By Candice Choi, AP Personal Finance Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — When it comes to job interviews, are you the rambler, the bore or the one who sweats nervously?
Knowing how you might come across to a prospective employer could mean the difference between advancing to the next round or losing out to someone who's better prepared. With unemployment at a 26-year high of 9.5 percent and expected to reach 10 percent by the end of the year, there's a growing field of candidates competing for jobs. So, you need to be able to answer questions with confidence and focus.
"The way that you sound spontaneous and conversational is to prepare and practice," said Rachelle Cantor, president of RJC Associates, a career counseling firm based in San Francisco.
That means thinking in advance about what your interviewer might ask — not so you can come up with a scripted answer, but so you won't be caught off guard. Here are six common questions you should be ready to handle.
QUESTION 1: How would you improve on our company or product?
This is one of the trickiest questions a recruiter can pose. After all, you don't want to criticize an area the hiring manager oversees.
A good rule of thumb is to start by pointing out what you like about the company. Then state your suggestions for improving it in a way that isn't dismissive or judgmental. Engage the interviewer by asking whether your ideas have already been considered, and if so, why the company rejected them.
Although the question might sound like a trap, don't be afraid of volunteering constructive ideas. It will show you did your homework and aren't afraid to state your opinion.
And don't panic if you don't have a good suggestion.
"If you can't think of an answer, don't try to fudge it," said Bobbie Little, an executive coach at PDI Ninth in San Francisco. "It will show that you're trying to pretend you know more than you do."
Be honest and say you'd need to know more about the organization to make such a suggestion. Follow up by asking how the company is trying to be more competitive.
QUESTION 2: What is your greatest weakness and your greatest strength?
One reason hiring managers ask this question is to gauge your self awareness.
"That's one of the most valued qualities in a leader," Little said.
Owning up to a true fault shows you're honest about yourself and know what you need to improve. Give an example of how the weakness played out in the work place and what you learned from the experience.
That said, don't rattle off a list of shortcomings or be overly self-deprecating. And whenever admitting a weakness, be sure to note how you're working to improve it.
And when you name your strengths, be ready to give examples of how they've helped you in your career.
QUESTION 3: Why did you leave your last job?
There was a time when a layoff was a black mark on your resume and a dreaded topic in job interviews. Now, there's no shame in admitting you were downsized. There are so many people in the same situation that it's no longer taboo, said Eric Winegardner, a spokesman for the job site Monster.com.
"You won't find yourself explaining that too much," Winegardner said, adding that what matters more is how you talk about the experience of being laid off.
Whatever the reason for your departure from your last job, show that you don't carry resentment and you're mature enough to see the split as a business matter. If you left by choice, explain how and why you came to the decision so you don't seem irresponsible.
QUESTION 4: What's the worst boss you had and how did you deal with him or her?
The real question here is: Just how mature a person are you? People are often surprisingly willing to volunteer the anger they carry around, said Little of PDI Ninth.
"That tells me they weren't able to work through a situation," she said.
Complaining that your old boss was out to get you will only make you sound paranoid. It will also make the interviewer wonder how you'd get along with future bosses and co-workers.
So if faced with this question, tell a story that shows you can handle an uncomfortable situation professionally. Little recalls being impressed by a candidate who made it a ritual to decompress at the gym whenever he found his work day particularly stressful.
QUESTION 5: Describe a life-changing experience and how you grew from it.
This is a question that can open the floodgates of awkward rambling — a telltale sign that you're unprepared and winging it.
What managers are looking for with this question is your ability to adapt and grow, so pick one anecdote that demonstrates those qualities. And keep your story short.
"A lot of leadership today is being able to deal with ambiguity and the unknown, more so than in the past," Little said. "Things turn on a dime, and I'm looking for people to demonstrate they can deal with that."
QUESTION 6: Why are you the right person for the job?
Give compelling specifics. If you're applying at a nonprofit, for example, note that you've worked at three major nonprofits over your career. Tell how you were able to boost sales by 5 percent at your former job. Or point out that you're familiar with the newest software that's being used in the industry.
Those are the type of concrete reasons that will stick with a recruiter. You should volunteer the information even if you're never directly asked about them.
Here are the answers you should NOT give: You want it more than anyone else, you've got the right skills, you know you'll do a great job.
"If you say something subjective, all they have is your word," said Cantor of RJC Associates.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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