INTERVIEWS / DEC. 04, 2014
version 4, draft 4

Top Perfect Phrases for Handling Awkward Interview Questions

Job interviews are seldom easy and not many of us enjoy or look forward to them. The process can be especially challenging if you’re caught flat-footed by a really tough question deliberately posed to test your ability to think on your feet. Here are some useful phrases you can use to help you compose the perfect answer to that notoriously difficult interview question.

Personality traits

It’s very common at interview to be asked to describe your strengths, so be prepared for this question. The strengths you describe should fit closely with the requirements of the role you’re being interviewed for and the responsibilities associated with it. The following short, punchy descriptive phrases are great for this, but remember to follow-up each one with examples of when and how you applied each character trait to bring about a satisfactory conclusion to a situation, or to positively influence the outcome of a project you were working on.

  • personal drive
  • problem-solving skills
  • conscientious and reliable
  • confident and determined

These are all important personality traits that recruiters are looking out for so make sure you include these useful phrases in your answers.

Job description and person specification

When preparing for interview, pay close attention to the job description and person specification; you’ll find plenty of job-relevant phrases there. Keep them in mind and use them when describing how your own skills match those required by the job. This makes you sound tailor-made for the position; remember to include the same phraseology in your CV and covering letter. For example, if you are applying for a supervisory or managerial role, use phrases to emphasise your leadership skills, such as:

  • strong supervisory skills
  • motivational communicator
  • effective management style

If the role you’re applying for is more technical, just repeat industry terminology from the job description to explain and emphasise your expertise and experience.

Phrases to suit secretarial and administrative roles include:

  • excellent written and verbal communication skills
  • attention to detail
  • good time management
  • effective planning and organising skills


The vast majority of roles across all sectors of industry and commerce include an element of teamwork or collaboration with others. It’s therefore very important that you put across your willingness and ability to work as part of a team, rather than just having your own agenda. Once again, remember to include examples from your previous jobs or college experience where you performed successfully as part of a group. The following phrases can be used to demonstrate your teamworking capabilities whilst giving the recruiter a clear insight into how you would interact positively with other workers on assignments.

  • team effort
  • group collaboration
  • pulling together
  • combined effort

Phrases to avoid

When you find yourself stuck for an answer or lost for words, it’s very common to try to buy yourself time by becoming repetitive or using ‘fluff’ to fill gaps in the conversation. Avoid using empty, meaningless phrases such as:

  • “erm”
  • “you know”
  • “that’s a good question …”
  • “like”
  • “to be honest with you”

Phrases like these just give the impression that you haven’t prepared for the interview or that you are very uncomfortable with a particular question. If you are asked a question that you don’t understand, just politely ask the interviewer to explain further; this is also a useful tactic which buys you more time to come up with a suitable answer.

Whilst it is acceptable to use industry terminology when you are being interviewed for a technical or specialist role, avoid using slang and certainly don’t resort to swearing or bad-mouthing your current employer or colleagues!

Before the big day, a helpful exercise is to arrange a ‘mock’ interview where a friend plays the part of the recruiter and actually record it; the chances are you’ll be horrified just how many times you hesitate and fill the void with one of the aforementioned phrases! Practice until you are slick and confident in your technique with a ready answer for all the likely questions.

The key to interview success is thorough preparation and practice. Remember that the interviewer will make allowances for candidates’ nerves and a ready stock of useful phrases like those described above should help you tackle with aplomb pretty much any question that’s thrown at you.

Image source: iStock

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