But I agree with your own assessment and feel that your website could be more inspired. You need some technical help with links, and I know how to come up with the keywords and phrases that will bring a lot more web traffic to your site.

I've created twenty websites for all different companies, and one of them is in a similar line of business. I'd love to show you that website so that you can get an idea of what's possible for your company. Can we hop onto your laptop right now?

Q: What was the name of the supervisor who let you go? What is your best guess as to what she would say are your strengths and weaknesses?

A: [My former supervisor] often told me that I was a dedicated and hard worker with a lot of drive. She also said that I had "a great deal of talent," but that [my former company] was probably not the right environment for me to showcase it.

Q: This ad agency is a TV shop. But I see from your CV that you have far more experience handling print. You're weak on TV compared to other candidates. Why should I hire you for the job and not someone else who has the credentials that we're really looking for?

A: I have worked in advertising for ten years at some of the smaller, creative boutiques that don't handle TV on as regular a basis as the big, global shops. But one thing I learned from these ad agencies is that print and TV are only mediums. The real thing that we offer clients is our ideas. And a strong, solid, award-winning idea will work just as beautifully in TV as in print.

So while I may have fewer TV spots on my reel as other candidates, hopefully, you'll agree that my ideas are stronger than theirs. Hire me for my ideas, and when you do, I promise you that they will translate seamlessly into TV.

How to answer questions about your ambitions and career goals

Q: Will you be out to take my job?

A: Maybe in about 20 years, but by then, I suspect you'll be running the entire company and will need a good, loyal lieutenant to help you manage this department!

Q: What if you work here for five years and don't get promoted? Many of our employees don't. Won't you find it frustrating?

A: I consider myself ambitious, but I'm also practical. As long as I am continuing to learn and grow within my position, I'll be a happy camper. Different companies promote people at different rates, and I'm pretty confident that working for you will keep me motivated and mentally stimulated for several years to come.

Some difficult questions interviewers ask might involve hypothetical scenarios.
Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
Q: If you knew that things at your company were rocky, why didn't you get out of the company sooner?

A: I was working so hard to keep my job while everyone around me was being cut that I didn't have any time left over to look for another job. With all of the mergers that have been happening in our field, layoffs are a way of life. At least I gave it my best shot!

Q: If you were running a company that produces X and the market was tanking for that product, what would you do?

A: I would search for new markets for the product while I spurred the engineers to change the product to make it more marketable to its original core audience.

Q: From your CV, it looks like you were fired twice. How did that make you feel?

A: After I recuperated from the shock both times, it made me feel stronger. It's true that I was fired twice, but I managed to bounce back both times and land jobs that gave me more responsibility, paid me more money, and were at better firms.

Q: Are you telling me that, now that you're 40-something, you would be willing to start at an entry-level position just to get your foot in the door here?

A: Sometimes you need to take a step backward to move your career forward. Starting in an entry-level role would allow me to learn your business from the ground up.

The career that I've been in is so different than yours that I would love the opportunity to start over again in your field. The salary cut will be well worth it.

Q: What are the biggest risks you've taken in recent years? Which ones worked out the best, and which ones failed?

A: I used to work at a large, global PR firm where life was sleepy, but comfortable. It was a "white-shoe" organisation; people left every night at 6 p.m. and our clients were big biotechnology companies that really trusted the top management of our firm. After a couple of years went by, I felt like I wasn't learning anything new, and I confess that I began to feel bored. I thought that if I took a job at a smaller PR firm, I would feel more challenged.

I joined a small PR boutique that had only been in business for five years. This turned out to be a colossal mistake. The top management was terribly unprofessional, plus they didn't have the contacts with newspapers, TV, and cable stations that we really needed to service our clients properly. I canvassed my own contacts, of course, but I was the only person in the entire firm who had any contacts! Promises were made to clients that couldn't be kept. It was a fiasco.

After six months, I called up the large, global PR firm and begged for my old job back. Fortunately, they hadn't replaced me. They slapped my wrist for being disloyal, but they happily rehired me. I've been working there ever since, grateful, but bored ... which is why I'm meeting with you today.

Some difficult questions interviewers ask might require you to asses your past.
Hollis Johnson
Q: What do you view as your risks and disadvantages with the position we are interviewing you for?

A: I think that with the home office located halfway across the globe, there is a very small risk that one might not have the chance to interact with the key decision-makers as often as might be ideal. On the other hand, teleconferencing, email, faxing, and having a 24/7 work ethic will go a long way towards bridging the gap.

Q: From your CV, I notice that you interned at a small investment banking boutique. Did you pursue a full-time job offer with them? What happened?

A: Yes, I did very well at my internship, and I had originally assumed that I would come on staff once I graduated from university. However, BB&L drastically cut back the number of new hires they were planning. As fate would have it, they will not be hiring any of the interns they had last summer.

I love working at BB&L, and I brought some references with me today to show you that my job performance there was stellar. Still, in some ways, I consider this new turn of events to be a lucky break for me, believe it or not.

Q: Can you describe your dream job?

A: This is my dream job and that's why I approached you about it in the first place. I am excited about the prospect of helping your promotion agency upgrade and fine-tune your loyalty programs.

Q: How many skis are rented each year?

A: There are 250 million people in the U.S. Let's suppose that the number of skis is 15% of that, or 37,500,000. Of those, let's figure that 21,175,000 of them own skis, leaving the number who rent at 9,325,000. Then let's add the number of tourists who ski, say, 1 million. So the grand total of renters would be 10,325,000.

Now let's assume that the renters who live here take three trips a year, so three times 9,325,000 is 27,975,000 and add that with 1 million is 28,975,000.

Q: If you were hiring someone for this position, what qualities would you look for?

A: I would look for three main talents:

1. The ability to solve problems; 2. The ability to nurture strong working relationships; and 3. The ability to close deals.

A candidate who possesses all three would make the ideal associate new business director.

Let me tell you a little bit about my background ...

Q: What would you do if you really wanted to hire a woman under you, and you knew the perfect candidate, but your boss really wanted to hire a man for the job?

A: I'd recommend that we perform an on-site "test," by hiring both candidates on a freelance basis for two weeks each.

Q: What if you worked with someone who managed to take credit for all your great ideas. How would you handle it?

A: First, I would try to credit her publicly with the ideas that were hers. Sometimes, by being generous with credit, it spurs the other person to "return the favor."

If that doesn't solve it, I'd try to work out an arrangement where we each agreed to present the ideas that were our own to our bosses. If that doesn't work, I would openly discuss the situation with her.

However, if the person taking credit for my ideas was my boss, I would tread cautiously. To some extent, I believe that my job is to make my superiors shine. If I were being rewarded for my ideas with raises and promotions, I would be happy.

Potential employers might ask how you'd handle tough situations in the workplace.
Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
Q: How many hours a week do you usually work, and why?

A: I work pretty long hours most of the time. With the extra time, I try to find ways to "add value" to each assignment, both my own and the firm's. When our clients read our reports, I want them to think that no one else could have possibly written them, except for our company.

Q: Are you better at "managing up" or "managing down"?

A: If you aren't good at "managing up," you rarely get the opportunity to "manage down." Fortunately, I've always been quite good at self-management. I've never had a deadline that I didn't meet.

Q: Please give an example of the most difficult political situation that you've dealt with on a job.

A: I was hired by a woman who was on her way out. She asked me to be her "fall guy" on a number of assignments. I just learned to drop the assignments off with my boss on the day that they were due, and when the managers would ring me up, I would recommend that they simply follow up with her. This kept me out of hot water with my boss and with her superiors.

Q: Let's discuss a time when you missed a significant deadline.

A: I would absolutely love to, but honestly, it's never happened.

Q: Is it more important to be lucky or skillful?

A: I think that it's more important to be lucky, although being very skilled can help to create more opportunities. Certainly, [at my former job, my boss'] confidence in me inspired the decision-makers at our firm to trust that I could do the job. But clearly, I also happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Q: When do you think you'll peak in your career?

A: I come from a long line of healthy, hardy, mentally active types, and so I confess that I never even think about "peaking" in my career. That having been said, I do think it's important to have some self-knowledge and to recognise when one is past one's prime.

Receive a daily update on your cellphone with all our latest news: click here.

Get the best of our site emailed to you daily: click here.

Also from Business Insider South Africa: