by David Couper
Research indicates that one reason job-seekers do not spend more time preparing for interviews is that they believe they have no way of knowing what questions will be asked. That's true to an extent, but some questions are asked fairly consistently in interviews.
This article offers advice on responding to a subjectively selected set of 10 frequently asked interview questions:
1. "Tell me about yourself..."
A job interview will often start out with this question, but it doesn't mean it's a good opener. "Tell me about yourself," is often more accurately translated to mean that the interviewer is thinking: "I don't know to what to ask. But I heard someone ask this question, and it seemed to go OK. So I'm going to use it too." The main problem with this question is that you don't know what the interviewer wants and needs. You are just guessing.
The best advice is to answer this open-ended first question briefly. Outline your education, professional experience, and key skills in a few minutes flat. Be bold, brief, and to the point.
Then begin your questions to find out what the employer actually wants from this hire. The interviewer doesn't want to know everything about you. He or she doesn't care about half the things you have done. And if you take time to answer this question fully you will give a lot of information the employer doesn't want, or worse, that will be held against you.
All the employer wants to know is:
- Can you do the job -- do you have the skills?
- Will you fit in -- will you be productive on this team?
- Will you cause any problems -- will you leave after two weeks, sue us, get us sued, or be a pain to work with?
Focus on what you do and then highlight what makes you different. Differentiating between you and the competition is a smart thing to do.
2. "What do you consider your most significant accomplishment?"
Don't ramble on about everything and anything you've ever done, from winning first prize in a science fair to having children. Instead, discuss your hard work and accomplishments that relate to the job -- and only to this job. Make a list before the interview of your most significant achievements, narrow it down, and then discuss these highlights in two to three minutes. Remember to use stories to get your point across.
3. "Why are you leaving your current position?"
Whatever you do, don't badmouth your previous employer or co-workers. Instead, focus on the benefits of the experience gained in your last position.
4. "What do you consider your biggest weakness?"
An interview is a sales exercise. Soda manufacturers don't advertise their products as sugar water. No, they talk about the positives -- how it makes you feel good and quenches your thirst. You should do the same. Instead of talking about weaknesses, talk about something that you have worked on that is now not an issue. Preferably you had this weakness earlier in your career. Or talk about an issue that everyone knows is a challenge; for example, dealing with international business and juggling time zones.
5. "How have you handled stressful/frustrating/difficult situations in the past?"
The interviewer is looking to see if you can deal with daily petty problems. Make sure you address your common sense, perseverance, and patience in these situations. Have a relevant example you can cite. Use one that highlights how you used your unique persona to solve the issue.
6. "Our company has to deal with 'X;' how would you handle this situation?"
Don't offer a complete solution. Instead talk about the process you would go through to get to the solution. Hypothetical questions are often trick questions. The employer often knows the answer because the situation may be real rather than fictional, and it's something the organization has been through. You are at a disadvantage in this situation as you don't know the details of the problem, how the culture works and what options have failed. If you launch into a solution that the employer already rejected, you don't look smart; you look naive and unprepared. You also don't want to give too much away. Let them offer you the job if they want the full solution.
7. "So what makes you think you are qualified for this position? You don't seem to be?"
This question is designed to provoke a response. The response the interviewer is looking for is not the answer but how you react to confrontation and conflict. Pick two or three main aspects about the job, and about yourself, and connect them. Target the skills directly related to the position and then provide a brief story to show your success in past similar situations. Don't get combative with the employer, but prove your value.
8. "Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years?"
On a beach in Mexico ... no, just kidding. Make your goals realistic. Too much ambition does not look good in an interview. Promotions usually come in one to three years, so work with that reality. Don't talk about your dreams that don't relate to the position you're interviewing for, thus giving the interviewer the impression you are not committed or planning to stay (Example: A desire to start your own business).
9. "Why should we hire you for this position?"
Summarize your skills in a way that is directly relevant to what you have learned about the position in the interview. Be thoughtful, be organized, and be genuine. The unspoken part of this question is "Why should we hire you [over all the other candidates] for this position?" Be prepared to describe how you can do the job better than anyone else. See our article, Why Should We Hire You? Responding to the Job-Interview Concern that Underlies All Questions.
10. "Is there anything you would like to know about the company?"
This question is often the last one asked. Have a few questions prepared regarding the position and the potential for growth. Having researched vacation time, pay, and other benefits with HR, the recruiter, and colleagues in the industry, leave questions about vacation time and pay raises at home. You want to get offered the job before you get into specifics. Also refrain from asking questions that can easily be answered through research, such as on the employer's Website. [Editor's Note: See also our article, Questions You Can Ask at the Job Interview, for a list of questions job-seekers can ask at the interview.]
Final Thoughts on Answering Job Interview Questions
While the foregoing questions are asked in many interviews, every interview is different, and the variety of questions you could be asked is vast. See many more interview questions and sample responses in Quintessential Careers' Job Interview Questions Database for Job-Seekers.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Career Coach David Couper is author of Outsiders on the Inside: Creating A Winning Career... Even When You Don't Fit In.