Most Common Interview Questions

How To Answer 7 Of The Most Common Interview Questions

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Interview questions are not as straightforward as they seem, and answering just one question incorrectly may put you out of the running for a job.

The moral of the story? Be ready to read between the lines.

7 Most Common Interview Questions

Here are seven of the most common interview questions, what the hiring manager is really asking, and how you should respond:

1. “Tell Me About Yourself.”

What the hiring manager is really asking…

“How do your education, work history, and professional aspirations relate to the open job?”

How to respond: Select key work and education information that shows the hiring manager why you are a perfect fit for the job and for the company.

For example, a recent grad might say something like, “I went to X University where I majored in Y and completed an internship at Z Company. During my internship, I did this and that (name achievements that match the job description), which really solidified my passion for this line of work.”

2. “Where Do You See Yourself In Five Years?”

What the hiring manager is really asking…

“Does this position fit into your long-term career goals? Do you even have long-term career goals?”

How to respond: Do NOT say you don’t know (even if you don’t) and do not focus on your personal life (it’s nice that you want to get married, but it’s not relevant). Show the employer you’ve thought about your career path and that your professional goals align with the job.

3. “What’s Your  Greatest Weakness?”

What the hiring manager is really asking…

“Are you self-aware? Do you know where you could stand to improve and are you proactive about getting better?”

How to respond: A good way to answer this is with real-life feedback that you received in the past. For instance, maybe a former boss told you that you needed to work on your presentation skills.

Note that fact, then tell the employer how you’ve been proactively improving. Avoid any deal breakers (“I don’t like working with other people.”) or cliché answers (“I’m a perfectionist and I work too hard.”).

4. “What Motivates You To Perform?”

What the hiring manager is really asking…

“Are you a hard worker? Am I going to have to force you to produce quality work?”

How to respond: Ideal employees are motivated internally, so tell the hiring manager that you find motivation when working toward a goal, contributing to a team effort, and/or developing your skills. Provide a specific example that supports your response.

Finally, even if it’s true, do not tell an employer that you’re motivated by bragging rights, material things, or the fear of being disciplined.

5. “Tell Me About A Time That You Failed.”

What the hiring manager is really asking…

“How do you respond to failure? Do you learn from your mistakes? Are you resilient?”

How to respond: Similar to the “greatest weakness” question, you need to demonstrate how you’ve turned a negative experience into a learning experience.

To do this, acknowledge one of your failures, take responsibility for it, and explain how you improved as a result. Don’t say you’ve never failed (Delusional, much?), don’t play the blame game, and don’t bring up something that’s a deal breaker (“I failed a drug test once…”)

6. “Why Do You Want To Work Here?”

What the hiring manager is really asking…

“Are you genuinely interested in the job? Are you a good fit for the company?”

How to respond: Your goal for this response is to demonstrate why you and the company are a great match in terms of philosophy and skill. Discuss what you’ve learned about them, noting how you align with their mission, company culture, and reputation.

Next, highlight how you would benefit professionally from the job and how the company would benefit professionally from you.

7. “How Many Couches Are There In America?”

What the hiring manager is really asking…

“Can you think on your feet? Can you handle pressure? Can you think critically?”

How to respond: When faced with a seemingly absurd question like this (there are many variations – just ask anyone who interviewed at Google before December), it’s important you not be caught off guard.

Resist your urge to tell the interviewer the question is stupid and irrelevant, and instead walk him through your problem-solving thought process. For this particular question, you would talk about how many people are in the U.S., where couches are found (homes, hotels, furniture stores), etc.

As with other parts of the job application process, it’s a good idea to solicit feedback from family, friends, and former colleagues. Try out your answers to each of these questions on at least two people, then revise based on their feedback.

Your Turn

What are your tips for responding to these and other common interview questions?

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25 comments

  1. I recently went to an interview and your blog was a central resource that got me ready for it. So thank you. One question came up in the interview that I think is a great one. “What type of support do you want from us?” I thought about it initially as how could they help me do my job but it more related to my career objective/s. In my case I wanted support in my choice to develop my education involving post graduate study alongside the training and exposure necessary to progress up the ladder. I was able to link this to my long term plan. FYI: This was the only question that fell outside of the ones listed. I was well prepared.

  2. When asked the question – tell me about yourself, how far should you go back? I left school in 86 and really do not want to go through my history since then. I have only had a couple of jobs in the last 10 years and after being made redundant in November, struggling to get a foot in the door.
    When you are answering the question, is it ok to refer to your cv? Use it as an aide memoir? Should you go over the same achievements that you have mentioned in your cv and elaborate further?
    Many thanks

    Kev

  3. I have sat on both sides of the table and can appreciate feelings of frustration and confusion. For those who feel that some questions are irrelevant, as long as they do not cross legal lines, all is fair. So many candidates simply know the interview answers to get the job, but present such a facade that the interviewer can not get to know them. Companies invest in associates. HR people need to separate candidates that often present similar skill sets and experience levels. Questions that give better understanding of a person’s character or aptitude are helpful. Interviewing is a skill. If HR people only “justify” their positions, bad hires will win out, and companies will suffer. I would, also, like to point out that the interview is not just the time between “Have a seat.” and “Thank you for your time.” I often found the answer to “Hire? / Don’t hire?” observing the candidate before or after the interview.

    • Thanks for commenting Kevin. That last point you make is especially revealing. You’re right that it’s not just the interview itself that determines whether a potential employee is a fit or not!

  4. Interesting comments and comments-on-comments. I have been a hiring manager for 30 years, through boom times and crappy times (like now). Here is what is going on in the interview process (by the way I agree that HR has a “unique” way to evaluate people, and it is DIFFERENT that how a hiring manager interviews…but sometimes you have to make it through the “HR gate”, so just deal with it).
    1. Interviewers ask questions of all types to see if you are what your resume says you are…so can you “think”.
    2. Interviewers care A LOT more about your composure when you answer a tough question than the actual answer you give.
    3. Use examples and little stories that showcase your skills in an area. These stories are great and deliver a lot of “payload”…and the interviewers naturally like stories/examples from real life, not abstract fluffiness.
    4. Your tell me about yourself answer is a critical question…it is usually first and sets the tone for the rest of the interview…mess that one up and you are going to get grilled…hit it out of the park and the interview will go more smoothly. And your answer should always be “what can you bring to the job”…the interviewer does not care about “you”, they care if you can do the job.

  5. I was once asked that if I was in a completely dark room and needed to reach into my drawer and pull out a pair of blue socks, what would be the probability of doing this if there were 8 blue socks in the drawer and 14 brown socks. I said 100%. The interviewer asked how I arrived at that probability? I simply said if I was in a dark room and wanted to be sure I got 2 blue socks, I would turn on the light. Wasn’t the answer they were looking for but they had to admit it was a good one. Didn’t get the job.

    • Personally I like that answer because it shows that you think “outside the box” (even though I hate that term).

      Since I don’t know how the rest of the interview went, there is no way to tell for sure if this was the answer that eliminated you. Chances are it probably wasn’t.

  6. I have to say over the past 9 years, we have had some corkers asked to our candidates over the years here a a few not the worst but, they are more of a ‘where are you coming from asking that question’ and ‘how do I answer that’

    - Can you tell a joke?
    - On a scale of 1 to 10 how happy are you?
    - What kind of people do you dislike?
    - Which super power do you like to have and why?
    - If you saw someone steal a tin of beans in Tesco, would you report it?

  7. I would love to see this play out when question 3 is asked.

    Interviewer: “What’s your greatest weakness?”

    Applicant: “Honesty.”

    Interviewer: “I don’t think honesty is a weakness.”

    Applicant: “I really don’t care what you think.”

    Same with the sneaky questions like the couch question. I’ve heard hiring managers brag about how fun it is and how they like to watch the interviewees squirm. I guess I’d rather know if they can do the job or not, rather than prove how clever I am. It’s not high school anymore or a frat house. It’s business. Hiring managers need to treat people with respect, no play games.

  8. Why not simply ask what they really mean instead of playing these HR “Hunger Games” about what they are reaaaallly asking?

    HR appears to be a female dominated field and full of the most asinine “selection” criteria like these. I was once asked if I prefer “boxing and football” or “fencing and dancing” in a multiple-guess, pop-psych job interview selection screening for a role that requires a five year degree. It was the final straw. I stood up, thanked them for their time and withdrew from the interview process. My new job started at a rival company three weeks later, and I stayed for just over four years before moving on. HR people have to resort to BS like this simply to justify their positions.

    • Right on, Annette! I agree with your comment, “HR people have to resort to BS like this simply to justify their positions.” I interviewed for a Legal Secretary position, and HR asked, “Do you play basketball?” What the…?#$@. I said, “Are you short a forward or guard, because I can play both.”

      You want an answer to your dumb question? I’ll give right back. Yes, I see the “psychological babble” behind this question, but let’s discuss how my experience and skills could contribute to the position and Firm.

      • HR needs to weed out small-minded people like yourself out of the process. If any HR person were to ever ask you what your greatest weakness is, I suggest you resort to being a “judging generaliser”. Rude.

        • Is it small minded? Interview is a sales agreement, a two way process, and we dont own nothing to the interviewer. It is not a favour to get a job, it is rather a business agreement. We dont have the obligation to take humiliating interviews or withstand stupidity. What filters, filters for yes people? No thank you, I dont want to work in a company with people selected by you.

  9. Completely disagree with the answer to #1. The question is “tell me about YOURSELF” and it is not “tell me about your background and experience. This is a chance to become a person and not a resume. Plus it gives the candidate an opportunity to be memorable as well as deflect any potential negatives before the interviewer asks about them.

    • I’m not sure I agree with you, Glenn. In a job interview, everything you say should pretty much relate to the job in some way or another. “Tell me about yourself” does not mean “Tell me who you root for on NFL Sunday.” Though if you both went to the sane college, bringing up that team might be a good idea.

      -Ian

      http://www.moneyresumes.com

  10. Spot on; especially 3 and 5. I’ve been coaching people for years that these questions are about self awareness, despite conventional interviewing wisdom.

    Thanks for the truth ziprecruiter!

  11. This is a pretty solid list. I especially love #7, as it represents so many different questions that could be asked just like this. I feel in these instances, your ability to respond orally is equaled in importance to how you respond physically. Don’t squirm in your seat! Try to look comfortable even if you take a second to think about your response. Remember, thinking is okay.

    I would also add the sometimes difficult question of “How would your old boss describe you?” to this list. It is often hard for anyone to see themselves through the eyes of another person. But resist the urge to answer with a joke. Just respond positively and confidently!

  12. Nice list. I’m really glad you mentioned the importance of internal motivation. Drive by Dan Pink is a great book about that if anyone wants to learn more.

    To add on to your answer for question #2, this is a great time to mention your desire to grow as professional with increased responsibility at a company with x, y, and z in its culture, like Company ABC.

    http://www.CeciliaHarry.com

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