Guide to common interview questions

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“The best way out is always through.” — Robert Frost

When I was starting out my job search almost two decades ago, there was no such thing as a guide to interview questions. We barely rehearsed for the session. On the big day, one simply jumped into a dusty and worn-out suit, slap on a black shoe whose sole had lost a bit of height at the edges and then ran out to catch a bus with a brightly colored tie dangling around the neck.

Wear perfume? No way! You will probably comb your hair in a danfo bus and pray that you do not get your trouser torn by stray nails by the time you wiggle your way out of the cramped commercial bus at the junction.

But by the time you are in front of the company gates, you will not look like where you have been through.

Where? You ask? Dressing up in the dark, washing the white shirt just the night before hoping that electricity would get turned on. Desperately rummaging for a clean handkerchief to fight the heat as an afterthought when one was fully dressed.

In the end, only a wet patch at the armpit would give evidence to the struggle to become independent.

The only thing standing in the way however is an interview session with a set of boring looking and sometimes disinterested interviewers looking for a candidate that could spark their interest and their time.

The questions they ask at most interviews are the same really. There are no exactly correct answers, but there are general responses to some tricky questions that would allow every candidate stand his own and stand out.

I have carefully picked a few of these questions with answers as proffered by muse writer and MIT career counselor Lily Zhang. You will find this quite helpful if you are just starting out in your career. And if you are having to dust out your resume in search for opportunities elsewhere, you will find this a good refresher.

Dive in folks;

1; Tell Me About Yourself.

This question seems simple, so many people fail to prepare for it, but it’s crucial. Here’s the deal: Don’t give your complete employment (or personal) history. Instead, give a pitch—one that’s concise and compelling and that shows exactly why you’re the right fit for the job. Muse writer and MIT career counselor Lily Zhang recommends using a present, past, future formula.

Talk a little bit about your current role (including the scope and perhaps one big accomplishment), then give some background as to how you got there and experience you have that’s relevant. Finally, segue into why you want—and would be perfect for—this role.

2; How Did You Hear About This Position?

Another seemingly innocuous interview question, this is actually a perfect opportunity to stand out and show your passion for and connection to the company. For example, if you found out about the gig through a friend or professional contact, name-drop that person, then share why you were so excited about the job.

If you discovered the company through an event or article, share that. Even if you found the listing through a random job board, share what, specifically, caught your eye about the role.

3; Why Do You Want to Work at This Company?

Beware of generic answers! If what you say can apply to a whole slew of other companies, or if your response makes you sound like every other candidate, you’re missing an opportunity to stand out. Zhang recommends one of four strategies: Do your research and point to something that makes the company unique that really appeals to you; talk about how you’ve watched the company grow and change since you first heard of it; focus on the organization’s opportunities for future growth and how you can contribute to it; or share what’s gotten you excited from your interactions with employees so far.

Whichever route you choose, make sure to be specific. And if you can’t figure out why you’d want to work at the company you’re interviewing with by the time you’re well into the hiring process? It might be a red flag telling you that this position is not the right fit.

4; Why Do You Want This Job?

Again, companies want to hire people who are passionate about the job, so you should have a great answer about why you want the position. (And if you don’t? You probably should apply elsewhere.)

First, identify a couple of key factors that make the role a great fit for you (e.g., “I love customer support because I love the constant human interaction and the satisfaction that comes from helping someone solve a problem”), then share why you love the company (e.g., “I’ve always been passionate about education, and I think you’re doing great things, so I want to be a part of it”).

5; Why Should We Hire You?

This interview question seems forward (not to mention intimidating!), but if you’re asked it, you’re in luck: There’s no better setup for you to sell yourself and your skills to the hiring manager. Your job here is to craft an answer that covers three things: that you can not only do the work, but also deliver great results; that you’ll really fit in with the team and culture; and that you’d be a better hire than any of the other candidates.

6; What Can You Bring to the Company?

When interviewers ask this question, they don’t just want to hear about your background. They want to see that you understand what problems and challenges they’re facing as a company or department as well as how you’ll fit into the existing organization.

Read the job description closely, do your research on the company, and make sure you pay attention in your early round interviews to understand any issues you’re being hired to solve. Then, the key is to connect your skills and experiences to what the company needs and share an example that shows how you’ve done similar or transferable work in the past.

7; What Are Your Greatest Strengths?

Here’s an opening to talk about something that makes you great—and a great fit for this role. When you’re answering this question, think quality, not quantity. In other words, don’t rattle off a list of adjectives. Instead, pick one or a few (depending on the question) specific qualities that are relevant to this position and illustrate them with examples.

Stories are always more memorable than generalizations. And if there’s something you were hoping to mention because it makes you a great candidate, but you haven’t had a chance yet, this would be the perfect time.

8; What Do You Consider to Be Your Weaknesses?

What your interviewer is really trying to do with this question—beyond identifying any major red flags—is to gauge your self-awareness and honesty. So, “I can’t meet a deadline to save my life” is not an option—but neither is “Nothing! I’m perfect!” Strike a balance by thinking of something that you struggle with but that you’re working to improve.

For example, maybe you’ve never been strong at public speaking, but you’ve recently volunteered to run meetings to help you get more comfortable when addressing a crowd.

9; Tell Me About a Challenge or Conflict You’ve Faced at Work, and How You Dealt With It.

You’re probably not eager to talk about conflicts you’ve had at work during a job interview. But if you’re asked directly, don’t pretend you’ve never had one. Be honest about a difficult situation you’ve faced (but without going into the kind of detail you’d share venting to a friend).

“Most people who ask are only looking for evidence that you’re willing to face these kinds of issues head-on and make a sincere attempt at coming to a resolution,” former recruiter Richard Moy says. Stay calm and professional as you tell the story (and answer any follow-up questions), spend more time talking about the resolution than the conflict, and mention what you’d do differently next time to show “you’re open to learning from tough experiences.”

10; Why Are You Leaving Your Current Job?

This is a toughie, but one you can be sure you’ll be asked. Definitely keep things positive—you have nothing to gain by being negative about your current employer. Instead, frame things in a way that shows that you’re eager to take on new opportunities and that the role you’re interviewing for is a better fit for you.

For example, “I’d really love to be part of product development from beginning to end, and I know I’d have that opportunity here.” And if you were let go from your most recent job? Keep it simple: “Unfortunately, I was let go,” is a totally acceptable answer.

11; Tell Me About a Time You Failed.

This question is very similar to the one about making a mistake, and you should approach your answer in much the same way. Make sure you pick a real, actual failure you can speak honestly about. Start by making it clear to the interviewer how you define failure.

For instance: “As a manager, I consider it a failure whenever I’m caught by surprise. I strive to know what’s going on with my team and their work.” Then situate your story in relation to that definition and explain what happened. Finally, don’t forget to share what you learned. It’s OK to fail—everyone does sometimes—but it’s important to show that you took something from the experience.

12; Why Was There a Gap in Your Employment?

Maybe you were taking care of children or aging parents, dealing with health issues, or traveling the world. Maybe it just took you a long time to land the right job. Whatever the reason, you should be prepared to discuss the gap (or gaps) on your resume. Seriously, practice saying your answer out loud.

The key is to be honest, though that doesn’t mean you have to share more details than you’re comfortable with. If there are skills or qualities you honed or gained in your time away from the workforce—whether through volunteer work, running a home, or responding to a personal crisis—you can also talk about how those would help you excel in this role.

13; What’s Your Current Salary?

It’s now illegal for some or all employers to ask you about your salary history in several cities and states, including New York City; Louisville, North Carolina; California; and Massachusetts. But no matter where you live, it can be stressful to hear this question.

Don’t panic—there are several possible strategies you can turn to. For example, you can deflect the question, Muse career coach Emily Liou says, with a response like: “Before discussing any salary, I’d really like to learn more about what this role entails. I’ve done a lot of research on [Company] and I am certain if it’s the right fit, we’ll be able to agree on a number that’s fair and competitive to both parties.” You can also reframe the question around your salary expectations or requirements or choose to share the number if you think it will work in your favor.

14; What Motivates You?

Before you panic about answering what feels like a probing existential question, consider that the interviewer wants to make sure you’re excited about this role at this company, and that you’ll be motivated to succeed if they pick you. So think back to what has energized you in previous roles and pinpoint what made your eyes light up when you read this job description.

Pick one thing, make sure it’s relevant to the role and company you’re interviewing for, and try to weave in a story to help illustrate your point. If you’re honest, which you should be, your enthusiasm will be palpable.

15; Where Do You See Yourself in Five Years?

If asked this question, be honest and specific about your future goals, but consider this: A hiring manager wants to know a) if you’ve set realistic expectations for your career, b) if you have ambition (a.k.a., this interview isn’t the first time you’re considering the question), and c) if the position aligns with your goals and growth.

Your best bet is to think realistically about where this position could take you and answer along those lines. And if the position isn’t necessarily a one-way ticket to your aspirations? It’s OK to say that you’re not quite sure what the future holds, but that you see this experience playing an important role in helping you make that decision.

I hope this helped some. If you want to read further on other similar questions please visit the muse.

Cheers

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