Adjusting my tie for the 17th time, I nervously walked into the branch manager’s over sized office.
Decorated by a professional with of one of the largest oak desks I’ve ever seen, it made me feel even more out of my league.
The branch manager made A LOT of money and was not afraid to show it.
The job market was scarce with the Dot-com bubble still having it’s effect on the economy and many of my college classmates were having trouble finding a job.
This was my first “real” interview. Sure I had interviewed at McDonald’s, various mall jobs, and few office type positions.
Even though I had the backing of one of the top producers in the office, I still had to get the blessing of the branch manager.
To do that, I had to give an awesome interview.
Whether you are going on your first or your 400th interview, it is always possible for an interview question to catch you flat-footed. And since the interview is your prospective employer’s first impression of you, even one poorly thought-out answer can nix any hopes you might have for working for the company.
Here are 10 common interview questions, along with the right and wrong way to answer them:
1. Tell me about yourself.
This is probably the most common of all interview questions, and it seems like a soft ball. But if you’re not prepared for this question, you might find yourself boring your interviewer with stories about your family and your ever-growing collection of classic Matchbox cars. Just as with any interview question, you want to be prepared.
Wrong response: Getting too personal, being completely unprepared, or focusing on information that your interviewer doesn’t need to know are all hallmarks of bad responses to this query. If you find yourself stammering through an explanation of how your colon surgery made it impossible for you to work for a couple of years so you are currently an expert on daytime TV, you’ve loused this answer up.
Right response: When an interviewer asks you this question, what they really want to know is who you are in your professional life. So, come prepared with a one-minute summary of your professional career—only touching on the personal if it has had any effect on the professional. For example, if you’re interviewing for a journalism position and have been a news and politics junkie since you were a kid, you might tell your interviewer that listening to Ross Perot’s hilarious wordplay in the 1992 presidential debates sparked your interest in current events, which led to a bachelor’s degree in journalism followed by X, Y and Z jobs in the field.
2. Why are you interested in this job?
This is a question wherein few interviewers really want an honest answer. Interviews would hardly get off the ground if everyone responded to this question with “the pay and benefits sound great,” or “I’m willing to take any job at this point because I need to put food on the table.” What this question is really asking is how you would fit into the culture of the organization.
Wrong response: Focusing on what the job will give you is not what the interviewer wants to hear. Presumably, he or she already knows that the pay, benefits, and perks will be beneficial to whoever takes the position.
Right response: This is a question that you need to put a little homework into. You want to know as much as possible about the company you are interviewing with so that you can not only impress the interviewer with your knowledge of the organization, but so that you can also make it clear that you working there will be mutually beneficial. For instance, an engineer might tell an automotive manufacturer that she believes in and is knowledgeable about the cars they produce, and that working there will help her to achieve her dream of helping Americans to reduce their carbon footprint through continually working to improve the efficiency for which the company is known.
3. Where do you see yourself in X years?
Interviewers ask this question in part to see if your goals and expectations for yourself line up with those of the company.
It can be a difficult question to maneuver around, however, because you don’t know your interviewer well.
For example, stating that you would like to get to the point in your career where you are considered for promotions like head of department might just rub the interviewer (who is the current head of the department) the wrong way.
So how do you answer this potential landmine?
Wrong answer: Providing your interviewer with too many specifics is a mistake. So even if you have your entire career mapped out ahead of time, keep it to yourself.
Right answer: This question is ultimately looking for proof that you will both be satisfied by the job you’re interviewing for, but will also be a go-getter who is willing to take on more responsibilities. One of the best answers to this question I’ve ever seen was posted by L. Bosco on the Work Coach Café blog:
“I don’t have a specific plan! I would like to advance. However, I am flexible. I will do my current job to the best of my ability and keep my eyes open for opportunities within the organization to advance even if it means changing roles. I am prepared to learn new things and contribute to the overall success of the organization in a number of ways. The only specific within that “plan of willingness” is that the opportunity be within my ability to learn, interesting enough for me to dig in and do a good job, and the compensation increase a reasonable amount in relation to the demands of the position.”
4. What is your biggest weakness?
This is one of those interview questions that hardly seems fair. It’s usually a follow-up to What is your greatest strength? but it is a much more difficult question to answer well. Interviewers are hip to the “I’m an overachiever who doesn’t know when to quit” non-answer to this question, so it can be very difficult to know the right way to respond.
Wrong answer: Both brutal honesty (“I’m a terrible procrastinator”) and lying through your teeth (“I have none!”) are mistakes.
Right answer: This is an opportunity to be honest about yourself while still giving the impression that you are a great candidate. For example, you might tell the interviewer that your previous employer had stated that you sometimes focused on details when you needed to see more of the bigger picture. But don’t stop there. Then go on to talk about what you have done to work on that flaw and use specific examples from your resume to back up your claims that you are working on this issue. You’ll get points for honesty, and you’ll have turned this difficult question into a review of what you have done and how you have worked through an issue.
5. What are your salary requirements?
A businessman once told me that the first person to name a number in any negotiation—from haggling over the price of a car to salary negotiations—is the loser.
So this question is definitely a difficult one.
But on the other hand, it is important for you and the interviewer to know that you are on the same page financially.
So how to answer?
Wrong answer: Giving a specific salary amount is generally a bad idea before you have received a job offer. In particular, you do not want to disclose how much you are currently making and use that as a benchmark for how much you’d like to make: “I earned $40,000 in my last job and I’d like to get at least $45,000 to $50,000.” This is a mistake because you do not yet know what your job requirements will be. You could either be low-balling your worth, in which case you could land the job but earn less than you could have, or you could be pricing yourself out of their range, even though you might be willing to earn less in order to work for that company.
Right answer: If possible, defer this conversation until after you either have a job offer, or you are in an interview that includes Human Resources, which indicates that a job offer is probably forthcoming. To defer, you can tell the interviewer that you would be open to a discussion about fair salary expectations further along in the interview process. If pressed, go ahead and name a range of figures, rather than a specific dollar amount, and base that range on research into the salary expectations of your field. For example, you might say, “I know that programmers can earn between $50,000 and $60,000 per year in this area, and I think a fair and competitive number for both of us could be found in that range.”
6. What kind of co-workers do you find difficult to work with?
This is another question that you almost wonder why is still on the rosters.
Interviewers have to know that people can’t be honest in responding. Tiptoeing around this land mine can be tough without preparing ahead of time.
Wrong answer: Laying out your peeves and annoyances at dealing with Too-Much-Perfume-Lady, Takes-Credit-for-Other-People’s-Work-Guy, and Been-Here-So-Long-She’s-Territorial-About-Ridiculous-Things-Battle-Axe may feel good, but they will get your resume placed in the circular file. On the other hand, claiming that you’ve never had any work conflicts in your career will get you disbelieving looks.
Right answer: Acknowledge that workplace conflicts happen, but try to focus on how you work to deflect or avoid them. For example, you might say that you haven’t ever worked with anyone you’ve found truly difficult, but it’s been your experience that the occasional interpersonal conflict has always been a learning experience. You might follow up with an example of a minor conflict that you worked through with the other individual. It will allow the interviewer to see that you are a team player who can overcome the inevitable clashes in the workplace.
7. Describe a problem you have encountered and how you solved it.
This is a fairly straightforward question, but it can still be tricky to answer, particularly if you are early in your career.
The interviewer is looking to see that you are able to think critically and develop solutions to problems.
If the answer to your question shows how well suited you are to the particular job and industry, even better.
But coming up with an example can be tough.
Wrong answer: “I can’t think of anything.” This is probably the worst thing you could say in response to this question. Even if the problem you describe has little to do with what your duties will be in the prospective job, taking about that will be much better than drawing a blank.
Right answer: Take time before you start interviewing to think over any problems you have encountered, either in your career or in your schooling. Whether you solved the problem of unscrupulous landlord who refused to fix a leak in apartment during your undergraduate days, or you solved a production issue in your last company that led to saving thousands of dollars for the organization, your interviewer wants to know that you are capable of taking a problem by the horns.
8. What are the first five things you would do if you got this position?
This is another question that could be potentially hazardous depending on who is interviewing you and how they feel about the position.
Wrong answer: Most people know better than to answer this question with a list of slacker activities: “Plan my first vacation, scout out the coffee machine…” However, going in the opposite direction and listing five ways that you will overhaul the department or make huge changes to current practices can also bite you in the butt. Your interviewer might feel things work just fine or have some specific ideas about what changes are needed that are different from yours.
Right answer: This is a time to focus on how you will fit into the company and department you are joining. So, the answer to this question should start with taking some time to learn culture and practices. You might say you’d like to start by spending time with X team or Y department to learn what is most needed from your position.
But you don’t want to completely defer the question by stating that you need more information. In addition to giving some ideas of where you will start learning about the processes of the company, you might also want to list two or three places that could potentially use some tweaking, based on what you already know of the organization. A good answer might look like this:
“I’d like to start by getting to know my team and the current infrastructure. I want to have a good sense of what’s working and what can be improved before making any big decisions. I do have some ideas coming into this, however. For example, from what I’ve read about your company, I know that finding a balance between customer satisfaction and cost-cutting measures has been a consistent issue, so I’d like to look into the possibility…”
From there, you can list some of the ideas you have come up with for solving problems, without appearing to step on any toes.
9. The unconventional question.
Many interviewers will ask a completely off-the-wall question in order to see how you do in a stressful situation. Some examples of these questions include If you could compare yourself to any inanimate object, what would it be? and If you could be a superhero, what would your super power be?
Companies are turning to unconventional interview questions because they are much harder for a candidate to prep for, and can often give the interviewer a better sense of a candidate truly is.
Wrong answer: “Wha…?” Though you may feel completely at sea, don’t let your interviewer see your confusion.
Right answer: These questions are designed to catch you off guard because presumably you are well prepared for the common questions. So make sure you take a moment to think about the question and the tone of the interview and the company before answering. You can even say something along the lines of, “Wow, that question’s a first for me. Hmm…” to buy yourself a little time to think. Then give an answer that is true to you—whether that means you use light humor or answer the question seriously based on your understanding of the position. Your interviewer will be impressed that you are able to remain calm and come up with a creative answer.
10. What questions do you have for me?
This is the classic interview ender, and it has undermined many an otherwise good interview.
Wrong answer: There are two ways to answer this question incorrectly. The first is to have no questions prepared. That shows that you lack an interest in the organization and have neglected to do any advanced research.
The second is to ask only self-serving questions. For example, if you ask about benefits, vacation time, or potential for raises or advancement, it will make your interviewer think you’re only interested in what the company can offer you.
Right answer: Questions that focus on how you can serve the company will help to round out a great interview. For example, you might ask about specific projects you would be working on, or about how the department will take advantage of your specialized knowledge.
In addition to those sorts of questions, asking about specifics of how the company operates and what to expect from the position can indicate that you have done your homework and are truly hoping to make a good impact on the organization. These questions include: To what do you attribute to the success of your organization? and Can you tell me why this position is open? and Can you describe the ideal candidate for this position?
Preparing for the Interview
Preparing for interviews is about more than just polishing your resume and getting your best suit dry-cleaned. Figuring out ahead of time how you will answer common questions—and then taking the time to practice answering them—will help you to stand out from the crowd and land that job.