Further Questions: How should interviewees answer tricky questions?

This week we asked people who hire librarians

How should interviewees answer tricky questions, such as “what is your dream job?” or other similar questions about weaknesses, strengths, ambitions, etc.? If you can talk a little about preparation for these sort of questions too, that would be helpful.

Laurie Phillips

Ugh. I just never ask those questions because I don’t think they’re helpful. I think if someone asks you for strengths and weaknesses, try to phrase the weaknesses part as something you’re really aware of and working on, or even twist it around to show it as a potential strength (they deserve that for asking unhelpful questions). Interviewers should be asking experiential questions. As for the “dream job” question, what I want to know from you is – do you really want this job? – not a job. Is this a job that you will enjoy and thrive in? Is they’re asking about your dream job, they’re trying to get at that in a roundabout way and there are better ways to ask it. I usually ask “Why is this job a great fit for you and how are you a great fit for this job?” Your dream job may be an outgrowth of this job. Saying you see the job at hand as a stepping stone may be seen as a positive or a negative. Yeah, I would want you to grow in the job but not to the extent that you are always looking to move on. All potential mine fields for a candidate.
– Laurie Phillips, Associate Dean for Technical Services, J. Edgar & Louise S. Monroe Library, Loyola University New Orleans

These types of questions are things you should be thinking about before an interview. Be yourself and be honest, but think of ways to state your answer that will put you in the best light. For example, if your dream job is to be the director of a library and you are applying for a department head position, you can frame your answer in this way, ”In 10 years I would love to be a library director, which is one of the reasons this position as department head at your library is so exciting. I will learn valuable management skills under the guidance of an experienced library director.”

– Julie Leuzinger, Department Head, Library Learning Services, University of North Texas Libraries

Marleah AugustineI think the best way to answer these questions is to simply be truthful. It’s important to brainstorm and think about these things prior to the interview and, for instance, decide what your dream job really would be like — bonus if you can tailor it to the position for which you are applying. If you’ve taken the time to think about strengths, weaknesses, ambitions, etc, then you’re going to be able to answer those tricky questions honestly and immediately if and when they come up in an interview. Sometimes there is a lot of focus on answering interview questions “correctly” — but really the correct answer is the one that is most true about you. When you interview for a job, you’re also interviewing the organization to see if it’s a good fit for you. Candidates shouldn’t answer questions a certain way because they think it’s right, get hired, and then show a different attitude when they start the position.

– Marleah Augustine, Adult Department Librarian at Hays Public Library

Marge Loch WoutersI always look for a simple answer that accentuates the candidate’s underlying passions. A dream job can encompass the way you hope to serve : whether directly with your community doing outreach; creating strong partnerships; helping create successful visions for the library in the community or the way you hope to work: with a team of colleagues to bounce ideas off of; for a strong director/board; in a library that fosters strong community connections etc. Shifting the focus from dream job to dream aspiration helps to keep the focus on your strengths rather than getting lost in the weeds of expressing inappropriate or non-related-to-the-job pipedreams (“I see myself as a library director, a consultant, a megalomaniac, etc and/or retired at 40”).


In terms of your weaknesses, look at a strength you have and see what parts of it might be perceived as a weakness and address it as such.  So if you feel you are an extremely hard worker (and justifiably proud of it), you can say you tend to work hard but know that can sometimes be off-putting for teammates. Or you are very honest and that can lead to more effort on your part to be tactful so feelings aren’t hurt.  You never want to put yourself in a position of having a weakness that will weaken your chances at a successful fit for the job. A “good” weakness is one your employer would like to see rather than a negative about yourself. NEVER say you have no weaknesses or always make good choices. The hiring manager will instantly know you for a liar ;->

– Marge Loch-Wouters, Youth Services Coordinator, La Crosse (WI) Public Library

Celia RabinowitzI would like to say that I wish search committees would not ask questions like the one posed in the question.  Librarians applying for entry-level positions need A job.  We all know that.  And many won’t know what their dream job looks like until they have worked a while (and sometimes the dream changes over time).  That said, I recommend thinking about what aspects of library work are most compelling to you.  If you really like working with people talk about a job that allows you to have contact with the users of the library, and that could  mean something in circulation or access services, or something that includes teaching, research support, or technology.  If you really like working with objects or data describe how.  That helps you avoid saying you want to be a certain type of librarian or that your dream job is the one you are interviewing for.

I like to ask a question which asks candidates to describe something they tried that failed or didn’t work out as expected and how they reacted or changed as a result.  This seems a better question than the traditional strengths or weaknesses.  But to prepare, be honest.  Really, really try to go beyond saying you are organized, detail-oriented, good with people.  Do you think you are patient, persistent, have experience with specific groups of people or types of resources?  Does the job require work with something you are less familiar with?  Don’t be afraid to say so. Tell us you feel confident you can learn.

Be yourself – acknowledge that you have ambitions (I think I’d like to be a library director some day – why not?!), be able to say what you are good at, and tell us that you know you still have things to learn.  We all do.

– Celia Rabinowitz,  Dean of Mason Library at Keene State College in Keene, NH

Ah, tricky questions! As always, I think being honest is important. When you are asked about your weaknesses, acknowledge them and then talk about how you’re working to overcome them or improve upon skills you lack. When you talk about strengths, frame them in terms of how they would be useful for the job you’re interviewing for. And avoid the humblebrag. It’s tricky to walk the line between acknowledging where you’re awesome and sounding like an egomaniac, but try. One of the worst interviewees I ever had flubbed this one by talking about her strengths and how she was able to use her amazing skills to overcome all the problems caused by the idiots she worked with. Don’t do that. Talk about what you’d like to do, where you would like to take this job and how it fits into your professional plan (if you have one). It’s okay to acknowledge that you’d like to move up one day, but try to do it in terms of how your ambition can help the organization.  As an interviewee, I always went over the job description backwards and forwards and used it to frame my answers.

– Margaret M. Neill, Regional Library Branch Manager, Main Library, El Paso Public Library

Thank you as always to our contributors for their time and insight.  If you’re someone who hires librarians and are interested in participating in this feature, please email us at hiringlibrariansquestionsATgmail.com.

Thank YOU for reading!  If you liked reading, you’re going to really love COMMENTING.


Filed under Further Questions

3 responses to “Further Questions: How should interviewees answer tricky questions?

  1. Sometimes I want to just roll my eyes at some of the questions.


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