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Be Specific in the Interview
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Be Specific in the Interview

Many employers are including questions in the interview asking applicants to discuss a time when they handled a particular challenge. Usually, the interviewer wants to hear about an incident that really happened.

More often, though, he hears vague ideas about how the applicant might have handled theoretical situations. Employers are left wondering if the applicant even listened to the question. Here’s how to shine when you get asked for a specific instance in an interview.

First, think ahead of examples you might use during your meeting. What are your strong points? Customer service? Problem solving? Systems design? Managing people? Whatever your strength, spend some time thinking about a couple of specific instances where you performed well. Practice telling the story so that it can be relayed in a minute or two, includes all the important points, and is easy to follow.

The classic format for this kind of interview answer is the STAR method. The STAR method helps you tell the story in a logical sequence and makes it memorable:

  • Situation: What was the problem or challenge you faced?
  • Take Action: What did you do?
  • Results: How did your action result in a positive outcome?

What kind of stories should you be prepared to tell? Common questions from interviewers often include delivering customer service, resolving conflict in the workplace, dealing with change, and managing or motivating employees. You can take the best examples you have from several different jobs—they don’t all have to come from your current position.

There’s no need to exaggerate the role you played in a situation, or claim others’ accomplishments as your own. If you were a part of the team that fixed a problem, say so. Talk about the specific role you played, even if it was small. “I was asked to research office solutions, and discovered that we could save as much as 50% by purchasing the equipment from an independent dealer.” Working as an effective team member can be as attractive to an employer as being the creative genius behind the solutions.

There will be a time to generalize after you’ve talked about specific contributions. “I was often asked to sit in on the clerical staff hiring process, since my follow on questions often uncovered important information.” It’s easier to talk about how you were generally regarded after being able to cite detailed accomplishments.

Talking about specifics can help lend credibility to questions about your personality and character as well. If an interviewer asks how you approach problem solving or to describe your management style, your answer will be much more effective with a description of those traits in action. You can even use the STAR method to talk about situations that didn’t end on a positive note. Some interviewers will ask about times when you made bad decisions or had to fire an employee. Use the STAR method to describe how challenging the problem was, what action you took, and why it didn’t turn out as you’d hoped. In this model, be sure to add what you learned from the situation, and how you would do it differently today. Being able to admit to and learn from your mistakes is a sign of growth, and will be very attractive to your future employer.

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