How to ace the most challenging job interview questions

Avoid awkward moments during an interview by preparing for the toughest questions in advance.
By Beth A. Berk, CPA, CGMA

How to ace the most challenging job interview questions
Images by desifoto/iStock

In today's job market it is not uncommon for CPAs to have opportunities to choose from. Yet interviewing is still an important skill to master. Excelling on job interviews can mean the difference between landing your dream job and settling for one that's good though not ideal.

During an interview, you may be asked a question that triggers an unexpected reaction or response. You may find yourself answering awkwardly or being unable to think of anything to say. Being properly prepared can help you when you're put on the spot. Here are a few of the more challenging interview questions you may be asked and suggestions for how best to respond.


The question:
Why are you looking to leave your current job? (Or why did you leave your last job?)

How to answer: It depends upon your reason for leaving. Some good responses include:

  • "I came across an amazing opportunity that is (was) too good to pass up." As long as you have been in your current (or prior) role for a few years, the hiring professional should find this answer acceptable—especially if he or she is the one offering the opportunity.
  • "I wasn't being challenged enough in my last role" or "There aren't enough opportunities for advancement at my current job." In this case, be prepared to define what a challenge means to you, as well as what your goals and expectations for professional advancement are. That way, if the role you're interviewing for isn't a match for your expectations, the interviewer will (hopefully) let you know, and you can rule that job out.
  • "There isn't enough flexibility in my schedule." This is an acceptable answer, but be sure the job you're interviewing for can provide the kind of schedule you need.
  • "My salary isn't commensurate with my skills and experience." In this case, do some research into what the market rate is in your area for someone with your background to make sure your expectations are not out of line with reality. Also, don't bring up your financial obligations: Mentioning your bills, rent, or college loans can make the interviewer think you're only interested in the job because it pays more.
  • "It was just time to move on." If this is the case, explain why. Perhaps recent layoffs sparked fears that your job may be in jeopardy, or the company and/or your role changed significantly due to a merger or acquisition.


The question:
Having to state your salary requirements without knowing the salary range.

How to answer: If asked about your current or last salary, state that you are seeking a market rate for the role for which you are being considered based on your education, certifications, experience, and skills. If your skills are in high demand, say so tactfully. Don't forget to consider the cost of living and your employer's location (i.e., city vs. suburbs), especially if you're relocating.

If you must provide an amount or range, let the interviewer know when you last received a raise and what your base salary was apart from bonuses and other benefits. If you think your requirements may be higher than what the employer wishes to pay, tell the interviewer that you are flexible about salary if you think an employer is a good fit.


The question:
Being asked about a sticky situation, such as being fired for cause or a time when you were asked to compromise your ethics.

How to answer: Stick to relaying facts that can be verified by others (e.g., references, prior supervisors, or peers). Keep in mind that a hiring professional may know someone you worked with at a prior job and ask that person about you. Try not to sound accusatory or derogatory about the other people or companies involved. If necessary, write down your answers, and practice saying them in front of a mirror or to family and friends, paying close attention to your nonverbal expressions and tone of voice. If a sticky situation recently happened and you are still emotional about it, consider postponing interviews for a short while.


The question:
What is your greatest weakness?

How to answer: Before an interview, think about times in your life when you received constructive criticism and what you did thereafter. Tell the story of one of these incidents if you're asked about your greatest weakness. If you can't come up with a particular incident, think about one of your traits that could be viewed as both an asset and a liability. For example, being detail-oriented can mean that you sometimes pay too much attention to details that aren't important, but it can also mean that you don't let anything vital slip by you. You may also want to mention steps you've taken to improve, such as working with a coach or mentor.


The question:
Any technical question you don't know how to answer.

How to answer: If you get a technical question about a topic you have never dealt with or haven't dealt with in a long time, state that fact to the interviewer. Giving an answer for the sake of giving an answer, or answering incorrectly, most likely will not get you the job. You may want to describe how you would go about finding the answer if on the job, or say that you are willing to learn what you don't know—and on your own time if necessary.


The question:
Any nontechnical question where you just draw a blank.

How to answer: In this situation, the worst thing to do is to avoid answering the question. ­Instead, be honest and state that you are not sure how to respond. If you simply need more time, say that it is a good question and you'd like to think about it further before providing an answer. And if you haven't come up with an answer by the end of the interview, tell the interviewer that you will get back to him or her, specifying a time frame (later in the day, tomorrow, etc.) and how you'll reply (telephone or email). Then make sure you follow through.

Lastly, be sure to convey why you want the job and are qualified for it. Hopefully, having answered all questions asked during the interview, you've made this evident in more ways than one. Good luck!


About the author

Beth A. Berk (bethaberk@msn.com) is an independent recruiter based in Maryland.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney L. Vien, a JofA associate editor, at cvien@aicpa.org or 919-402-4125.


AICPA resources

JofA articles

CGMA Magazine articles

  • "5 Job Interview Deal-Breakers," April 21, 2015, cgma.org
  • "The Job Interview Is Still the Biggest Stumbling Block for Job-Seekers," April 4, 2014, cgma.org
  • "How to Express Thanks After a Job Interview," March 5, 2014, cgma.org
  • "How to Prepare for a Video Job Interview," Jan. 31, 2014, cgma.org
  • "Seven Ways to Make a Strong First Impression in Job Interviews," Sept. 26, 2012, cgma.org

AICPA articles

  • "Brush Up on Your Interview Techniques," April 15, 2013, aicpa.org
  • "Interview Dos and Don'ts," Sept. 5, 2012, aicpa.org
  • "Interview Format," Dec. 1, 2009, aicpa.org
  • "Interview Preparation Tips," Dec. 1, 2009, aicpa.org
  • "Interviews and Office Visits," Nov. 25, 2009, aicpa.org

Online tools

  • Behavioral-Based Interview Questions, aicpa.org (Excel download)
  • Gearing Up—Interview Tips, aicpa.org (PFP or PFS member login required)
  • Interview Questions by Role, aicpa.org (PCPS member login required)

Video webcast

"Interviewers' Favorite Interview Questions," aicpa.org

Website

Career Development resources, aicpa.org

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