ESL speakers: Five killer job interview questions explained

Intelligent answers can lead to success. Here's how. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

WASHINGTON, September 11, 2013 – In American English, the word “killer” is occasionally used informally to describe something that’s either very difficult or quite wonderful. It depends on context. If you’re climbing a “killer mountain,” you’re attempting a task that’s difficult to complete. But if you’ve just downloaded a “killer app” to your iPhone, you’re now enjoying a product that’s a joy to use.

During your job interview, you may suddenly be asked one or more “killer questions.” How you answer them can quickly determine the likelihood that you will be hired. Well-informed answers can improve your prospects. But if you answer these questions poorly, you can soon expect to receive that dreaded form rejection letter in the mail.

Recently, we learned more about five common interview questions that are difficult to answer convincingly, even for native English speakers. They can be even worse for ESL job applicants. Not only do they test your language skills. They also make extreme demands on your knowledge of American business culture. 

One or more of these key questions, originally posed in an article by Martin Yate, are likely to turn up in your next job interview. They are discussed below for non-native speakers of English.

“Tell me a little about yourself”

If your interview opens with this question, your answer can set the tone for the rest of that interview. This isn’t really a friendly, open-ended question. It’s actually a challenge to see what you know, to explain what you’ve learned about the company ahead of time, and to demonstrate your self-confidence.

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Take control over what you choose to reveal by having an answer to that question prepared in advance and tailored to address the needs of the company that’s conducting the interview. It’s also your opportunity to tell the interviewer something special about your professional background, a story that’s likely interesting than the standard material on your resume.

Main Guideline for Your Response: No more than ten percent of the information you give should be personal information, and none of it should be intimate in nature.

“What experience do you have in …?”

This question might be asked if the interviewer wants to know what you have learned or mastered outside of your stated area of expertise. But sometimes, it might be simple curiosity. 

SEE RELATED: English as a Second Language: Colloquial expressions can be killers

Main Guideline for Your Response: Be honest. But don’t just say, “I have no experience in that area” if that’s your situation. Make some kind of connection from your knowledge base to the topic of the question, or indicate your interest in learning more about the subject matter in question.

“What are your strengths?”

This can be a tough question if you grew up in a culture that values individual humility. Answering this question accurately, even in a straightforward manner, can feel uncomfortably like bragging. Done correctly, however, a good, honest, straightforward answer will make you look confident without seeming to be arrogant.

Main Guideline for Your Response: Don’t let how you feel about describing your strengths get in the way of facts that support your specific training and experience. Also, if you’re a good team player, be sure to mention it, particularly when interviewing with a company that’s known to place a high value on teamwork. It’s a valued skill, even if everyone doesn’t always demonstrate it on the job.

“What are your weaknesses?”

This question isn’t an invitation to denounce yourself. But no interviewer will really believe you if you insist “I’m a perfectionist” and “I tend to work too many hours.” Those answers have been overdone, so it’s best to say something different if you can.  

Main Guideline for Your Response: Find something original to say about your work that’s not morally wrong or socially unacceptable, and explain how you’re working to fix it or to improve.

“How much do you want?”

Interviewers use this question, referring to your salary needs or demands, as a reality check. Interviewers already know their company’s salary guidelines in advance and will know immediately if the number you name is within their company’s acceptable range.

If your answer is an extremely high or low figure when compared to a company’s usually secret salary target bands, you probably won’t get an offer. If it’s in between, you’re still at risk for unknowingly aiming at the low end and leaving money on the table. The bottom line is that most companies have a pay scale, meaning that they won’t pay above or below a certain amount for any specific position.

Main Guideline for Your Response: Never answer this question directly. Say that you’re interested in the higher end of the pay scale for the position. At some point they’ll need to tell you what the pay scale is, and you can negotiate from there.

For all predictable killer interview questions 

Follow these steps:

  • Prepare two truthful answers for every one of these questions ahead of time.
  • Don’t memorize them, but do rehearse them with a friend.
  • Use the answer that seems right for the company you will be interviewing with.
  • After concluding each interview, review the conversation and adjust or replace answers that don’t work for you for use in your next interview.
  • Rehearse your answers again, and apply for the next job. 


Fran Ponick, MA, is certified in P-ESL (Pronouncing English as a Second Language) and provides training in business presentations and interpersonal conversation skills for native and non-native speakers of English. Her company, Leadership English™, offers communications skills, training and coaching for non-native and native English speakers, as well as award-winning writing and editorial services for businesses large and small.

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Frances Ponick

Fran Ponick is a speaker, author, commentator, teacher, and coach. She has decades of experience in technical, business, marketing, and proposal writing and editing, and has won awards in journalism, formal poetry, and acting. She has also served as a consultant to DoD. Her book, Only Angels Can Wing It: How to Prepare a Eulogy Quickly and Present It Compassionately, is available from


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