Common Interview Questions (and How to Answer Them)

Corporate America

Common Interview Questions (and How to Answer Them)

Never get caught off-guard again with these common questions.

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Common Interview Questions (and How to Answer Them)

If I had a nickel for every job interview I’ve tanked, I probably wouldn’t have to go on any more job interviews.

Alright, that’s a slight exaggeration, but I’ve definitely bombed my fair share. Job interviews can be nerve wracking. It's a lot of pressure to be put on the hot seat and expected to summarize your entire professional career in a single conversation, while also fielding rapid fire questions.

In my mid-twenties I realized that I was getting a lot of interviews, but not many calls back. I was qualified for the jobs that I was interviewing for, and I felt like I had a decent portfolio of accomplishments, but it was rare that I came away from an interview feeling like I had nailed it. That negative feeling started to carry over into other interviews until I became overly self-conscious about it.

It was clear that I needed to brush up on my interview skills. I started to take note of the common questions that multiple employers were asking, and then I sat down and gave serious thought to my answers. I also purchased this Job Interview Phrase Book to help me with my verbiage, and to help me understand an employer’s intent behind the questions they ask.

I noticed an immediate difference. By preparing for the common questions, I was able to build confidence and it made it much easier to answer any of the curveball questions that would normally throw me off. My interviews started to feel much more conversational and productive, and I started to get more offers.

Now that I’m in my mid-thirties, I’ve progressed to the point in my career where I’m the interviewer as opposed to the interviewee. I’m excited to share with you the responses that have worked for me as an interviewee, as well as the types of things I now look for as an employer.

Tell Me About Yourself.

This is probably the most common interview question of all, and it's the first question in many job interviews. Having a strong answer to this question gives a great first impression and will help you to build momentum for the rest of the interview, so it’s important to be properly prepared for it.

There are a few keys to answering this question effectively:

  • Don't ramble. Keep it brief and to the point.
  • Customize your answer to the specific job. Think about the context of the particular job and what the interviewer is looking for in a candidate and adjust your answer accordingly. How does your education and experience make you a great fit for this role? This rule should really be applied to all interview questions.
  • Show some personality. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that “tell me about yourself” is a casual small-talk question and they start talking about their childhood, pets, family and hobbies. My recommendation is to base 90% of your reply on your career history and how your qualifications apply to this specific job, and end your response with ONE quick interesting personal fact about yourself to convey that you’re not only qualified, but you would be an interesting person to spend time with.
  • Save something for later. Keep in mind that you’ll still be fielding questions and will likely have to make a stronger case for yourself later in the interview. Make sure that you don't word-vomit all of your qualifications upfront so that you will still have impressive things to talk about later in the interview.

Why Are You Leaving Your Current Job?

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Be careful on this one. This question is designed to give you the floor to spill your guts, and if you have negative things to say about a current or former employer, it will reflect poorly on you. Regardless of whether or not you have legitimate gripes it’s unprofessional to air dirty laundry, and could give your interviewer the impression that you’re a mal-content who is likely to be telling tales out of school about them at some point if they hire you.

An example of a good response:

“I’m looking to grow professionally and I think this new opportunity is a great way to advance my career. I’m particularly interested in the training and development your company offers, and I think it will build on my current skill set nicely."

Instead of focusing on the negative, answer the question based on what appeals to you about the new opportunity. Mention the things you're looking to do or what you want to accomplish. Anything you mention about your current job or your last job should be kept brief and to the point.

What is Your Most Significant Strength?

Leave the generic and canned answers at home. Things like “I’m a hard worker”, or “I’m very honest and loyal” are great strengths to have—but that’s not the point of the question. Be sure your answer involves a strength that would be a major asset in the job that you're interviewing for.

The strength you discuss as your greatest or most significant may vary from one job interview to the next because the qualities you'll need for each job will also vary.

For example if you’re applying for a client services role you might say something like:

“My interpersonal communication skills are very strong. I’m great at relating to people and anticipating their needs which has really helped me to excel in client-facing positions. By being proactive and reaching out to clients with new offerings, I've been able to increase revenue by 15% while also building strong rapport.”

Don't simply answer the question by listing your strengths. Go a step further and provide a real-world example from your professional background that demonstrates that strength in action. Prove to the interviewer that you have the strengths needed for this job.

What is Your Most Significant Weakness?

This question is tricky because you need to be real, but you also don’t want to overemphasize actual weaknesses. The point of the question is to gauge how open and honest you are, so if you say your biggest weakness is that you “work too hard”, I’m deducting points for originality and honesty. I’m also rolling my eyes internally, and taking the rest of your answers with a grain of salt.

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Everyone has weaknesses, so it's best to show some self-awareness and honesty by actually discussing a vulnerability. Ideally, the weakness you mention will not be one of the most critical aspects of the job (example: if you're interviewing for a customer service position, don't tell the interviewer that you're bad at communicating with people).

An example of a solid response:

“I have a tendency to hyper-focus on small details which in the past has led me to lose sight of the big picture on a few projects. Now that I’m more self-aware of that tendency it’s not an issue, but definitely an area where I am continuing to improve.”

It would be best if you also showed what you're doing to improve the weakness. You could be taking an online course, volunteering somewhere to get better experience, or making sure that you ask for feedback from co-workers.

Where Do You See Yourself in Five Years?

This question is meant to gauge how ambitious you are, and whether or not the position you’re applying for is something you actively want to do—or just a pit stop while you pursue something else you’d rather be doing.

It's fairly common that an applicant will tell me they have aspirations of doing something completely different than what they are applying for. As an employer, I want to make sure that the position you’re applying for is something that you’re passionate about. If I am hiring for a graphic design position and you tell me that in 5 years you see yourself growing into a copywriting role because it's your dream to be a writer, I'm immediately concerned.

When people enjoy what they're doing, they do great work and it's more likely that they'll stick around for the long haul. If you're telling me right off the bat that you'd rather be doing something else,  I'm very hesitant to hire you. Ideally, your response will align with the career trajectory that is available through the job you're interviewing for.

You might say something like:

“Since I would be entering your organization at a middle management level, my goal is to gain the skills and experience necessary to be at the director level and have a team under me at the 5 year mark.”

Bonus points if you can go into detail regarding the specific skills needed to reach that level.

What Interests You About This Job?

There are lots of jobs you could apply for, so why this one? What is it that appeals to you? Why do you think it's an excellent opportunity? Why is it a good fit for you?

You'll need to research the company and the specific role if you want to answer this question effectively. Once you've done that research, this is a perfect opportunity to sell yourself and why you're an ideal fit for the role.

This is another opportunity to talk about how your skill set makes you a good match for this role, and also talk about what new skills you’re hoping to develop.

A good answer to this question could start out like:

“After doing some research on Acme Co. I'm a firm believer in your product’s durability. With your top of the line products and my decade of sales experience in the anvil industry, I’m confident I will be able to excel in this role.”

How Would Your Current Boss or Co-Workers Describe You?

This is another one of those questions that is an opportunity to brag, but if you go overboard you’ll come off as insincere and cringe-worthy.

Remember that the interviewer wants to hire someone who will work well with others, become part of the team, and take responsibility and accountability seriously. Focus on issues related to these things and show that you'd be a valuable addition to their team. Use real-world examples whenever possible.

An example would look like this:

“My current boss would describe me as a consummate team player. Back in January we had a team member unexpectedly take an indefinite leave of absence due to a medical issue, and I volunteered to add to my workload to fill in for them on multiple initiatives so that we wouldn’t lose momentum. It was tough at times to juggle all the new projects with my existing responsibilities, but I was happy to do it for the good of the team."

How Do You Deal with Stressful Situations?

Most jobs involve stress and pressure from time to time, and the interviewer wants to know how you work in these situations. No one is immune to stress, so don't claim that stress doesn't impact you or that you just ignore it and work right through it.

Answer by talking about your approach to managing and overcoming stress or achieving success in high-pressure situations. Be sure to have some specific examples in mind to provide evidence rather than giving a theoretical example.

You might say something like:

“In my role at Wayne Enterprises we would get really busy at the end of the 4th quarter each year. I learned early on that the worst thing you can do in those situations is panic, so even when things are piling up I remind myself to breathe deep, and then I communicate with my manager what resources I need in order to meet our deadlines.”

Tell Me About a Conflict You Faced at a Previous Job and How You Handled it.

Again, this is not a time to air dirty laundry. The point of the question is to gauge whether or not you can be professional and control your emotions in stressful situations—not an opportunity to talk about a time you were right and someone else was wrong.

An interviewer might ask you to name a specific time you had a conflict with a supervisor or a coworker. They might also ask you about an instance where you dealt with an upset client or customer. You should be prepared to answer all 3 scenarios with specific examples.

An example of how you addressed a client dispute might sound something like this:

“When I was working at the Daily Bugle we printed a client’s ad with a typo in it and they were furious. When they called me, they were raising their voices and threatening to pull all their future business. I was able to calmly convey that I understood their frustration, I accepted responsibility for the mistake, and ran through some options of how we could make the situation right for them. When we hung up I felt like our relationship with that client was stronger than it had ever been.”

Why Should We Hire You?

A lot of times interviewers will end on this question, so think of this as your closing arguments.

This is the perfect opportunity to sell yourself and convince the interviewer that you're the right person for the job. Do a quick recap of the major points you’ve made so far, and be sure to highlight anything relevant that hasn’t already come up yet.

When you're answering this question, be sure to exhibit confidence. If you seem like you're unsure of yourself, it will send the wrong signal. As is the case with all interview questions, being specific is key. Have your response prepared ahead of time and be ready to explain why you're right for the job.

I might start my response with something like this:

“As I mentioned a moment ago, I meet or exceed all the requirements for this role. I have over 6 years of experience selling gizmos and I’ve been the leading salesperson for 4 consecutive years. I've increased revenue by at least 18% every year , and I would be able to share my extensive knowledge with your team.”

Final Thoughts

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: action is the antidote to anxiety. Interviews can be stressful, but the more prepared you are, the more confident you will be.

With a little bit of preparation you’ll be able to walk into an interview calm and confident so that you can leave feeling like you nailed it.

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Sean Barela
Sean is a writer and entrepreneur that has a passion for all things personal finance. When he's not writing about finance, you can find him at the nearest steakhouse.

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