How to Answer the 20 Most Common Interview Questions
Photo credit: Total Jobs
Practice makes perfect, and we can’t think of a better place to be at your best than a job interview.
If you’re like most people and get a normal case of the jitters before a job interview, the best thing you can do to project confidence and calm those nerves is to make sure you’re as prepared as possible. The best way to prepare? Rehearse your answer to these 20 common interview questions:
1. “Would you like something to drink?”
Ok, this may sound like a silly one question, but experts say that when someone does something for you, they are actually slightly more positively inclined towards you. It’s called the Ben Franklin effect: a person who has performed a favor for someone is more likely to do another favor for that person. So even if you’re not thirsty, just take the water for goodness sake!
2. “Tell me about yourself.”
Despite how open-ended this question sounds, it is not literally an invitation to delve into an existential examination of your life. This is an elevator pitch and needs rehearsing. Be ready to wrap up your answer in 1 minute and focus on the positive summary of your total work and personal experience that casts you in the most appealing light for the job. Talk about your promotions, highlight your successes and quantify your achievements.
One of the worst things you can do is drone on without realizing you are boring the other person, or answering with details they aren’t interested in, so pay attention to non-verbal cues as you talk and be ready to adjust mid-way through if you need to.
3. “Why are you interested in the role?”
The best way to answer this question is to talk about the merits and exciting aspects of the position itself, rather than how your background is a fit. Think of it this way: Even if you’re the perfect fit, that’s what the rest of the interview is to demonstrate. This is the time when you get to demonstrate your enthusiasm about the work you’re about to do. Actually wanting to do a certain job counts for a lot.
4. “Why our company?”
If you’re interviewing for a role that might be relatively ‘standard’ across many other companies, it’s actually a very good question. It also is a test to see how much you understand about the larger context and employer, itself. This is a time to show that you understand the company’s mission, it’s values or something about it’s culture. Remember, you want to make the interviewer feel good about where he or she works and make them believe you really want to join them.
5. “Why are you leaving your current job?”
This isn’t a time to bad-mouth your boss or company. What this question is really getting at is why you are looking for a new job at the place you’re interviewing. So even though it’s not phrased that way, respond by talking about how appealing this specific opportunity is to you. As tempting as it may be to vent, don’t spend any time dwelling on the things that make you sound unhappy or unsatisfied at your current company.
6. “Why are you currently unemployed?”
Ok, we admit it’s unlikely the interviewer will put the point so bluntly. Typically, this question is asked in the following way: “Tell me about why you left your [insert name of last job].” What they really want to ask is: “Were you fired and if so, why?” People are reorganized and fired all the time for reasons that have nothing to do with their individual performance. On the other hand, some people are fired for cause as well. Whichever category you fall into, be sure to spin the best story possible without being defensive. The more casual and confident you can be in your answer, the easier it will be for your interviewer to conclude what you want them to: “Ok, no big deal.”
7. “What do you think are your strengths?”
You may be an amazing frisbee player, a superb cook and a talented computer programmer. But this is the time to talk about your professional strengths. Ideally you have picked 2-3 things you really believe make you stand out as an employee. The more specific you can be about examples demonstrating these strengths, the better. It’s much more compelling, for example, to say that you are “usually the colleague in the room that brings everyone together when there are disagreements over strategy or business plans” rather than a more generic statement about being “a good team player.”
8. “What are your weaknesses?”
This question is often one of the most dreaded questions of an interview because, quite frankly, we all believe that we cannot really be honest in answering. To address this question, be brief and be comfortable with silence. In other words, whatever you say, don’t say more than you have to. Typically this means choosing a single weakness and one that isn’t very serious (e.g. “I can be a little too aggressive in setting goals” or “I can be very impatient when I’m working on a project I really believe in”) and too central to the job description you’re interested in.
9. “Do you have a work ‘style’?”
First, consider what your work style really is. And then consider whether that style is suited for the job and company culture you’re interested in. If you’re an extreme extrovert but the job requires hours of independent, fairly isolated work, you will have a much harder time answering this question than someone whose work style does in fact match the job. This question is really getting at whether your personality is a fit for the role and the company so try to answer accordingly.
10. “What other positions are you looking at?”
We believe it’s best not to name names. Nobody really wants to hear that you’re interested or applying to their competitors and saying that may turn some hiring managers off. On the other hand, if you say you are not looking at any other position, it might seem far-fetched or make you look like you’re not aware of your market worth and ability to get a job elsewhere. The best answer here is something along the lines of “Similar roles at companies in this industry where I think I can make a real difference.”
11. “How would your colleagues describe you?’
This question is a combination of a personality-fit and work-style question wrapped up in one. It’s also an opportunity to showcase your interpersonal strengths if you have them. If you have a brief anecdote about how you were the leader in a time of crisis or pulled the team together during a stressful project, now is the time to tell it.
12. “What are you expecting in terms of salary?”
We believe that anchoring your salary expectations to your prior salary is the surest way to get very incremental pay raises. Ideally, you’ve done your compensation research and understand the salary possibilities for the role. If not, and you must anchor your salary expectations to what you have previously earned, don’t frame the expectations that way. Simply state the number you believe you should receive for the role (and make sure it’s more than what you would settle for, just in case it sets an anchor figure for future pay negotiation).
13. “How do you deal with pressure and stress?”
The short answer you want to give is: “Well.” If you’re being asked this question, most likely this is true anyway. After all, this question tends to come with high-pressure, stressful jobs or companies and they want to know whether you’ll be able to handle it. Hopefully you have applied to the company and job with your eyes open about those realities and believe you can thrive in an environment that demands the best of you.
14. “You seem to change jobs frequently.”
Average job tenure is growing shorter and shorter but that doesn’t mean hiring managers don’t get worried when they see someone that can’t hold a job down without changing every year or two. It’s a big investment of time and money to hire someone new and they want to make sure that you are not fickle or immature about your choices. If you can provide context about inevitable job changes that weren’t your fault (e.g. you had to move across the country to be with your spouse, the company closed down), that will put the interviewer at ease.
15. “What did you do in the years that are missing from your resume?
If you’re someone who has taken time out of the workforce, research suggests that you be up-front about it. According to one study, female job applicants returning to the workforce after a long absence were more likely to get hired if they provided a reason for their absence and re-entry, even if that reason was taking care of children. Intuitively, honesty is the best policy and it can be awkward (or even illegal) for a prospective employer to ask you about your family situation. So being forthright about your situation will make everyone feel better.
16.“Tell me about a challenge you faced and how you dealt with it.”
We have all faced challenges and overcome them, so which one do you choose to highlight for the interview? Well, ideally it is something you are proud of (which by definition means it was a significant challenge). Moreover, it should be within the professional context if possible. While it’s fine to say that you were able to climb Mt. Everest or won a medal at the Olympics, most of us will provide a great answer if we can talk about a workplace or business challenge we helped a team or company overcome.
17. “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”
There’s no one-size “best” answer to something that’s so personal but we think sticking with a brief vision statement about where you want to grow your career is great. It demonstrates ambition to say that you want to be managing a division (or a larger division, or even a CEO), and intrinsic self-motivation that every employer wants to see in a prospective employee.
18. “What do you like to do outside work?”
If you’re worried about standing out from the crowd and have an unusual hobby or past-time (singing in a punk rock band, for example) talking about this briefly can make you memorable or round out an otherwise very professional conversation. However, if you’re not very active outside of work, it’s also ok to talk about your friends and family and the things that make you seem like a whole, well-rounded human being.
19. “What would your first 30, 60 or 90 days look like in this job”?
This may seem like an unreasonable question, but if you think about it from the employer’s perspective, they are trying to hire someone to fill a gap or hole in their team. They have real, usually time-pressing needs and they want to see at least improvements in the issues they’re facing when they hire you. Therefore, be prepared to talk about what you think you will accomplish in a 1 to 3 month horizon. Ideally this is based on a clear understanding of what the job entails and what the company’s challenges are.
20. “Do you have any other questions for me?”
It’s common advice that you should always ask a question at the end of the interview. And generally, we think you should take the chance to show that you're thoughtful, and ask a question that illustrates your insight and curiosity. However, don't force a square peg into a round hole and ask a question only because you feel like you have to.
If you’ve been sitting with the interviewer for over an hour and been having a very in-depth conversation about the business, it’s ok to skip the question and simply reiterate that you’re even more interested in the job after the interview and believe you’re a great fit for the role. However, if you do have one or two questions that you haven’t been able to squeeze in, now is a good time to ask if those questions.
Remember, an interview isn’t a time to try to wing answers to questions that you know there’s a high probability of being asked. Committing several of these questions to memory and rehearsing your answers will go a long way to making you feel — and sound — more confident!