How to Answer Tough Interview Questions Like a Pro

It’s easy to spiral when you’re asked a hardball question in a job interview. These hiring experts share tips on how to get back on track after a tough interview question.
Sunny Betz
March 10, 2021
Updated: July 8, 2021
Sunny Betz
March 10, 2021
Updated: July 8, 2021

When Sophie Symonds was in college, she applied for a job that included a virtual technical assessment in its interview process. She sat down to take the test and panicked. “The test was being proctored live, so somebody was watching me take it,” she said. “And I really freaked out.” Feeling the pressure of an audience and unable to focus, she wound up picking the answer B for everything.

She didn’t end up getting that job back then, but now, many years later, Symonds works as a senior recruiter at Springboard, a company that offers online courses in data science, UI/UX and coding. Symonds spends most days conducting interviews and evaluating job applicants, and, of course, lots of those people get really nervous. Symonds knows that feeling well and has learned that it’s just part of the process.

How to Answer Tough Interview Questions

  • Understand your own strengths. They’ll help hiring managers better see your value.
  • Your weaknesses can be opportunities. Show that you have a growth mindset.
  • Take your time answering. Be thoughtful about your responses.
  • Ask tough questions back. You’re interviewing managers as much as they’re interviewing you.
  • Follow up post-interview. Express your interest and share things you might have missed in person.
  • Utilize your network. Establish trust with company leaders via mutual connections.

Whether you’re a software sales pro or a coding whiz, you probably remember a time where your hands got clammy or your cheeks went red while interviewing for a job. When a question takes us by surprise, it’s easy to let nervousness take control, which can lead you to fumbling for the answer. If you’ve ever lost sleep thinking about all the different ways you could have prepared for an interview, these tips from tech recruiting leaders will give you the tools to approach your next interview with confidence and ease.

 

Understand Your Own Strengths

Daniel Miller, chief product officer at RecruiterPM and cofounder of Empowered Staffing, is no stranger to the job interview process. “I’m constantly hiring people. I mean, we hire hundreds of people a year. For all my client organizations, I’m involved in thousands of interview processes.”

When asked what ways people can prepare for difficult interviews ahead of time, Miller stressed the importance of evaluating your own strong qualities before having the hiring conversation.

“People need to understand their own backgrounds before they get on a call with a hiring manager,” he said. “Think about your accomplishments.”

It can be tempting to talk about big-picture progress, but highlighting your specific efforts can demonstrate how you’d be an asset to the team. “Sometimes you want to be like, ‘my team, my company,’” he said. “But what can you do without your team and company? Explain the accomplishments you own as an individual.”

“It can be tempting to talk about big-picture progress, but highlighting your specific efforts can demonstrate how you’d be an asset to the team.”

Miller also made it clear that bringing concrete data points to the conversation is crucial in showing prospective employers the value you can bring to their company. It’s more impactful to share something specific, like ROI or the percentage of YoY growth, he said.

More Interview AdviceTackling the ‘How Would You Describe Yourself?’ Interview Question

 

Your Weaknesses Can Be Opportunities

It’s likely that you’ll be asked to talk about your weaknesses during the interview — Miller hates this question, but recognizes that it’s one most people will encounter. “That question is a double-edged sword,” he said. “You need to show that your weaknesses are things that you need to improve on, but that they aren’t going to affect your chances of getting the opportunity.”

“Be honest about what areas you need to improve upon, but don’t forget to describe exactly how you plan to carry through on that improvement.”

Often the best way to counter that question is to turn your weaknesses into strengths, or at least chances for growth, he said. For example, if you tend to be overly detail focused and independent when working on a project, you can talk about the ways you’re learning to share your ideas and accept feedback from others in order to come up with stronger solutions. Be honest about what areas you need to improve upon, but don’t forget to describe exactly how you plan to carry through on that improvement.

Symonds agrees — focus your answer on where you want to go. “Showing that you have a growth mindset is more beneficial to an interviewer than just listing your weaknesses,” she said. “Talking about opportunities for improvement can show a company that you’re a self-reflective person with a growth mindset.”

 

Take Your Time

When you’re faced with a difficult question, your instinct might be to rush and fill in the silence — but that can lead to a superficial answer. Taking the time to pause and gather your thoughts before answering a difficult question may feel awkward, but will show the interviewer that you’re being intentional.

“I think it’s always OK to tell your interviewer, ‘is it alright if I have a minute to think about that?’ rather than panicking and starting an answer you really don’t have the words for,” Symonds said. “It will definitely make you look better than just diving in and giving an aimless answer.”

 

Ask Tough Questions Back

It’s not just about answering tough questions — you’re vetting the company and the team during the interview process too. Do your research and don’t be afraid to ask the questions you really want answered. “In the tech industry, you’ve got to make sure you’re working for good startups and good companies,” Miller said.

Preparing detailed questions is beneficial in two ways: It’ll help you figure out if you actually want to work there and it’ll show that you have a genuine interest in the position, Symonds said. Find out about the company retention rate — are people sticking around? If you’re focused on growth, ask what training they offer or what the career path looks like for this role. Ask about the challenges your team is facing or what you’ll be expected to accomplish in the first six months. These questions will “give you a sense of how a company invests in its people,” Symonds said.

“Do your research and don’t be afraid to ask the questions you really want answered.”

Keep the interview in perspective and know that an interview goes both ways. Not all interviews will go perfectly, and if that’s the case, then it’s just more information for you to use in your decision. “If you’re not feeling super positive [after] coming out of it, sometimes it’s not even about you, it’s about the company,” Miller said. “It might not be the right fit.”

 

Follow Up Afterward

If an interview didn’t go as you’d hoped, that doesn’t mean you’ve run out of chances to make your case. “If a candidate really feels bad about an interview, what I suggest is writing a really good thank you letter that reiterates why they’re a strong candidate, and how they’re excited to move forward,” Miller said.

“A follow-up letter can be the secret key to ensuring managers feel more confident in hiring you.”

Plus, a strong follow up conversation can give you an added opportunity to share things that might have been missed in person and to further display your interest in the company, he said.

“Interviewing is hard for recruiters too,” he said. “It’s like playing matchmaker and planning a wedding within, like, two weeks.” A follow-up note can be the secret key to ensuring managers feel more confident in hiring you.

 

Utilize Your Network

The most powerful tool? Your network. “Building a strong network is really valuable,” she said. “Knowing people and building relationships with people so that they will want to help you is part of the interview process as well. It always helps if you know somebody that can speak highly of you.”

What does networking have to do with answering hard interview questions? Tackling a daunting interview is much easier when you aren’t starting from square one. Relying on your professional connections for introductions and referrals establishes credibility with the hiring manager. It lays the groundwork so that you can better handle those challenging questions.

“Relying on your professional connections for introductions and referrals establishes credibility with the hiring manager.”

But what if you’re brand new to the tech scene, and don’t have connections to people at the companies or startups you want to join? Regardless of where you are in your career, you likely already have a network of people to help you along, Symonds said. “I spent a lot of time in college building my network,” she said. If you don’t have a robust network yet, start by sending emails to people you admire and ask them about how you could break into the tech industry. “You’re never too young to start building connections, going to workshops and conferences, and introducing yourself.”

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