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Ignore Characteristics and Focus on Activities

The Problem

“Tell me three good and three bad characteristics you have”.

This, or any of its variations, is probably the most well-known and ‘prepared for’ question that pops up in interviews.

What most people do is search for lists of characteristics online and try to whittle down which positive ones sound good and which negative ones can also be twisted into something good, which they then memorize for the interview.

Now pay attention here because this is very important:

Nobody cares about the characteristics!

Professional recruiters will not just be paying attention to whichever traits you list, but how you list them.

Recruiters, negotiators, salesmen... they all know never to base their conclusions solely on how others describe themselves or what they say. Their job is to gain insight about the other side by being as objective as possible. This means that what the other side says is only one element out of many.

Recruiters don’t know you personally, so when they ask for a good trait and you describe yourself as “A perfectionist / kind / smart”, they will instantly dismiss it because they have no other substance to work with.

Three things happen when you reply like this:

  1. The recruiter dismisses your answer.

  2. You lose credibility.

  3. Most importantly, you lose a great opportunity to demonstrate your worth.

Before I talk about the solution, it’s very important to take a step back and look at this whole process from a zoomed-out point of view to understand how we can increase our chances of success.

All the interviewer is trying to do is get information about you, and to see if that information fits his/her mental model of the ideal candidate, and the only tool they have to do this is their questions.

Why is this important?

Because as the person being interviewed, don’t just answer the question - notice the question behind the question and try to answer that too.

The easier you can make this process for them, and more specifically, the closer you can portray yourself to their mental model, the better off you will be.

This brings me back to the classic - “Tell me something good and something bad about yourself.”

Simply listing traits adds nothing to their mental model of you.

The solution

Instead of listing traits, describe your actions, and let them demonstrate your characteristics.

Describe actions you’ve taken to accomplish different goals, and give relevant examples that emphasize the characteristics you want to highlight.

Even if it may sound counter-intuitive and that you may be ignoring the interviewer’s question, you’re actually doing them a huge favour.

Remember that all they are doing is trying to get a better picture of you and they need substance for that.

Describing your actions allows the recruiter to filter out your characteristics naturally and also gives them proof of the validity of those traits.

Examples - Bad to Great

Let’s see some examples:

Question 1: How would you go about dividing tasks across your team?

Bad answer:

“I take all the tasks for my team and define for each member what it is he/she should focus on throughout the day/week.”

Great answer:

“Dividing tasks across a team is a complex managerial process that requires knowledge and understanding of three key factors.

First, complexity of the task.

Second, prioritization of the tasks.

Third, the context in which the tasks should be performed and the resources I have available.

The first factor is understanding the complexity of the task. If it is easily completed and clearly defined or conversely complex and amorphic which will require additional resources to clarify and understand fully.

The second factor, prioritization, will define the order of importance of completing the task. If the task is important and urgent it will receive a higher priority as opposed to a task that is important but not urgent, which will be completed at a later date. Additionally, the prioritization of the tasks will be carried out in accordance with the team and organizational objectives.

As mentioned previously, the third factor is the context in which the tasks should be performed and the resources I have available. This refers to my team’s ability to perform the task given its demanded knowledge, skills and technological requirements, and of course the amount of time required to complete the task.”

The above answer would be considered complete with the addition of a personal example of yours demonstrating the ability to divide tasks across your team with references to the three factors mentioned.

Question 2: How do you use data analysis to improve working processes and results?

Bad answer:

I see myself as a data analyst and therefore I’d use data analysis techniques to get the required results.

(You’ll be surprised how many times I hear this.)

Great answer:

“I use data analysis to improve working processes and results in the following steps:

Step 1: I define the research question and the problem that I need to solve.

Step 2: I analyze which analytic tools are available to me to solve the problem and improve processes.

Step 3: I analyze the relevant data and am assisted by more expert colleagues if required.

Defining the research question and the problem lies in understanding the processes that need to be improved.

In order to do this, I formulate a series of questions related to the processes that I need to investigate and improve.

The questions will allow me to understand the framework that I will need to analyze down the road.

I then move on to the second stage of defining analytical tools that I have.

Whether it’s BI systems, SQL or something else, I’ll pair the relevant tool to the database that I need to analyze.

In the third stage, I begin analyzing the data.

I manipulate the data and reach the results that answer the questions I defined at the beginning of the process.

If I find important data or new information that sheds light on the questions in a way that I didn't originally think of, I’ll update the analysis process accordingly.”

Like last time, the answer would be considered complete with a personal example demonstrating the steps mentioned.


By default, whenever you’re inclined to say something about yourself, think which actions portray that behavior and describe those actions instead.

Give the other side enough information to arrive at their own valid conclusions.

The easier you make their life - the better off you will be!

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