The job interview: Mastering tricky questions

Julie Ann Chan
29. October 2020

In this last part of our tutorial, Katharina van Zeller, DreiKreis co-founder and director, uncovers how to answer typical HR questions optimally and what to do if the conversation gets sticky. She shares a decade worth of expertise and experience in the field of IT-related recruitment consultancy. Read part 1-4 for information on the first and second round interview, required soft skills and agility.

Be prepared and don’t panic. We are all human!

How to nail typical HR questions

“Interviewers ask questions that can and indeed are supposed to unsettle the candidate,” van Zeller opens. Such an interrogation can be unnerving. This is absolutely intended, as companies strive to find out how applicants react to stressful situations and pressure. But, with a little preparation, you will answer calmly and confidently. We have assembled the seven most difficult questions that we hear regularly and our expert’s tips of how to answer them.

“Remember: the HR person is a mere human, too! As long as you demonstrate your abilities and articulate your wishes, you are on the safe side,” says van Zeller and adds: “the better you know yourself, the more authentic you will present yourself. Try to stay flexible and truthful, answer questions openly, but also to have the courage to decline a lucrative offer if the company is not a good fit.”

Authenticity, openness and courage.

1. What was your best/worst project?

Many candidates struggle to answer questions that seem to put them in a bad light. Making mistakes is human. Just explain how you dealt with the situation and what you have learned from it. Ideally, it proves how you have grown from the challenge and convince your future employer that you do not just bring flexibility but also a good portion of self-reflection and the ability to learn.

At DreiKreis, we recommend considering your flops beforehand. Ask someone who knows you well to help.

2. What are your strengths/weaknesses?

“This question is not most helpful. But we hear it all the time,” sighs van Zeller. Find a diplomatic answer, which is honest but does not kick you out of the process.

Know your weaknesses and present them well!

“How about: I like to immerse myself in my work and sometimes forget the time,” suggests the expert. Find something that fits. If possible, demonstrate how you compensate your weaknesses and effectively deal with problems. As long as you can adapt and develop, you should be fine.

3. Why have you changed job/position so often?

Van Zeller reveals that this question rattles most candidates and recommends giving a truthful answer. She adds: “Even frequent changes can be explained. But never speak ill of your former employer or superior!” You do not want to give the impression that you are unable to cope with new situations and challenges.

Things going fuzzy? Focus on what matters: Landing the perfect job for you!

Our tip: take some time to reflect about the real reason for changing your job. What can you learn from that? How do you persevere next time? Use these insights to convince your employer that you do have stamina!

4. Explain the (many/large) gaps in your CV

Gaps need explaining only from about 6 to 12 months onwards. Be straight up. Have you taken a sabbath year? You can turn that into an advantage and explain which personal or professional developments you have made and why this motivates you for a new challenge.

Or have you been searching a new position/project? “Sometimes it’s just bad luck,” says van Zeller, “and nothing to be ashamed of!” Landing a job that is a good fit can take time and usually pays off for both parties. Why not present it as proof of your wish for a long-standing cooperation?

“Candidates are frequently given a chance even if their CV has gaps as long as they are explained well and the abilities are there,” van Zeller concludes. And should you feel your technical skills are less than state-of-the-art, start catching up!

Show initiative and brush up your skills!

5. How do you handle criticism?

This is question is regularly dreaded, but don’t panic. It might even give you an edge! Think of where you have used constructive criticism to evolve. If you can show that you reflect on your actions and learn from mistakes, criticism isn’t a threat. On the contrary, it is a welcome offer of help. Your future employer will value this attitude.

6. Why this company/position and why you?

Often, the simple answer is that you want a job. But that won’t do for an answer. We recommend researching the company thoroughly. Why is it attractive to you? Maybe you prefer working in a family-run or a local company. Or are you especially attracted to the company philosophy, the international background, or the possibilities for developing your career? Have you heard good reports from employees?

Large companies often present better career options, whether you seek technical competence or a lead-role. But small companies may offer more flexibility and flat hierarchies.

Employers want to assess what candidates can bring to the table. “We hear this question often and know that a good answer is key,” van Zeller emphasises. Therefore, you should know your strengths well and match them with the company’s requirements.”

7. Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years?

“Many candidates can’t answer this question,” van Zeller reveals. But you should! Whether you seek a career as a specialist, or a managerial position is equally fine. Just make sure, the company offers that choice.

While extending expert knowledge is always possible, options for a career in management may be limited. Small companies may not offer more than team management and if applying you need to be happy with that limit.

Language and salary

More and more companies demand sufficient, often excellent, proficiency in English. Take this seriously! “We often observe that interviewers switch to English in mid-sentence and carefully assess your ability to cope,” says van Zeller. “If applying for a job where you need to speak English you need to be fluent enough.”

“The salary question is another one that many candidates can’t answer,” van Zeller notes and adds: “value your work and find an acceptable range to negotiate from.” Read our special feature on negotiating your salary.

Final tips from the expert

Job interviews are stressful situations. Good preparation, and knowing your CV well, your strength and weaknesses, your wishes and your limitations helps! And make sure you know the employer, the department, and the vacant position intimately.

Round off your conversation with a congenial smile and handshake.

Keep calm and remember that you interviewer has been in the situation himself. Don’t panic if you miss a question or don’t know an answer.

“Most importantly: be authentic and remember that both parties need to choose to work together – this includes you!”


Are you eager to read more tips on how to prepare for your upcoming job interview? DreiKreis director and expert Katharina van Zeller has got you covered.
Read all previous parts of our guide right here:

Part 1: Successfully interviewing for your new job

Part 2: Nailing the interview: Hard skills, soft skills and what to wear

Part 3: Agility? What it means and when I need it.

Part 4: Job interview 2.0 – Ability test or job trial


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