How to Handle Tough Interview Questions

Let’s face it. Not all interview questions are created equally, and some are more challenging to answer than others. However, most hiring managers are not out to stump or trick candidates in their interview questions. Rather, the majority of interviewers approach the process as an opportunity to gain the information they need to evaluate if a candidate is the right match.

In a nonprofit interview, candidates are expected to do more than talk about their professional skills. Nonprofit hiring managers rely on interviews to explore a candidate’s soft skills and potential cultural fit with the organization. This information is uncovered through the content of a candidate’s answer, as well as the candidate’s ability to understand the question, think critically about an answer, and communicate that answer effectively, confidently and articulately.

This article discusses some of the toughest yet most effective questions from actual nonprofit interviews, and suggests strategies for how to communicate the best possible answers to these questions.

Why are you interested in this position with this organization?

While this question may seem rather innocent and basic, the open ended nature of the question makes it difficult to answer well.

With this type of question, hiring managers are generally looking to evaluate a candidate’s specific connection to the organization’s mission, as well as skill fit with the particular role. Speak with passion from a personal place about your connection to the position and organization. Then, get specific about this connection, using examples from your past experience. If you are unable to talk specifically about your fit with the role and organization, the hiring manager may question your interest, as well as how much you thought about your interest prior to the interview.

Avoid answers that are completely focused on you e.g. “this would be a really good move in my career path” or “I’m really good at accounting.” An organization wants to know what excites you about the work that they do. Use this opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge about the role and organization, and what you like about both.

If you were in this position, how would you do [specific responsibility of the job]?

This question may seem difficult to answer because it depends on theoretical information. Since you are not in the position already, you may not have first-hand knowledge of how to perform the duty being inquired about. However, in most cases, hiring managers are looking to how a candidate answers this type of question. They want to assess if you are well-researched about the position and able to address a theoretical question with real-life examples and knowledge.

To prepare for this type of question, do your homework. Research as much as you can about the specific position at the organization where you are interviewing, as well as comparable positions at similar organizations. Become as familiar as you can with specific duties and responsibilities, specifically if the position will require you to take on tasks you have never before done.

A larger part of successfully answering this question is also demonstrating your capacity to approach projects in a strategic and organized manner.  Make sure that your answer also demonstrates an effective prioritization of the many facets of the role.  So, you could state what you perceive to be the most important aspects of that function, and then address how you would exceed set goals along those lines, for example specific strategies you would implient or partnerships you would form. You can also use this opportunity to discuss similar experiences you’ve had in past positions, and how you successfully approached those responsibilities and challenges.

Talk about one of your weaknesses and how you have addressed this weakness in the workplace.

Organizations often ask about a candidate’s weaknesses for three reasons. The first is to evaluate how a candidate talks about his/her weaknesses and is able to position them in a positive light. The second is to hear how a candidate has addressed his/her weaknesses in real-life situations.  The third, especially true in the nonprofit sector, is to assess the candidate’s self-awareness and sense of humility (overly egotistic candidates do not see themselves as having any weaknesses).

A strong answer to this type of question communicates that a candidate is self-aware, able to think critically about his/her own personality, and is focused on growth experiences. A pitfall of this type of question is to come off sounding “cliché” (e.g. “My greatest weakness is working too hard.”)  Having real-life examples prepared in advance will help your answer sound genuine, as well as demonstrate to the interviewer that you are able to be reflective about your own personality and characteristics in the workplace. Another way to respond to this question is to share an example of when a supervisor provided constructive feedback, and how you used that feedback to grow in your role.  Overall, your goal is to reframe the issue away from “weaknesses” and toward “professional development opportunities” of which you are already aware and actively working to ameliorate.

What requirements of this position do you think are the most important?

The answer to this type of question reveals how familiar a candidate is with the general requirements of a job, as well as how aligned a candidate is with the organization’s priorities for this role. This question is considered difficult because it requires the candidate to ascertain from the job description and other cues what requirements are most valued by the organization for the position.

To prepare for this type of question, read the job description at a high level and think about the top 3-5 competencies communicated in the description. For example, does the job description communicate that the organization wants a strategic thinker? Someone who can roll up their sleeves? Or is the priority on being able to forge relationships with constituents? By identifying these competencies in advance, you will be better prepared to talk to the importance of these requirements during the interview.

Please describe the most complicated or challenging situation you’ve been in related to race, class, or gender.

For many nonprofits, diversity is a core value. This is especially true for organizations that serve a specific population, and believe that their staff needs to be able to relate to the experiences of the people they serve. For these reasons, questions that explore a candidate’s experience with issues of race, class, or gender sometimes come up in a nonprofit interview.

This type of question can be difficult for candidates for a few reasons. First of all, candidates don’t want to come across as biased or prejudiced in any way. Issues related to diversity can also be highly personal, and a candidate may be caught off guard by this type of question. Finally, for candidates that have not been in this type of situation, it can be difficult to have a meaningful answer.

Approach this question as an opportunity to demonstrate your connection to the population served by the organization, and do your best to answer with honesty and ease. If it sounds like this is one of the first times you’ve thought about these issues and your experiences, it’ll show. Think about your relationship to these issues in advance. If you genuinely do not have any first-hand experiences to share, reflect on why that may be and offer any insight into your understanding of issues related to diversity. Focus on the aspects of your experience and personality that equip you to deal with these type of issues. Most importantly, avoid generalizations and stereotypes in your answer.

What are your salary requirements?

Talking about salary requirements in the early stages of the hiring process can be harrowing to some candidates, especially those who want to advance to the next level of the hiring process and not be screened out for salary reasons. Nonprofit hiring managers often inquire about salary requirements early in the process so that expectations are clear from the start.

Before you answer, it is generally acceptable to ask for the salary range for the position. Prior to the interview, research comparable salaries for similar positions at similar organizations. If the salary level for a given role represents a pay cut for you, it is ok to acknowledge this in the interview. However, don’t belabor the point to try and appear like a “martyr” (remember, the person who is interviewing you is likely to be earning a salary within the range of the organization).

Most importantly, be honest with your interviewer. If you are genuinely flexible on salary, say so. But if you are unwilling or unable to accept the salary for a position, do not waste the organization’s and your own time.

If you refuse to answer the question, realize that the organization may choose to no longer pursue your candidacy. At the very least, provide a baseline number or a general range for the organization’s consideration.

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In closing, your ability to prepare for and respond to tough interview questions greatly influences a hiring organization’s decision to continue to pursue your candidacy. Careful preparation before the interview and active listening during the interview will position you for success, and allow you to respond critically and effectively to even the toughest interview questions.


This article was written by Commongood Careers and is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-NoDerivs 2.5 License.

For more information about nonprofit and socially entrepreneurial careers, visit Commongood Careers at http://www.commongoodcareers.org