Five Tough Interview Questions—and How to Handle Them

Five Tough Interview Questions—and How to Handle Them

If you’ve been in many interviews (and by now, you probably have), you already know how awkward it can be to be asked a challenging question. Those are the queries that stop you in your tracks while your mind darts around frantically for some kind of answer. Sometimes the questions are genuinely difficult, but just as often, they’re only unexpected. In either case, the result is the same: a blank look, a blank mind, and an awkwardness that can be difficult to recover from.

There are several solutions to the problem, although none of them will cover you completely. For example, you can check in advance with colleagues or online resources or even the interviewing organization to get a sense of what the questions might be. With that information, you could then go about preparing to answer those questions.

But what if your information is wrong, or what if you still get stumped by outlier questions?

Here’s a better idea: Create a process for yourself to help in real time if you encounter tough questions. Then you know you’ll be covered, whatever happens. Following is an example of a mental process to use, as well as five questions known to be difficult to answer. After you see the process applied to each question, practice by applying “processed” answers of your own to the questions.

The Process

STEP 1—Acknowledge the question, perhaps by saying “hmmm” or giving some other indication that you’re about to answer.

STEP 2—Try to identify the “real” question. For example, when asked “Tell me about yourself,” the interviewer probably doesn’t anticipate hearing about your family of origin or early years in sports. Rather, he or she is expecting a brief synopsis of what you’ve studied and what your primary experiences in medicine have been, along with some of your goals. A more literal query might have been “Tell me about your medical career and your professional interests”—but that’s not how interviewers usually phrase things.

STEP 3—When possible, match your answer with one of your strengths. For example, the answer to “Tell me about yourself” could start, “I’ve always been a very empathetic person, with a keen interest in the sciences; those strengths led me to the field of neurology.... etc.”

STEP 4—For longer answers, conclude by bringing the answer back to the interviewer’s organization. Again, using “Tell me about yourself,” the answer could conclude with, “...having had the experience in my fellowship of treating patients in a hospital setting, I realized that being a neuro-hospitalist for a larger medical facility like this one was exactly what I wanted to be doing...”Ready to see the process applied? Check out the sample answers to these five tough questions.

What is your philosophy regarding patient care (or research, or hospital administration, etc.)?

It’s easy to see why this can be challenging to answer. Depending on the context, the “real” question could essentially be, “Do you fit here?” Since you can’t control their perception about if you fit, concentrate instead on answering how you’ll fit. Staying with the assumption of an interview for a neuro-hospitalist in a large medical system, the answer could be:

I take a dual approach to patient care, which is something I’ve been developing through my rotations and my fellowship. As an underlying principle, I believe strongly in the dignity of the patient and in that person’s right to control their care. That means I have to give them timely and clear information. And I also believe in the power of the hospital and the care team to impact a patient’s well-being. This leads me to collaborate with my colleagues whenever it’s feasible, and to work with the values of the hospital to amplify the care I can provide. That’s one of the reasons I’m excited about this opportunity—I really feel as if the medical professionals here are some of the best.

What are your career plans?

If your plans align clearly with the organization interviewing you, this might not be a difficult question. But if you’re like many physicians, you’re willing to compromise some parts of your plans in order to achieve other parts. That creates a problem in the interview if you answer a question too literally, disclosing that you’d rather be working elsewhere, or that you expect to leave this place within two years so you can move forward on a different path. Luckily, you can avoid this dilemma by considering the “real” question, which is likely, “Where does our job fit in your career plans?” Since you don’t know the future, keeping your answer somewhat general is a good bet. Here’s what our neuro-hospitalist might say:

Patient care in a hospital setting is my strong interest, so my plan is to follow this path. In researching this medical system, I’ve learned that you have a number of clinics as well; at some point I could see myself participating in developing a specialty clinic here if it was feasible. But for now, I’m focused on the neuro-hospitalist role.

What are your weaknesses?

This is the classic difficult question, even though most candidates expect it. The problem is one of those “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situations: If you give a real weakness, you risk telling too much. But acting as if you have no weaknesses will not be credible. It helps if you remember that they are not asking for a weakness so much as they are trying to understand what you’ll need help with if they bring you on board. That’s why our neuro-hospitalist candidate is going to answer from the perspective of the job, not from a personal list of New Year’s resolutions.

I’ve given that some thought and, in respect to this role, I think the area I’ll need the most ramp-up for is the electronic records system. I know you’re using Epic and that’s something I’ve become familiar with during my fellowship. I haven’t needed to use all its features, so I’m not as fast as I think you’d need me to be. I should be able to close the gap somewhat before I come on board, but I’d probably still need a hand to bring me up to speed.

Tell us about a disagreement or conflict you’ve had with your colleagues and how you handled it.

Yikes. Another no-win situation. This is framed as a behavioral question, which means the most common style of answer would include a story. As in, “I said this, and she said that, and then...” You can see how this could deteriorate quickly. Luckily, the interviewer isn’t really interested in a he-said, she-said story. The “real” question is more likely to be “How do you handle sticky situations?” or “How do you get along with others?” In the following answer, the candidate is going to eschew giving a specific example in favor of describing a process or approach, while also bringing forward a strength (in this case, good communication):

That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. It’s not that I don’t disagree with colleagues from time to time, but I can’t think of a situation that escalated into something more serious. I tend to be pretty focused on good communication, so that might be one reason things don’t get too far. When I don’t agree with something, I’ll ask for clarification so I can understand the reasoning better. Then I might sit on it for a day to see it from a different angle. For the most part, keeping things at the reasonable dialogue level provides enough space to find common ground. But if that wasn’t the case, I’d have to evaluate how important I thought the point was before pushing harder for my view.

Do you have any questions for us?

You wouldn’t think this would be difficult at all, since you probably have quite a few questions on your mind. But of course, the problem is thinking of something that doesn’t sound too self-interested (“Can you explain the benefits?”) or too detailed (“What’s the average number of EEGs the department conducts on a given day?”) Nor should you imagine replying, “I think you’ve answered them all already” lest you sound disinterested in the job. Which brings us to the “real” question in this case: “Are you interested in this job? Are you picturing yourself working with us?” With that in mind, here’s how our neuro-hospitalist might demonstrate interest while also receiving information of use:

I do have some questions. Mostly they’re centered around the work itself, and the department goals. It’s been interesting to learn more about your model of patient care and how everyone works as a team here. Can you tell me more about any plans you have for growth? I’m curious to know how many more patients would be needed before you’d hire the next person, for example. I’m also wondering if you’re planning any specialty clinics around specific procedures or diseases.

FINAL ADVICE

You’ve probably discovered already that interviews are more art than science. There’s never going to be one right answer for a question, nor will a “wrong” answer sink the ship if the interviewer likes you. As a final (but best) strategy, focus at least some of your attention on being personable and warm, and you’ll feel less pressure to find just the right words for each question you’re asked. 

Back to listing