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How to Answer Tough Interview Questions

Last Updated on June 26, 2022 by Laura Turner

When you are interviewing for professional school or a job, some of the interview questions are going to be tough. Successfully responding to challenging interview questions requires vulnerability and reflection.

Being vulnerable can make interviewees feel fear and anxiety. However, remember that fear and anxiety signify that you are working hard and are out of your comfort zone. It is an opportunity for you to demonstrate your ability to learn, progress, and achieve goals. 

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Reflection allows you to think about you what you would do differently in a similar situation, but is not something to be done on the spot during the actual interview. It takes time, and often, working through difficult memories and deficiencies in personal traits while trying to locate the why behind past choices. Reflection is a quality that exhibits teachability and humility. Answering questions strategically is a way to tell the interviewer positive qualities about yourself, without explicitly making statements, which could come off as arrogant. Reflective answers show that you have pondered your past actions and are prepared to act again, but this time, with improvements and needed changes. It is an expression of your ability to recognize and use your own strengths.

So, how exactly, can you prepare for possible interview questions that have the potential to scare you silly and question your own qualifications?

Below are some examples of questions you may find tough and how you can approach answering them.

Tell me about a time when you failed.

The best way to answer this question is to break it down into a few key elements to address:

  • Who your audience is
  • Why the interviewer wants to know about a failure
  • How the decision to act or react to a difficult situation impacted your failure
  • If given the opportunity again, what you would do differently, based on what you have learned

First, it is important that you understand who you are answering to and what they value most. Generally, interviewers want to know about a time of failure because they want to see how you handle vulnerability.

Attitude and self-control are two major components that influence how well you are perceived as a potential candidate for any given position. Demonstrating a consciousness of how your action, or reaction, to a situation impacted a failure shows maturity because your answer will depend on your ability to exercise personal reflection.

Typically, the right answer for a difficult situation is to act instead of react. However, no one lives in a perfect world, each situation is unique, everyone makes mistakes, and, certainly, everyone is capable of improvement. It is okay to share a failure that includes a moment of reaction, rather than the ideal action. You just need to explain, describe, and recognize the impacts of your decision on yourself, others, and the failure itself. A great way to recognize all of these things is through adequate reflection.

Being aware of what you gained from your failure allows you to show what you bring to the table as a prospective employee or student. Awareness stems from adequate preparation, so before you enter your interview, consider the following:

  • What did your failure teach you about yourself?
  • What did it teach you about the individual(s) you were working with?
  • If faced with a similar situation, what would you change about the way you handled the situation? 

Upon hire or acceptance, what do you foresee the greatest challenge will be?

This is a difficult question because you don’t want the interviewer to lose confidence in you. It is important to understand that the interviewer wants to see how you respond to vulnerability.

You must accept that a good response will require you to vulnerably address a fear, lack of experience, or area for improvement. This is a grey area where you will need to balance on a tightrope between overbearing boldness and unrealistic high or low expectations for yourself as a professional. The balance lies in an honest and realistic explanation of how you will professionally and positively deal with the coming challenge.

A good route to take would be to draw on an example from a past work or learning experience. A picture of how you honestly took a weakness or area for growth and turned it into a strength enlightens the interviewer of your capabilities as a student or employee. As you share, qualities like your attitude, maturity, perception of reality, and preparedness to improve your future actions will be revealed subtly, without need of overt background information or detailed explanations. 

How will you balance your work or studies and family or personal life?

The way that you would answer this question would depend on your individual circumstances. What truly matters is your acknowledgement of the coming challenge and your presentation of a realistic solution.

For example, a mother may choose to respond something like, “Although more of my time will be spent at the library, this opportunity will actually allow me to place more value on the time that I do have with my family. The quantity of time we spend together may lessen, but the quality of time will be greater than it has been in the past. In the long run, this experience will ultimately strengthen my relationship with my family.” This response would demonstrate that she is capable of acting instead of reacting to a challenging circumstance and recognizes the new opportunity that the challenge brings.

In this situation it would also be important that you know your audience: Don’t be afraid to take a risk and ask your interviewer a question about the sort of value that they place on balance, but make sure to preface it with something like, “If you don’t mind, could I ask you a question before I answer?” By simply being curious whether they have a family, you will be able to gauge the best answer to provide them. 

If your interviewer does not have a family, you may choose to keep your answer on the short and sweet side. However, if they do, it may be in your best interest to elaborate on the order of your priorities. This will give someone who has an understanding of competing priorities a good idea of how you will balance personal responsibilities while fully devoting yourself to the new position with your best work at the appropriate times. Another option here would be to provide an example of how you have managed in past jobs or circumstances that limited your time. 

Ultimately, to answer tough interview questions, make sure that you have spent adequate time preparing a large reserve of experiences and examples to draw upon in the case that a tough question does arise. Check out SDN Interview Feedback for questions others have been asked in their professional school interviews. SDN also has other articles on interviewing, such as Difficult Interview Questions. Roleplaying with a friend can be a great asset.

Remember, you need to be conscious of why the interviewer is asking you this question. If you are aware of this, you will be able to gauge what you should reveal to your specific audience (interviewer) about your past experiences in a difficult circumstance. Share what you gained from the experience, how the decision to act or react in a specific situation impacted the final result, and if given the opportunity again, what you would do differently or the same. When answered thoughtfully, each of these elements within your answer can subtly, but noticeably, reveal many positive aspects about your abilities, personal character, and work ethic.

Updated July 28, 2020 to correct link.