How to Face Interview Curve Balls

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Sometimes, the toughest question in a job interview is, "Do you have any questions?"

Vicky Oliver found out the hard way. The author of 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions recalls interviewing for a position at Vogue early in her own career. When the hiring manager asked if she had any questions, Oliver replied, "Just one: When do I start?" That flippant reply cost her the job, she says.

Now, she advises candidates to ask at least three well-considered questions during each job interview - and come armed with 15. Asking pertinent questions demonstrates that you are interested enough in the job and the company to have done your homework. More than that, the right questions can help foster that all-important rapport with an interviewer.

To come up with questions that will make a good impression, Oliver recommends doing advance research on not just the company, but the individual you'll be meeting. An awareness of your interviewer's special professional interests and activities makes it easier to bond. For instance, if you discover your interviewer teaches finance or economics at a university or other institution, you can pose a question or two about that. Oliver says this type of research can pay dividends even if your interview is with an HR official rather than a hiring manager.

"If you bring a personal element to your job searches, I believe that you will do better, always," she says.

In a wide-ranging talk at the New York Society of Security Analysts, Oliver advised how to field troublesome interview questions and sidestep a long list of other pitfalls.

Most of the pitfalls she warned against were textbook no-brainers - hygiene issues, late arrival, off-color jokes. A few were less obvious: interrupting an interviewer who is speaking, neglecting to silence your cell phone before an interview, avoiding eye contact.

Here are three difficult interview questions:

The question you don't know the answer to.

Rather than admit ignorance, Oliver recommends giving a fragmentary answer that you can later exploit as an opening when you contact your interviewer to follow up. Sometimes an interviewer will pose an especially difficult question to gain insight into a candidate's thought process. If you don't rise to the challenge, you'll miss an opportunity.

Why did you leave your last job?

If you were laid off along with others, put that information in perspective by mentioning the percentage of people in your department that shared your fate.

If your boss pushed you out, emphasize positive aspects of the role, relationship or experience. Learning from one's losses is Job One in all competitive sports. So, turn lemons into lemonade by explaining what you learned from a job or relationship that went sour.

Sticking to an upbeat message when discussing a job loss also helps prevent a common, deadly faux pas - bad-mouthing a previous employer or supervisor. "If people think you are carrying positive energy from your past situations rather than negative energy, I think you will be better off," says Oliver.

Why don't you have a CFA?

Oliver advised job-seekers in investment research and portfolio management who stopped after CFA Level I to stress their desire to resume CFA studies once they overcome obstacles, such as a current employer's reluctance to provide extra time off for study.

Lack of a CFA charter topped her list of 10 "barriers" to entry for security analysts. She cited it ahead of other barriers such as lack of prior experience, and disappearing training programs.