10 Tough Interview Questions and How to Answer Them in English
So, you’ve got an interview! That’s so exciting! But if you’re a job-seeker who speaks English as a second language, the first thing you’re wondering is: How do I answer those tough interview questions?
As a professional with skills and work experience, you probably know how to tackle those tricky questions in your native language without breaking much of a sweat.
But when it comes to an interview in English, it’s important to prepare and practice the questions the interviewer will likely ask you during the meeting.
In today’s post, we’re going to break down these ten difficult interview questions and discuss why they’re so tough:
Tell me about yourself.
What motivates you?
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Can you tell me about a time when you had a conflict with someone on your team?
Can you give me an example of a time when you failed to meet a specific goal?
Can you tell me about a long-term project that you managed and how you managed it?
What would you do if…?
How would you describe your ideal boss or manager?
Why shouldn’t we hire you?
How much were you making at your last job?
We’re also going to look at how you can answer them in English and what grammar structures you should use to answer certain kinds of questions.
Then we’re going to review some helpful phrasal verbs and expressions you can use in a job interview.
Depending on what kind of job you have applied for, the interview process can be long, challenging, and exhausting. But with a bit of preparation and practice, it can be a lot less painful.
And, if you’re feeling overwhelmed right now, try to keep in mind that you have something that all employers want: you’re an adaptable English learner, and you take ownership of your own learning.
So, let’s roll up our sleeves and keep reading!
HOW TO ANSWER DIFFICULT INTERVIEW QUESTIONS IN ENGLISH
Personality and background questions
You’ve applied for the job, waited, and received an invitation for an interview; now you’re finally sitting in the interviewer’s office. If you’re an experienced job-seeker, you’ve done your research about the company and the person or people interviewing you.
And have you heard that expression, “The interview starts as soon as you walk into a room?” It’s not just about the way you dress or your timeliness. It’s also important to show enthusiasm at this stage. 78% of hiring managers say that showing excitement about the job can have a positive effect on the result.
When you’re answering these kinds of questions, you’ll want to avoid being vague or using cliched answers. The best strategy is to use concrete examples from your own life to demonstrate your strengths.
Take the classic “strengths and weaknesses” question, for example. Don’t simply say something like, “My strength is dedication to work, but my weakness is my inability to accept failure.” Think about specific skills and stories in your previous experience that clearly show a weakness you overcame.
You can use your English language learning as an example. Talk about your previous lack of confidence with English or what your problem areas were with the language. Then, talk about the specific, measurable ways in which you overcame that problem:
“I needed to improve my English in order to work with more international customers, but it was taking me a long time to gain confidence, and to be honest, I found it really boring to study. Then I realized that I needed to approach the problem from a new angle. First, I gave myself a goal: in six months, I wanted to be able to give a presentation in English and write better emails. I found a great teacher who made it fun but who also understood my needs. I also gave myself specific goals every week, such as “Write one sample email,” or “create a five-minute sample presentation and practice it with my teacher.” In six months, my English improved drastically.”
Now let’s look at some questions that the interviewer might ask to get a sense of your personality, attitude, and skillset:
1. Tell me about yourself.
This question doesn’t seem so bad, right? But it’s an open-ended question that can tempt you to share too much irrelevant information. The interviewer wants you to demonstrate your skills, job experience, future goals, and how you’ll fit in with the company culture. For example
“Before I got into digital marketing, I worked in insurance for a long time. At the time, I was doing some volunteer social media marketing for my local homeless shelter, and I thought, ‘I really like this!’ I’m definitely a go-getter and someone who likes to take initiative, so when I finally realized I was unhappy in insurance, I decided to make a change, and I was lucky enough to land a job at an advertising agency. Now, after ten years there, I’ve realized that I’m ready for a more challenging role in leadership.”
2. What motivates you?
This question also feels tricky because it’s a bit vague. Keep in mind that they want to know if your skills and character traits are a good fit. You can even refer to a specific situation that demonstrates this:
“I have always been motivated by any situation in which I have to build a project team and meet project deadlines. I have a passion for identifying the strengths of different team members and helping them build their own skillset during a project. Last year, for example, half of my team members had never participated in a fundraising campaign, but I knew they could handle it. After we finished the project, two of the team members said they love fundraising now, and they thanked me for trusting them to be part of the project.”
3. Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Unfortunately, they’re not asking if you hope to be retired early and living on an island or opening a shelter for lost kittens. They want to know how your career goals and ambitions fit with the company’s future plans. If your job does not lead directly to another position, you might talk about how you want to grow your skills within that position:
“In 5 years, I hope to sharpen my skills in two specific areas of teaching: technology in the elementary classroom and social-emotional learning. I would especially love to become an expert in using technology as a literacy tool. In terms of social-emotional learning, I hope to become much more educated in ways that I can use it to create a more inclusive learning environment for elementary school children.”
Grammar hint: Did you notice which grammar structures would be useful here?
You can use the present simple to discuss general facts about yourself, like your passions, interests, or motivations.
You can use the past simple to share work experiences and anecdotes that happened within a finished time period (such as Last year, in 2015, when I was younger, etc.).
Use the present perfect when you talk about work experiences without mentioning a specific time.
And, if you need to review how to use certain prepositions, you should check out this post.
After your interviewer has broken the ice and asked you a few background questions, they will likely dive into some behavioral questions. They designed these questions for a specific answer: The interviewer wants you to give them an example of a situation that demonstrated a strength, weakness, past success, or past failure that taught you something. They may also ask you to imagine a hypothetical situation:“What would you do if?” But we’ll get into more detail about those later.
The interviewer wants you to tell them a story. And the STAR Method can give you a framework for that story.
STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, and Result.
S: You will provide the interviewer with the context, or situation.
T: Then describe the task that you had to accomplish in that context.
A: Next, you will want to share what actions or steps you took to accomplish that task.
R: Conclude your story with a description of the result, or the direct effect, of those actions.
We’ve only included three behavioral questions here, but there will likely be more, and they begin in a similar way:
4. Can you tell me about a time when you had a conflict with someone on your team?
The interviewer wants to know a few things here: How do you work with others? Can you communicate well enough to solve a conflict in a constructive way for the team? A good answer to this question can also help you demonstrate your ability to lead people. Remember, you can use STAR to frame your answer:
“I was working with a designer on an email campaign for a new client. There were a few occasions when I asked her to email me something the day before a weekly creative meeting, and she would forget or send it too late. Later, she would apologize. I gave her some feedback about this issue, but I think I hurt her feelings, and she felt I overstepped my role as a copywriter. So I apologized; I asked her if there was a better way I could have addressed the issue and could communicate better in the future. We decided that the best solution was to have a short meeting before the creative meeting every week, and that fixed our problem.
5. Can you give me an example of a time when you failed to meet a specific goal?
This question kind of hurts to hear, but don’t let it get you down. It can inspire you to look at previous failures and difficulties in a positive light and ask yourself: What did I learn from that?
So, when you answer this question, don’t just talk about the failure. Talk about what you learned from your mistakes.
“When I was doing freelance web development, one of my clients was a cello teacher who gave lessons online. He wanted me to help him launch a new website and online course in six months, and although I had never worked on that kind of timeline, I thought it would be possible. I thought if I worked really hard, we could do it on our own, and I wouldn’t need to ask for any temporary help. Unfortunately, we failed to meet the six-month deadline. It took us closer to nine months. My client was understanding, but now I see that I would have met this goal if I had been more aware of the short timeline or the need for help.”
6. Can you tell me about a long-term project that you managed and how you managed it?
This question might not be too tricky if you’ve managed a few long-term projects. But what if you haven’t? In her book, #ENTRY LEVEL BOSS: How To Get Any Job You Want, Alexa Shoen shares some wisdom about how you can turn any kind of previous experience into a skill you can demonstrate to an interviewer. She says that:
“All experience is legitimate and you get to decide what’s relevant [...] For the rest of your working life, your most valuable weapon will be the ability to understand and articulate why the experiences you had in one job are transferable to another.”
So, for example:
“I used to do some volunteer outreach for the soup kitchen at my church. Our pastor wanted to open up another location in another part of town, and he asked me if I was interested in helping him with that project. So, I started sending out emails, making announcements, and reaching out to other church members interested in helping and donating. Once we had enough interest, I formed and led a small task group. Then, we started fundraising, working with a real estate agent, and reaching out to donors. It took us about 18 months, but we were eventually able to open another soup kitchen location with a lot of support from the community.”
Grammar hint: What grammar structures did you notice in these responses?
The structure “used to” + verb can help you begin a story and provide context for the interviewer.
Use the past simple (I worked there), past continuous (I was working there.), and past perfect continuous (I had been working there) for telling stories and anecdotes in the past.
“Would” and “should” questions
These questions might come in the form of asking you how you would handle a specific hypothetical situation. Or they might ask you to imagine your perfect work situation. But I call them “would” and “should” questions because, well, they use the words “would” and “should.”
They might also use the word “could,” as in, “If you could work on any project at your current job, what project would you work on?” Again, the interviewer wants you to imagine an ideal situation, so it’s best to use the words “would” and “should” in your answer.
7. What would you do if…?
You don’t have to use your imagination to guess what the interviewer might ask. You can find so many versions of this question out there. You can use the STAR method to answer these questions, too.
You might also take this opportunity to demonstrate how you value traits like honesty, consistency, and integrity in the workplace. In this example, let’s imagine the interviewer asks, “What would you do if your manager asked you to lead a meeting in his place?” You can ask a few follow up questions if you are confused, and try to relate your answer to your own experience.
“It might depend on the meeting and how familiar I am with how the manager does things. If I’m unfamiliar with his style, I might ask my manager how he likes to structure his meetings. I would also ask the manager a few questions, like the main points he needs to cover in the meeting, the tasks he needs to follow up on from the team, and the action items he expects after the meeting. I would be as communicative as possible with him before and after the meeting so that he wouldn’t feel the need to follow up with the other attendees.”
8. How would you describe your ideal boss or manager?
You might hear this question and think, “No micromanagers, please!” A micromanager tends to want control and input about everything an employee does. Be honest in your answer, but try to be as positive as possible:
“My ideal manager would be someone who understands how to lead both a team and an individual. They can identify the strengths and weaknesses of team members, and they are interested in helping everyone grow and develop in their professional life. They are an excellent communicator in meetings, and they give clear and specific feedback. They also ask for regular feedback from others.”
9. Why shouldn’t we hire you?
This question is the wicked step-sister of the “What are your strengths and weaknesses” question. It sounds a bit harsh, but the interviewer wants to get a sense of how self-reflective you can be and if you are open to feedback and improvement. Another way to ask it: “What is a reason you might not be good for this position?”:
“You shouldn’t hire me if socialization is a big part of this job. I’m an introvert, and I also really value my personal life and time away from work. I enjoy working with others and collaborating; I like being friendly with my coworkers, but I don’t think I would be a good fit if part of the company culture is to socialize a lot after work hours or even during work hours.”
Grammar hint: Did you happen to notice which grammar structures would be useful here?
Use the conditional tense to talk about hypothetical or unreal situations.
You should also review modal verbs like might and may for the same purpose.
And, finally: the “previous salary” question
It’s perfectly normal to discuss salary expectations in the interview process. But there’s one salary question that’s so tough that job-seekers live in fear of it:
10. How much were you making at your last job?
This question is tough because it’s not exactly fair, especially considering the existence of the gender pay gap. It gives interviewers a way of seeing how much you are worth as an employer without talking about salary directly.
Before the interview, you can use sites like PayScale or Glassdoor to do some research about the average pay for your position, but also consider your value, needs, and job location. Here’s a sample answer:
“In my previous job I made _________, but, based on my industry research and the value I can add in this position, I believe I should be paid in the range of _________ to __________.”
If you don’t feel comfortable discussing your previous salary, don’t feel that you should. A good interviewer shouldn’t leave the salary conversation until the end of the interview, and they should be willing to have a direct and open discussion about what they think the job is worth.
If your interviewer wants to discuss and negotiate your salary, let them know that you understand this is a big decision, and you are willing to take some time to think about their offer if you feel it isn’t right for you.
Choose one of these ten questions, or think of another tough interview question. Write it in the comments, answer it, and we’ll give you feedback!
Phrasal verbs to use in an interview
1. Fit in
[fits in; fit in; fit in; fitting in]
When you fit in somewhere, you belong there, and you feel that it works well with your personality. When you fit in at work, that means you get along with your coworkers and managers, and you probably enjoy the company culture.
“I think that I could see myself fitting in here.”
In this context, we don’t separate this phrasal verb.
We use with after fit in.
“She didn’t really fit in with her coworkers in her previous job.”
2. Reach out
[reaches out; reached out; reached out; reaching out]
When you reach out to someone in the context of work or job-seeking, you try to contact them by phone, email, or some other form.
“She saw our job posting, so she thought she would reach out to us.”
We don’t separate this phrasal verb.
We often use to after reach out.
“Don’t hesitate to reach out to us at anytime.”
We commonly use reach out it with by.
“I recommend reaching out by phone if you need to talk to her now.”
“The hiring manager reached out to me by email.”
3. Get into
[gets into; got into; gotten into; getting into]
Your interviewer might ask, “How did you get into this kind of work?” They want to know you became interested in it and describe your introduction to your current profession.
“I got into writing when I was a kid, and I just never stopped loving it.”
We can separate this phrasal verb.
“My dad actually got me into teaching; he made teaching look fun.”
“I got my best friend into teaching yoga after she came to a couple of my classes.”
4. Point out
[points out; pointed out; pointed out; pointing out]
To point something out is to make someone aware of something. When you point something out, you notice something, and you call attention to it. In a work meeting, for example, you might point out that it’s almost tax season, and it’s time to start planning. Someone might respond, “Thanks for pointing that out.”
“She pointed out that we haven’t had a performance review in a few months.
We can separate this phrasal verb.
“I hate to point this out, but we’re almost out of money for this project.”
We often use point out with to.
“Thanks for pointing out to us that we move a little faster.”
We also use point out with that.
“My coworker pointed out that I probably need a vacation.”
5. Run into
[runs into; ran into; ran into; running into]
You’ve probably heard this phrasal verb before, but we can also use run into to talk about facing problems or difficulties. If you run into an issue, you had no way to predict it or plan for it before.
“They ran into an issue with their funding, so now they’re behind schedule.”
“If you run into any trouble, just give me a call.”
In this context, we can’t separate this phrasal verb.
Come across; come up against
6. Follow through
[follows through; followed through; followed through; following through]
The ability to follow through with something is a highly attractive quality in any job candidate. This means that once you start something, you finish it in a satisfactory way.
“It’s time for us to follow through on our plans to open a new branch in Hong Kong.”
We can separate this phrasal verb.
“We’ve been talking about this project for awhile, and it’s time to follow it through.”
We often use follow through with the preposition with.
“I think I’m really good at following through with long-term goals.”
We can also use on with follow through.
“She said we really need to follow through on those those ideas.”
Note: Sometimes we will use this phrasal verb as a hyphenated noun.
“He’s great at planning, but he has no follow-through.”
7. Keep up with
[keeps up with; kept up with; kept up with; keeping up with]
If you work in IT, media, marketing, or any industry that’s constantly evolving, you know about keeping up with the newest trends and developments. We can use the verb keep up with when we want to stay updated and informed about it.
“A big part of my job is keeping up with the latest research in medical technology.”
In this context, we can’t really separate this phrasal verb.
keep up with + the latest trends, technologies,developments, changes, updates, research
8. Look after
[looks after; looked after; looked after; looking after]
Job-seekers who work in sales, customer service, or any other client-facing profession should know how to look after their customers. Looking after someone in a professional setting means taking care of them and addressing their needs and wants, often for the long-term.
“You can tell he really values his customers by the way he looks after them.”
“As an entrepreneur, I have a passion for looking after my clients and building relationships with them.”
“They didn’t just connect with their instagram followers; they looked after their needs.”
We can’t separate this phrasal verb.
take care of; tend to; be present to
Useful expressions in an interview
Employers tend to find people who take initiative very attractive. If you’re someone who takes initiative, you don’t wait for someone to ask you to do something: you just do it. The ability to take initiative will serve you well if you are interested in leadership or career growth.
Note: Sometimes we will add the article “the” before the word initiative.
“We’re looking for someone creative who takes initiative and has leadership potential.”
“She took the initiative and created a project spreadsheet that saved us so much time.”
Go above and beyond
An employee who goes above and beyond does a little extra. They do more than they are asked to do or need to do. An interviewer might ask you to think of a time you went above and beyond. Maybe you didn’t just clean the espresso machines at the coffee shop where you worked; you also cleaned the bathroom.
There are so many ways you can demonstrate your ability to go above and beyond. Just be careful of any companies that expect you to work too much or sacrifice your personal life.
“Tell me about a time that you went above and beyond in your previous job.”
“I try to go above and beyond in everything I do, not just at work.”
“The previous person in your position would always go above and beyond.”
Meet a goal
The verb meet has so many uses. But when we use it in the context of work experience, we’re probably talking about finishing things, hitting targets, or making our upper management happy with our work.
If you’ve met goals at work, you’ve accomplished things that you wanted to do or that you were asked to do.
When we meet deadlines, we submit or send something on the day that it was due.
When we meet expectations, we satisfy or live up to the ideas or perceptions that people have about us.
What are some other things we can meet? We can also meet needs, requirements, criteria, or regulations.
Note: We often use the expression meet a goal with fail to or able to.
“Can you think of a time when you failed to meet a deadline?”
“Being able to meet goals is necessary if you want to work here.”
“I was really excited about that job, and it totally met my expectations.”
Make a bigger contribution
You’ll find this expression useful if you want to talk about why you are looking for a change in your professional life or why you left your previous job. If you want to make a bigger contribution, it could mean that you want a role with more responsibilities where you are capable of making a bigger impact. You could also use it to demonstrate that you aren’t just interested in a paycheck; you want to help a company grow and thrive.
“I learned so much in my last job and grew as a professional, but I feel like it’s time for me to make a bigger contribution.”
“If you’re someone who wants to make a bigger contribution in the world of finance technology, our startup needs you.”
“She called me and told me that she thinks you’re ready to make a bigger contribution at our board meetings.”
What questions should you ask your interviewer?
Just because the interviewer has asked you all their questions doesn’t mean the interview is over. Here comes the final test:
Do you have any questions for me?
What you shouldn’t say here is: “No.”
But what questions should you ask? Here are a few examples:
When did you start with the company?
What do you enjoy most about working here?
What is the company culture like?
How do you onboard new employees?
Are there opportunities for personal development here?
How would you describe your ideal candidate?
What are the biggest challenges for someone in this position?
Are there any new projects, products, clients, or plans for growth?
Asking the interviewer questions shows that you’ve done research about the company and you’re excited about the job. It also allows you to get a sense of the company atmosphere, where the company’s going, and if it’s the right fit for you. But don’t ask too many questions! It might show that you don’t know much about the company or that you don’t trust them.
So, when the interview is over, what do you do? Breathe, send a follow-up email a couple of days later, and have a glass of wine. Take some time to reflect on the positive and negative moments of the interview, and see how you can improve for the next one.
About the writer
Marta is an online ESL teacher who works with students from around the world. As a writer, language nerd, and content contributor for In English With Love, her mission is to empower English learners with knowledge and positivity.