Career Talk 07.12.17

‘What motivates you?’: How to answer personal interview questions

When it comes to interviews, sometimes the hardest questions to answer are the most personal ones. Follow these tips and we promise you’ll smash such questions without resorting to clichés.
Kim Connor Streich
Kim Connor Streich

When it comes to interviews, sometimes the hardest questions to answer are the most personal ones. You’re often torn between providing an answer that paints you in a good light – whether it’s true or not (‘Oh, my biggest flaw is that I’m a perfectionist’ – yeah right…) – or providing a truthful answer that actually may not be your best selling point.

It’s enough to break even the most seasoned interviewee out in a cold sweat. While it’s true that the more interviews you attend, the better you will get at answering these tricky questions, there are a few simple things to remember that will ensure you’re well prepared for what lies ahead.

Follow the below steps and we promise you’ll smash such complex interview questions without resorting to clichéd (and untrue) statements.

Assess what they’re really asking

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There is a balance to be struck when answering personal questions such as ‘What motivates you?’ or ‘What is your biggest flaw?’. All potential employers want to get to know you as an individual, but also need to know your professional characteristics. It’s an open question and there is no one-size-fits-all answer.

This means you need to assess not just what the interviewer is asking, but why they are asking it. When they ask, ‘What motivates you?’, what they really want to know is what drives you as an individual and how your motivators fit with their working environment and culture.

This question isn’t about your specific motivations for applying to the role in question, or what your broader career aspirations are. You can touch upon these things in your answer, but don’t go off track: this question is about your broader motivations in life.

The same can be said for most broader personal interview questions; word your answers to reveal a truth about yourself and allude to why this would make you a great fit. If you make it too obvious that you’re tailoring your answer for them, they won’t trust you.

Treat it like any other interview question

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Because of this, you need to be sure to approach such questions as you would any other interview question. Don’t be afraid to ask for 30 seconds to consider your answer and use this time to analyse yourself and pick a strong, honest motivator for yourself.

Be truthful: Is it other people who motivate you, or other objective factors, such as hard facts? Neither of these answers are right or wrong, so don’t be tempted to supply what you think is the ‘correct’ answer.

Both of the above choices are equally valid and highlight the difference between someone who is more driven by workplace relationships or set targets. Keep the recruiters and company in mind when choosing your answer; be truthful, but consider what the job role entails and what the recruiters are looking for.

Be self-reflective

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Use the 30 seconds or so to be truly self-reflective. Here are three things you can think about when searching for the perfect answer:

  • At an academic level, what interests you the most? What is it about your course and and subjects that you find most appealing?
  • At a professional level, what drives you the most? From previous work experience roles or placements, what pushed you to succeed?
  • At a personal level, what do you enjoy doing? What extracurricular activities do you enjoy partaking in and are you most happy to give up your free time to pursue?

Once you’ve identified what motivates you, remember: the devil is in the details…

Expand upon your answer

Just as you would with other interview questions,   expand on your answer to explain why you are motivated by this and provide a real-life example.

A personal angle could be how, as a team player, your role in a sporting team motivates you to play better each time.  A professional angle could be how, as someone driven by objective information, you used weekly or monthly reporting metrics in previous work experience to improve processes.  An academic angle could be how you enjoy being in the limelight, so you organised a lecture on a specific topic for the class.

Tailor your answer to your own experiences and motivators, and provide a personal, academic or professional story to expand upon your answer.

So there’s no need to resort to tired, impersonal examples. Do some soul-searching, refine your answer and you’ll sail through personal interview questions no problem.

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