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How to Answer the 10 Most Common Interview Questions

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In the course of my career, I’ve been involved in over forty interviews. More than half have been in the capacity of the interviewee and the rest were as the interviewer, with an even mix of on-site and on-campus interviews. I’m by no means an expert but having navigated so many, several common themes emerged and hopefully I can pass along that information to you, prospective interviewee or interviewer, to make the whole process easier for you.

When it comes to interviews, there are two types – the soft qualitative interview and the hard quantitative interview. The soft qualitative interview is one where the interviewer is trying to get a feel for how you’d fit in the team and the organization. It’s designed to learn more about you, your goals, and learning whether those goals are in line with the goals of the organization. The hard quantitative interview is designed to figure out if you are able to do the job by testing you on your domain knowledge and expertise. This post will try to help you with the qualitative questions, the ones designed to find out more about your personality and see if you fit with the company, because the quantitative questions will change from field to field.

This article is part of Bargaineering Career Week 2009, a week-long series focused on your career – how to find a job, how to tailor your resume, how to find the job opportunities and how to nail the interview. This article is the second article of day four – the interview process.

Most Common Interview Questions

Tell me a little about yourself. This is probably the most common of all the interview questions because it’s an easy icebreaker. Whenever I asked someone this question, I just wanted to hear them talk, see what their personality was like, and just get to know them a little more. As an interviewee, my approach to answering this question is to let it be my opportunity to direct the conversation. If I know there’s a bullet on my resume that matches the job very well, I’d highlight it by saying “in the last year, one of my favorite projects was …” and mention it by name. Most interviewers will, consciously or unconsciously, take that cue and ask me about that project.

Where do you want your career to go? This question is usually designed to figure out two things: 1) have you given much thought to your career and how this job fits in that plan; 2) does that career match the needs of the company. If your goal is to earn as much money as possible regardless of who its for, then they might not want to hire you if you will jump from company to company. To prepare for this question, you need to have an idea of what you want to do in five or ten years and see where this job fits.

What would you consider your greatest strengths? This is an opportunity for you to mention a strength that may not be reflected on your resume. If you have a lot of team projects and you’ve talked about team work a lot, don’t mention it as one of your greatest strengths because the interviewer already knows you are strong here. Maybe you’re extremely persistent and attentive to detail, things that are hard to display on a resume, mention that and give an example from your resume.

What would you consider your greatest weakness? I don’t think an interviewer ever expects an interviewee to honestly answer this question and actually give their greatest weakness, so don’t exceed their expectations. And don’t say you have no weaknesses or try to frame a strength as a weakness, people see right through that. My approach has always been to find a weakness you have and show how you’ve taken steps to try to overcome it, preferably highlighting projects on your resume that substantiate that claim.

What motivates you? This is another tricky question that most people would honestly answer “money,” (money may not be motivation #1 but it is always in the top 3, everyone has to eat!) but you can’t say that in an interview because it points to greed. You’ll want to answer honestly so try to find some projects you worked on that you really enjoyed and think about what motivated you to do a good job. Perhaps you were motivated to do good work, so you volunteered at your local soup kitchen. Keep it positive and use it to point to one of your accomplishments.

What interests you about this job? Why do you want this job? You’ll usually be asked a version of this question sometime during an interview because the interviewee wants to understand your motivations more. This also helps them understand how much you understand about the job. Maybe the job has high turnover and is high stress, be sure to address it and say how you would overcome it. Maybe the job is mundane and boring, why are you interested in it? The answer is never “for the paycheck,” but you can always find something about it that interests you. Even a retail job folding clothes or staffing a cash register is a stepping stone into a managerial role in the retail industry.

Are you willing to travel? This question is one of the few that you should answer honestly because if you are unwilling to travel, get the job, and are forced to travel then you will be miserable. If you are willing to travel, say so. They will usually ask what percent, just give a slightly higher percentage than you think you’re actually comfortable with. In general, unless it’s 100%, you won’t travel as much as you think you will.

What are your salary expectations? If you can, defer. A safe bet is always to say “That I don’t know, I’ve been focusing on learning more about the position and whether it’s a good fit for the both of us.” Usually you aren’t asked this question until you are interviewed by someone in Human Resources, usually in an information gathering step, but if you can’t defer and are pushed for an answer, do research beforehand and give a range you are comfortable with.

How soon do you need a response? This is usually a gauge of how in demand you are. If you have pending offers with deadlines, give a day or two before those deadlines as a response. If you don’t, give it about a week. Most decisions are made within a day or two and, judging on the size of the company, an offer within a week depending on how responsive the HR department is with managing approvals and whatnot. You don’t want to say “whenever,” because then they realize you have nothing else pending… which isn’t good.

Do you have any questions for me? This is where the interviewer is trying to gauge your true interest in the job and the company. What you want to do is make sure that you ask questions that show you are interested in the company. I like to ask what the “next steps in the process are” and more pointed questions about the culture of the company, what it’s like to work there, and what the interviewer enjoys about the company.

If these ten weren’t enough, check out this list of the 50 most common interview questions and recommended answers. They are excerpted from The Accelerated Job Search by Wayne D. Ford, Ph.D.

Is there a common interview question I left off the top ten? If so, what is it and what is your recommended response?

{ 28 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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28 Responses to “How to Answer the 10 Most Common Interview Questions”

  1. Roofer for a summer says:

    Jim, I think you need to step back and add a “strategic” spin on this.

    As an experienced recruiter and interviewee myself, I find this to work best:

    1.) Before the interview, research the company you are interviewing with thoroughly. This really matters.

    2.) Next think about what the job opening requirements are and in addition, what the “unspoken” requirements are (e.g. a sales rep should be self-secure, outgoing etc) – using this, create a punch list of traits / experience / expertise that the interviewer is looking for

    3.) Then articulate your own “must mention” punch list of things to mention in the interview, to make sure you satisfy all of the interviewers major punch list items. I typically recommend picking 2-3 stories you want to tell, or experience sets you want to emphasize, that put together cover your and the interviewers punch lists.

    4.) Then write those stories onto index cards and practice them until you can tell the stories, fluently and convincingly.

    5.) Finally, at the interview use whatever questions come along to tell your stories. Always answer the question, but if possible find a natural point to launch one of your stories. If you did your homework right, his questions will be aligned wuit your stories and it will be easy to weave them in.

  2. zapeta says:

    These are very common questions, so you’re not doing yourself any favors if you don’t have answers ready to go for each. If you’ve researched the employer and know how you fit with the job opening, you should be able to answer these easily and use them to your advantage in the interview.

  3. redivelli says:

    I’ve noticed in some of my interviews the “why should we pick you over someone else?” kind of question. I think it stems from my academics not being so strong. I typically counter the question with my experience with the work.

    I had an interview on campus one time where the rep and I talked about guns for about an hour. Everyone waiting in the lobby was all intimidate because I was in there for a while. Got the job, but then lost it by .02 GPA……….stupid academics.

    Solid list of questions, keep up the good posts!

  4. jsbrendog says:

    but money isn’t the right answer to what motivates me?!1?!11?! lol

    Tying in your responses to your resume strategically only shows an attention to detail and I like it. The most important part though is to be personable. Being tense will do you no good. It’s like acting, you have to convey yourself in the best possible light and seem like someone they would want to add to their group

  5. Neil says:

    Re: salary expectations.

    This is obviously different when you’re unemployed, but if you’re just looking for a better job, it’s often pretty straight forward. Me, I’d need at least a 10% raise to consider jumping companies (I rather like where I am, but would like to earn more). And given that I don’t think my experience level warrants much more than that, I’m comfortable giving out a number that’s 15% more than I currently make as a starting point…no need to defer.

    If you’re unemployed, highballing is a bigger risk, I suppose, but even then you should have an idea of the minimum you’re willing to work for. If you have such a minimum, don’t be too shy about putting a number that’s a bit higher – but still in the same range – out there.

  6. usul356 says:

    The toughest question I’ve ever been asked in an interview was this one. “What would you consider your greatest weakness?”

    After completely flopping on an answer I looked up how other people said to answer this question. Most seemed to say something similar to your answer of “My approach has always been to find a weakness you have and show how you’ve taken steps to try to overcome it”

    The problem I have with this answer is that if you’ve truly taken steps to try to overcome it, then it is no longer a weakness. I think my new answer for this question should be “That I can’t answer that question.”

    • Venkat says:

      “My approach has always been to find a weakness you have and show how you’ve taken steps to try to overcome it”…

      Greatly put!

      I have always followed this approach and got a good nod from the listener. I said something like: At one point, I was given feedback by my mentor to improve my presentation skills and I made it a point to take good workshops and attended Toastmasters to improve my communication skills. [in reality i did]. I further said, I got lot better and even got to a point where I started coaching others, how they can improve their presentation skills. Another trick that I learnt was mention a skill that you have and project it in such a way that some people see that as a strength and some as a weakness, but that you chose to make sure you take opportunities that need that are in alignment with that skill. For example I said – I am detail oriented and some people see that as a weakness but I considered a strength and always looked to find roles that match this trait [of being detailed]. I gave these two examples and got a good nod from bunch of interviewers.

  7. eric says:

    This is a great post! I think the salary question is always the most tricky. You would never want to lowball yourself so always try to get the employer to make an offer first if you can…

    • Mark Baker says:

      If it’s an analytical interview, respond to the salary question like this …

      I’ll give you a number, but first … No matter what number I give, the company is best off giving me an offer of what they think I’m worth or less. The reason for this, if I give you a high-ball number, you can always offer below it, and I might accept if I high-balled. Knowing this, I have no reason to give a low number. I should always give above what I am willing to accept.

      Of course this argument is always easier to explain while talking and not writing.

  8. JP says:

    I hate the weakness question because no one ever answers it honestly, because what moron would shoot themself in the foot? It’s a cop out question

    • saladdin says:

      Total cop out question, I agree.

      I would love to be able to say just once “My biggest weakness is that I love just too damn much.”

      saladdin

    • Martha says:

      You’d be surprised how many people shoot themselves in the foot with this question. My favorite answer was “I have a really hard time getting to work on time” right after I explained how important it was that each shift start promptly.

      Being honest can help you, I had one interviewee who shared that he walked out/quit without 2 weeks notice because of an unfortunate incident. He seemed sincere in his repentance and assured that he would not make that same type of mistake again. After a careful look a his references we decided to hire him. He became a great employee and was a role model to others since he treated his job with respect.

  9. Grace says:

    During my interview for my current job, my boss asked me to list 3 weaknesses. Come on, who asks that? I remember saying that I’d like to read more because one can always be more well read.

  10. MLR says:

    In re: to weakness, I usually mention that I take failure very personally. It’s true, and it’s something I work on improving. (by not failing :p)

  11. Glenn Lasher says:

    Some organizations are very snail-like in making their decisions.

    About twelve years ago, I was laid off, and over the course of the following two months, I gave interviews at a rate of 5-8 a week.

    At the end of those two months, I was hired (starting on a Friday, of all things!) and I cancelled my remaining interviews.

    Nine months later, I was still receiving job offers from my interviews. Mind you, I was able to use those as bargaining chips to improve my compensation, but that’s not the point. The point is that it took more than a few companies more than a few months to get back to me.

    This may be a market-dependent thing. I’m in upstate New York, which is likely a very different job market than The City.

  12. AmandaDRowe says:

    As I’m in Marketing and Advertising, I’ve gotten some strange questions –

    1. How would you package, promote and sell rotten garbage?

    2. If you were a musical instrument, what would you be and why?

    I doubt many people will get the above, thankfully.

    One thing that isn’t on the list are all the situational questions. For example,

    1. Tell me about a time that you led a team.
    2. Tell me about a time that you failed.
    3. Tell me about a time that you dealt with a unproductive employee.

    • Wilma says:

      While getting an interview for a famous candy maker to be on the production floor as a machine operator, I was asked questions like teams that I led and types of projects I got involved with and how did I do as a team leader. I was shocked by these questions. I couldn’t answer them and the interviewers looked down on me all disgusted like because I never had those opportunities. When would I ever get the chance to lead a team to victory while running machinery or packaging products? What projects were they referring to? They also asked me if they were to talk to my parents about my biggest weakness, what would they say? I told them that to tell you that would be to say what their weakness was because I am a piece of both of them and they love me, so I am perfect in their eyes. I was so overwhelmed and on edge from the gorilla type tactics and condescending attitudes of the interviewers by that point I just threw that answer out there, got up and left. Not once did they ask me about what I could bring to the work force or even relevant information. It was the most negative interview I ever had. It felt like I was being interrogated at the police station.

  13. John says:

    Just a quick nit about the salary question. If you are forced to start the negotiation (which is probably not the ideal situation) NEVER give a salary range. If you say “between $50k and $60k” you’re saying “I’m happy with $50k” and that is where the negotiation will BEGIN. Instead you need to do some research, either with employees who you know (which can be difficult) or on the web (salary.com and glassdoor.com are both decent). Start with a strong position, but not so strong that the employer immediately disqualifies you as ignorant or simply “overpriced” for the position.

  14. Chris says:

    I think the best solution for the weakness question is to discuss a past weakness that you have overcome or are getting much better at. I think that honesty shows a lot to the interviewer.

  15. c. says:

    Regarding salary, I have heard that if your past positions (or one you currently hold) are similar to the one you are applying for, that you should state that you made $X from your past/current positions. If you’re currently employed, they should get the hint that you’re looking to make more than that.

    You could also state that you’re unsure what salary to expect and to ask what they would typically pay for the position you’re applying to.

  16. Josh says:

    These questions would actually come up in an interview?

    The majority of them don’t seem at all relevant to actual job performance except as some form of personality test that an HR person might ask (rather than an interviewing peer).

    Answering each of these questions “right” would tell me absolutely nothing about whether or not someone could actually do the job I’m interviewing them for (except, as pointed out, travel for a sales person perhaps).

    Nonetheless… definitely a good post to be prepared to get this stuff out of the way.

    • saladdin says:

      That’s exactly what they are, personality tests.

      For 99% of us, we can be trained to do a job (excluding doctors etc). Anyone on this site with good math skillz and strong excel can do my job. And I can be trained to do your job. But, what can’t be trained is personality.

      Perfect example. I went to an interview and used all the rules of thumb. Got there 15 minutes early, dressed one “layer” above etc… And asked kick ass questions about their company that stumped the VP. I found out after 6 months on the job that their number 1 concern was that I as too uptight. They were concerned that I wouldn’t fit in, not that I couldn’t do the job.

      saladdin

  17. shivalu says:

    Thanks, Jim, for this timely set of articles.
    I am a newly graduated RN in my 40s. Due to my age, I am taking time to find nursing employment that I will love and not just taking the first vacancy that comes along. Fortunately, I am able to work in the medical field in a non-RN capacity while I search. However, I worry that too long away from direct patient-RN nursing will reflect poorly on me.
    The biggest challenge for me is demonstrating that my considerable experience in administration (in medical and other fields) can be of value in my nursing career.
    I interviewed last week for a number of RN positions and I studied for each as if it was an exam. I prepared answers for the typical questions and used examples from my work history to support my strengths, as suggested by your reader “Roofer for a summer”.

  18. JohnH5054 says:

    Try turning the tables;
    1. How do you deal with useless employees ?
    2. As a department manager, what latitude to I have in selecting members for my team ?
    3. Assuming I have P&L responsibility, what are the criteria for success ? Please show me this in a approved outline.
    4. To whom do I answer ? How many layers of [insignificant] management exist between me and my real supervisor ? [Be careful here!]
    5. What is the life expectancy for someone in this position ?
    6. How does this company measure individual productivity ?
    –Go for broke ! The person you are talking to exists at the bottom of the food chain, but may offer some useful insighs into the REAL operation of the company.

  19. Nikki Manja says:

    1. how do you come to and interview very early before time or do you wait till the time he told you to go?
    2. why do think they ask when can you start you think you have the job?
    3. If you see somebody that has already worked there you think they gone get rehired?

  20. Mel Dee says:

    Thanks for the advice, they have really opened my mind.

  21. Jack Bemind says:

    These advise are help full for me that can be use when interview a job. Thank you so much…


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