Job Interviews: Responding to Difficult Questions

Posted by Allison Leach on Jun 14, 2018 1:00:00 PM

The SPS blog has been re-running several posts from our job search series, in the hopes of helping our Bachelor of Professional Studies'  graduates - and all recent graduates - with their job search.

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Job interviews can be nerve wracking all-around, but for adult students, an interview can present scenarios that are particularly anxiety-inducing. Whether you have a large gap in your employment history, are embarking on a new career, or are self-conscious about being in-and-out of school over the years, you may be concerned about how to address your shortcomings in an interview setting.

A prospective employer will generally only schedule an interview with someone who is a viable candidate. If you have been honest on your resume, your shortcomings are usually already apparent, and the interviewer will be looking for you to assure them that you are the right professional for the position.

Below, we’ll address several possible scenarios, demonstrating how you can put a positive spin on your less-than-ideal experiences.

You Have an Inconsistent Academic Record

Many non-traditional students have taken time away from school, and may have multiple institutions listed on their transcripts. Given that the long-held expectation in our society has been to enroll in college at 18 and graduate from the same institution at 22, it is normal to feel uncomfortable about having taken a different path.

In this scenario, the interviewer either asks the standard “tell me about yourself,” or asks you to describe your academic background.

Unless the interviewer specifically references your sporadic academic history (which you are not required to list in full on your resume), you don’t need to address the issue. Focus on the degree you recently earned, or the program in which you are currently enrolled. Relate your acquired skills and knowledge to the position, and perhaps mention relevant coursework that you felt was particularly beneficial.

You might say, “I’m enrolled in the Bachelor of Professional Studies program at the College of Charleston. Last year, I took an elective in Healthcare Marketing, and it led me to pursue a minor in Healthcare Management. The professors are all veterans in the healthcare sector, and they have provided me with so much valuable knowledge and insight.”

Focusing on what you studied, rather than unnecessary details about the where and the when, takes away from your self-consciousness, and gives the interviewer the opportunity to further inquire as to what you have learned, and what you can bring to the position.


You Don’t Have the Required Experience

If you are a career-changer, or re-entering the workforce after significant time away, you may be asked to demonstrate experience in areas where you are lacking. This can be a moment of panic for candidates, and the gut reaction may be to address your weaknesses. However, focusing on transferable skills may help the employer to see beyond the gaps in your experience.

In this potential scenario, the interviewer states a particular skill set - in this example, project management - is a key component of the position, and asks you to describe your experience in that area.

Your immediate inclination may be to state that you have no experience with project management - and immediately draw attention to your weakness as a candidate.

Instead, you should mine your past for experiences that you can relate to the required qualifications. Perhaps you organized an annual school carnival, or served as the editor for a departmental newsletter - any experience is valid and potentially transferable, and certainly better than nothing!

You might say: “I served as a point-person for several community events, and was responsible for ensuring that volunteers adhered to budgets and timelines. I am also the editor of our departmental newsletter, which requires frequent communication with colleagues, coordinating interviews, and maintaining an editorial calendar.”

Your answer may not illustrate exactly the kind of experience that the interviewer is seeking, but it shows that you have had a diverse range of experiences, and can relate to some of the responsibilities that the role will entail.


You Have a Gap in Employment

There is an undeniable stigma surrounding unemployment, even when one was unemployed by choice, or unforeseeable circumstances. Yet, you can still put a positive spin on your time away from the workforce.

The key here is to avoid spending too much time explaining the reasons for your unemployment. Offer a succinct description of the situation, and then immediately transition to relaying your goals for the future. “I left my previous job so that I could focus on raising my family, but have remained current with industry trends, and have recently upgraded my skill set. I am eager to put my knowledge and experience into practice.”

The employer is looking for red flags in this scenario, so be certain to answer honestly. Avoid speaking negatively about former employers, or dwelling on unfortunate circumstances, and do your best to remain positive. The employer should sense that your are keen to contribute to the organization, and are not a future liability.


Remember that there are some questions that a prospective employer legally cannot ask. These include questions about martial or family status, age, religion, and sexual orientation. You should not feel obligated to share any personal information, even those details not covered by anti-discrimination laws.

If any of the questions you are asked require you to allude to a personal situation, for instance, family circumstances that caused you to leave the workforce, it is recommended that you avoid an extensive explanation. The interviewer should not ask you for further details in this scenario, but if she/he does so, you are well within your rights to redirect the conversation tactfully and professionally: “It was certainly a difficult experience, but it gave me the time to examine what I wanted out of my career, and helped motivate my return to school. I’m looking to move forward and take on new challenges.”

Interviews can be daunting for even the most experienced and accomplished among us. While it may feel like you are facing a firing squad, the search committee really does want you to succeed, and is only trying to discern whether your employment will be a good fit for all parties.
If you make an effort to frame your answers in a positive manner, and avoid giving unnecessary details, you can be assured that your professional qualifications will shine through.


Interested in enhancing your marketability?  Learn more about the School of Professional Studies degree programs, professional development courses, and professional certification preparation.

Topics: Insider

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