Top Answers To Tough Questions

Posted on: 14 August 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

John Lees offers essential answers and interview advice.

50connect asked John Lees for his essential advice on answering the interviewer's questions and making the right impression to clinch that job.

Opening & Closing

Top and tail the interview so you begin and leave on a strong impression.

Make sure that you have a very clear and positive opening to your interview.

Whatever you're talking about, ensure that you're audible and clear and sound confident.

End the interview on a very positive note, by using one or two questions that you've planned well in advance, about the organisation and about the future of the job.

A Portfolio Career

Particularly in the last quarter of a career it's becoming increasingly common for people to take advantage of more flexible working arrangements and maybe even have a portfolio career.

A portfolio career is often recommended for people in their 50s simply because it is easier in some ways to piece together income streams from different kinds of work than it is to compete for a single pressurised role.

The Questions

The big trend at the moment is competancy based interview questions. A typical structure would be, "Tell me about a time when you used this skill."

The good news is that there's a lot of preparation you can do for that. Work out in advance what the interviewer's checklist is likely to look like. Prepare good, short, upbeat examples of where you have used particular skills.

That's one thing to do particularly if you have a gap in your work history or haven't worked in a particular sector for some time.

This kind of question is going to come up so there's no point trying to duck it.

Your Message

Focus on what your most important message is.

It should be about understanding the needs of the employer and being able to communicate what you can do in the right language or terminology.

It shouldn't be about the fact that you went to school a long time ago or your qualifications are out of date, and it shouldn't be about the way things used to be done.

Think about the three messages that you want your interviewer to remember, when that person is driving home at the end of the day. You can't hope to get much more than 3 or 4 pieces of information across that will be remembered, so decide in advance what those three pieces of information are that you going to make absolutely clear that you get across.

Don't Mention Your Age

Feedback from a lot of recruiters says that the biggest mistake that workers over 50 make is drawing attention to their age. They apologise for it, make a joke of it and make an issue of it. It's best if you don't mention it at all because if you flag it up it's always going to be a negative.

Over 50s often talk themselves out of a job or draw attention unnecessarily to their age or other aspects of their CV which don't help. These might include lack of recent experience or lack of familiarity with the most up to date working methods.

Don't over emphasise the length of your work experience. Don't give lots of extended information about jobs that you did more than 15 years ago.


No matter what recent legislation has done, employers do have some reluctance to take on older workers. There are certainly prejudices. Understand that and make sure you minimise the impact of that prejudice as far as you can.

It's going to come up one way or another even if it's not voiced. Typical employer prejudices about workers over 50 are that they have lost motivation and direction, are looking for somewhere safe to park themselves for a couple of years, or just earning pin money or topping up their pension. If you work back from there you'll get a sense of what the positive things are that you should be putting on the table.

It's all about whether you will fit it so the interviewer will want to know can you do the job? Can you fit into the organisation? What motivates you to work? How energised are you? Those are all things you can deal with very positively without mentioning the word age at all.

Show What You Can Do

Anticipate what the employer's real concerns are about age and workers over 50, and give plenty of positive evidence that's on the other side of the scales.

A lot of evidence shows workers over 50 have a great deal to offer in terms of reliability and stickability in the job.

It's much better to put age aside and focus on what the job is about, what you have to offer and where your matching skills are.

Give evidence of why you're motivated to work and what kind of work excites you. Give strong clear answers about why you're looking for a job and what sort of work you want to do.


People worry about redundancy and it is something that needs to be taken seriously, but it's very easy to present a redundancy story as an end of career story. You've been with the same employer for a long time, you're inflexible, you didn't want to move on, you weren't prepared to make any change anyway and this has come along and done it for you.

So you should be careful about what messages you're giving away whenever you go into an interview.

Overcoming Nerves

Don't make the mistake of trying to use the interview room as a rehearsal. Many people have this idea of 'I'm going to go to interviews to get some practice', but it's best to do the preparation before and have practice interviews with someone who knows what they're doing.

The downside of going to interviews just for practice is that you also experience real rejection and a real knockback which can have a negative effect on what you're doing.

Changing Career

A lot of people change career. If you really want to make a career change you have to put energy and attention into doing it. Your plan needs to be realistic enough that you will be able to make this change within about 12 months, because if you only plan to work for another 10 years and it takes you 3 years to change career that's not a great strategy.

You have to have a fairly broad ranging and imaginative job search plan rather than just trying things out. It's vital to have a strong reason why you're interested and want to do it.

You need to be fully aware of what the employer is actually looking for which is far more relevant than your personal curiousity about doing something different.

Job Interviews - John LeesJob Interviews: Top Answers to Tough Questions, by John Lees and Matthew J Deluca, published by McGraw-Hill, costs £9.99 and is available at all good bookshops or online from Amazon for £8.49.

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