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The Job search

How to handle those open-ended interview questions

Prepping for an interview is part of the job application tango — and arguably, it’s prone to have the most amount of complicated steps. From thoroughly researching both the company and the executives you’ll be face-to-face with, to practicing your responses and printing off a crisp resume, there’s plenty of homework. One of the areas that might cause the most stress is studying up for the inevitable open-ended interview questions that challenge you to speak eloquently at length, provide examples and demonstrate a slice of your personality.

While taxing on your anxiety levels, career expert Colleen Star Koch explains that it’s important to think of this interview section as less frustrating and unnecessary and more about an opportunity to let your true value shine through.

“At the end of the day, it’s likely that you’ll be competing against several people who have similar skills and experience,” she says. “Your interviewer will instinctively choose the person they want to work with — the person they feel belongs in their tribe and has a personality that vibes with the brand and team.”

Here, a guide to prepping for and expertly handling those long-winded questions on the spot:

Take time to study your successes thoroughly

Much like you can rattle off the companies you’ve worked for, where you attended university, and nearly everything about your hometown or home team, Koch says you should be just as comfortable with your specific successes. And she means the nitty-gritty: You didn’t merely improve retention in customers, you made a big impact by an impressive percentage you can provide. Since many could-be employers will ask you for vivid examples of actionable work, knowing dates, numbers, and changes over time will leave a lasting impression.

Another frequently asked question by interviewees hints to your problem-solving and goal-reaching abilities. As a way to understand your focus, your determination, and your tactical skills, Koch recommends illustrating every step along the way to the solution. She provides this template as a starting point:

“In 2016 we were faced with [situation], and as a result, I was tasked with [challenge]. After considering several options, I presented [solution]. I worked closely with my team to identify the small steps needed to advance our goal and helped them maintain their progress. At the end of the campaign, we saw a [your super rad ROI result that you want to share].”

Koch reminds applicants that it’s easier to reverse-engineer great results into open-ended questions than it is to come up with great results when surprised with a question.

Be comfortable with a ‘pause’ before an answer

You know you’ve found a best friend or a romantic partner for life when you can spend time together without filling the silence with unneeded chit-chat or small talk. It’s a perspective that might take months — or even years — to adapt to, but Koch says it’s one that also translates into confidence during an interview. If you automatically begin answering a question as soon as it’s proposed without taking a hot second to consider your answer, you might come across as unprepared. That’s why settling in, taking a deep breath, and feeling at ease in the pause before a response is a smarter tactic.

“Interviewees tend to be concerned about how long they’re taking to answer when what you really want to convey is that you are a thoughtful person who isn’t going to pollute the conversation with verbal garbage while you figure out what you’re trying to say,”Koch shares. “No one wants to work with rambling 10-minute monologue guy. Don’t be that guy. Be brave enough to face a few moments of silence in order to provide a succinct and relevant response.”

Get specific with your self-introductions

For many employers who have been ’round the candidate sourcing block for a while, “tell me about yourself” is a surefire way to begin any sit-down. Career coach Cheryl Palmer explains because it is so open-ended, it usually catches shaky applicants off guard, sending them down a jibberish rabbit trail. Her tactic is strategic: Make your comments and your introduction specifically tailored to the role you’re applying for, and keep it at, or under, the recommended two minutes or less.

“This is not the time to start revealing personal information which is completely irrelevant to the job. You need to practice your answer so that you not only stay within the time frame but that you also hit key points that would get your interview off to a great start,” Palmer instructs. “If you are applying for a job in HR, for example, talk about your HR background and how it relates to the requirements of the job that you are applying for. You don’t want to give too much information because you still have the rest of the interview to expound further on any details.”

Don’t be afraid to be a little vulnerable

No matter which way they choose to phrase it, most employers will want to know certain situations where your career or your performance was less than rosy. From asking for weakness to seeking an example where you didn’t meet a goal, Koch says the purpose of this question is to give you an opportunity to showcases your humility and your ability to grow as a result of adversity. The worst response ever, she says? Claiming you’re a perfectionist and thus, hard on yourself. Since it comes across as a cop-out (and as she labels it, ‘BS’) — tell a focused, totally-true story instead.

“Start with the scenario, your proposed solution, and why it didn’t work. After that short introduction, you want to talk about what you learned from the experience, and how that new knowledge will benefit you in the role you’re interviewing for,” Koch suggests.

Relate your top skill sets to others by example

What sets us apart from other applicants is our superstar qualities, according to Koch. This means while your best friend might excel in interpersonal situations, you might be far more creative when going through a rocky period of downtime. Open-ended questions to hint to understanding which secret sauce you offer are important for an employer to know, and for you to explain.

Koch says your response should be tailored, based on what you’re attempting to emphasize. For interpersonal skills, you might want to talk about how you make a real effort to get to know your coworkers and employees — from their passions to their values and working style. Or, if you’re focusing on your leadership abilities, Koch suggests describing how you’ve inspired others by your example.

“You might also share how the clarity of distance you have as a leader has enabled you to discover solutions that might not be immediately evident to the employees or coworkers who are deep in solution-seeking,” she adds.

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Lindsay Tigar is a seasoned lifestyle and travel writer. When she's not busy writing, she's collecting another passport stamp, taking a boxing class or trying new foods. A full collection of her work can be found at

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