“Matt: I’ve got an interview coming up and want to make sure I’m prepared for every possible question the hiring manager could possibly throw at me.  Can we spend some time and work on this together?”

I get approached with this kind of request fairly frequently, and while it’s a great thought, I usually tell my clients that what they’re attempting to do borders on the impossible — and would break the bank, in terms of the funds they’d need to invest with me (or any other coach) to pull this off!

Given the enormous range of methods that companies use to interview, there’s just no way to predict what array of questions a given manager is going to throw at you to evaluate whether you’re the right person for the job.   Interviewing is still far more of an art than a science.  This point was validated in a fairly interesting way during a recent episode of one of my favorite shows on the Bravo channel — Top Chef Masters.  In this show, three of the country’s greatest chefs were doing a competitive cook-off for charity and were asked to quickly interview and select three assistant chefs from a group of about 12 candidates.  Surprisingly, each and every one of these culinary superstars took a radically different approach to solving this puzzle.  One master chef asked the applicants to describe the foods they most liked to eat.  Another asked each candidate if they’d ever cooked his particular style of cuisine before.  And the third, Michael Chiarello, gave them a performance test, asking each one to brunoise (cut in a fancy French way) a carrot while he watched.  Several of the applicants, all experienced chefs in their own right, were insulted by this, but it was Michael’s reputation on the line and that was the technique he used to determine who to add to his team.

So the point is, you never quite know what methods a company or particular manager is going to use to evaluate your worthiness for a job — or what questions they’re going to ask you.  Any thought that one can be “perfectly prepared” for every interview, therefore, just isn’t realistic. This being said, there are a half-dozen questions that are so incredibly common that job seekers should always be prepared to address them:

— Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
— Why are you interested in this job?
— Why are you interested in our company?
— What is your greatest weakness?
— What are your greatest strengths?
— How much money are you looking for?

Beyond these old standbys, there are 10-20 other fairly common ones that come up like “Tell me about a time your work was criticized” or “Tell me what your previous supervisors would say about you.”  Beyond that, though, there a near-infinite number of behavioral interviewing questions you might get asked where employers will ask you how you’d react in a certain situation or to share an example of a time you displayed a certain skill, strength, or personality trait.  And if you’re applying to a company like Microsoft, you might even get hit with some stress interview questions like “How would you move Mt. Fuji?” or “Why is a manhole cover round?”

Given this array of possibilities, I’m just not a big fan of job hunters poring through the dozens of interview preparation books out there of the “100 interview questions and how to ace them” variety, since I don’t believe such rote memorization of questions and answers is a very effective way to improve your odds in a hiring scenario.  Instead, after developing some decent responses to the six most common questions above, and anticipating a few additional ones based on the job advertisement itself, I’d suggest people focus on mastering a few high-level rules of thumb that will help them answer any question more effectively in an interview situation.  Here’s what comes to mind:

1. First, make sure you fully understand the question being asked; always reserve the right to ask a clarifying question back if you’re not 100% sure what the employer is actually asking — just don’t do this every time or it will appear to be a stall tactic!

2. Don’t ramble or go off on tangents; when responding to questions, keep your answers to 1-2 minutes and never lose sight of the initial question that was asked, as you respond, or there’s the potential you’ll start drifting off on a tangent — which interviewers hate.

3. Tell a good story; resist the urge to answer questions in vague terms or high-level resume-speak; instead, pepper your answers with specific facts, names, examples, and details that will keep the listener interested and make your answers stand out from those of your competition.

4. Don’t bluff; if you really get stumped by a question, it’s better to say “Give me a moment to think about that” or “Boy, I’ll confess, I’m really drawing a blank on that one — can we come back to it later?” rather than give a weak, rambling, or factually-incorrect answer; in some cases, too, you could say “While I don’t have that answer right at my fingertips, I’d be happy to walk you through my thought process and explain how I’d come up with the best answer to that question — would that be appropriate?”  And if you really bomb a question, you can (and probably should) follow up after the interview with a letter or e-mail indicating you weren’t satisfied with your own answer to one of the questions asked — and wanted to provide a more thoughtful response in writing, now that you’ve had the chance to think about things further.

5. Spot-check your effectiveness; if you feel that you stumbled on a question, or are getting very little feedback from the interviewer on your performance, you can periodically ask “Did that answer your question?” or “Is that the kind of example you were looking for?” to make sure you’re on the right track.

Ultimately, my belief is that there’s more ground to be gained by job seekers learning the ropes of how to answer any question more effectively, as opposed to saddling themselves with the anxiety of trying to anticipate each and every possible question that a given interviewer could ask.  It’s a little different twist on things, I realize, and takes practice, but once you get the hang of it you’ll be pretty much ready for anything someone might throw at you!