Editorial
The 15 Most Common Phone Interview Questions — And How to Crush Them
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Woohoo! You just received an email notification requesting your available time slots for a phone interview to discuss that open position for which you'd applied. As you grin at the email, you can’t contain your excitement. You’re determined to bring your A game to the job interview and make the best impression possible.

So how do you do that? With preparation, you can readily anticipate some specific questions and feel confident that you’ll be snagging an invitation for the next round of interviews. That in-person interview will be a piece of cake once this phone call goes well.

But first: What is the objective of the phone interview?

Before you can knock your phone interview out of the park, it’s important to understand the objective of the phone interview. This stage in the interview process is exploratory for both parties to determine if there is a mutual fit. Typically, the interviewer is trying to assess the following:

  • energy and enthusiasm level
  • personality match with company culture
  • level of preparedness
  • motives for switching positions
  • skill and experience match
  • communication style

Common interview questions

The following open-ended questions are effective in gauging these different areas and often expected to show up at some point in the interview process. Based on your answers, recruiters can then evaluate and make recommendations on how to proceed with your application. So, here are the nine most common phone interview questions, and the best answers for each of them.

1. "Walk me through your resume." Or "Tell me about yourself."

This question is so important because it really sets the tone for the rest of the interview and gives you an opportunity to speak highly of yourself. A lot of candidates make the mistake of diving into their life story from when they were born. Many others make the mistake of reading everything written on their résumé. Keep in mind that the recruiter has already seen your résumé; they want you to take this valuable time to explain between the lines. You can do this by helping them understand the “why?” and the details you left off your résumé.

Why did you choose your major? Why did you leave your positions? Why did that position expand your skills? Why did you enjoy working for that company? Why are you the best candidate for this position?

To effectively answer this question, you must know what role you’re applying to and understand what the interviewer is seeking. Does their job description call for someone who is a leader and great at delivering presentations? Make sure you highlight these skills somewhere in your answer, whether you demonstrated that in school or in your current position. Are they seeking someone who pays close attention to detail and is flexible? Demonstrate this in your answers as you walk through your previous positions.

Once you know what the interviewer is requesting, you can make sure to inject relevant examples throughout your history. 

2. "What interested you about this company?"

It’s important to be able to show your preparedness level by demonstrating that you have conducted research about the company. A prospective employer wants to know you’re not just applying to every company that pops up on the job boards. Rather, they want to know you truly believe in what they do or sell, and you’d want nothing more than to be a part of their growth.

A really great question to ask yourself is, in your own words, what does the company do or sell? You should have completed comprehensive research ahead of time by reviewing any press releases or articles about the company in the news. Your research should be the function for which you’re interviewing. For instance, if you’re applying for an accounting position, conduct research on their revenue models or understand who their competitors are. If you’re applying for a marketing position, understand what media platforms they use and what their current marketing strategy looks like. If you’re applying for a legal position, understand what legal involvements they have or have had. 

Your goal is to do as much research to paint a picture of why your position is a critical one at the company. If you do this research, you’ll be able to impress your interviewer with information beyond what is found on their homepage. 

3. "Why are you looking to leave your current position?"

Employers want to understand your motives. Employers also never want to hear you complain — regardless of how terrible your current situation might be. A great way to flip this question is to talk about what excited you when you saw this position. For instance, you might answer, “While I enjoy my current position, this opening really caught my eye because I saw you are looking for someone to plan events. I organized an event with 300 guests at my last company, from concept to tear down, and it was one of my favorite projects I’ve taken on. I’m really interested in a position that will allow me to communicate more with others and utilize creative event-planning skills.”

While there are probably many reasons why you want to leave your current position including poor management, lack of leadership, a glass ceiling, low pay, long commute, etc., your answer is much more effective when you can tell a hiring manager why you’re excited about the new role instead of annoyed about the current one.

4. "What interested you about this specific position?"

Similar to the question above, you’ll want to share with your interviewer that you not only understand what the role entails but that it’s also 100 percent aligned with what you’re seeking. What about the position matches your skills, talents, and strengths? As you read through the description, what parts of it excited you the most? What can you immediately contribute and what kind of impact do you want to make in that area?

Showing your enthusiasm for a company and a position is really important because employers don’t want to hire someone who is on the fence. Nothing is more expensive than hiring someone, training them and having to replace them. Employers will feel much more confident extending an offer knowing you really want to fill the position.

5. "Why did you leave?" Or "What were you doing during these periods (gaps in employment)?"

If you have several gaps in employment or have held multiple jobs for less than 2 years each, be ready to explain your reasons for leaving. While employers do consider “job hoppers” a flight-risk, this is your chance to help them connect the dots of why you left each position. Most employers are reasonable, so if you have compelling explanations such as mass layoffs, restructure, moving, shorter commute, completing a contract assignment, etc., then your answers are accepted at face value. 

If you have had a series of involuntary resignations, you might want to spend more time here crafting a thoughtful response. What did you learn from the experience? How did you grow from the position? An example might be, “I was originally hired as a Sales Associate at Company 1. While I enjoyed the company, I learned that my strengths and interests were geared more towards analytical roles. That’s why I accepted the Marketing Associate position with Company 2. In that role...”

There’s a way to focus on and emphasize the positive in every situation. Practice your answers aloud so you feel confident and are concise in your delivery.

6. "What did you enjoy the most in your previous positions?"

This is a great question for interviewers to determine if there is a match in your skills and personality. When you conduct an analysis of the job description, think about what soft skills and technical skills you’ll be exercising daily in the new position. Of those skills listed, which skills and traits did you genuinely enjoy the most?

Once you have that locked in, think about where in the past you’ve used those skills and what accomplishments or results were gained because of them. Illustrating how you effectively used skills to yield positive results is a powerful way to answer any interview question.

7. "What did you enjoy the least in your previous positions?"

Employers want to know that you’re going to be eager to do what the job entails. If you say you hate cold calling and your job has a lot of sales involvement, that could be problematic. When you answer this question, make sure you refrain from stating any of the skills and traits required in the job description.

Since this question has a negative connotation, you should follow up your answer on a positive note. For example, “At Acme, I learned my predecessor was let go because she did not have strong attention to detail. I needed to update a year’s worth of files as everything was disorganized and it took hours to find a document. However, after dedicating extra hours each week to the filing system, I was able to not only get everything up to date, but I devised a systematic way to find files within seconds. I learned I enjoy making order out of chaos.”

8. "Where do you see yourself in five years?"

Companies want to know you are ambitious, but that the position you are applying for makes sense with your bigger goals. I’ve had a lot of candidates answer with, “I think I’d like to be a manager” or “I’m not sure, but I think it will still be in this field.”

A stronger approach to this question is thinking about how the position will help you towards your long-term goals. If you can demonstrate that you’re excited about the position because it aligns with the areas you want to strengthen, you’re on the right track! For example, you can say, “While the future can be unpredictable, I am confident in my passion for marketing. I would like to become an expert in the field and build as much experience and gain exposure in the digital ad space. I believe this position is aligned with my long-term vision and I’d be delighted to apply my experience and knowledge to help the company’s marketing efforts.”

9. "What are your salary expectations?"

I would recommend tabling this discussion until you have a verbal offer on the table. You don’t want to low ball yourself and the company can’t possibly know what your value is within a 30-minute conversation. While salary negotiation is an art, the best answer is to deflect. A politically correct way to answer is, “At this time, I’d like to learn more about what the position entails before determining any salary range. Salary isn’t the number one priority for me, and I also would consider the total compensation package before being able to determine a specific number.”

10. "What are your greatest strengths?"

You may be wary of coming across as egoistic, but you may well be asked to describe your strengths. In this case, focus on strengths that directly relate to the position at hand. For instance, an office manager might want to highlight her strong organization skills, and a marketing professional should talk up her creativity. Since you may be asked to give a specific number of strengths, you should think of a few to mention beforehand—three qualities should be enough.

Companies also want to see that you know yourself well enough to accurately gauge what you can bring to the table, as well as how well you understand the demands of the role. That's why it's important to come up with qualities that are both accurate and fit the needs of the position.

11. "What are your greatest weaknesses?"

It's tempting to want to spin a strength into a weakness—"I work too hard" is the cliche—but an interviewer will see through that. This question is helpful to the interviewer because she'll be able to see how forthcoming and honest you are—as well as your ability to self-assess. 

Still, while you should be honest, don't be blunt to the point at which you're raising red flags. For instance, "I have trouble with deadlines" isn't going to make the company want to hire you. Instead, focus on a weakness that you're working on or have made headway improving. If you don't like to delegate, for instance, you might say, "I used to have difficulty giving up control on projects, but I'm working on building trust with team members and taking a step back. One of my reports recently mentioned how she appreciated having more autonomy on a recent project." This shows that you're thoughtful and have taken the time to reflect and change something that's affecting your work.

12. "What's your dream job?"

This question will help the interviewer understand whether you're ambitious and how this position fits into your larger goals. As with the five-year goals question, you'll be able to explain why and how the position aligns with your larger ambitions. This is important because the hiring manager wants to know that this role isn't just a stepping stone along the way to the job you really want.

13. "What are some of your hobbies outside of work?"

Understanding who you are and what you do away from the office can help your interviewer get a sense of you as a person and how you might fit it in with the company culture. It's fine to be honest here—for instance, if you love a certain TV show, enjoying reading, or run frequently, these are fine topics to mention. However, you should avoid revealing anything inappropriate and hobbies that could interfere with work responsibilities. While happy hour might be a past time of yours, you don't want to talk about being drunk frequently.

14. "What other jobs are you considering or interviewing for?"

Learning about what other companies and positions you are exploring gives the interviewer a sense of how this position fits into the larger picture for you. It also helps her see whether this role aligns with your interests. This is especially important for entry-level roles, because you may be open to different fields and jobs when you're just starting out. However, you want to demonstrate that you're really interested in this particular line of work. For example, if you're 

15. "Do you have any questions for me?"

Before the interview, you should develop a few thoughtful questions about the company or the interviewer. You might ask, "How did you get involved with the company?" or "What does a typical workday look like?"

You should also jot down some notes during the interview so you can ask follow-up questions. This demonstrates that you're engaged, paying attention to the interviewer, and actually care about the position for which you're interviewing. 

Make sure you don't skip this step; it's important to ask questions to show that you truly care and want to work there. If you don't ask any questions, you might come across as blase about the interview process and the position. Plus, this stage can be helpful to you, too, since you'll be able to learn about the aspects of the company that matter most to you.

Sending a follow-up thank you note

It's important to follow up a phone interview with a thank you email. Not only is this polite, but it shows the interviewer that you're interested in the position and keeps you on her radar Send your email within 24 hours on the interview. Convey your enthusiasm, describing specific aspects of the role about which you're especially excited. Make sure to mention how the role aligns with your interests and career goals and the experience you have performing this type of work.

Example:

Date

Dear Mr. / Ms. [Interviewer last name]:

Thank you for speaking to me about [role] yesterday. I appreciated learning about the company and role. This position seems to align perfectly with my interest in communication and experience working directly with clients. I'm especially excited about the prospect of [mention specific details about the role and responsibilities]. As we discussed, [mention some details of the conversation].

I look forward to hearing from you in this regard.

Sincerely,

[Your full name]

How to prepare for the next interview stage

Unfortunately, after the phone interview, it's a bit of a waiting game. The interviewer is likely speaking to several other candidates before culling the list down to those she'd like to bring in for a face-to-face interview. If one week goes by and you haven't heard anything, you can send one email inquiring about the position.

Example:

Dear [Interviewer last name]:

I enjoyed speaking with you about [position] on [date of phone interview]. I remain interested in the role and look forward to hearing from you soon. Please let me know if I can provide any other information, such as samples or references.

Sincerely,

[Your name]

You shouldn't send more than two of these messages at least one week apart. If the interviewer wants to bring you in for an interview, she will let you know.

If you do receive a callback, start preparing thoroughly, reviewing your qualifications, researching the company, and preparing documents, including copies of your resume, references, and any work samples.

The takeaway

If you can master these questions and remember to show your enthusiasm, knowledge, skills, preparedness, communication style, and overall phone interview etiquette, you’re ready to hopefully move on to the next stage in the hiring process. Finally, don’t forget to smile, studies have proven that a smile can shift your attitude and your tone, thus raising your energy and enthusiasm even if they can’t see you physically. Good luck!

--

Emily Liou is the founder of CultiVitae, where she teaches, coaches, and advises thousands of ambitious corporate professionals seeking career transitions. As a former recruiter and human resources professional, Emily has the inside scoop on what companies are looking for. Her passion is in the area of personal and professional development and believes everyone has the ability to cultivate their lives. When not reading books and blogging, Emily is often found exploring $ or $$ restaurants in Los Angeles or rock climbing.
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