How to navigate tough job interview questions

Preparation and quick thinking can help you land that dream position.
By Teri Saylor

Vicky Oliver, a job consultant in New York City and author of the book 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions, can still remember one of the toughest interview questions she has ever encountered.

"Someone asked me, 'What would so-and-so say about you if I picked up the phone and called him right now?'" she said. "That sort of threw me. I had no idea what the guy would say. But also, I was thrown by the tone of the question."

She recalled that she quickly rebounded and said "something to the effect, I was pretty sure he would say I was a hard worker and that I had contributed a lot to the company."

Face it, job interviews are nerve-wracking. Even the most accomplished accounting professionals likely have struggled with answering tough questions from a stern interviewer and sometimes walked away feeling disappointed in their responses.

Oliver and two other career experts offered tips for handling the hardest questions you may face as you work your way up the career ladder.

  • Preparation goes a long way. A little preparation will give you confidence when you face tough interview questions, according to Rick Gillis of Houston, owner of and author of two career guides called Job! and Promote! "Call your former supervisors, co-workers, vendors and even former customers to get feedback on your accomplishments and the value they brought to the company," he said. "Learn your specific achievements and the contributions in dollar amounts or in the percentage of savings or efficiencies they contributed to the organization." Use their feedback to create a list of accomplishments, make it as professional as your résumé, and be prepared to comfortably and fully speak to those accomplishments.
  • Tell me about a time. It can be stressful when you are sitting across from an interviewer who asks a behavior-based question that starts, "Tell me about a time when…." It might be any scenario — either good or bad: When you made a mistake, when you lost a client, when you were responsible for a noticeable improvement in your firm's bottom line. "They may be asking you questions that mirror challenges they are facing because they want to see how you think and how you handle those challenges," said Louise Garver, a certified résumé writer, job search and branding strategist, career coach, and founder of Career Directions Intl of Dayton, Ohio.
  • She recommended focusing on success, including in your answers to negative-sounding questions. "Make sure you present your accomplishments and be specific," she said. "If you state how you found mistakes that saved your employer or client money, be specific about which mistakes and how much money."

  • Use research to gear up for salary questions. Garver recommended being strategic when you respond to questions about salary requirements. You likely have researched the company or firm to which you are applying, and it's important to research salaries so you can be prepared to negotiate. If the job posting does not include salary ranges, go online to learn general pay ranges in the marketplace. "Go to salary sites, job boards, and career websites," she said. "Search on the industry, the job title, and the geographic location to see the salary range for the type of position you are seeking." You will be armed with information that will enable you to avoid naming a specific figure that may put you out of the running. Instead you can respond by stating that research shows local marketplace rates are in line with your expectations.
  • Lack Skills? Stay positive. "Never start your answer with a negative," Garver said. "Instead of stating you don't have the specific skill they need, respond with a type of experience you do have that can relate to what they are asking." For instance, if you are asked about a specific type of software you have not used before, you could explain that you have experience using a similar program and express confidence you'd be able to learn the employer's software quickly.
  • Don't trip over trick questions. Some interviewers may ask questions that are out of left field such as "if you were a bird, what kind of bird would you be and why?" There's no right answer, so Garver recommended simply answering the question as it relates to the job you are applying for. "These questions are designed to give insights into your personality," she said. "On some level, this is like an inkblot test, set up to reveal something about you, based on your responses."
  • Do you have any questions for me? Closing an interview is challenging, Gillis said. Having an opportunity to ask questions of your interviewer can allow you to redeem yourself if you think the session has not gone as well as you would have liked, or it can be a disappointment if you ask the wrong question.
  • Gillis recommended both speaking to your value and asking for the job. "Ask a great closing question like this: A year from now, when we review my performance, what will success look like?" he said. "That's a great way to end the interview before closing by asking for the job."

At the end of the day, you are selling yourself until you land the job, Gillis said. "Always quantify and qualify your value. It's OK. Remember the interviewers are people too. They've been in your shoes before," he said.

Oliver also said landing a job is not always about your raw skills; it's often about making a positive impression.

"Make it your mission to connect with the interviewer," she said. "Realize that you are competing with likely 10 or more people for that job, all of whom have great financial and accounting skills, so really, it is your ability to connect that will pull you through."

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer based in Raleigh, N.C. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters for the JofA, at

Where to find May’s flipbook issue

The Journal of Accountancy is now completely digital. 





Leases standard: Tackling implementation — and beyond

The new accounting standard provides greater transparency but requires wide-ranging data gathering. Learn more by downloading this comprehensive report.