Posted by: CJ | December 22, 2010

Interview Questions, Part 1

Interviews aren’t a strong point of mine, so I’ve been reading a short book on standard interview questions and what sorts of answers are reasonable.

Each chapter has its focus on a cluster of related questions. The first chapter is all questions regarding yourself, the applicant. A bunch of standard questions are in there. Things like “Tell me about yourself”, “How would your best friend describe you?”, “What are your strengths/weaknesses”, “Where do you want to be in 5 years?”, “What is your notion of success/failure?”, “If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?”, and variations thereof.

So this post is me thinking out loud about responses. They ideally should be 250-350 words, about 90 to 120 seconds to say. Or so the little interview booklet says.

“Tell me about yourself.”: Strong analytical abilities and scientific training. Have a strong work ethic and a long history of past performance in my areas of interest. Not afraid to try new things. Usually somewhat eager to. Meticulous, methodical. Work hard to achieve deadlines. Goal-oriented. Think about medium and long term as well as short-term. Interested in effective results above keeping the status quo or doing what is simplest or most obvious.

The above is basically the answer to “What are your strengths” as well.

The point of the best friend question is, partially, to draw out possible flaws that you wouldn’t say in response to a differently worded question. I don’t really have a clue who my best friend is–my relationships are usually a bit too…dynamic…for such a characterization. However, my previous exes–who were usually my best friend while I was dating them–probably could agree on some characterizations.  Exacting, probing, analytical and unemotional in the face of nearly all drama that I don’t feel involves me, requiring a clear–and possibly firm–statement of preconditions for a good solution (i.e. no tossing babies out with bathwater), quirky sense of humor, strong but not off-putting personality, very tolerant of people who perform duties well, relatively intolerant of those who perform poorly, occasionally unnervingly yet sincerely direct, capable of self-improvement (though the actual process jolts between amusing and painful to observe and/or participate in). They’d probably also mention I can ruminate a great deal and, depending on which person you asked, that I can be quite shy, have low self-esteem, occasionally distant.

I’m not sure which of the above would be useful or non-useful to say. Except for the stuff in the last sentence, they’re possibly fine (depending on the job) or neutral.

“Where do you want to be in 5 years?”: I suppose this will depend on what job I’m applying for. In 5 years I hope to have learned some of the pet topics I’m really curious about, but that’s a personal goal. Inside the job, in 5 years my generic goal would be to have mastered my basic abilities, advanced in the job, and find numerous and substantive ways to improve wherever I’m working and generate better products/service. Though these questions are usually quite difficult for me. Even moreso since I don’t have much experience period, let alone outside of academia.

“What are your weaknesses?”: Can be overly analytical. Can dwell on understanding a problem beyond what’s useful for solving it. Can obsess over things that aren’t worth obsessing over. In all cases I’ve attempted to have meaningful checks on those tendencies. I dislike competition over just figuring out what the problem is and solving it; some people seem to view this as a weakness, but I don’t.

“What’s your notion of success/failure”: I usually have goals for any task. Usually multiple goals, likely prioritized. And success is meeting them when in retrospect they were the correct goals to have, failure is not meeting any of them when we could have. But success is also modifying the goals as we go along to what they really need to be and meeting those. Failure is also meeting the original goals even though they were the wrong goals to set. That’s the nickel version.

“If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?”: I don’t particularly like this question. I’m unsure what to answer. Here are best possible answers I can think of: I wish I was less shy/capable of being more aggressive, I wish I was more capable of dealing with competitive types, I wish I was more predisposed to just jumping into a problem and solving it before understand how it worked and what it’s underlying structure is. I wish I ruminated less, too, but that hardly seems like a good thing to admit in an interview.

Anyways, this was mostly an exercise for myself. But I’m happy to hear comments and suggestions.


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