Impossible Interview Questions, Part 2: Handling Sensitive & Negative Issues

“Impossible” interview questions – like the ones that raise sensitive or negative issues – can blow up in your face if not handled skillfully.

In last week’s post I offered tips for handling various kinds of “impossible” questions, but now let’s take a closer look at answering questions about negatives.

For example, you might be asked to explain a past job that didn’t work out, a long period of unemployment, or your lack of an important qualification.

An unskillful answer to a question like this can destroy your chances of getting an offer.

But here’s the good news: these questions can also be opportunities to demonstrate strengths such as transparency, resilience, and the wisdom you’ve gained from experience.

How can you handle these questions effectively,  defuse the danger, and come through it looking good?

Use the “sandwich” technique: surround the negatives with positives.

“Why did I leave Presto Promotions? Actually, I loved my work there, and I played a key role in many major wins, such as (ultra-brief example or two), which I can tell you more about if you like. Then I was diagnosed with Ravel Syndrome and had to take a year off to recover my health. Last month my doctor said I’m fully recovered and should be fine from now on. I feel great and I’ve been attending conferences and reading a lot to refresh my skills while looking for the right opportunity. I’m very excited about this opening.”

Keep the negative part brief.

See the example above, where the reason for leaving the job takes up only one short sentence. This is important, although of course it can be hard to be brief about something you have strong feelings about.

Questions like “Tell me about a difficult person you had to work with” or “Why do you want to leave your job?” present a strong temptation to kvetch and be commiserated with, particularly when your interviewer has the natural empathy we often see among human resources folks. Resist that urge firmly. Accept any sympathy graciously, but then quickly move on to your skills and the job you’re interviewing for.

Set your feelings aside and speak in an emotionally neutral manner.

This may require that you work through feelings of disappointment, grief or anger ahead of time. Try journaling, talking to a trusted friend, reading self-help books or getting professional help. Your state of mind is crucial to your interview success.

Don’t create negative sound bites.

As author Jeff Haden has written, “Interviewers will only remember a few sound bites, especially negative ones. Avoid statements like “No, I’ve never been in charge of training.’ Instead say, ‘I didn’t fill that specific role, but I have trained dozens of new hires and created several training guides.'” Rather than saying “I haven’t” or “I can’t,” emphasize what you have done and can do.

Plan and practice your answers.

You can practice on your own, but also do mock interviews with someone – a peer or an interview coach – to get outside perspectives and advice.

These tips are from the chapter “How to Answer Any Interview Question” in my book Get That Job! The Quick and Complete Guide to a Winning Interview, available as an eBook from iBooks, Barnes & Noble Nook and Kobo, and in paperback too from Amazon.

How to Answer Impossible Interview Questions, Part 1

What do you do when you’re asked an “impossible” interview question – one that stops you in your tracks?

That was the issue raised by a job seeker I was coaching today – let’s call him Peter. “I get asked a question and I just can’t answer it. I’m stuck.”

He had discussed the issue with his colleague, Paula, who had said “I’m never asked a question I can’t answer.” Did Paula mean that she knows everything – is that why she’s never at a loss? Nope. Paula just knows that there’s always a way to answer the question.

Here are several ways to deal with a moment when you feel stuck in an interview.

Look behind the question. Ask yourself “What is their concern behind this question?” For example, if they’re asking about your weaknesses, their concern is about whether you have an open and constructive attitude about your weaknesses, and whether you’re self-aware and able to take steps to improve your own performance.

Look for the positive. Almost any answer can sell you for the job. For example, if you have to tell about a mistake you made, you can talk about how you corrected it, how you minimized the damage, what you learned from it and how that learning improved your performance afterwards.

Get clear. If you don’t fully understand the question, ask for clarification.

Get centered. If you feel panicky or blank, take a breath before doing anything else.

If it’s a puzzle question, think out loud. Questions like “Are there two non-bald people in New York with the same number of hairs on their heads?” are about your thought processes, problem-solving skills and ability to handle a curve ball without getting flustered. How you address the question may be more important than your answer.

If you’ve forgotten the question, ask them to repeat it. This doesn’t look great but it’s better than guessing what the question was and therefore giving an answer that’s way off target. Next time, make a point of listening carefully and perhaps mentally repeating each question they ask, to get it firmly in mind before starting to answer.

Buy yourself time to think. If you just need a bit more time to think, restate the question or the last few words of it. “So you’d like me to talk about time when…”

As a last resort, table it. Ask if you can come back to the question later. With any luck, either you’ll think of an answer later in the interview, or they’ll forget to ask again. Maybe you’ll think of a great answer after you’ve left and you can include it in your thank you note.

Prepare ahead of time for any “danger zones.” There’s one category of “impossible interview questions” that deserves a whole article: questions that probe  significant negatives, such as your lack of a certain important qualification, whether/why you were fired, a job that didn’t work out or a long period of unemployment. Read next week’s post to learn how to handle problem questions like these so your interview stays on track toward getting the offer.

Resume Writing Tips for Career Changers

When you’re not just looking for a new job but a new career, you need a new resume. Here are some crucial career change resume tips that will help you position yourself for your big leap.

Start with a relevant headline.

Write the job title of the  opening you’re applying for, such as “Marketing Consultant,” as a headline between your name and contact information and the rest of the resume. The top of your resume is a valuable spot for a first impression; don’t waste it on an empty word like “Summary.”

Build a compelling summary (just don’t bother labeling it as such).

If the first thing employers see is your Experience section, headed by a job that’s very different from the job you’re applying for, it’s easy for the employer to reject you, thinking “This person doesn’t have the right experience.” Instead, focus their attention first and foremost on your relevant qualifications. Here are some elements you might include in this summary.

Targeted introductory paragraph or bullet points: Here is where you summarize your key selling points or unique selling proposition. It might look like this:

  • BA in Business Administration with Marketing emphasis expected in May 2018.
  • Early experience as Marketing Coordinator, followed by accomplished sales career.
  • Extensive experience collaborating with Marketing as Sales Manager for top (industry) firms including X and Y.
  • Data-driven and highly analytical, as demonstrated by (very briefly mention an achievement or chunk of experience that proves this).

Keep this section very short, especially if you use a paragraph instead of bullets. Anything dense here is likely to be ignored.

Competencies block: List your skills and areas of knowledge using brief words and phrases such as “team leadership,” “project management,” “Salesforce,” and so on, so employers can see at a glance that you have the know-how. (Tip: A two-column or three-column arrangement saves space compared to a single-column list.)

“Translate” your Experience section to show how your skills are transferable.

Consider adding to your job title lines. Let’s say you’re seeking a position as a Human Resources Generalist, and your past job title was Office Manager – but half of the job really involved doing the work of a Human Resources Generalist. You can show that you were a de facto HR Generalist – without claiming you officially held that title – by writing it like this:

Office Manager (and Human Resources Generalist), Brown Educational Software, Inc.

Or if the HR duties were only a small part of the role, write this instead:

Office Manager (including Human Resources responsibilities), Brown Educational Software, Inc.

Either way, putting these important keywords in the job title will allow your resume to perform well in applicant tracking systems as well as in the eyes of the reader. (And you can do the same on LinkedIn, by the way.)

Emphasize what’s relevant. Describe your past job duties in terms familiar to the field you want to go into. For example, let’s say you used to do social media work and now you want to do grant writing for nonprofits. Some aspects of your previous job may not be transferable, but your ability to write concise, attention-getting content may be relevant and valuable.

The resume is just one component.

As important as your resume is, it isn’t going to get you into a new career by itself. More than other job seekers, career changers need to network effectively, get any additional training or experience they need, and so on. Plan a smart, up-to-date job search campaign in which your well-targeted career-change resume is one of many strong components.

How to Choose Your Profile Picture by Crowd-Testing It

Are people getting the right message from your LinkedIn or Facebook profile picture? What does it say about you – confident, likeable – or not? Here’s how you can find out, to help you choose the best profile picture for the impression you want to create.

The results may surprise you! I tested mine and got a bit of a shock, as I’ll describe below.

Here’s what you need to do:

First, make sure you have several suitable profile photos to choose from.

If you don’t, you can either hire a professional, who will take dozens of pictures. Or ask a friend, who should take, again, dozens of pictures. Because out of all those, you’re bound to have a few you can stand enough to move on to the next step – even if you hate seeing yourself in photos as much as I do!

Tip: Lighting is super important! Take advantage of what photographers call “the golden hour” outdoors – the period a little after sunrise or before sunset when the light is redder, softer and more flattering.

Then gather objective reactions by crowd-testing your profile pictures at

You can test your photos in three categories: Business, Social or Dating. Photofeeler members will anonymously rate each image for certain qualities: competent, likeable and influential (for Business), confident, authentic and fun (Social) or smart, trustworthy and attractive (Dating).

Does it cost you anything? It’s free if you’re willing to either vote on others’ pictures to earn voting “karma.” To get more responses quickly you can pay a fee instead.)

Want to know what I learned from my Photofeeler tests?

I tested a couple of fairly similar professionally taken photos in the Business category and got roughly equal – and favorable – results. So far so good.

Photo A:

Photo B:

I wondered why the second photo got higher ratings for competent and influential. Was it because more of my suit jacket was showing? So I tried a less cropped version of Photo A, with these results:

Interesting. Maybe the jacket did make a difference. Or maybe it’s just that the 33 people who voted on this particular day were in a better mood.

I moved on to my Social pictures.

Here’s where it got more interesting.

I had two options for a Facebook profile. I thought both photos would poll pretty well, but apparently this one was making a lousy impression!

Photo C:

So I immediately swapped it out for this one (below). Same ol’ me – but having a very different impact!

Photo C:

My conclusion:

If you want to choose a profile picture that sends the right message, Photofeeler can be a useful tool!

A Job Search Tool that Saves You Lots of Time!

If you’re looking for a new job, you’re probably sick and tired of the tedious, time-consuming process of filling out online job applications and uploading your resume. Let me tell you about an excellent job search tool that automates all that, easily and inexpensively.
It’s a job search virtual assistant technology called Fridayd. The company states it saves an average of 40 hours per month for users, and I can believe it. That’s extra time you can use for interview preparation, networking – or spending quality time with the people and activities you love.


Here’s what Fridayd does:

  • Provides a list of current job openings curated to your preferences. This is far more customized than any saved search you can create on a job board.
  • Helps you find networking contacts related to the openings.
  • Applies to the jobs you select. (You have a lot of choices at this point, such as which resume version to use.)
  • Allows you to request a phone call with a Fridayd employment specialist – a live human! – if you need one-on-one help.
  • Tracks your job search activities.
  • And more. It’s really quite robust and flexible.
  • I haven’t experimented with it extensively but it seems user-friendly as well. You upload your resume and cover letter, and fill in a lot of information up front – one time – so Fridayd can complete a wide range of applications and forms for you.

What does it cost?

Standard account: $49/mo.

Premium: $79/mo. $63/mo. if you sign up through me.

Can I get you a special deal? Yes.

Sign up now through this link, and make sure you include my name on the registration form, to get a free no-risk 14-day trial on either plan, plus a discounted $63/mo. rate if you choose Premium).

Is this affiliate marketing? Do I get a cut? Yes and yes. But I’m extremely selective about selling anything but my own services – in fact, this is the first time I’ve ever done so. I heard about Fridayd through my membership in the respected professional association Career Directors International as well as a few fellow career coaches whose clients have used the tool and really liked it. I only regret not spreading the word sooner. If you have questions, contact me or write directly to the Fridayd team:

I would love to hear about your experiences with this powerful job search tool! I think it will make your life easier.



4 More Interview Mistakes Smart People Make

You aren’t making dumb interview mistakes. You’re never late to a job interview, and you don’t complain about your past boss to the person you’re hoping will be your next boss. So why haven’t you landed an offer yet?

In last week’s post I pointed out three common pitfalls you may not have been aware of. Here are four more you can correct for greater success.

Being too modest.

Think this isn’t you? Think again. As an interview coach I find that about 90% of my clients are failing to say enough, or to be specific enough, about the good results they’ve achieved in their work.

Don’t just tell them what you’ve done in your current and past jobs – tell them how well you did it and the impact it had. If the impact was large, quantify it, whether in terms of money, increased market share, greater efficiency, time saved, or whatever metric is relevant.

Look for extra bragging points: Is the process you created still in use five years later? Say so. Were you given a bonus or a recognition? Don’t be shy. Did you receive a memorable kudo from a customer or your manager? Quote from it.

Thinking it’s all about competence.

An interview isn’t only about proving you can do the job well. It’s also about chemistry and rapport. We all want to work with people we like and trust. So be authentic. Don’t recite memorized answers. And let your enthusiasm show. Reveal what you truly love about your work.

Think about the interviewer as a person. Wonder what you’ll like about him or her when you’re working together. Realize he or she may be just as nervous and hopeful as you are.

Not preparing a great answer to that killer question.

Is there a question that scares you a little? Or a lot? Like, why do you want to leave your current job, or have you ever been fired? If you don’t have an answer you’re comfortable with, work on it. Research it online, discuss it with a trusted friend or a coach. There’s always a best way to answer, and it’s usually better than you think.

Not preparing plenty of good questions to ask the interviewer.

Good questions show that you’ve researched the company, are curious and motivated, and are already thinking about how you can do a great job. I recommend preparing 10 good questions, because if you only have five, you may find that they’ve all been answered by the end of the interview and you’re stuck with nothing.

Holding your questions ’til the end.

Look for opportunities to ask questions early in the interview and throughout. This can make the interview feel less like an interrogation and more like a conversation, which is much more enjoyable for both parties. Your questions may also lead to information that helps you give better answers.

You’re human. Chances are you’ve made at least one of these interview mistakes; we all live and learn. But with diligent effort these missteps can be eliminated – giving you a much better chance in each interview and a shorter job search!

3 Interview Mistakes Smart People Make

You’re too smart to make those silly mistakes like reeking of cologne at a job interview or forgetting to turn off your phone. But maybe you’re still not getting offers. How can you change that?

This post and next week’s will identify some less-obvious pitfalls to eliminate.

Not being proactive about marketing yourself.

There may be 500 reasons why the company should hire you, but they won’t remember 500. They may remember three, or five. So go into your interviews knowing what your key selling points are and make sure they come across clearly and memorably. This is also known as your unique selling proposition.

Wasting the “first impression answer.”

Your answer to the first question interviewers ask – usually something like “Would you tell me a bit about yourself?” – can set the tone for the whole interview. People tend to remember what they hear first. So make sure your first answer focuses the interviewer’s attention where you want it – on those crucial key selling points. Here are some tips on answering this crucial question.

Being vague rather than concrete.

Too-general answers sound generic and unconvincing. Be specific. Tell stories that demonstrate your outstanding skills.

I won’t lie to you – it may take hours to prepare your key selling points, craft a great “Tell me about yourself” answer and plan the right interview stories. For step-by-step guidance, you may want to read my book, Get That Job, The Quick and Complete Guide to a Winning Interview.

Key selling points, an effective first answer and compelling stories will help you get that job offer a lot sooner!

See next week’s post for “4 More Interview Mistakes Smart People Make.” Better yet, subscribe and get free tips on interview preparation, resumes and other job search topics in your mailbox once a week.

5 More Reasons Your Resume Didn’t Get You an Interview

In last week’s post I pointed out five ways your resume can fall into that mysterious black hole in the HR department. Here are five more ways your resume can crash. Don’t let it happen!

Maybe you never heard back because…

…your resume wasn’t ATS-friendly. Many common types of formatting can cause your resume to be misread by applicant tracking systems, including: putting crucial information in headers and footers (which are ignored by the ATS), using a Word template, sending a PDF rather than a Word document (and .doc is still generally safer than .docx, by the way), putting a credential after your name, or using a “functional” format where job titles and companies are not immediately followed by descriptive content. Or maybe…

…it didn’t have the right key words. Both for the ATS and the human eye, it’s crucial to have the right keywords in your resume, especially in the job titles and descriptions. How do you know what they right keywords are? Look at the posting. Tip: The #1 most important keyword is often the job title, so if your company has given you a vague title like “Analyst II” but you’re applying for Data Analyst, write it like this: “Analyst II (Data Analyst)”.

…it didn’t fit the job. It’s usually not worth your time to apply online to jobs for which you don’t have at least 9/10 of the stated requirements, unless you have a connection.

…you don’t fit the mold. This one is painful to hear, I know. Even if you have all the qualifications, if your job history is unconventional you’re likely to be passed over. For example, if your most recent job isn’t similar to the job you’re applying for, or you’re applying at a large company when your experience is at small ones, or you’re self-employed (however successfully), employers may have a hard time imagining you in the role, and may simply move on to the next candidate.

…you didn’t have a connection (your job search strategy needs an overhaul). Any job seeker with a referral has a major advantage. In fact, all of the issues listed above can cease to be show-stoppers when you have a referral. This is why experts recommend that you spend most of your job search time cultivating referrals at the top 40 or 50 companies where you’d like to work. For tips on how to do this, read my post “How to Use Info Interviews to Get Hired Faster.”

Your resume doesn’t have to fall into a black hole. You can transform your job search practices to adapt to the realities of what works. If that feels like a huge challenge, don’t go it alone – work with a coach to plan and execute a cutting-edge search that gets your qualifications taken seriously.

5 Reasons Your Resume Fell into a Black Hole

You’ve sent your resume out for a dozen jobs this month, but it seems like it’s disappearing into another dimension because you aren’t getting calls. Sound familiar?

Chances are, one or more of the following issues applies to you. Maybe…

…you didn’t act quickly enough. Just because the job posting says “Apply by July 24” doesn’t mean they won’t already have settled on a short list by the 20th. Be the early bird.

…your resume stated what you did, but not how well you did it and what difference it made. Let’s say you planned, led and completed a project. Well yes, but lots of people could do that. Did you do it better? Was it more difficult than it sounds? Did you solve a problem that was threatening to derail the initiative, then get the project back on track to hit an outrageous 5-week deadline? If so, add that!

…your resume is hard to read. Resumes that are wordy (using five words where two would do), crowded (long sentences and paragraphs, too little white space), in a tiny font (try not to go below 10 pt.) or that look disorganized are hard to read. Like this paragraph was. (Too many parentheses.)

…you didn’t use a proofreader. Long before I became a job search coach I worked as a proofreader and copyeditor, correcting professional writers’ manuscripts. When I was done with them, nearly every page was marked with numerous corrections. Your writing is not as clean as you think.

Did you know you can hire a proofreader for less than $5 a page? You can’t afford not to. And proofread it yourself too, because nobody’s perfect.

…you only sent your resume to Human Resources. Yes, I know, you were instructed to send it there. But don’t stop there. Figure out who the hiring manager is, and send it to him directly as well – maybe with a follow-up phone call as well.

(By the way, there’s LinkedIn add-on called Hunter that helps find people’s email addresses.)

Have you solved these resume mistakes? Still not getting the interview as often as you’d like? Read the next post: “5 More Reasons Your Resume Didn’t Get You the Interview.”

How to Answer an Interview Question about Salary Expectations (Infographic)

“What kind of salary are you looking for?” An unskillful answer to an interview question about salary expectations – your salary requirements, desired salary, etc. – can cost you a lot of money – or cost you a job offer.

Naming a figure is risky. It your number is too high, the employer can’t afford you. Too low, you hurt your credibility. Even if your number is right on, you limit your freedom to negotiate.

Follow the arrows in the diagram to see how to reply to the interviewer’s questions (in purple) with your smart answers (in green).

Practice your answers out loud – several times, preferably with a friend or an interview coach – before your next job interview. Good luck!