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Smart Answers to Common Job Interview Questions

By Jeff Lipschultz

One of the most common questions in an interview is “Tell me about yourself.” Actually, it is not even a question--it is an invitation. It is an opportunity to share with the interviewer whatever you think is important in their hiring decision.

More importantly, it is your chance to differentiate yourself. In most cases, most of the standard questions allow the same.

[MORE: Answering: Tell Me About Yourself.]


As some of you know from reading my free Job-Hunt interviewing guide -- Successful Job Interviewing: What Job Candidates Need to Know -- I recommend building a checklist of key experiences and attributes you want to cover and find opportunities to present them during the interview. The “Standard Questions” are often times those moments.

Answering the Most Common Job Interview Questions So You Stand Out

Here are some of the most popular questions and my thoughts on how to answer them.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Employers don’t necessarily care to hear that you expect to climb the corporate ladder and be a supervisor. If the job you’re interviewing for is not a supervisor, they probably aren’t concerned about your management skills. You can share how you’ve been a mentor to others and led projects with little to no supervision. That should indicate you have leadership potential.

Focus on them: In five years, you should have made a significant impact to the company’s bottom line. Think about how you can achieve this in the role you’re interviewing for. In technology careers, advancing your skills is important, too. You should be able to share what areas you want to strengthen in the near term (but be careful that they are not areas of expertise that the company needs now).

[MORE: Answering: Where Do You See Yourself in Five Years?.]

Why should we hire you?

This is a differentiation question. What you want to tell them is: they'd be crazy not to they hire you.

Focus on them: You need to not only share how you meet almost all the criteria they seek, but also have two to three additional abilities that they might not even know they need…yet. They need to know you are a candidate who can meet their needs now, but also be valuable for where they want to go. Are they likely to need another skill set as they grow as a company? Or maybe you have skills that you noticed are in another job description they are looking to fill; you can help out with those deliverables until they find someone (or be a backup to the person they hire).

Have you been down a path already that they are currently starting? Having “lessons learned” to offer them is a very strong plus for a job candidate.

[MORE: Answering: Why Should We Hire You?.]

Why do you want to work here?

The answer to this question has two aspects: the content and the delivery.

Focus on them:

  • Content -- Employers want to know you feel you can fit in at the company quickly. That means on deliverables, but also company culture. You’ll likely have to do some homework to answer this one. You need to understand the reasons why others enjoy working there. Is it a great place to advance your skills, have great challenges to add to your resume, or will it allow you to grow as a professional?
  • Delivery -- The delivery must be genuine. If a hiring manager feels you’re just “telling them want they want to hear,” but don’t mean it…well, the interview is over in their mind. They want to know this is not just a job and paycheck. They want to hear this is what you want to do and the best place to do it.

[MORE: Answering: Why Do You Want to Work Here?.]

What do you know about us?

This is actually a test. If you know very little, it is an indication that you are not very serious about working there.

Focus on them: Candidates who are really excited about the prospect of working there have done their homework. If you really want to stand out, learn more than what is listed on their web site. Do some heavy research—perhaps find some articles on the company that not many would know about. It may even come up in conversation spontaneously, and you can show them a copy of the article (I have had this happen to me).

[MORE: Answering: What Do You Know About Us?.]

How do people describe you?

Here’s another opportunity to differentiate yourself. Everyone claims to be: a hard worker, good communicator, and team player. But how many are a: problem-solver, game-changer, leader in the industry? Be creative, and have stories to back it up. The interviewer will want to know why someone thinks you are one of these things.

Focus on them: You want to present attributes that make you sound like the go-to guy or gal wherever you work. Even the standard answers can be taken a step further to be more valuable:

  • Yes, they want hard workers, but most likely that’s commonplace at their office. Maybe you work hard, but also help others work fewer hours (by helping them do their job better or making their jobs easier).
  • Good communicators are everywhere. But this doesn’t mean just speaking well. It includes listening. Do you hear things that others don’t? Do you understand things quickly? Can you figure out what people are trying to tell you through other clues (body language, for example)?
  • Being a good team player is expected, too. But what does this really mean? Getting along with everyone? That’s not hard to do if you’re a nice person. Pulling your weight in the office? Again, expected. What have you done, beyond your job description, that saved the team from a disaster or helped them make an impossible deadline? Have you won an award for this?

What is your greatest strength/ greatest weakness?

Your greatest strength is something they need.

Focus on them: You have many strengths, but pick the one they need help with the most. Is it your expertise in a particular skill? Is it your ability to turn low-performing teams into high performers? Share something that makes them think they need to hire you…right now.

I hate the “greatest weakness” question. Everyone knows it’s a trap, and everyone knows the candidate is going to say something trite (popular example: "I’m a perfectionist"). When you give a real answer, you are being genuine. You are admitting you have some growth opportunities and are not perfect. But you can include that you already have a plan to overcome this weakness through training or practice.

Some people even insert a little humor in their answer—“I wish I was better at tennis.” You can, too, if you feel like the interviewer has a sense of humor. But, be sure to quickly follow with a serious answer. Showing you have a lighter side is usually a good thing.

[MORE: Answering: What Is Your Greatest Strength? and Answering: What Is Your Greatest Weakness?.]

When can you start?

Be careful about this question for a few reasons. First of all, it doesn’t mean you “got the job.” They may be just checking to add that to their notes. You must keep your guard up until you are in your car and driving away from the interview.

If you are currently employed, you should be honest about the start date and show professionalism. You should tell them you would have to discuss a transition with your current company and see if they require a two-week notice. If you currently have a critical role, your potential new employer would expect a transition period.

If you can start right away (and they know you are not currently employed), you certainly can say you’re able to start tomorrow. Sense of urgency and excitement about starting work at the new company is always a good thing.

Bottom line:

Even the “boring, standard questions” can have unique and useful answers. You should think hard about how you can differentiate yourself from others every step of the way during the interview.

About the author...

Job-Hunt's Working with Recruiters Expert Jeff Lipschultz is a 20+ year veteran in management, hiring, and recruiting of all types of business and technical professionals. He has worked in industries ranging from telecom to transportation to dotcom. Jeff is a founding partner of A-List Solutions, a Dallas-based recruiting and employment consulting company. He is a unique recruiter with Lean Engineering experience and a Six Sigma Blackbelt. Learn more about him through his company site Follow Jeff on Twitter (@JLipschultz) and on GooglePlus.

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