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No one likes to answer the cliched HR interview questions. Here's how finance professionals can turn these stupid questions around to their advantage.

Clever answers to stupid interview questions

Imagine that you’ve sailed through an interview by proving your technical proficiency, you’ve effectively answered how you can make an individual contribution while also proving your value as a team player and – if it’s a client-facing role – have demonstrated your revenue-generating prowess.

Suddenly, the interviewer gives you a knowing look: “What would you say are your three key strengths? And what are your three weaknesses?”. Do you mumble some fluff about being ‘too committed’ or ‘perhaps a little too detail-oriented’? Or do you highlight some minor flaws that won’t count against you in the long run.

Here’s the thing – these HR-style interview questions are clichés, even the people asking the questions acknowledge this. And yet there's a clear purpose to them.

“You really want to find out what makes someone tick, and see how they handle a question that they shouldn’t have prepared for,” says Andrew Pullman, a former head of HR at Dresdner Bank and managing director of careers consultants People Risk Solutions. “You're trying to see the person, not the profile.”

This doesn’t make the whole process of answering vague, self-reflective questions any easier. Here are some expert tips on answering these questions in an investment banking interview.

1. “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

In the tumultuous world of investment banking, within five years you could find yourself without a job and replaced by a robot, desperately trying to prove your worth in yet another job interview. This is probably not the best response. What the interviewer is trying to draw out is not your clairvoyance abilities, but simply whether you are a) serious about your career and have a long-term view or b) your ambitions fit within the scope of their plans.

“The response should focus on roles and responsibilities as well as personal and professional growth,” says Roy Cohen, career coach and author,of The Wall Street Professional's Survival Guide. “It should show that you are realistic about the unpredictability of the future but that you also hope to remain with the company and see it as a great platform: 'There a couple of options that excite me as I look out over the longer term – A, B or C'.  Offer to explain each and how the company would be an ideal environment to pursue these options.”

2. “How would you describe yourself in three words?”

“Driven”, “team-player”, “results-oriented”, “innovative”, “problem-solver”. If you were considering any of these, congratulations - you’ve fallen into cliché.

“What you want is the truth, backed up by tangible examples. Anyone with experience of interviewing will ask two or three follow-up questions,” says Pullman. “Think of something edgy – maybe something about how you push yourself and the people around you beyond what’s expected. Saying you’re detail-oriented is also good, but follow it up with specific examples.”

3. “Tell me about yourself”

This is often coupled with the ‘walk me through your resume’ question, not in a bid to get a dry break-down of your career history, but to demonstrate your achievements.

“You use this question to focus on accomplishments and subject matter expertise,” says Cohen. “Don't waste your interviewer's time explaining your resume and history in detail. Most of them have a short attention span and will tune you out early on - especially if you start at the very beginning and tell a long winding narrative. With a longer career, it is best always to start in the middle or at a significant turning point.”

4. “If you could design your ideal job, what would it be?”

This is usually thrown in towards the end of the interview process in an attempt to weed out candidates who could be parking in a particular role for a while until something better comes along, or who exceed (or lack) the ambition to fulfil the future scope of the job.

“What we want to elicit is an idea of their expectations and ensure that their aims are not out of sync with what we’re offering,” says Pullman. “If they have ambitions to, say, manage a team of 30 people and this job is never going to offer this, there’s a problem. Essentially, it’s an informal discussion of someone’s career plans and how the company can help.”

So, in some ways it’s a mutual exchange, but the easiest way to avoid falling down here is simply to thoroughly research the job before you start, and ask some questions about career progression and individual responsibility throughout the interview process.

5. “How many people fit into a London tube train?” or “How many bricks are there in the Empire State Building?”

Google has phased brain-teasers out of its interview process, but Pullman insists that investment banks (and other senior firms) have still been throwing these questions at graduates wanting to get into their analyst programmes this year. What seems like a test of your mental arithmetic and ability to think on your feet can actually be prepared for, says Cohen.

“They are also asked to separate those who get flustered easily from those who will land on their feet. Investment banking is really all about survival of the fittest,” he says.

“The goal is to demonstrate your thought process, your ability to deconstruct with limited data points, your logic, and how you arrived at your conclusion. You can actually prepare for these sorts of questions in advance by practicing a few and knowing that it is never the solution that is needed but the thought process,” he says.

6. “If I went out for a meal with your co-workers, how would they talk about you?”

No, this is not the opportunity to use the term team-player, nor should you focus on softer qualities related to your fundamental likability. Essentially, they’re asking you to talk specifically about your abilities, but using a third-person response provides a veil of modesty.

“Focus on qualities and qualifications which are relevant and that will convey your potential to be indispensable,” says Cohen. “And what you say should also reflect the level of the position you are interviewing for. For example, the ability to establish and sustain longstanding productive relationships is far more important for a senior seasoned banker than for a junior associate where sheer energy and collaboration are key. When you do offer up these examples, provide back up to illustrate why. Without context they are meaningless.”

7. “Why did you leave your current employer?”

Lay-offs have always been part and parcel of investment banking, but this question is designed to give you an opportunity to show you can exit gracefully.

“A multi-reason explanation is always best. If one idea doesn't resonate, it is likely another will,” says Cohen. “For example: ‘We've had a number of lay-offs and I'm concerned about my job; I also have a long commute and it would be great to devote that time on the road to work, it feels wasted now; I'm also eager to take on expanded responsibilities and that's not likely to happen in light of our current situation and the cost and headcount cutting mood of the company.’”

8. “You are stranded on a desert island and can only take three items with you, what would they be?”

The correct answer is not “an unlimited supply of Hot Doritos, my wife and some playing cards”. The answer to this question is actually unimportant – the whole point is to gain some insight into your personality – but always bear in mind what the interviewer is trying to achieve.

“There are three goals, all intended to size up a prospective candidate: that you are smart, that you have good judgment, and that you will be able to contribute both immediately (a priority) and longer term (important but not critical),” says Cohen.


Image: Getty Images

AUTHORPaul Clarke
  • sr
    2 June 2016

    A cell phone, laptop and the contents my inbox. If allowed a fourth, your dry cleaning which I just picked up.

  • Sg
    25 May 2016

    Question 9 is brilliantly poor; if I'm stranded on a desert island, I can't take anything with me - I'm already there…

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