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The Five Toughest Telephone Interview Questions -- And How To Handle Them

By Martin Yate, CPC

Telephone interviews are usually short, just long enough to rule you in or out, and so an interviewer’s focus will be on questions that help evaluate you as quickly as possible. Your goal is to turn this telephone screening into a face-to-face meeting.

First things first. Don’t ramble: think through your answers to each of these five opportunity-killing questions before you give them. This will make your responses intelligent and concise. As a rule of thumb, keep your answers to less than two minutes: if an interviewer wants to know more she will ask.

  1. "Tell me a little about yourself," is often the first question. Interviewers don’t want your life story; they want to know if meeting you would be a good use of their time. Answer with a brief work history showing how each job and project helped prepare you for this job. Then give a profile of the "professional you," showcasing your skills in a way that will have the interviewer mentally picturing you doing the same things for him.
  2. “What experience do you have in…?” Make any discussion of your experience relevant to the deliverables of this particular job, and reference the specific skills you possess that enable you to do it well. At its core, this job exists to help the company make money in some way; and your work helps achieve this goal by solving problems and preventing problems from arising within your areas of responsibility. Your answers should show that you are a problem solver (and problem preventer) by nature, and that this problem prevention and solution attitude is always part of your thinking. You do this by giving concrete examples of problem identification and solution.
  3. "What are your strengths?" Whatever your particular strengths, you want to get these three points across:
    • You have the specific technical skills needed to do the job well.
    • You have a problem-prevention-and-solution mindset.
    • You are fully aware that the product of your work (that sale, that accounting report) in turn becomes part of someone else’s work. You understand your work is one small but important cog in the complex machinery that helps the company make money.
  4. "What are your weaknesses?” You can safely—and honestly—say that your greatest weakness is finding time to stay current with all the new technology skills required in your work. This is a challenge for everyone, so you’re neither lying nor making yourself seem “less than.” Then you must be ready to end your answer with examples of how you’ve been proactive in combating this deficiency.
  5. “How much do you want?” If the interviewer asks about money, say that at this point you don't know enough about the company or the job to answer accurately. If you are pressed give a range, say, "I have no real understanding of your needs yet, or of the different benefits that could come from joining your team. However, I would probably be looking at something in the range of $X-$Y."

The telephone interview comes to an end when you are asked whether you have any questions. If you have not already been invited to a face-to-face interview, now is the time to take the initiative, "The most pressing question I have is: When can we meet?"

In closing your conversation, take care to ascertain the correct spelling and pronunciation of the interviewer's name: you’ll want to send a thank you email.


Martin Yate, CPC, author of Knock 'em Dead: Secrets & Strategies for Success in an Uncertain World, is a New York Times and international bestseller of job search and career management books. He is the author of 11 job search and career management books published throughout the English speaking world and in over 50 foreign language editions. Over thirty years in career management, including stints as an international technology headhunter, head of HR for a publicly traded company and Director of Training and Development for an international employment services organization.

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