In this extract from The Complete Guide to Getting a Job for People with Asperger’s Syndrome, career development coach and author Barbara Bissonnette translates some common interview questions to help literal thinkers understand what is actually being asked of them.
To answer a question well, you must understand what is being asked. This may not be readily apparent if you are a literal thinker. Josh was completely confused when he was asked, “Why should I hire you instead of the other candidates?” After thinking about it for a few seconds, he said, “I don’t know how to answer that, because I haven’t met the other candidates.” The interviewer knew that Josh had not met the other applicants. The intent of his question was for Josh to summarize why he believed that he was the best person for the job.
There are several types of interview questions. Some assess your abilities, depth of experience, and knowledge of a job function or an industry. Others are designed to tease out how well you work with others. Behavioral questions look at past actions as indicators of future performance. They typically begin with a statement like, “tell me about a time when,” or, “give me an example of,” or, “describe a project that…”
Here are some common interview questions, and suggestions about how to answer them. Even if you are not asked all of these questions specifically, you can use the information to respond to similar inquiries about your background, hard skills and soft skills.
1. Tell Me About Yourself
Translation: Summarize your relevant skills and experience.
This question is often asked early in an interview. It is not an invitation to share your life story. A good answer summarizes, in five to six sentences, the skills and experience that make you a good fit for the job. Mention your most relevant general and job-specific skills, as well as personal characteristics that are important for the position. An accountant could summarize experience in basic accounting principles, discuss proficiency with computer spreadsheets, and give examples of accuracy and attention to detail.
A bit of humor, if you are comfortable using it, can relieve nervousness and get the interview off to a good start. Accountant Todd could say, “I’m a numbers geek!” But don’t overdo the levity. One or two bits of humor per interview is enough. You want to project friendliness, not goofiness. You are not interviewing to be a company comedian.
Avoid long, rambling responses that contain irrelevant details: where you grew up, a list of classes you took to earn your degree, or your recent divorce. Don’t mention achievements from high school and earlier, unless they are truly significant. Earning the designation of Eagle Scout, for example, requires personal characteristics that include persistence, leadership, and teamwork. These are valuable in any job.
2. Why Did You Choose This Field?
Translation: What excites you about this work or this industry?
A strong response highlights aptitudes and abilities that are related to the job in question. For example, “Engineering appeals to me because I enjoy applying mathematical principles to solve real-world problems. During college, I did a project…”
A weak response focuses on your personal preferences instead of what you can do for the employer, “I like computers,” “There are lots of jobs,” or, “It pays well.”
3. What Are Your Greatest Strengths?
Translation: What makes you good at this work? (Be ready with three examples.)
It is not boastful to discuss your abilities and accomplishments at a job interview. This is your chance to describe knowledge and personal attributes that enable you to achieve results for the organization. Choose strong points that demonstrate your ability to perform the job well. An engineer might say, “I can form detailed pictures in my mind and see how design changes will impact product performance.”
Empty, self-serving answers are those that offer no benefit to the employer, “I’m a fantastic writer,” “I’m a genius at math,” or, “I live to write code!”
4. What is Your Greatest Weakness?
Translation: Do you have insight into your limitations and have you learned from your mistakes?
This is a tricky question. Everyone has weaknesses of some kind, so saying that you don’t have any is clearly not true. On the other hand, being too honest can disqualify you as a candidate. Think about a weakness that is also a strength, or a limitation that you have overcome. Aaron said, “I can be a perfectionist, however this has helped me in accounting because my work is accurate. And, it is always delivered on time.” This answer works because accuracy is important in this line of work, and Aaron added a sentence to let the employer know that his thoroughness would not get in the way of meeting deadlines.
Unacceptable responses are those that communicate a fatal flaw. This refers to an attribute that makes you unqualified for the position. Describing yourself as introverted and a little shy at first would be a fatal flaw for a salesperson, who meets with new prospects. It would not be a fatal flaw for someone, like an accountant, who works mostly with information. Some answers are fatal flaws for any job. Fatal flaw answers include, “I’m not a team player,” “My selfconfidence is low,” and, “I don’t like taking the ideas or direction of others.”
5. Describe Your Worst Boss
Translation: What type of manager have you disliked working with (and am I that type of manager)?
This question is not as simple as it may first sound. I’ll begin with the wrong answer, since it is the one so many of my clients choose. Rob is a good example. I could hear his agitation as he began describing a former manager. “He wouldn’t give me clear instructions, and then blamed me for everything that went wrong,” Rob began. “Once I asked to take a Friday off before a holiday weekend. He was so mean, he said no, but then let one of the other associates take Friday off.”
I’ll bet that you, like Rob, have a story or two about an unreasonable, jerky boss. However, sharing these anecdotes at an interview makes you look bad. Blaming problems on someone else, or making negative judgments about a person’s character, makes you sound like a complainer, and an employee who is difficult to work with. Companies do not want employees who are difficult. Avoid comments like, “He didn’t listen to me,” “She criticized my work,” and, “He was disrespectful and yelled a lot.”
When a hiring manager asks this question, he wants to know whether you will be comfortable with his management style. A manager who gives staff members a lot of autonomy would be concerned if you describe this style as difficult. Obviously, you cannot know a manager’s preferences in advance. If your styles are different to the point of incompatibility, it really means the job is not the right fit, and it’s unlikely that you’re going to get hired.
The right response to this question focuses on professional (not personal) characteristics, and frames negatives as differences in preference or style. For example, “My last supervisor preferred group brainstorming sessions. This was a challenge sometimes because I like to think about a problem on my own, then present my ideas to the group. We worked it out so I could contribute my ideas the next day.”
For more essential advice, tips and strategies for getting a job in the neurotypical workplace, buy your copy of The Complete Guide to Getting a Job for People with Asperger’s Syndrome by Barbara Bissonnette.
Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.