Interview basics: How to answer 10 common recruiter questions

Recruiters for global development organizations have specific questions that you should be able to easily answer in order to get that job. Here's a guide on how you can ace that interview.

Getting ready for an international development job interview? Although it is impossible to know exactly which topics will come up during the conversation, thinking about answers to some common questions ahead of time will help you be prepared and do well during the interview.

We asked several recruiters and career experts about the best ways to answer frequently asked questions in a humanitarian or development aid job interview. Here’s their advice.

1) Tell me a little bit about yourself.

This is a common opening question in a wide range of career fields, including international development.

“This is a great opportunity for a job seeker to highlight their strengths and what they would bring to the organization,” said Shana Montesol Johnson, a certified career and executive coach based in the Philippines who works with many aid workers around the globe. Before the interview, identify the top three to five things the hiring organization is looking for, and how your skills address each of these needs. Prepare anecdotes that illustrate how you’ve used each of these skills successfully in a field project or another situation.

Know your speaking points, and tailor them to the particular hiring organization and job. For example, you may want to say that you are a technical expert with a background in water and sanitation. How can you figure out what the organization is looking for? Read the job ad closely. If you’re still unsure, consider networking on the Devex website with aid workers who have worked (or are still working) for the organization you’re interested in, or contact the organization directly to speak with HR or other staff to get a sense of the organization’s goals and priorities.

2) Why are you interested in international development?

This is an opportunity to discuss your interest in building more prosperous societies or improving the health of people around the world. Many nonprofit organizations in particular place a premium on a job applicant’s passion for a cause. So, depending on the organization, you may want to describe your passion for a particular issue such as human rights, peace building or the environment. Mention any relevant work experience.

It’s generally best to leave out personal information unless it is somehow pertinent. For example, if you are interviewing for a job working with UNHCR, you may want to mention that your parents were refugees, which has given you a deep appreciation for the agency’s work.

3) Why do you want to work for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (or the World Bank, USAID, or another aid group)?

This question gives you the chance to show that you know what the NGO or donor agency does and demonstrate that you share its values. Donor agencies and nonprofits usually feature their mission statements on their websites, and contacts in your network might be able to tell you more about the organization’s principles and goals.

Before heading into the interview, know that the William J. Clinton Foundation’s mission, for instance, is to “alleviate poverty, improve global health, strengthen economies, and protect the environment, by fostering partnerships among governments, businesses, nongovernmental organizations, and private citizens — leveraging their expertise, resources, and passions — to turn good intentions into measurable results.”

The “Why do you want to work for us?” question also provides another opportunity for you to discuss how you can help the donor or advocacy group achieve its goals. Instead of talking about how you want to work for an organization to live closer to your family or because you’ve always wanted to work in New York City, mention any contributions you feel you can make though skills such as communications, research, management, fundraising, proposal writing and so forth.

4) Can you provide an example of a time when you solved a problem (or where you could not solve a problem and what you did about it)?

Many organizations use a behavioral interview approach. The requirements for jobs vary, so interview questions do as well. Save the Children, for instance, is interested in hearing examples of a job seeker’s accomplishments.

“Questions could be: What resulted from your actions? How did the organization benefit from your actions? Would you do anything differently and why?” said Regine Shiers, a former associate director with Save the Children in Westport, Connecticut. “Additionally, we would ask for descriptions of past experiences where it was difficult to achieve work objectives.”

Be as positive as possible about challenging experiences in past jobs or consulting gigs, and emphasize what you managed to achieve. You may also want to talk about what you learned from the experience and how it will help you in the new position.

5) Describe a time where you had to resolve a conflict.

The U.K.’s Department for International Development, United Nations Development Program and many other organizations in the international development field use competency- or behavior-based interview questions such as this one. When UNDP is assessing candidates against competencies, panel members consider the depth and complexity of examples.

“One candidate gave us an example of resolving a conflict between two interns; towards the end of their internship they all got along really well, and it was lovely,” said UNDP’s former recruitment chief, Michael Emery, now the head of human resources at UNFPA.

“The next candidate gave us an example of solving a very difficult local staff issue in a very complex conflict zone with 200 staff that was particularly volatile,” he continued. “It wasn’t a good result, but what they could explain in terms of process and how they had to negotiate certain positions demonstrated a much greater depth and complexity in terms of conflict resolution.”

6) What are your strengths and weaknesses?

The strengths you emphasize should demonstrate your value and showcase your talents to the interviewer. Ideally, they should be related to the job you’re trying to get. For instance, if you are applying for a position involving peacekeeping and prosperity, you may want to discuss your ability to unite the private and public sectors and how you have done this in past positions.

What about addressing your weaknesses?

“Be genuine about it, but follow up with how you’ve done something to try to improve,” said Debra Wheatman, a certified professional resume writer and certified professional career coach, as well as the owner of Careers Done Write, a New York-based company providing job counseling services. For example, you may want to say that your public speaking skills could be better, but that you joined Toastmasters International to hone your presentation abilities.

According to Johnson, lots of people try to game the question by sharing a weakness that is not really a weakness, such as saying they are a perfectionist.

“Recruiters hear that a lot,” she added. “It is better to share something that is actually a weakness, but not one that is a core competency for that job.”

For instance, if a job at a company requires multitasking and lots of organization, don’t say you are disorganized. And, as mentioned, be sure to share what you’ve been doing to address the weakness.

7) How would you deal with traveling to underdeveloped areas?

This question is especially likely to come up if you are applying for a job working in the field or an overseas consultancy. Be sure to describe past experiences living in developing countries, volunteering overseas or traveling to less developed areas on business.

If you’ve encountered challenges while living or working abroad, you may want to discuss how you handled them. For instance, you could describe the sense of accomplishment you felt when you completed a report and submitted it on time despite frequent power outages and an unreliable Internet connection

.

If you are applying for a consulting gig, availability is key — but so are other issues.

“Candidates will be asked if they are able to travel if that becomes a requirement,” Shiers said. “We would also like to know why they prefer consulting rather than a full-time position.”

Be upfront about your availability and willingness to travel. Networking is a key job function for individual consultants, and nothing can ruin a relationship with a potential employer or future partner like giving the impression that you are unreliable.

8) Describe a project where you did not succeed. What did you learn from it?

Expect this type of question, and think about it ahead of time.

“You want to show that you have the ability to reflect on the work that you’ve done and that you can learn from your failures and successes,” said Johnson. “You may want to share an example that is relevant to your field, but not so directly relevant that it would be replicated in the future job.”

Another approach to answering this question well is to choose an example that is more directly relevant but where you had an experience after the failure or difficulty in which you actually applied the lessons you learned and turned it around.

9) As a contractor, would you be willing to work late and on weekends?

Unless you don’t want the job, you should probably say that you are willing to work overtime if necessary. If you have worked late or on weekends to meet project deadlines in the past, you can mention that. You can also say that you generally feel the job can be done during regular hours, but that you don’t have a problem with putting in overtime if tight project deadlines require additional work.

Later on, you will want to make sure the organization compensates you fairly for the extra hours you’ll be putting in. However, it’s best to wait until there is an offer on the table before discussing money and benefits. At the stage where you are considering an offer, you may also want to find out if the overtime will be only during crunch times or if it will be consistent.

10) Do you have any questions for us?

You should always ask questions to demonstrate you are curious and have an interest in the organization. However, there are some caveats. Don’t ask any questions on salary or benefits, or anything that would assume you already have an offer.

According to Johnson, asking good questions during the interview is an opportunity for you to demonstrate the type of candidate you are rather than getting information. Obtain answers to your actual questions in another way, outside the interview.

“Use the opportunity to show that you have done your homework on the organization,” she advised.

For instance, if you are applying to work for an NGO in the area of education and you read on Devex News that the organization just signed an agreement with a foreign government, you could ask how you might be involved in that project.

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This article was last updated on 15 March 2018

About the author

  • Ingridphoto

    Ingrid Ahlgren

    Ingrid is a Devex correspondent based in New York City. She worked as a staff writer for Vault.com from 2007 to 2009, helping to write guidebooks, including the "Vault Guide to the Top Government and Nonprofit Employers." Before moving to New York, she was a researcher for National Geographic Traveler magazine in Washington, D.C. Ingrid holds a master's in journalism from the University of Missouri. As the daughter of a U.S. diplomat, she grew up all over the world.