CPA Insider

How to answer the most challenging job interview questions

Prepare your responses so you won’t be caught off guard.
By Beth A. Berk, CPA, CGMA

Have you ever finished a job interview wondering why you said what you did? Or why you didn’t say anything at all? Being properly prepared can help you avoid these awkward situations. Here are a few of the more challenging interview questions you may be asked, and 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: It depends on your reason for leaving. Some good responses are:

  • “I came across an amazing opportunity that is (was) too good to pass up.” Assuming you have been in your current (or prior) role for a few years, hiring professionals should find this answer acceptable (especially if they are 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 are and expectations for professional advancement. 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 have sparked fears that your job may be in jeopardy, or the company and/or your role changed significantly because of a merger or an acquisition.

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

How to answer it: 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 and one that’s based upon your education, certifications, experience, and skills. If your skills are in high demand, state this tactfully. Don’t forget to take into consideration 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 may wish to pay, let the interviewer know that you are flexible if you feel the 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, and maybe even your CPA license.

How to answer it: Stick to relaying facts that can be verified by others (e.g., references, prior supervisors, and peers). Keep in mind that a hiring professional may know someone you worked with at a prior job and inquire 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 (watch for nonverbal facial expressions and tone of voice) or family and friends. And if a sticky situation recently happened and you are somewhat emotional about it, consider postponing interviews for a short while.

The question: What is your greatest weakness?

How to answer it: Before an interview, think about times in your life where you received constructive criticism personally and/or professionally, and what you did thereafter. If you can’t come up with a particular situation, think about a trait you have 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 slip by you that is important. 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 it: If the topic of a technical question is something you have never dealt with or haven’t dealt with in a long time, state that fact to the interviewer. To give an answer for the sake of an answer, or to answer 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 something to the effect 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 it: In this situation, the worst thing to do is to avoid answering the question and switch topics. Instead, be honest and state that you are not sure about 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 a solution before concluding the interview, do tell the interviewer that you will get back to him or her (e.g., by later in the day, the next day, 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 as well. Hopefully, having answered all questions asked during the interview, you’ve made this evident in more ways than one. Good luck!

Beth Berk

Beth A. Berk, CPA, CGMA, is an independent recruiter based in Maryland.

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