Getting Hired: Answering Tough Interview Questions

This is the second post in the Getting Hired series. Read the first post "Tips for Interviewing."

Ready to ace your interview? How do you respond to some common 'thorny' questions?

Members of APA's Women and Planning Division hosted a panel discussion "Getting Hired: Hear from a Hiring Manager." The panelists offered their perspectives on preparing for, and acing interviews, including suggested responses that will help you put your best self forward. Panelists included:

  • Corrin Hoegen Wendell, AICP, community development director for the City of Little Canada, Minnesota
  • Breanne Rothstein, AICP, economic development, and housing director for the City of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota
  • Anna Laybourn, AICP, principal at Design Workshop
  • Aimee Duffy, director of human resources at Design Workshop and Principal.

Navigating Tough Interview Questions Effectively

Job tenure and gaps

Why are you leaving your current job?

Think carefully! You don't want to say something that can be perceived as negative about your former employer. Remove emotion from your response and frame your decision as a choice to move forward on your path to growth. Connect the motivation to change jobs to your goals for the new position as it aligns with your desired career. Think about how best to turn a challenge into an opportunity and tell your story from the perspective of where you are headed professionally.

How do you explain short tenures in several jobs?

Carefully consider what motivates you at work and the reasons you quickly moved on from previous positions. If you can convey the value of what you accomplished in those different positions, you can get ahead of a negative perception. The employer must believe that job-hopping isn't a sign of low motivation or the inability to get along with others.

How do you explain resume gaps?

If you get a call for an interview, the employer has noticed the gap on your resume and still decided that you are worth an interview. If you're asked about it, be honest and turn it into a positive. Use the opportunity to talk about how your experience during the gap contributed to your value as an employee and left you refreshed, focused, and ready to commit.


How do you answer questions about supervision if you've never had a supervisory position?

Be honest. Pivot to instances where you've taken a leadership role and offer examples of collaboration and teamwork. Talk about your ideas and how you would approach supervising others. Show your enthusiasm to take on a supervisory role and list qualities that ready you for the task of managing others. Mention relevant experiences, even if your role was outside of the typical workplace, like a camp counselor. Don't worry if you don't have directly applicable answers. Let your personality — and, perhaps, your sense of humor — shine through in your responses. Laughter eases nervousness and the hiring manager may see a touch of humility as necessary for the team.

Consider gaining leadership experience by volunteering with APA at the chapter level, in a division, or at the national level. Bonus: volunteering with APA is a great way to network!

Skills and experience

How do you position yourself on skills where you have no experience?

If you're asked a question about something that you have no prior experience, try starting your answer by saying, "While I don't have direct experience ..." Highlight transferable skills and experience, including those not related to planning like volunteering, participating in school teams, or customer service. Provide examples of successes, and above all, show that you are eager to learn and contribute. You can be a good fit, even if you don't have experience in a specific area.

Where is the middle ground between applying for a reach job and being realistic about your skills and experience?

Don't be afraid to go for something that is out of your comfort level — it's a way to grow professionally and achieve goals. One hurdle is countering the hiring manager's assumptions, but sometimes he or she doesn't have an exact list of qualifications and is waiting for the right person to apply. Many planning jobs have levels associated with the title that are expected to correlate to years on the job. What you may lack in experience or previous job titles you often can make up for with connections and professional references that help you get in the door.

Before you apply, look for contacts and set up an informational interview. Find out what is needed to be successful in the position, including the soft skills that will help you be more confident later. Your cover letter and interview are opportunities to sell your background, skills, and enthusiasm. When you face the hiring manager, ask questions about the skills expected and be prepared to offer examples of experiences and capabilities that demonstrate how you fit into the available position.

Salary Expectations

How do you answer questions about salary expectations?

In California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, Nevada, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington, employers are required to share pay ranges for positions. If you're applying for a job in one of those states, you can go into the interview prepared with that important information.

If you're asked about your salary history, redirect the conversation. Ask about the budget for the position or let them know that it's too early to talk about salary expectations before you fully understand the role.

Remember that salary is part of the full compensation package. There's a lot more that goes along with being an employee of an organization. For example, employers may offer insurance, bonuses, paid time off, stock options, and retirement benefits. In the public sector, you may not get bonuses but there are other benefits to consider, such as relative stability, not having to worry about billable hours, flexible schedules, and resources for professional development. You want a place that is going to position you well for the future, so look carefully at the total package.

Read more from the Getting Hired series on how to negotiate your compensation and salary benefits.

Top image: iStock/Getty Images Plus - Drazen Zigic

About the author
Bobbie Albrecht is APA's Career Services manager.

August 22, 2023

By Bobbie Albrecht