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What are three positive things your boss/colleagues would say about you?

The Real Question: What’s your track record, really? Are you self-aware? Are you going to sound like all the rest?

Bottom-line Tactic: Show, don’t tell.

For this question more than most, it’s important to deliver your answer in a natural and relaxed tone. That’s because a good interviewer will be on guard against those candidates who are better at getting jobs than doing them. These candidates (feel free to award them your own nickname) are rare but can be highly destructive to an organization. They’re tough to spot too. Peer feedback is one way to root them out, so when the subject of peer feedback comes up, you’d better be ready to say something that feels true and accurate to you—that way your tone of voice will act as a guarantor to your words.

It’s said the ability to take a compliment is a sign that you’ve reached a certain level of maturity, and sure enough not many people can do it. And the ability to pay yourself a compliment, without sounding boastful or fraudulent, is a sign of still greater maturity, so it follows that hardly anyone can do that either. Most of us must practice it. A very modest candidate might not want to praise themselves for too long without eventually pulling the pin on some self-criticism, but the question isn’t asking you for self-criticism: just the good stuff.

The best way to talk about yourself is to say what you’ve done, rather than who you are. Your personal qualities will be inferred from your achievements. If your boss might truthfully say that you were the highest-performing sales rep last year, it’s easier to cite that fact with conviction than to say “I’m great at sales,” and it’s much more useful to the interviewer too. Quantifiable achievement will always beat self-serving rhetoric.

If the interviewer presses you to talk about your personal qualities and not your professional achievements, it’s essential that you avoid obvious terms like “hard-working” or “conscientious” or “entrepreneurial.” Recruitment consultants all attest that simply everyone uses the same few words when asked to describe themselves in a job interview. In fact, overused interview words are the subject of many an annual survey. Here are ten overused words from LinkedIn’s annual survey in 2013:

responsible

strategic

creative

effective

patient

expert

organizational

driven

innovative

analytical

If you use these words during an interview you’re simply putting yourself back in the crowd.

Technology means we all have a thesaurus in our pocket these days, so you’ve no excuse not to dig out some lesser-known words. It would be pretentious if you spoke using only rare words but, if the interviewer is asking you to name personal qualities, your priority is to separate yourself from everyone else. (You can be confident that the other candidates won’t be trying hard in this respect: ask any glazed-over recruiter.)

It’s not hard to do:

  • You’re determined? Nope—you’re stoical (you endure pain and hardship without showing your feelings or complaining).
  • You’re entrepreneurial? Nope—you’re comfortable with risk and uncertainty.
  • You’re conscientious? Nope—you’re meticulous.

Obviously you can’t answer this question unless you’ve made an honest inventory of your personal and professional achievements. If taking stock proves difficult—or, more likely, if you’re too modest in your stocktake—ask someone what they would say about you. That exercise can throw up funny responses from well-meaning friends, which might lighten the proceedings.

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