Tips & Resources

Common Interview Questions and How to Answer Them

Assuming that a job candidate has performed her due diligence in researching the company and understands the etiquette of an interview—no scruffy jeans or holey sneakers—the aspect of interviewing that makes most people break out in a nervous sweat concerns the potential questions the hiring manager will ask. The concern is valid, especially since ill-prepared and uninformed interviewers launch irrelevant and intrusive questions at their victims who then feel doomed regardless of their responses. Most interviewing personnel, however, truly seek to find the best candidate for the open position. They want someone with the right education and training, the right experience, and the right attitude who will fit into the company’s culture. In short, they seek a unicorn, that mythological creature of magical perfection who will solve all the company’s problems.

That ain’t gonna happen. Most hiring personnel understand that, but want to get as close to the perfect match as possible.

Job candidates can, however, prepare for commonly asked interview questions. Experts advise developing and rehearsing their responses for smooth and genuine delivery. Think of it as an actor learning his lines with such skill as to make the audience believe him when he speaks. After all, the audience really knows that the lead actor isn’t in desperate love with the actress who plays the part of the heroine; but, their skill is such that the audience readily accepts the fiction for the purpose of the play, movie, or television show.

Anticipated questions fall into discrete categories: personal, professional, psychological, and inappropriate/illegal. Many states place limits on what the interviewer may ask. Those limits attempt to mitigate illegal bias, although their efficacy leaves much to be desired. MonsterInc., and The Muse both list comprehensive lists of anticipated interview questions with advice on how to respond in a positive manner that will impress hiring personnel.

Personal questions

Tell me about yourself. This simple question opens pitfalls waiting to trap the the interviewee. The hiring manager or recruiter doesn’t want or need to know your life history. Use this opportunity to deliver a succinct and brief pitch that shows your suitability for the job. Begin with two or three specific accomplishments or experiences that demonstrate how those experiences prepared you for that job.

What are your greatest weaknesses? A variation of this question is What about yourself would you improve/are unhappy with/do you dislike? The interviewer uses this to evaluate how you act under less than flattering circumstances. This is not the time to air grievances or launch into a sob story; nor is an opportunity to declare yourself free from imperfection. Identify two or three things that you’re struggling to master, making it clear that you are working on improvement. This need not be a professionally oriented weakness (e.g., a new hobby might be an interesting segue), because the interviewer wants to see whether you’re honest with yourself, can assess your abilities with accuracy, and will work toward mastery.

What are your greatest strengths? The obverse of the weakness question should be obvious from your resume; however, this question deserves a succinct answer relevant to the job. Give a concrete example or two to show the application of that wonderful aspect you claim.

What hobbies do you have? This relates to similar questions asking about what you do outside work. Although questions regarding your personal interests and activities may seem irrelevant, hiring personnel use such information to determine whether the job candidate is a good fit for the company culture. If the company is populated by employees who share a rabid enthusiasm for all things NASCAR, then someone who cares little or nothing for that probably won’t be a good fit. This especially pertains to jobs in religious organizations. Gross mismatches in faith often make for uncomfortable work environments and misunderstandings. Otherwise, stating that you enjoy going to concerts and sampling local craft brews should raise no red flags of warning, while boasting that you get hammered every weekend won’t impress anyone.

Professional questions

How did you hear about this job? Simple and straightforward on the outside, this question presents an opportunity to show what and whom you know. For instance, if you learned of the opening through a friend or acquaintance, mention that person’s name. Name dropping here is perfectly acceptable, especially if that name happens to be attached to someone important at the company. If you discovered the job opening through a recruiter or job board or even a sign posted in the front window, be candid and state what about the job attracted you to apply for that position.

Why do you want this job or want to work here? The interviewer wants to know that you care about the company, not whether you can recite the list of names on the executive committee. Perhaps the company designs bakeware and you’re an amateur pastry chef: that’s a brilliant tie-in to passion and interest with the company’s product. This often relates to the following question: Why should we hire you? That question also offers an opportunity to demonstrate the value you bring to the company. Tell the interviewer how you can make a positive difference by summarizing the advantage of your experience.

Why did you leave your last job? Variants of this question include asking about what you disliked about your last job. Be careful and be sure you prepared for this type of question. Regardless of the reason—whether you left voluntarily or not—present it in a positive manner. You don’t want to come across as a disgruntled complainer bearing a grudge. In other words, never state that your old boss was an abusive skinflint who didn’t appreciate his employees. Don’t into too much detail, especially if the circumstances of your departure were less than flattering. Even if the answer is neutral, such as My spouse was transferred from there to here, keep the information to the bare minimum.

What’s your dream job? This can also be presented as What do you hope to achieve in the next five years? Job candidates often assume the interviewer seeks to evaluate their ambition or they want to demonstrate their humility or modesty. The hiring manager really wants to know whether the job candidate has realistic goals, an entrepreneurial mindset, and a thought for the future. If the job isn’t necessarily the path toward achievement of your deeply held ambition, then simply state that you can’t predict the future, but this job will play an important role in helping you make the right decisions to achieve those ambitions. For instance, no chef who owns a successful restaurant ever did so without working in someone else’s kitchen.

Psychological questions

Every so often, hiring personnel will throw irrelevant, oddball questions that seemingly bear no pertinence to the purpose of the interview except to knock the candidate off her stride. They may range from What kind of tree would you like to be? to How many jelly beans will fit into a car? You can’t predict all such questions, but feel free to stall for a few seconds to muster your thoughts. These “personality test” questions contribute to your overall impression: passive, aggressive, flexible, obstinate, etc.

Inappropriate and illegal questions

Unfortunately, says TopResume, “a shocking 20% of over 2,000 hiring and human resource managers that were surveyed indicated they have asked a candidate illegal interview questions. When the same group of hiring managers was presented with a list of illegal questions and asked whether they were legal, at least 33% said they weren’t sure.” Illegal questions concern race, color, sex, religion, national origin, birthplace, age, disability, marital/family status, and sometimes salary. More and more, states are making it illegal to ask job candidates about their current or previous salaries, because such information has no bearing on the candidate’s qualification for the work.

At times, seemingly illegal questions or inappropriate are necessary, for instance an employer must determine whether the applicant for a bartending position has attained minimum legal age to distribute alcoholic beverages or whether a pizza delivery applicant is old enough to drive a car and has a valid driver’s license. If the hiring manager asks an illegal question, you have the right to refuse to answer, respond with your own question (e.g., Why do you need to know?), ask for clarification, deflect with humor, answer the intent of the question, state your confidence in you ability to do the job, or end the interview.

Consider such questions within the context of the job’s duties. The Balance notes that most inappropriate or illegal questions do not arise from deliberate discrimination but from ignorance. However, if a job candidate feels she has been discriminated against by a potential employer, then she has the right to file a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission.