5 most common trap interview questions and how to get around them

Preparing for an interview can be a nerve-wracking experience, especially for high-achievers who want to have all their “i”s dotted and “t”s crossed.

You have the qualifications necessary, you’ve put time and effort into crafting your resume and cover letter to get this interview, and you’ve spent hours researching the company. The last thing you need is to get hit with an interview question out of the left field that derails all your preparation.

Unfortunately for you, recruiters and hiring managers are crafty folks. They want to keep you on your toes in order to evaluate how you respond to an unexpected question.

To put your best foot forward when you meet your prospective new employer, we’ve got your back with the five most common trap questions and some suggested responses and workarounds.

Old faithful: “What are your weaknesses?”

Before you dive headfirst into the predictable answer of “I just care too much” or “Sometimes I work too hard,” let’s dissect this one a little bit. If you automatically jump to patting yourself on the back in a not-so-subtle way, your interviewer isn’t going to be impressed. They’ve heard that answer a million times and they know it’s a crock. 

Your recruiter knows you’re a great candidate. That’s why they called you in for an interview. Instead of tooting your own horn here, come prepared with an actual answer. Identify a weakness that you improved on in your past professional life. You’ll show two things: your humility and a desire to become a better team member.

Here’s an example response: 

Recently, I realized that I’ve got to be better at communicating my workload to my project manager and raising my hand when I start feeling overwhelmed. I’m able to “power through” most of the time, but I know that doesn’t produce my best work and I’m more likely to make mistakes while rushing to meet deadlines. So, I’d say that’s still a work-in-progress, but I’m slowing down daily to check-in with my volume of work and communicate more frequently and honestly with my team.

The negativity meter: “Why do you want to leave your current job?”

When you’re in the thick of a crappy job, it can be very hard to dodge this landmine.

You know exactly why you are frustrated and looking for a better opportunity. And while you might be able to spin this negative into a positive, by shining light on the benefits of the new company, this could really backfire.

The recruiter is checking for red flags here, and it’s meant to trap you into talking negatively about your current job. They want to know if you’re quick to anger, a poor team player, or someone that lacks tact and diplomacy.

If you are hired and then leave in due course, they want to know if you’ll be talking behind their backs in the future too. So, instead of dishing about your current job, you need to side-step this question by looking to the rosy future.

Here’s what you can say to avoid this trap:

I’ve accomplished quite a lot at my current position, and solved many interesting problems, but now it’s time for a new challenge. I learned so much and built wonderful working relationships, but I thrive on innovation and working with diverse teams to solve new and exciting problems. I’d love to be a part of the team here, where I can begin to work on [whatever the new company specializes in].

The commitment gauge: “Why are there gaps in your work history?”

The recruiter is actually looking for two things in your response here. First, they really want to know why you weren’t working for a period of time. Essentially, they want to know if your reason will also result in an exit from their company in the near future. Second, they want to see how you respond. And this is the trap part of the question.

Respond clearly, concisely, and honestly. If you were laid off, state that. If you decided to take a year off to travel, let them know. If you were a caretaker for a family member, then explain that to them, but you don’t have to give specifics. Recruiters are people too. They understand life’s ups and downs. But if you respond defensively to this question, you’ll have fallen into their trap and shown them that you might not be the cool-headed candidate they are looking for.

Side-step the trap like this:

After I graduated from my Masters program, I had the opportunity to travel overseas. Instead of interrupting my career progression, I decided to travel first, and then settled back down at home, and got to work, fully committed.

Or, use a response like this:

With the demands of the last year, I made the decision to take a few months off so that I could care for my children who were out of school. Now that things are returning to normal and I’ve found a sustainable childcare solution, I’m looking for the next professional challenge to tackle.

The one that throws you off the scent: “What would you do if you won the lottery tomorrow?”

Most of us have played out this fantasy in our minds after a particularly difficult day. But please, do not blurt out, “I’d never work another day in my life!” Even if this might be true, do not share your deepest desires for a life of leisure with the hiring manager.

They are using this question to get you excited and to weaken your defenses to gain insight into your true motivations. Would you keep working if you won $1 million? How would you spend a large sum of money? They are going to determine how responsible you are with the answer to this question.

And, as an aside, I used to work with a group of individuals that did win the jackpot. You may roll your eyes at the thought of continuing to work with a fat bank account, but I know quite a few people that did just that. Because really, after a few months of relaxation, you start to crave a professional challenge and purpose again.

Here’s how to respond:

I’d pay off my mortgage and student loans and finally, buy a new car. But my day-to-day life would, for the most part, remain unchanged. I love what I do every day, and I’m excited about where my career is headed.

The overly abstract: “Define yourself in one word.”

Ok, so this isn’t a question, exactly. But it’s actually a common ask in a job interview. And if you haven’t given this one some thought before you sit down, you’ll either be fumbling for an answer, or you’ll spew out something overused and overconfident, which will turn off your interviewer.

Just like you sprinkle keywords from the job description into the resume you submitted, you need to have keywords at the ready that describe you in light of this job. Think about what makes you special compared to other professionals, and have a word for that as well. Some hiring managers may ask for three words instead of one, so come prepared with a word bank.

Here are a few unique words you could use:

  • Analytical
  • Empathetic
  • Creative
  • Methodical
  • Collaborative
  • Energetic
  • Inquisitive
  • Helpful
  • Honest