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Prepare for a great job interview

Dear Joan:

I recently went for an interview for a position as a Lab Technician and was asked "When have you been faced with a task which you thought you couldn't do?'' My reply was "When I thought I couldn't do gram staining" (Position was Microbiological testing).

Was this the best way to approach the question and what do you think their "hidden agenda" was?


There is only one agenda when it comes to job interviewing. That is: Is this person a fit for the job I have to fill?

To answer your question, put yourself in the other person's shoes and examine it from the interviewer's perspective. By asking this question they are no doubt trying to determine how you approach new or difficult tasks. For instance, did you reach out to others to learn it? Did you learn through trial and error? Did you have confidence—or were you cautious, or wait to be told how to do it?

The only way interviewers can determine how you will perform on the current job is by asking how you handled former jobs. That's why they ask behavioral, situation-related questions like this. For instance, in this particular job, you may be required to work independently, or to jump in without much training. As a result, they want to know how you faced similar circumstances.

So when you prepare for future interviews, be ready to tell some stories about each qualification they ask for in the posting. For instance, this position may have asked for "a self-starter." I recommend that you think of some CAR stories you can use in your resume and in interviews. CAR stories are mini-stories that contain the Challenge, the Approach, and the Results. Your answer may have sounded something like this: "When I was in my last job, I didn't think I could do gram staining, but it was important in my job (Challenge). There was no formal training for my job, so I had to get creative. So I asked my lab partner if he would show me, since he had been there for several years. He also directed me to some manuals and other self-study materials. I asked him to check my work and give me some pointers (Approach). He was happy to do it and I learned rather quickly. Within a few months, I was teaching another new employee how to do it (Results)."

An interview isn't a multiple-choice test, where you just answer the question with a short answer. It is an essay test, where you respond with examples, illustrate how you applied your skills to problems, and find ways to insert your story. That's why CAR stories are perfect. You can think about them in advance, rehearse them and be ready to drop them in whenever the question lends itself to the topic (and sometimes even when it doesn't!)

When developing your CAR stories, list each qualification at the top of a page. Then think back over all your positions, school experiences or volunteer work. Pull out examples that prove you can do all, or part, of the qualification. Work your examples down to a manageable size—roughly a paragraph. The interviewer can always ask for more details. If you use it for a bullet point on your resume, you may want to get it down to a sentence or two. The trick is to shrink it but not to squeeze all the juice out of it. So taking the above example, it might look like this on your resume:

After you have finished preparing a few CAR stories for each major job requirement, do some CAR stories on interpersonal skills. Interviewers don't just want to know if you meet the specs of the job on paper. They want to know how you work with others, how you communicate and all the other "softer" skills that make up a good employee.

So next time you come to an interview, you'll be ready with your own agenda: to sell yourself through examples and mini-stories that show you are the best candidate for the job.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, customized training (leadership skills, presentation skills, internal consulting skills & facilitation skills), team conflict resolution and retreat facilitation.

Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (800) 348-1944,, or

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