It’s scary thinking about your upcoming job interview, and how to handle all those questions employers so often like to ask. So here are some commonly-asked sample interview questions and tips to help you come up with your own original answers to even the most difficult ones!
But first, please know that one of the most important secrets for answering any interview question – including the tough ones – is simply to listen carefully to the interviewer (don’t think ahead), and just try your best to make your answer feel real – and part of a natural conversation.
As tempting as it may be, the last thing you want to do is come prepared with canned answers you’ve memorized – especially if you found those answers online. You not only run the risk of sounding wooden, but you just might wind up with the same boring interview answer as the person before you!
How to handle the most common job interview questions
Below are some techniques that will help you see how to come up with your own answers for various types of job interview questions. Think carefully about each sample question as it relates to you, your experience and the job.
To help you feel more confident with your responses, practice ahead of time with friends or family – or even in the mirror or using a recording / video device.
On the day of the interview, trust yourself to answer the questions in your own voice and personality. If you listen carefully to the interviewer and stay in the moment (no rushing ahead in your brain to practice the answer), you’ll do fine. Once you get the idea, you can usually use similar techniques on any question they ask.
What’s your greatest weakness?
This question is often used by people new to interviewing, but since it can show how a person handles the obvious, even longtime job interview pros may ask it. I prefer a response that sounds sincere, but winds up positive, using the basic format of (1) this is my weakness; (2) I’ve worked on it; and (3) now I’ve learned to turn it into a strength.
It can vary from that, but mainly you want to leave a good impression of how well you face and then overcome issues. What you don’t want to do is play the old worn-out “I work way too hard” weakness card. You might get away with it, but it shows no creativity and possibly leaves a taste of someone who thinks they are outsmarting the interviewer – or trying to.
What’s your greatest strength?
There are many good ways to answer this question, but when you prepare I suggest you think ahead of time about what the new job requires (carefully review the job description) and what you’ve done in the past (good to look at your resume). Think of a strength of yours that fits nicely with the job you want. And make sure to have a quick story as an example of how you successfully used that skill / strength in a prior job.
You don’t want to brag, but you also don’t want to seem like you’re uncomfortable talking about your strengths. Again, just answer naturally. It might help to sit up straight when you tell it, leaning in a little toward the interviewer and looking her or him in the eyes with just a bit of a smile.
Tell me something about yourself
One of my favorite questions to ask a job candidate. I usually use it at the beginning of an interview to get a feel for the candidate – and to see what they choose to tell me about themselves. Remember that there are a lot more questions to come, so you don’t want to start at “I was born in a log cabin… ” And you definitely don’t want to focus on overly personal things like marriage status, health issues, unrelated hobbies.
Can you be asked about your religion in a job interview? The short answer is no, though there are exceptions.
Questions about gender, nationality, religion, and age can be asked under very specific circumstances. If an employer can prove that these qualities are “occupational qualifications,” qualities that are necessary to perform the role, they may be legal to ask. In the case of religion, it would reasonable for a synagogue to require that rabbi candidates be Jewish to perform the duties the role requires.
This is a time to tell your short career story, perhaps starting with education, and touching on key points in your career that ideally lead up to this moment – and the reason you are an ideal candidate. The best things you can tell them about yourself are things that make them think “we can use someone like that.”
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
This is one of those questions with no one-size-fits-all answer. Depends on the type of company and job. Some interviewers look for strong signs of ambition. Others, for a person who will be content to grow slowly, taking on more responsibility as the need arises. And some, although they may not tell you this, are fully aware that you may not see yourself at all in this company in 5 years, but are just looking to see how you handle the question.
Hopefully your research prior to the interview will help you decide what is best. For me a good answer paints a picture of a person who will look to build solid working relationships, and do their best wherever they are and whatever challenges they are given. Someone looking to become an essential part of the company and take on new projects and opportunities as they arise. You may also want to mention some particular goals or things you’d like to take on at some point based on the type of job.
What do you know about our company?
Companies like to know that you took the time to research them and learn about what they do, and perhaps something about their values and stated mission, if they have one. The last thing you want to do is show up and say that you don’t know much, but are very willing to learn. That tells them you’ll have the same passive attitude as an employee.
Why do you want to work here/why are you right for this job?
Once again, find a way to use your career story to point to exactly this job at this time. Really think about this ahead of time. You don’t have to prove that this is all you’ve ever dreamed about since you were a little kid – unless that’s true. But even then, try not to be too over the top.
And try not to make your answer completely about what this generally represents (I’ve always dreamed of working in the hotel industry), as opposed to explaining why this company in particular fits so well with your carer goals.
Again, doing your research ahead of time can make all the difference. And remember when you answer to keep their needs in mind. “I would love to help you to ___.” (Fill in the blank based on your research.)
Why did you leave (or are thinking of leaving) your last job?
If you’re still in a job, then your answer can say something about looking for a more challenging job, or realizing that what you really want to do is what this new job offers, or you’re looking for advancement, etc. The main thing is to make it positive and NOT knock your current (or former) employer.
If you were fired or quit your last job, it’s especially important to think about your answer ahead of time. You don’t want to badmouth the last employer, because it makes the interviewer think that one day you’ll be saying this about them, even if you assure them it’s not true.
If something went wrong that they may hear about, be honest (you don’t need to go into major detail here), and follow up with what you learned from it and how you’re more determined than ever to do a great job now. If it’s just that it wasn’t a great fit, you can say that – adding something about why you think this job is.
What would your former co-workers / boss tell us about you?
You’re going to want to look for some things that not only were positive experiences in some prior job, but that point to the new job as well. Some interviewers will be happy with just the experiences, but many will also be looking for words about your attitude and how you helped solve problems or how you took on responsibilities that weren’t necessarily part of the job.
Really think about things that show how cooperative, resourceful, determined, talented (without sounding too boastful), and pleasant to work with you are. You don’t have to hit all these points – and I urge you to come up with some of your own – but this should at least give you a good idea where to go with your answer.
Are you able to handle stressful situations?
Every job has its stresses and most require multitasking. Do you like to make lists to better manage your time during busy periods at work? Do you manage stress with a walk around the block? There isn’t a right or wrong answer to this question, but having an answer prepared will help you through one stressful situation: the job interview.
What’s your greatest accomplishment up to now?
Think about everything you’ve ever done – both in the workplace and elsewhere – and then choose one experience that speaks to the job you’re applying for in some way. Most of you will think of things from other jobs, but there are also things you may have started or taken charge of that you’re especially proud of that can apply. Try to fit the skills of that experience, and the way you tell the story, to the new job.
What’s the biggest challenge you ever had to overcome?
If possible, you can use the same story from the previous question (odds are they won’t ask both), and simply adapt the story as needed. Or, there may be some other thing, especially from a prior or current job, where you saved the day despite some really tough circumstances. Where I’d be careful is taking a story from your personal life.
You don’t want to let them too far into things that should stay personal at this point. So while your biggest challenge may have been overcoming cancer or a serious accident, this is probably not the time to bring that up, unless of course it relates directly to the job you’re applying for.
One of my best friends had polio at the age of 18 months and has been on crutches all her life. Never once did she mention this most obvious challenge in interviews. She just talked about her excellent skills and all that she had created and accomplished and – I admit she turned on the schmooze factor too – she usually got the job.
Just as an fyi … from a legal standpoint, illness and disabilities are not areas the interviewer should go into. And if they do, just bring it right back to your skills and work abilities.
Have you ever failed at anything?
Before graduating with my MBA, I had an interview with the senior VP of a major bank (at least major at the time). He asked me if I ever failed at anything. I was young, and more than a little nervous – the kind of nervousness where your brain freezes while searching for something to say – and I simply said “NO.” He looked at me and said “Too bad. You can learn a lot from failure.”
I got the job anyway. (I say that to help assure all of you who worry about each answer you give.) But what I learned was that if ever asked again, not only did I have an answer, but I had an explanation of what the experience taught me and why I think it made me stronger. And if you can tie all that in with the job you’re applying for, 20 extra bonus points.
Do you have any questions you’d like to ask us?
If you don’t already know this, most interviewers end the interview by asking what you’d like to know about them or any other questions you might have. So come prepared with some questions that show you understand the company and job. You can ask things like what an average day on the job might be like or what challenges they see for the department over the coming year or something specific that you got from your research. Please don’t stick with just those. Use them to help spark your own questions!
As a rule, a first interview is usually not a good time to ask about salary or benefits, unless they raise the issue – or unless you’re sure this is your only interview and the salary wasn’t stated anywhere you could see it. At the very least, don’t try to negotiate salary at this point unless an offer is made.
Oh … one of my favorite last questions to ask as a job candidate, as the interview winds down, is how soon they’ll be contacting me if they’re interested. It helps give you some idea of the time frame, and perhaps helps them see you as part of the next step. Some people end with “When would you like me to start?” That can be a little pushy and maybe even a turnoff, but in the right interview it can sometimes land with a smile. I leave that one totally up to you!
In the end, it’s important to remember that it’s not as much the exact words you use when answering each question, but the overall impression you leave. So answer each question as well as you can, but don’t get caught up in worrying about what you just said. Keep going. Keep it conversational. Remember to stay pleasant and have good energy – and to leave with a smile and a firm (but not painfully so) handshake.
The rest is about how well you fit with the company’s goals and culture, and those are things a good interviewer can get a feel for no matter how much you try to figure them out and adjust. In fact, over the years I’ve interviewed more than my share of candidates where you can just see the “what does she want me to say” wheels spinning on each answer. And it doesn’t help me see the real person, which is what I want.
All you can really do in any interview is to help them see the best real you – and the potential match!