Business Skills: How to Confidently Answer 5 Job Interview Questions in English
Updated May 2020
“Tell me about yourself”
Where do you start with that interview question in English?
The temptation is to get your CV out and go through all your jobs and practise talking about their related responsibilities making sure you have the right English vocabulary and grammar.
After all, that’s the only way you’re going to make an impression, isn’t it? With mistake-free grammar and a wide vocabulary.
Pause and reflect.
➜ Is that the sum total of who you are? A list of responsibilities?
➜ Is that all your English is? A grammar and vocabulary list?
➜ Isn’t there a human being with aspirations and a lifetime of experience?
➜ Isn’t there a story to be woven and shared?
Of course, there is.
But you don’t believe the English you already have will help you narrate your story. To reveal your worth. To nail that job.
So you hide behind the comforting blanket of textbook English and hope for the best.
The trouble with textbooks is that they don’t give you permission to experiment with your language, to adapt what you already have to your story.
In other words, they don’t give you freedom.
I recently coached a client as she prepared for a job interview. She provided the questions she anticipated she’d be asked (based on previous experience) and with my guidance, she reflected on and prepared her answers.
In this post and with her permission, I’ve chosen 5 questions and am going to share with you how she prepared for them with the English she has.
How to answer 5 interview questions with the English you have.
#1: Tell me about yourself
This is all about your career journey up to now. Your professional story up to now.
Most Business English textbooks or ‘how-to’ articles will offer you stock phrases with standardised answers you can memorise (or try to) and regurgitate at the interview. I find them artificial and sterile. Devoid of substance.
The world has moved on. People want stories, they want a sneak peek of you, not a series of stock answers delivered in a monotone as you wrack your brain trying to remember them.
Give them your story.
First, take a look at all the jobs and roles you’ve had.
Put yourself in your interviewer’s shoes and think about what they want/need to hear from you. Think about what skills and experience they’re seeking and select your skills and experience that match. Filter out the irrelevant.
Then, reflect on how you can narrate your story. Create an outline.
Now you’re ready to create your beginning, middle and end. Like in any journey, there are reasons why you chose one path instead of another. Give reasons for the decisions you made along the way.
My Client’s Response
This is what she wrote after going through the above process.
“When I finished secondary school, I studied mass communication and nursing. I worked as a nurse for three years in different care areas (palliative care, hemodialysis, internal medicine, recovery room etc) in Spain and London. When I came back to Spain, there weren’t many vacancies to work as a nurse and an opportunity to work in XXX as a product specialist came up, so I moved into the medical devices industry.
In XXXX I was responsible for supporting the sales reps; performing clinical training; creating marketing materials; monitoring the product; making suggestions and managing complaints.
In this position I gained experience on how to identify hospital needs, how to effectively promote the product, to identify the key decision-makers.
After two years, XXX bought XXX. At the same time, I was, fortunately, approached by XXXX and I felt it was the right time to go because I wanted more stability.
At XXXXX, I am responsible for supervising two very specialized products. And in this role, I contact and market the product to hyperbaric medicine and intensive care doctors in Europe and look for distributors.”
#2: Tell me about a time when….
This probes your problem-solving skills, especially your creativity and experience in anticipating and dealing with a problem.
In your career, you’ll have encountered many problematic situations that required your creativity and critical thinking skills.
Again, putting yourself in the interviewer’s (the company’s) shoes, think about which situation you found yourself in that would be most appropriate to share with them. That would resonate with them.
And then, you create your story.
You’re setting the scene with the:
➜ beginning (the problem),
➜ middle (the steps you took to solve the problem); and
➜ end (the outcome of your solution).
Here’s my client’s response.
“Many nurses and doctors are worried about patients modifying the drug infusion parameters when receiving analgesics through a PCA pump. I remember once in a hospital where they asked me for a cover with a key for the pumps and I recommended them not to use it as nurses can lose the key and in the case of an emergency they can’t open the pump but they insisted on it, so I offered them to test two pumps, one with the key and another one with a password to unlock the door of the pump.
After a few days, they phoned me to tell me that they had lost the key and that they prefered to work with the password option. So I went there to give them the rest of the pumps they needed, I programmed a password easy to remember for everybody and I created a quick guide to know how to use the pump with the password written on it.
After a few weeks, everybody knew the password and they were all happy and me too because the door with the password option was a bit more expensive than the box with the key.”
Nice one! Not only did she solve the problem, but she also sold the more expensive option without the hard sell! If I were the interviewer, I’d be impressed.
#3: What has been the biggest mistake you’ve made in your career?
This is hard. Who wants to open themselves up to scrutiny and which mistake is ‘safe’ to share?
Do you share that mistake that led to your company losing what could have been the most lucrative contract that year?
Or do you share a career-defining mistake, like choosing the wrong company?
Again, this needs some serious reflection and honesty. The temptation is to pick some imaginary mistake, but it’s going to be difficult to create a convincing story around it. It’s much easier to be honest with the English you have.
Plus we all make mistakes and having the strength to admit them shows we’re willing to reveal our vulnerability.
My client chose a career mistake and this is what she wrote.
“There is no serious mistake, but maybe the biggest mistake I have made was when I was working in a hemodialysis unit in London and I decided to move to a renal care unit in a big hospital. I thought that the new position was going to give me the opportunity to learn a lot, but the truth was that it was a hectic unit and I just had to get the job done without having time to ask or learn.”
#4: How would you describe yourself?
I find this a hard question to answer. I can never come up with the appropriate descriptive words (adjectives). Not because I don’t know them (words) but because I probably see myself differently to how others see me. I always minimise my qualities rather than promote them. I feel it’s boastful.
And yet, it’s the worse thing I or anyone else can do. If you’re not your biggest fan, who is? If you don’t portray yourself in a positive light, how is the interviewer going to discover your personality traits?
One thing I’ve found helpful is to ask others how they would describe me. That helps boost my confidence and self-belief.
You may find this exercise easier than me, in which case, your tips would be much appreciated.
Having reflected on your personal traits, choose those traits that will suit the role the most.
In my client’s case, she described herself as:
“A determined, responsible, reliable, organized, empathetic and an open person.”
Some interviewers may ask you for an example that could demonstrate that particular trait. For example, if you say you’re reliable, they may want you to share an example of how you showed your reliability.
This will require further thought but is worth it so that you are not caught unawares.
This is your chance to share another story with the English you have. No more words needed. The less complex the portrait, the more meaningful it is.
#5: What is your philosophy in life?
To tell you the truth, no one’s ever asked me this, but my client has been asked, and she chose to share this question.
Quite frankly, I love it.
Well done to the interviewer who asks this question. It says that the company wants to work with people who live their lives mindfully. Someone who reflects on what’s important to them. Someone who has values.
In other words, they’re not looking for another cog in the wheel.
I loved what my client wrote. She’s kindly given me permission to share her philosophy with you.
➜ If you don’t like something, don’t wait for others to solve it.
➜ Don’t leave for tomorrow what you can do today.
➜ Work hard to make each day better than the day before.
My client came to me looking to me to correct her grammar mistakes and give her more sophisticated vocabulary to help her nail that interview.
What she got, instead, was 90 minutes of reflection work on her message and how best to structure her thoughts to deliver her message concisely and in plain English.
This is what she said about her session:
“With the reflection prompts, I learned to organize my ideas and write them in a structured way, highlighting the important things rather than just focussing on my grammar.”
What of her interview?
“The interview went really well! I felt comfortable answering the questions. They asked me some of the questions we prepared.”
She’s now preparing for her third interview with the same company! Way to go.
All the examples I shared above were written by my client with the English she has, which proves one thing.
You don’t need mistake-free grammar or sophisticated vocabulary or Business English textbooks to tell your career story meaningfully and impactfully.
All you need is time, reflection and a clear structure. And the English you already have.