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 Handling Open-Ended Interview Questions

By Joe Stein

These are the type of interview questions that often completely frustrate a Job Seeker. When reflecting on the interview, the Interviewee will shake their head and ask themselves why didn’t they just ask what they really wanted to know? Why the indirect approach to the questioning?
 
The subject today is the “open-ended” interview, and the types of questions that Interviewers will ask that are more generic (i.e. “open”) than traditional questions. These questions are usually asked in the beginning (“Tell me about me your Job Search”) and towards the end (“What are your short and long-term goals”), where the middle is typically a more standard review of your work history.
 
Open-ended questions are here to stay, despite the general wish by most Job Seekers that they go away. A savvy Job Seeker understands this and does his or her best to answer them successfully. So, let’s take a look at some items to consider around open-ended questions and what you can do to help ace them.
 
·        Understand Why They are Being Asked – Typically, the goal of asking an open-ended question is to create an environment where you will speak freely. The thought is that since these are not questions that solicit an immediate specific response based on your skills and experience (i.e., “Do you know this…”, “Have you done this…”), you will be required to process the information. This serves to gauge your ability to think quickly and make proper decisions. Another reason to ask may be that the Interviewer is trying to gauge your cultural fit to the organization and how you will bond with your co-workers.
 
·        Identify When You are Being Asked an Open-Ended Question – As noted above there are some fairly standard “open-ended” questions that you may be asked. Identify when you are being asked a question of this nature and respond with a more detailed, thought out answers that you might not otherwise provide. Further examples of “open-ended” questions include: “Are you a team player?”, “What is your greatest strength (or weakness)”, or “What is one thing you would change about your career?”
 
·        Prepare! – Now that you know that there are some fairly standard “open-ended” questions that may be asked, a key will be to spend some time preparing your answers. You will want to have a standard “scripted” answer, but not so forced that you will be unable to adjust if you face a slight variation to what you expected. You will also want to be prepared, but not sound robotic or canned in your answers. Practice your answers using family or friends as a sounding board, so they can critique your approach and content. Use your resume and any information you can gather about the position and company to assist you in your preparation.
 
·        Listen and Look For Clues - Have your antennae up looking for verbal and non-verbal clues regarding what type of answer the Interviewer may be looking for with his or her question. For example, if the Interviewer is asking about goals, it probably would be a good idea to have them ready (both short and long-term) and have a plan on how you are going to obtain them. The Interviewer is most likely looking for someone career-oriented and a planner. By listening intently, you can also avoid going in a direction that the Interviewer did not plan for, and, therefore forces them to interrupt you with a course correction.
 
·        Don’t Get Off Track – It is quite easy when asked an “open-ended” question to lose your train of thought and start rambling. You still want to provide concise answers to your questions. Try to also avoid delving into your personal life at all, especially if asked, “Tell me a little about yourself”.
 
·        Approach It Like An Opportunity – With your more traditional line of questions, a Job Seeker has minimal opportunity to really expand upon and sell their candidacy. Open-ended questions can actually prove to be a huge asset, if handled correctly, because you have the ability to provide more information than just the facts behind your experience or education. 
 
The days of Interviewers just running down the list of jobs you held, while reviewing an application or your resume are long over. Even for entry-level type positions you can expect to be asked a question or two that will require some thought and force you to talk. By understanding why this is being done and by preparing for some commonly asked questions, you can greatly increase your chances of landing that job you desire.
 
As always, best of luck in your job search!