The 4-point framework for answering job interview questions

By Scot Herrick | Job Search

Mar 23

When the hiring manager has to interrupt you answering an interview question in order to ask you another question, you’ve pretty much lost the job.

That’s happened in literally all of the interviews I’m participating in for the day job. It drives me (and the hiring manager) crazy. It’s like the person interviewed has no idea what they did, how they did it, or what the results were.

Clearly, there is no framework for answering interview questions — and it’s desperately needed so the person interviewing and the hiring manager can have a meaningful time together to see if there is a fit for the job.

Because the interviewee didn’t follow a framework for answering interview questions, here is what I’ve been hearing from my latest interviews I’ve participated in:

  • Few interviewees are even answering the question
  • All are droning on and on and on and on about stuff that isn’t answering the question. And on and on and on….
  • Even after clarifying what is being asked for, the question is still not answered. And the non-answer answer goes on and on and on and on
  • As a result, no one has been made an offer. No one has even come close to showing they can do the job.

Clearly, people who interview for jobs need some sort of framework to answer interview questions. This is the framework.

There is a specific process you should follow to answer job interview questions. It’s worth spelling out:

  1. Clarify the question if needed
  2. Provide Context about the work you are being asked about
  3. Provide your Actions you took around that work
  4. Provide your Results because of your work

If you follow the capitals in 2-4, you’ll see it has the acronym of CAR.

Follow the link to learn more about the CAR approach (others use STAR — but I can never remember more than three letters…).

Let’s take a closer look.

Your resume says you can do the work. The job interview is what is done to prove you can.

All your resume does is get you the opportunity to interview for the job. No small thing. But that’s all it does. The resume won’t do the interview for you.

Instead, the interview is about three things:

  1. Proving you can do the work
  2. Showing your motivation for doing the work
  3. Determining if you will fit in with the team

If you fail to show those three critical pieces during the interview, you won’t get the offer. Not getting the offer can be a very good thing, especially if the cultural fit doesn’t work, but the truth of the matter is most candidates never get to the point of having a discussion about the culture and fitting into the team. Because they fail to prove they can do the work.

Now this can sound all “blame the job candidate,” but most of the time, hiring managers want to hire someone. It’s hard to justify positions, it’s done when everyone else is overloaded with work, and getting an addition to the team would be an incredible help.

Of course, there are plenty of ill-prepared managers who do interviews, but even the ill-prepared ones usually want to hire someone. Why else go through the hassle?

Let’s check out the framework.

Clarify the question if needed

Let’s hope this is self-evident. If you don’t understand the question, clarify what is being asked. Sometimes the clarity needs to be about scale, or approach, or results, or your actions.

So clarify before you answer the question, if needed.

Provide Context about the work you are being asked about

Context — scale of the work, circumstances around the work, the difficulties around the work — is a good thing. It helps you and the hiring manager to compare and contrast the work being done for the interview question with the work that needs doing on the job.

The context provided is about 30-seconds long and no more than a modest sized paragraph in length.

Did you catch that? 30-seconds, one paragraph.

In my interviews, context turns into Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in both length (404 pages!) and relevancy.

The hiring manager wants to know the context of the work because then, when you talk about your Actions and Results, there is a logical flow relating back to the context you provided.

Plus, the context provides the hiring manager a path to follow. The managers you were working for had this issue and they wanted to fix it. You fixed it which helps the hiring manager achieve business results.

Provide your actions taken for the work

We we we we we we we we we we we we we we they they they they they they they they we we we we. Words to avoid. The hiring manager doesn’t care about the we or the they — it’s all about you and what you did as actions for the work.

This is where you prove YOU can do the work. You can take actions to solve problems or accomplish goals. A good hiring manager will hear the we we we and they they they stuff and conclude you did none of the work at worst and had to be led by the hand to do each thing you did at best.

It’s okay to talk about the team. But you immediately go to what your actions were to get the work done. “Two of us did the analysis. My coworker covered the data migrations and I covered all of the people and logistics. Here’s how I covered my part.”

See how quickly that shows multiple people doing the work, but clearly showing your accountable part? That’s what you want. That’s what the hiring manager wants to hear. What you did.

Harsh. But more than one candidate was eliminated on this basis alone — no one could tell what the person actually did for the work.

Tell your results

Having your results in your resume is awesome, of course.

Hardly anyone even brings this up in an interview — and it’s a tragedy. In the Hero’s Journey, the world changes, you overcome great obstacles, do great work and you did all of this to get to……..what? Why did you go through all this effort? Why did you overcome all those obstacles?

Even if you think it is obvious, you need to say what the results were from your work. It may not be earth-shattering business results. But it is meaningful based on the work you did.

The underlying root cause?

We don’t create stories around the work we did before going into an interview.

And we don’t practice those stories before going into the interview.

And it shows by costing you the job offer.

Once you have updated your resume, create an outline for each of your major accomplishments in each of your positions — outline the story you would want to tell a hiring manager about your work. Get it down on (electronic) paper.

Then, when you start interviewing as part of your job search, practice the story in your outline. Tell the context. Describe your actions. Show how what you did made a difference. Make the story two to three minutes long from beginning to end. And when you are done, stop.

If you follow this framework — and create and practice your stories about your work — you’ll end up not having a job interview.

You’ll end up having a conversation.

That’s where Cubicle Warriors want to be: having a conversation with the hiring manager about how you can help that manager achieve business goals. It’s so rare that hiring managers can have that conversation. You want to be there.