Common Interview Questions and Answer Tips

 

Like I mentioned in my article, Reflections on Graduate Unemployment in Nigeria (BusinessDay, November 12, 2012), two of the greatest hurdles Nigerian youths face are gaining admission into university and securing decent job after graduation. With the proliferation of universities in every village today, the former is no longer a big problem as the latter. The latter challenge also comes in two folds – getting invite for job selection process and scaling the process. The scaling process in most cases also involves crossing two bridges – tests and interviews.

Personally, I prefer interview to test, despite the fact I am not the best of orators you can think of (not with my thick Kwara dialect reflecting in my spoken English. Lol). But truth is, interview is easier. It gives you more avenues to maneuver. Unlike test where you either get the answer correct or miss it, in interviews, you can give a good impression even when you don’t know the answer. I have flunked a couple of tests, but I can’t remember ever flunking any job interview.

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In this essay, I have compiled top interview questions Nigerian job recruiters ask, especially for entry level and non-managerial experienced positions. The answer tips are based on my personal experience, experience of masters in the trade, and formal and informal accounts of job interviewers I am privileged to have interacted with. I hope it will be helpful to readers.

1, Tell us about yourself: In many interviews, one-on-one or panel, this is the first question you will be asked. It can also come in different forms like, Can we meet you?, Can we know you?, Who is Mr. Your Name? Can you introduce yourself to us? etc. They all mean the same thing. The answer is simple – briefly summarize your CV. I said, summarize, not download your CV. Don’t be too detailed that the interviewers will be the one to stop you. Be brief, just 5 to 7 liners should do. Just state your name, your educational qualifications (you may start from your secondary education), your achievements (if any). Something like:

“My name is Tunji Oyewale, born some 30 years ago in Kwara state. I attended Offa Grammar School in Kwara state, where I finished in the year 2000 as second best student. I later proceeded to Obafemi Awolowo University, where I finished with second class upper degree in economics. At the university, I was the president of Economics Students Association. I also won a number of scholarship awards, including the Chevron University scholarship award. I did my youth service in Sokoto state between 2007 and 2008. I like writing articles and some of my articles have been published in National dailies including Guardian, Tribune and Punch. During my leisure period, I play football and table tennis.”

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The above is just a guide. Depending on other important things you have to say, you may add or take out some things. You may decide to start with your university education. You should also mention any relevant experience if you have. You may leave out your state of origin. You may also not mention that you write articles, if you think the types of articles you write do not have any bearing with the job or can even count against you (e.g strong religious and political writings). For example, I put on my CV that I write articles, and even list some of them on the face of my CV, but not the one in which I abused Jonathan or Bukola Saraki (lol. But seriously, Suraj the 9-5 professional accountant is different from Suraj the weekend/night political commentator, but both converge in Jarus the blogger). So you have to be circumspect.

But in any case, make your delivery chronological. Try to emphasize your achievements as you progress, e.g, I finished as best student, I won scholarship etc, but don’t come across as arrogant. Be subtle while mentioning them. Having one helps, but no need to fabricate if you don’t have. You should be able to say that within 2 to 3 minutes. When it is getting too long, it can become boring.

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2, What do you know about our company? : This is another question you cannot escape. It is usually the 2nd or 3rd, or, rarely, 1st, question. This should be the simplest, to me. I expect anyone going for interview with a company to have visited the company’s website, print some useful stuffs about the history, mission, products, management, etc of the company. You have to read them well, but don’t cram, else you may mix things up and make a fool of yourself in front of the interviewers, who, no doubt, know more about their company than you.

If you want to wow, go beyond the website information for latest news about the company. Imagine telling them what you read in the newspaper about that company that interview morning. Imagine pulling a masterstroke like this: “just this morning, I was reading in Guardian that your company is going to the capital market to raise additional funds. This is no doubt a welcome development and it falls in line with your company’s corporate goal of expanding to become the industry leader in the next three years…”. These are extra things you can use to dazzle your interviewers.

So, let’s use Oando as an example. Assuming, you are interviewing with Oando and you are being asked this question, having read their website, pieced together news about them and asking one or two questions from insiders in your research, I expect your answer to be like this:

“Oando is the leading integrated energy group in sub-saharan African, with operations across the entire value chain of energy sector – exploration, servicing, supply and trading, gas distribution, petroleum products marketing. It started with the acquisition by a group of then young Nigerian businessmen of the then government-owned Unipetrol in the year 2001, and later, acquiring the downstream business of Agip, to become the Oando of today. The company has undergone serious metamorphosis and now at the commanding height of the sector. It is no doubt a success story in indigenous participation in the sector. Just couple of weeks back, I read in BusinessDay that you acquired stake in a Canadian energy firm. Your recently concluded Rights Issue is also widely reported in the media as oversubscribed”

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I doubt there will be any interviewer that will not be impressed with the 8-liner above which you can say within 3 to 4 minutes. Once again, you don’t need to cram anything. Just read enough and be familiar with facts about the company you are interviewing with. Lest I forget, while answering the question of what do you know about us, try to highlight the positive news about the company. God help you if you are interviewing with Zenon and you remind them of Otedola/Faruk Lawan saga.

Still on this question, you may need to do some cramming on things like core values of the company. All these are available on any company’s website. You may inquire from insiders as well. I remember going for an interview with an oil company in the downstream sector and being asked the core value of that company. Thankfully, that was the last thing I checked on the company’s website via my BB few seconds before it got to my turn. I didn’t remember everything, but out of 5, I remembered 3 well and gave a faint recollection of the 4th one.

 

3, Why do you want to work for us? I remember being asked this question some 7 years ago by the then CEO of a top Nigerian financial institution, now member of President Jonathan’s Economic Management Team. Thankfully, I had asked someone that entered before me and he told me he was asked that question, so I quickly packaged three reasons. It was an investment banking outfit and my response was: 1, I had always wanted to become an investment banker and from close observation of this company as the industry leader in Nigeria, I believe it is the best platform to achieve my dream, while contributing to further success of the organization; 2, I had long watched this company, right from my secondary school days, and I believe in her dream, I believe in her future, and I want to be part of its success; 3, I have always valued integrity and from my knowledge of this organization, I know integrity is the watchword. This integrity-driven environment falls in line with my career goal, my ideal workplace.

I was asked same question in another interview, this time around with an oil marketing firm and my answer was: I have long watched this company from afar, and I am impressed with its giant strides. Here is a Nigerian company, managed by Nigerians, doing extremely well in a sector dominated by foreign operators. I will like to be part of this success story. So in essence, just look for the high points of the organization interviewing you and carve your answer around it.

4, Why should I hire you? : This is somehow related to the above. The answer to the above may also suffice, but in addition, you may add your strengths, your special skills. If I were to be on the hot seat, in addition to the above, I will add: I have been involved in a number of engagements in the past and I have never failed. From my primary school through university, through professional qualifying examinations, to the places I have worked in the past, I have been outstanding. I don’t believe your organization will be an exception. So if you hire me, I have no doubt that I will excel. Your organization cannot be an exception.

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5, What are your strengths? This may not be the success decider because truth is, everybody, including your competitors for the job, will always have something good to say about himself. So common answers to this include: I am a fast learner; I am a team player; I have always exceled in all I do; etc. I don’t know of any stunner of a response other than these common answers. This question can also come as: what are your selling points? Also, depending on how you are able to maneuver, answer to question 4 above can also be modified as answer to ‘what are your selling points?’ too. It can also come as, what are your competencies?

 

6, What are your weaknesses? I remember an interview I did with an investment institution in late 2006, my first interview experience, just few weeks after finishing university. I had read a lot about interviews (that was basically what I spent the most of my final year doing) and known that you don’t say you don’t have any weakness. My response to that question was:

“Hmmnnn, a couple of people have told me I can be impatient while working with a team, especially with slow members. When two, three people say something, they may not wrong. So I think this is a weakness I am working on. In actual fact, the desire to achieve a team goal drives my impatience as I hate failure. But I have come to realize individual differences, especially in pace, and I’m beginning to adjust.”

Need I say, I saw the panel interviewers nodding their head sub-consciously. The basic principle in answering this kind of question is, don’t say you don’t have weakness, tell your weakness and make it known you are working on it. Also, ensure it’s a weakness that is tolerable. God help you if you say your weakness is sleeping on duty.

 

You may also read this article on extensive hint on how to answer the strength and weakness questions.

 

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7, Why do you want to leave your current company? If you are moving from one organization to another, expect this question. Sometime early last year, I was interviewing with one company in the downstream sector. I was then working in another company, its biggest rival in the industry. I was asked this question: why do you want to leave ABC Plc for our company? The basic principle in answering this kind of question is knowing the strength of the one you’re interviewing with over the one you currently are. One was a Nigerian company, the other was a foreign multi-national. That was what drove my response:

“No doubt ABC Plc is a good organization with good management. I have been there for four years and I came of age there. However, I have always wanted to work in a multi-national organization, where I will have the opportunity to hone my skills at the global place. I believe your organization offers great platform to achieve that.” Note that I did not bad-mouth my then employer. That is in line with a golden principle of interview – never bad-mouth your employer.

Still on this question, if it was the other way round, i.e you currently work in a multi-national and you are interviewing with its Nigerian competitor, and same question is asked, just look at the strength of the Nigerian company. If I were in that seat, I would answer thus:

“I have watched your organization from distance, and from what I read in the media, your company has a good rating and is doing Nigeria proud in the sector dominated by foreign participants. I am a Nigerian, I believe in Nigeria. I believe in things Nigerian. I’m impressed in a Nigerian company doing this and I will like to deploy the experience I have gathered working in a multinational to the development of a Nigerian enterprise. I believe in the future of your organization, and as a Nigerian, I want to be counted as part of the success.”

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Same is applicable if you are moving from Diamond bank to Zenith Bank for instance. Just look for the advantage of one over the other and package it as reason you want to join them. God help you if you go say pay is your motivation, although we all know that that is the motivation for 70% of career movements, especially for non-managerial positions.

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8, What pay do you expect? Truth is, if you’re interviewing for entry level position, you have practically no say in the pay. Almost 100% of companies have their pay structure and know how much they will pay you already. If Zenith bank, for instance, pays entry level employees N3m per annum, you can’t get more than that, except you have relevant experience. So most times, at entry level positions, this question is inconsequential, but it may be your undoing. Imagine asking for N10m as entry level in GTB – it can annoy your interviewer and an otherwise inconsequential question can mar your chance.

 

Personally, I –and people I know that are top management staff in big organizations – always advise that you don’t say an amount. Respond with something like: “ABC Plc is a well-structured organization and I believe you will fairly place me where I fit within the structure (knowing full well that you’re entry level), with commensurate remuneration.”

But if pressed further, you can state a sum, preferably a range, which you must have researched. A good way to research is to ask people that work in the organization what entry level pay is or you put a thread in a forum like Nairaland, where you are guaranteed of good response. You may add 1 or 2m on top. For example, you know Ecobank pays N3m for entry level position, you may call 4m for them at the interview.

If however you have some special skills or qualifications, you can charge a premium for that. For example, you have CFA, very marketable qualification, you can be daring and request for pay that is more than what is ordinarily obtainable for that position. Or you are coming with Imperial or Harvard certificate. Experienced hires are also in good position to negotiate.

 

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9, Do you have any question for us? This is another area you can dazzle. Don’t ask the general question every Ade and Ada is expected to ask. Research well. Have your question at the back of your mind, although you can change it for a better one if in the course of the interview something more interesting comes to your mind. Interviewing with upstream oil companies, you can ask question around how they have been able to cope in the face of security challenges that threatened the sector; interviewing with a GTB, you can ask them how they manage to emerge even stronger in the face of the crisis that hit the sector few years back; interviewing with an Oando, you can psyche them up, asking how they did the wonder of being the most successful of all privatized government enterprises. Everybody likes to be praised, explore this psychology.

 

10, Confidence is the rule of the game: To me – and this view is shared by many top executives I have discussed this subject with – confidence is the most important thing in an interview. It is not easy, you will shake in the first few minutes, but once you get your rhythm, you can dazzle. At entry level, they don’t expect you to know so much other than some basic things. So your composure is key.

A number of things fire you up – having good credentials give you some confidence as does preparing well. I have always mentioned being versatile, knowing one or two things beyond your discipline, as helpful in interviews. Mr. Niyi Yusuf, Accenture Nigeria CEO, confirms that in the interview he granted this blog.

 

However, the low point of interview is that it can also be subjective sometimes. I have a friend, a very brilliant dude, that stood his ground on a question in an interview. He was marked as being arrogant, I later got to know. Meanwhile, another set of interviewers can give that a positive, interpreting it as knowing one’s onions, the type of person they need, not some sheepish employee. Similarly, I have another friend that was asked what her core competencies were and she told them she didn’t know the meaning of core competencies. Yet, she came first in that interview (I came second).

On a final note, the above are just guides, which I have put together based on personal experience, experience of friends and colleagues, formal and informal interactions with experienced interviewers and executives. They are templates. One is not meant to be mechanical, but there is no harm in sitting down in front of your mirror and rehearsing how to go about responding to such questions, or simulating with a friend or brother in the room. Yes, I did that. And it was helpful.

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