Your job interview performance will improve with practice. (Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash cropped to fit).

Master Your Responses to These 3 Bullshit Job Interview Questions

Every question is an invitation for you to show your greatness

I teach a university class called Engineering Business Practices. The course covers teamwork, leadership, finance, ethics, and communication skills.

If you had to smash an MBA into a 3 credit, junior-level engineering course at an enormous public state university, you couldn’t do much better than my Engineering Business Practices course.

One of the things that I do to liven up my 105-person classroom lectures is use some exercises from improvisational theater. I’ve written a little bit about this in Teaching Teamwork = Tacit Knowledge, and in Teach Empathy to Build Teamwork.

Today two of my former students took those lessons to a new level.

These two enjoyed the introductory improv exercises they did last semester so much that they started a club for engineering students who wanted to learn more. They’ve been practicing every Saturday, and today they invited me to join them to help role play for their upcoming job interviews.

Improv theater can help with the job interview jitters. (Photo by Ben White on Unsplash, cropped to fit).

Unfortunately, I showed up 35 minutes late. I had just returned from S Korea at midnight the night before, and somehow I got confused on the time commitment. It was 25 minutes past the appointed hour when I opened up my messages for the first time since landing back on American soil, and there was the note reminding me of my commitment — and the fact that I hadn’t prepared for it.

The good thing about improv is that nothing has to go according to plan. By the time I arrived at the classroom, the two student leaders had warmed everybody up with a conversational exercise designed to attune partners to one another so they could practice listening to what their partner is saying.

I decided to go from there straight into a game my friend Boyd Branch taught me called Ask An Expert. Here’s a clip from Ellen that shows one version of how the Groundlings do it.

In this version of ‘Expert,’ the players are divided into TV hosts who ask questions, and pretend experts, who give ridiculous answers.

The Groundlings cast is kinda funny.

We were borrrrring.

So we talked about why we were so bad. The students kept missing opportunities to take the conversation in interesting directions. They didn’t want to say something ‘wrong,’ and they didn’t want to be embarrassed or criticized.

That works for the performer, but it doesn’t work for the audience.

You’re most interesting when you’re being vulnerable.

It’s borrrrring to watch me tiptoe across the classroom floor. But it’s interesting to watch a tightrope walker do it across a canyon gorge, if only because they might fall.

It’s a performer’s fearless vulnerability that interests the audience.

We watch tightrope walkers because they might fall. It isn’t interesting if the performer isn’t taking risks. (Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash. Cropped to fit).

Two things you learn from improvisational theater are:

  1. You make better conversation by attuning to your partner (rather than thinking about what clever thing you’re going to say after they stop talking). In other words, your best impression will come from listening to your partner and looking for opportunities to make them look good.
  2. Your partner is making conversational invitations all the time. Once you’re attuned to them, you’ll recognize opportunities to scaffold off their invitations to improve the conversation. Really interesting conversations can happen when you’re willing to risk looking silly or saying something crazy.

But what has that got to do with job interviews?

There are three job interview questions that many companies will ask, and every applicant hates. They’re bullshit questions, because they’re disingenuous. They aren’t relevant to the job, and they don’t have real answers.

Marisa Tomei made the phrase “It’s a bullshit question!” famous with her Oscar-winning performance in the movie ‘My Cousin Vinny’.

Because most people understand these are bullshit questions, they give bullshit answers.

I’ve listed these questions below, described why they’re bullshit, how most people answer, and how you can improve your way through responding to these questions in a way that gets you a job that’s right for you.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Why it’s bullshit. “Where do you see yourself… ?” is a fairly common interview question, and it’s supposed to be a way to discover if the applicant’s ambitions are aligned with the company’s goals.

But it’s not a real question — at least not for my students.

I teach undergraduates, which means that most of them will be interviewing for entry level jobs. They have no idea where they’ll be in five years. How could they? They don’t have the depth of experience or understanding of career opportunities to “see themselves” somewhere in five years. They’re focused on finishing their required courses, getting their first real jobs, and paying back their student loans. They’ll figure out the rest along the way.

What most people say. Because most applicants have some rudimentary understanding of what normal career advancement might look like in their profession, most applicants will say something like, “I see myself promoted from Engineer-in-Training to Jr. Engineer and studying for my Professional Engineering license,” (or something to that effect).

In other words… borrrrring.

What to say instead. Sometimes, you want to do improv, but you’re stuck with a partner that doesn’t know it’s their job to make you look good! That’s when you have to look extra close to find the invitations.

The mistake you make with “Where do you see yourself… ?” is thinking that you actually have to answer the question as it was asked. Instead, think of the question as an invitation to talk about all the great accomplishments you’ve achieved in the last five years.

Five years ago, most of my students were juniors in High School. Few of them had any real idea of what they might accomplish or where they’d be in five years.

So talk about that.

“When you ask me that question about five years from now, I can’t help but think about where I was five years ago. I was a junior in High School and I was working part-time at the local hardware store. I was cleaning up and doing inventory and carrying things out to the customer’s cars — that sort of thing. My Mom and I needed the money… so I quit sports and picked up more hours.
“Back then, I didn’t know I could go to college, and I sure as heck didn’t know I could become an engineer. My Mom never went to college and it wasn’t something we talked about much in my family. I was pretty sure we couldn’t afford it, anyway — and even if we could, I always figured that we should probably save up enough to send my Little Sister. She was always a better student than me.
“But one day… my math teacher pulled me aside. I was doing pretty well in trigonometry, I guess, and she asked me if I ever thought about college.
“I said, ‘Well, no I don’t think that’s for me.’
“She told me, ‘You’re already doing college level work, right here in my class, in High School.’
“I decided I’d take pre-calc in community college that summer. Just to see how it went, you know? I didn’t even tell my Mom, because if I failed, I didn’t want anyone to know I’d even tried.
“But I didn’t fail. I did really well.
“When I finally told my Mom, she was so proud of me. I decided to enroll full time, even though it meant I’d probably have to quit my hardware store job.
“Well, I went to tell my boss that I was going to have to quit in the Fall when I started classes full time and he wanted to know ‘How Come?’
“So I told him I was going to try college.
“He said, ‘You know… the corporate office has a scholarship fund for kids like you. If you apply, I’ll write you a letter of recommendation, and you can keep working here part-time or weekends, or whenever you can fit it in.’
“So, I don’t really know how to answer your question about where I see myself in five years. I’m less than a year from graduating with a degree I never thought I could get. I’ve already exceeded my Mom’s wildest expectations.
“I suppose maybe in five years I see myself at my Little Sister’s college graduation. You should hire her then! She’s the real brainiac in our family!
“As for me, I’m gonna keep making the most of every opportunity that’s given me. I’m not going to limit myself to anything I can imagine right now. I’m looking for the kind of job that is going to present me with possibilities I didn’t even know existed.”

The “Where do you see yourself… ?” question is an invitation, not an exam question.

It’s an invitation for you to talk about the impossible obstacles that you’ve already overcome: your greatest accomplishments.

Maybe you’re not the first in your family to go to college. Maybe you’re telling yourself, “Well, I can’t just make up a story like that.”

But everybody has a greatest accomplishment. Everybody has overcome an obstacle.

And if you really haven’t? If you really haven’t done a thing in your life that you’re proud enough of to share in a job interview?

Then get busy setting out some challenges for yourself that you can talk about next year.

What’s your biggest weakness?

Why it’s bullshit. Oh, please. Everybody knows this question is bullshit. Even the people who ask this question know it’s bullshit.

Can you really be expected to reveal your weaknesses in a competition that is expecting you to make the best impression you can make? And even if you were… that’s not a characteristic that the company really wants to hire for. Imagine that you were headed into the Big Client Presentation to win the Great Big Contract for your company. Do they really want you to say things like, “Well, our company’s biggest weakness is that we’re always over budget… but we’re really working on it!”

“What’s your biggest weakness?” is the biggest of all the bullshit questions.

What most people say. To survive this game, you’re expected to name some sort of “weakness” that is really a strength. So people say stuff like, “Well, my friends tell me that I work too hard,” or “I’m a perfectionist with my work,” or “I’m too impatient with myself,” or some other nonsense that might be framed as a character defect, but really works in your employer’s favor.

What a bunch of nonsense.

What to say instead. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you have to actually answer the question. Instead, look for the invitation.

The “What’s your biggest weakness?” question is an invitation to talk about the type of job you do not want.

Think about it.

There’s a reason you chose to become an engineer (or writer, or mathematician, or scientist, or psychologist, or whatever you’re interviewing for) and it’s probably just as much about what you don’t want to do as what you do.

I became an engineer because I never wanted to be required to read The Great Gatsby or Ethan Fromme ever again and I thought engineering was my ticket out of the humiliation of the humanities. (I was wrong. I did eventually read Moby Dick, but that was to impress a girl, which is the subject of a different article).

So talk about the job you’re glad you’ll never have. Maybe your conversation goes like this:

Interviewer: What’s your biggest weakness?
Me: Sales. I suck at sales. Seriously, I’m the worst.
Still Me: If I had to cold call people, or I had to sell people stuff, or I had to be charming and slick and work on commission, I’d be terrible. I’d rather quit my job than try to think up lies to tell customers just so I could talk them out of their money.
Still Me Talking About My Greatest Weakness: That’s part of why I became an engineer, so I wouldn’t have to sell or buy or process anything. Basically, I just want to be an engineer, solving problems, inventing the future, making the world a better place.
Lloyd Dobler (played by John Cusak in the movie ‘Say Anything’) knows what kind of job he does NOT want.

Why do you want to work here?

Why it’s bullshit. This isn’t a real question, because you don’t have an offer yet, and you haven’t decided you DO want to work there. Maybe you have other offers. Maybe they’ve said a few things so far in the interview that gives you pause.

In defense of the interviewer, they might ask “Why did you apply?” and that’s much closer to a real question, because it’s accurate.

Presumably, you applied because you wanted to, and I suppose that the company might be curious about what interested you in the position and how you found out about it.

It might be a conversation starter. 
It might reveal some misconceptions.
It might give you a chance to flatter your interview counterparts.

“Why did you apply?” isn’t a great question, but it’s not bullshit, either.

When they ask, “Why do you want to work here?” that’s a bullshit question.

The interviewer is essentially saying, “Qualify yourself to me.”

That might seem like a legit proposition to many of my undergrads, given that they’re interviewing for entry-level jobs and they are accustomed to having their qualifications questioned. However, it ignores the fact that competition for top technical talent can be intense. The reality is that the applicant and the company must qualify themselves to one another.

Chris Gardener (played by Will Smith in the movie ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’) realized that he might not want the job he has been working so hard to try to get, because it doesn’t pay what he expected.

What most people say. There are two approaches. Both make the mistake of answering the question, rather than finding the invitation.

The first approach is to flatter the interviewer by talking about all the wonderful qualities you see in the company.

It’s not a bad answer, but it’s not great, either.

The second approach is super aggressive, in which you turn the whole question around. You might say something like, “I don’t know if I do want the job. You haven’t made me an offer yet!” or “Why should I want this job?”

Maybe they’ll like your moxie.

Is Peter Gibbons the caliber person you want for upper management? This satire from the movie ‘Office Space’ suggests that a confrontational approach with your interviewer will pay off by differentiating you from your peers. It probably won’t.

It’s a risky strategy, but if you’re a confrontational person and you want your prospective employer to know that about you up front because you plan on bringing that confrontational style to your career, then super aggressive is authentic, and it could help you avoid a bad fit.

Usually, you don’t get to interview for the job description of Aggressive Executive unless you’re actually applying for the job of Aggressive Executive. It looks something like this.

Herb Brooks (played by Kurt Russell in the movie “Miracle’) took an aggressive approach in this interview for the Head Coach of the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team. By contradicting and arguing with his interviewers, he won the freedom to coach the team in the way that he thought would give them the best chance to win the gold medal (which they did).

What to say instead. Don’t make the mistake of answering the question. Instead, look at the question “Why do you want to work here?” as an invitation to talk about the kind of job you’re seeking.

For example, you can say things like, “I’m seeking a job that will challenge me, allow me to grow professionally, and give me the opportunity to earn an excellent living.”

The point is to be honest about the criteria you’re applying to your job search. You’re not actually saying that the company you’re interviewing with has offered you those things. It’s likely that your interviewers will think so. After all, they already decided they wanted their jobs, so why wouldn’t you want to work for the same company they’ve already chosen to work for?

There could be lots of reasons, but they’re not the point.

When you accept this question as an invitation to talk about what you are seeking in your job search, you imply that the company must qualify itself to you (as well as the other way around).

You’re challenging your interviewers. You’re saying, “I’m looking for this. Can you provide me with it?

Which has the advantage of setting you up to negotiate well when they do make an offer.