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My college career center has provided me a sheet with the most common interview questions. So far (in past interviews) I have never been asked a question that was not on the sheet. I have an interview this Friday for a technician job and I want to be prepared for any curveball questions.

What are the important points I should consider when formulating an answer to the following questions:

  • Tell about a time you have been in conflict with a coworker.

  • Tell about a time you disagreed with your supervisor.

  • What was the biggest failure in your last job position?

  • What are you looking for in your next job?

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    these are all easy if you are truthful! – user718 Aug 4 '12 at 14:57
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    Why are these "curveball" questions? These are very relevant to almost every job description. – Kent A. Oct 28 '15 at 2:46
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    3 of those are about a specific scenario you've experienced, which should be approached fundamentally differently than "What are you looking for in your next job". That makes this two rather distinct questions. – Bernhard Barker Apr 18 '20 at 0:27
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These are "behavioral" interview questions and they are best answered with something that is known as the "STAR" technique.

  • Situation: The interviewer wants you to present a recent challenge and situation in which you found yourself.
  • Task: What did you have to achieve? The interviewer will be looking to see what you were trying to achieve from the situation.
  • Action: What did you do? The interviewer will be looking for information on what you did, why you did it and what were the alternatives.
  • Results: What was the outcome of your actions? What did you achieve through your actions and did you meet your objectives. What did you learn from this experience and have you used this learning since?

The point of these questions is to gauge whether or not you will be someone that can get along with others. What the interviewer is looking for are authentic answers that illustrate you are a reasonable and diligent person with integrity. The theory behind behavioral interviews is that your past behavior is an indicator of what you will do in the new position. That's why they want real and specific instances from past experiences.

The hard part (and it really is HARD) is being able to recall past experiences that answer the question. There is no short-cut for that. The good news is that you can prepare by looking at a bunch of behavior interview example questions. There aren't an infinite number of possibilities. Just reflect on past jobs and how problems/conflicts were resolved.

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    +1 We use similar questions, and they tend to produce amongstthe most informative and useful answers – GuyM Dec 4 '12 at 8:41
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    There is, in fact, a matching technique recommended for interviewees, known as SODAR/SAR in the version I've seen, in which you reply to almost any question with an interesting/memorable brief story about a situation you needed to address, how you tackled it, the results achieved and lessons learned, and how that applies to the uestion and the position you're interviewing for. That requires a lot of prep work, but can produce a very impressive interview. – keshlam Oct 28 '15 at 3:56
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    I have to say, unfortunately, sometimes this process is used to gauge whether and how much you can be taken advantage of. – SaltySub2 Sep 11 '18 at 13:54
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    +1 For mentioning STAR. It is very likely how the review questions are being interpreted so it absolutely makes sense to approach all of these questions in this manner. For people not familiar with it, practice it. – Joel Etherton Apr 19 '20 at 0:22
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    +1 for mentioning and explaining STAR. It makes the interviewer's job far easier if you stick to those elements when answering – Juliana Karasawa Souza Jul 12 at 6:32
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I wouldn't call these "curveball" questions. There's a decent chance you won't get asked all of these (or even any) at a particular interview. The reason your career center has provided you with this list isn't so you can pre-write your answers and spit them back out in a real interview; you need to think about these topics beforehand and be able to engage in meaningful discussion about them.

Conflict with a coworker: The interviewer asking about this is trying to understand how you work in a team environment. Are you open to other people's ideas? Are you willing to tell someone else when they are wrong? If so, can you do so in a constructive way?

Disagree with supervisor: Can you follow instructions? Do you blindly follow instructions, or do you question things that don't make sense? How do you resolve differences between what you think is best and what you are told to do?

Biggest failure: The interviewer wants to see that you are capable of learning from your mistakes, and that you can handle problems in a mature manner.

What are you looking for?: Career goals. Are you satisfied to stay in an entry-level position forever? Do you want to move up the ladder? Do you want to move onto a different field? The interviewer is trying to gauge your motivation for the job - not just the individual tasks at hand but your role within the company. Will you be a useful contributor, or lackluster? Are you interested in a career, or will you stick with the company for a few months and then move on?

These are pretty standard (non-curveball) questions that you should always be prepared to discuss in an interview. While they may seem tough, that's just because they require some honest reflection and self-evaluation, which can be difficult.

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    +! for "Biggest Failure" being about what you learned. I ALWAYS ask this question during interviews and I've gotten answers across the board, but I'm most impressed when candidates are honest about something that didn't go well and they can tell me what they'd do differently now, knowing what they learned. I've gotten a few people who don't have an answer, and if you can't tell me about a time when your judgement wasn't perfect, you're either not paying attention or you're lying, and either pretty much ends the interview in my mind. – SqlRyan Nov 26 '12 at 21:32
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    The problem with the "Biggest Failure" question in entry-level and/or second job (possibly even third) is that it's quite likely you've never made a mistake or failure. Either you haven't been assigned to important tasks yet, or you have good instructions. In some cultures, mistakes are even so severely punished that people are unwilling to do risky tasks or do it extremely carefully not to make a mistake. – Juha Untinen Oct 15 '14 at 9:44
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These are all questions that focus on whether you will be a fit with the company's culture. In some cases, you may not have an answer that meets their expectations. For example, I'm a person who needs to understand "why" alot - so my answer to disagreeing with folks is always to find their point of view, and then work towards a shared solution. Another role might require me to respond more to authority or to fight for my own point of view in a more competitive way --- that's not a good fit for me or the job. But it was the perfect answer for the job I now hold. So there's no universal here.

Also realize that your confidence, professionalism and motivation are as likely to be judged as the answers. Stay unbiased when presenting issues of conflict - avoid name calling, or other derogatory expressions. For all you know, your interviewer could be empathsizing with the other guy in the situation. Be confident in your answers, but open to hearing feedback if it's given.

All of these are cultural questions - they are trying to get a picture of you and how you work. Don't get hung up on a right answer - if you do anything to prep, it's to think about the situations you might talk about, why you did what you did in each, and whether you can think of anything to do better. You don't have to do the right thing everytime - and showing you can learn from mistakes is a big win.

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You seem to be on the right track with your assertions on how to answer the questions. Obviously, always answer honestly.

  1. Present a conflict between yourselves but make sure it is not a story that shows undesirable traits in yourself or your coworker. You do not want to be seen as uncooperative and stubborn. The story should highlight some critical thinking or a solution that was 'outside of the box' to demonstrate your adaptability in the face of conflict.
  2. Pretty much the same as 1, although I would lean towards an experience that demonstrates a difference in philosophy on tackling a problem rather than an example consisting of "i didn't want to do that work, so we argued about it"
  3. Exactly correct. Describe how a project went awry and the measures taken to ensure the same failure did not happen again. Highlight the positive consequences of the events.
  4. Be honest with this question. If you are looking for a long term, stable atmosphere to foster your skill set, say that. If you are looking for something different, say that as well. Honesty is the best answer.
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These kinds of questions can be tricky.

On the one hand, if you say that you have never had any conflict with your co-workers and never disagreed with anything your boss said, you are almost certainly lying, and the interviewer will know that.

On the other hand, if you say that your co-workers are all a bunch of jerks, that indicates you're not a team player. If you say that whenever you disagree with your boss you go behind his back and do it your way, or you have screaming arguments with him at staff meetings, that's not so good either.

The trick is to make yourself sound like a reasonable person. If you can think of a time when you had a conflict with a co-worker and managed to resolve it in some productive way, you certainly want to tell that story. I don't recall ever being asked about disagreeing with my boss, but if I ever am, I'd talk about times when I explained my objections. Sometimes I convinced him and, great, everybody's happy. When I didn't convince him, I said okay and did my best to make his plan work, not sabotaging the company just so I could say, "See, I told you it was bad plan".

You don't want to give the impression that you will do dumb things just to avoid conflict. But at the same time, you don't want to give the impression that you cannot work as part of a team, that you are an obnoxious jerk who has to get his own way all the time or he has a temper tantrum.

As always on an interview, don't lie, don't make things up, but certainly present things in a light favorable to yourself. If the glass is half full, don't lie and say it's full and overflowing, but you don't have to dwell on the half empty part.

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It's a history essay, not French dictation.

There are already some good answers to this, especially the accepted answer by Angelo, but it might be useful to add a bit more about the interviewer's perspective.

For context: I work in a technical organisation, and my main job is R&D (doing it myself, managing others doing it), but occasionally I pitch in with recruitment. We have a HR team who help a lot with the logistics, but the actual candidate assessment for our technical stream is mostly done by people who work on that technical side ourselves. As part of that, I've reviewed about a hundred candidate applications and interviewed about forty in person.

When we advertise a position, we will define the skills we're looking for. Usually it will look something like this:

  1. Technical skills.
  2. Ability to work well with others.
  3. Ability to plan and manage work.
  4. Critical thinking/analytical skills.
  5. Communication skills.

(For any given position, the requirements will be much more detailed than what I've given above, with details depending on the work area and the level of the position, but that's the gist of it.)

When we interview a candidate, our objective is to assess them on those same criteria. Behavioural questions are a common method for doing that. (There are alternatives; what those are, and whether they're better, is outside the scope of the question.)

So, how do interviewers use those questions?

Rimmer believed there were two kinds of people: the first kind were history essay people, who, started life with a blank sheet, with no score, and accumulated points with every success they achieved. The other kind were the French dictation people: they started off with a hundred per cent, and every mistake they made was deducted from their original perfect score.

-- Grant Naylor, "Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers".

A couple of the responses to this question have taken the "French dictation" approach, suggesting that these questions are traps used by interviewers looking for excuses to disqualify candidates, and that therefore the best strategy is a grey rock approach that discloses as little as possible.

Maybe there really are some interviewers like that out there, somewhere, but I can't say I've ever met them. For every interview that I've been in (on either side of the table) grey-rocking would have been a huge mistake. My experience has always been much more of a "history essay" model: we want to hire somebody, but we can't afford to hire somebody who doesn't have the required skills, so we need you to convince us.

When my panel interviewed candidates recently, we had an answer key for each question indicating the main points that we hoped a good answer might address. I am always happy when a candidate gives me an opportunity to tick those points off... and even better when I get to write in a new point because they came up with a good idea that I hadn't anticipated.

I'd never even considered making a corresponding key for things that would lose candidates points. It's theoretically possible that a candidate might say something especially ill-judged that would lower my assessment of them, but I don't think this has happened even once in the interviews I've helped run. Any time I've had to rate a candidate as "unsuitable" it's been because of what they couldn't show me, not because they showed me the wrong things.

If a candidate engages only with the parts of the interview related to technical skills, and greyrocks all the behavioural questions, I just won't have enough to justify a recommendation to hire. You'd have better chances with "here's an example where I made a huge mistake, and this is what I learned from it" than with not answering the question.

(If your prospective employer is really looking to dig up possible negatives on you, that's more likely to be done via background checks, and if applicable security clearance, rather than at interview. It'd be foolish to rely on candidates voluntarily disclosing that kind of deal-breaker.)

How to answer

So, what can you do as an interviewee to help me tick off those boxes?

  1. Think about the purpose of the question.

What kind of skills is it likely to be assessing? How can your answer help me identify those skills?

If you had a project where everything was great, and all your co-workers were great, and everything just lined up nicely and the whole thing went off without a hitch... I am glad for you, but mostly what this says is "I was lucky", and "being lucky" isn't one of the points I am looking to tick off on my answer key.

If (for instance) the job ad said that we wanted a candidate with good project management skills, that is a strong clue that you should be talking about project management in at least one of your answers.

As a bonus, if you understand the purpose of the question, then you may be able to give a good answer to "tell me about a time when..." questions even when you haven't experienced the exact situation the interviewer is asking about. I discussed this in a recent answer over on Academia SE.

If you're not sure whether you've correctly understood the object of the question, don't be afraid to ask for clarification: "I have a couple of examples I could talk about here, would you rather hear the one about project management, or the one about client relations?" As well as helping you answer the question as intended, this gives you a chance to demonstrate communication skills.

  1. Focus on factors that are within your control.

Following on from the above, I want to hear about the choices you made that led to a good outcome. This is where the STAR approach as described in Angelo's answer is very useful. I talked about it at length in this Q&A but in brief, the structure requires you to talk about things you did to make a difference. Don't forget the "action" part of STAR!

  1. Highlight the parts where you showed initiative.

Sometimes an interviewee will tell me "I did X, and good things happened", but it's not always clear whether doing X was their idea, or whether they were just following a process that somebody else laid out for them. If you're the one who thought up the idea and researched it and then carried it out, be sure to tell me that it's your idea.

  1. Try to avoid generic answers.

In the most recent interview round, we had one "tell us about a time when..." question where about 20% of our candidates gave minor variations on the same example. They weren't bad answers, but it's a little difficult to stand out when the panel has already heard it. Ask yourself "how many other applicants will tell stories like this?"

Even if your best example is something fairly commonplace like "dealing with an underperforming team member", try to pick out the aspects of that story that your panel won't have heard about in other candidates' responses. As well as making you stand out in their memory, this helps shows you're giving an answer you've thought about, and not just recycling a generic model answer from a careers advice website.

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  • A story that shares similarities with 20% of other interviewees' experiences should not be penalised for lack of originality. It's not a screenwriting job they are applying to. Move onto the next question. I wonder how often do interviewers actually make an effort to smile and make candidates feel at ease? – Mari-Lou A Jul 13 at 16:52
  • @Mari-LouA I didn't say such stories should/would be "penalised for lack of originality". In fact, I specifically said these weren't bad answers. But in a competitive field, "not bad" might not be enough to make a shortlist. If Candidate A talks about using by-the-book methods to solve a standard problem, and Candidate B talks about how solving a less generic problem where no standard solution is available, B has given themselves a lot more room to demonstrate capability. I can't give an 'exceptional' rating to an answer when 20% of interviewees are giving that same answer. – Geoffrey Brent Jul 14 at 0:58
  • Re. putting candidates at ease: I do what I can, and IME so do my colleagues. Interviews are inherently a stressful process - for many candidates there's a lot riding on the outcome, and I've been on the other side of that, so I empathise. But we try our best to make candidates comfortable. This is getting off-topic for the question asked here, but if you wanted to ask a question about how interviewers can help put candidates at ease, I'd be happy to give my two cents' worth there. – Geoffrey Brent Jul 14 at 1:09
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For each behavioral question that you are asked, I would follow it by asking the interviewer a comparable behavioral question. Insist that all interviews are expected to be a two-way street, never a one-way street. It's okay if it puts them on the edge because that's what they're doing to you. If they want to know how you behave, you should also want to know how they behave.

Just flip each question and ask them something along the same lines. For example, if they ask you about a time when you disagreed with your supervisor, after you reasonably answer this question, immediately ask them about a time when their subordinates disagreed with them. If they ask about a conflict with a coworker, ask back the exact same question. If it's about your biggest failure, ask about their biggest failure and how it impacted the team working under them. If they refuse to answer or say that they don't have any lessons to share, then you know they're psychos.

Take notes of their answers as they will do of yours. If you do not pass, then unless you signed an NDA, I encourage posting all the specific questions on multiple interview websites.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Kilisi Jul 13 at 0:09
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When you have to answer psycho questions like that, it is not good. Ideally you want to get to the point in your expertise level where BS like that is not a factor. Unfortunately, when you are just out of school, there is not a lot to differentiate you from a million other similar people, so companies start making decisions based on nonsense trick questions like these, so let's take them one at a time:

Tell about a time you have been in conflict with a coworker.

I have had good relations with my coworkers. (Surely you have had some conflict? No, I haven't yet, thank goodness.)

There is no reason at all to even answer this dumb question in any way other than what I written above, especially when you are young and have little job experience.

Tell about a time you disagreed with your supervisor.

I have only had one/two supervisors so far, and have not had occasion to disagree with them. In general, both were very reasonable people and the job I was doing was very straightforward, so I did not have any problems.

Basically the same as the previous question.

What was the biggest failure in your last job position?

There were no failures. We were writing software to add printing to the report generator [or whatever] and finished on time, a little early actually. The boss was very happy with it.

Once again, no reason to even go there.

What are you looking for in your next job?

I am hoping to work with a good team to write software modules that will help the company be successful with their new products.

Just tie your personal goals to the company goals so they match. Your goal is help the company meet their goals.


I would like to give you some general advice about how to deal with the mind game type questions you are asking about, the type that fits into the pattern of "Tell me why you suck". As I have written above, you basically deny it in all instances. "I do not suck." I have given examples of how to express this in a polite way above.

Let's consider what is behind such questions in greater depth. When high level CIA or KGB agents are being trained, they are taught how to resist interrogation by the enemy, should they be captured. This training is very complex and arduous, but the first thing they are taught, the cardinal rule in all instances is: never confess. The HR rep or whoever is asking questions like those above is essentially acting like a penny ante interrogator; they are soliciting a confession from you. Dealing with such interrogation is simple: never ever confess. It's a simple rule, obey it always.


Just to make this crystal clear for you... Let's imagine you have some nuanced 30-minute conversation about how you handled a conflict with a coworker. Do you really think the HR rep is going to write "Candidate seems to be masterful and diplomatic at dealing with difficult coworkers." No, of course not; the rep is going to write, "Candidate told me he got into a fight with a coworker at his last job." You just got voted off the island. All the delicate subtleties you are describing to the HR rep will get distilled down to one basic fact: you had a fight. When an HR rep has 10 candidates that all have identical credentials for 1 position, what do you think they are going to do? Look for reasons to eliminate people.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Kilisi Jul 13 at 23:17

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