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Smart Answers to 15 Common Interview Questions

By Jeff Lipschultz

Smart Answers to Common Job Interview Questions

Stand Out with Your Answers to These Interview Questions

The number of questions that can be asked by Human Resources or the hiring manager is limitless. Here are some of the most popular questions and my thoughts on how to answer them.

1. Tell me about yourself

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 from other candidates. In most cases, the standard questions offer the same opportunity.

[MORE: Answering: Tell Me About Yourself.]

2. 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?.]


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3. 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 only share how you meet almost all the criteria they seek, and 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 not only meet their needs now, but will also be valuable for where they want to go in the future.

  • 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?.]

4. 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 not only deliverables in the job description, but also your fit with the company culture. You will 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?.]

5. 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?.]

6. 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?

7. What is your greatest strength/ greatest weakness?

Your greatest strength is something they need. Don't choose something irrelevant to the job or the employer, like your skill in sudoku (unless that is a requirement for this job).

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?.]

8. When can you start?

Be careful about this question for a few reasons:

  • It doesn’t mean that 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 to see if they require a two-week notice (or some other timing). 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.

9. How did you find this job?

You may have found the opportunity through research on ideal jobs where you can make the most impact and hope to grow professionally. I would also hope you looked for companies that you feel meet your standards for corporate culture, investment in employees, successful business model (or perhaps giving back to community), and any other aspects you feel are important to you. Make sure you can go into a little detail on what you found in your research.

The “job” may have found you. In that case, you can say you were contacted by HR or a recruiter who felt you were a good fit. But don’t leave it there. You should still mention you did your homework and verified that this is right for you -- as a potential contributor to the company’s success, and as a good match for what you’re looking for in an employer.

[MORE: Answering How Did You Find This Job.]

10. Why do you want this job?

There should be a heartfelt answer on this one. Your gut should be giving you the answer. Although, if the reason is about money, location, work schedule, benefits, and other factors not tied to actual role, you may want to think a little more about your answer. None of those reasons are important to the hiring manager.

Focus on them: They want to hear that this job is exactly what you’ve been thinking about as a next step in your career.

Of course, the follow-up question they’ll ask is: How so?

Be prepared to answer that with your rationale for how this job meets your professional needs and how you can contribute at your highest potential while in this role. People want to feel like their work means something. There is nothing wrong with sharing that feeling in a thoughtful way.

[MORE: Answering Why Do You Want This Job.]

11. Why do you want to leave your current job?

This can be a deal-breaker question. Obviously:

  • If you say you hate your current boss or company, the interviewer will naturally believe you will hate them eventually.
  • If you say, your current compensation or role is below your standards, they will again assume the worst.

Although these may be legitimate reasons to leave a job, there must be other reasons, too. Your current company or department may have become unstable (hopefully the interviewer’s company is very stable). Your current employer may not be able to offer you any professional growth (the interviewer’s should be able to do this).

Do you see a pattern here? Highlight a reason that the hiring manager cannot be concerned about.

Of course, if you have an issue that is very important to you that could be a deal-breaker (like company culture), you can mention it. Just be prepared for them to take one extreme or the other. For example, maybe you only want to work for companies that buy from vendors in your home country. The hiring manager will let you know if their company does this. And if they don’t, I guess the interview is over.

[MORE: Answering Why You Want to Leave Your Current Job.]

12. Why did you quit your last job?

This is a tough one. Typically, you should not quit a job until you have accepted another job. However, life doesn’t always allow that to happen. Did you quit because you couldn’t spend enough time looking for your next job? Perhaps the company you worked for was close to shutting down and you didn’t want to waste valuable time waiting for the last day of operation.

Certainly, there are common reasons that are understood as necessity:

  • Had to move to a new location for various reasons.
  • Family or health reasons.
  • Unbearable work conditions (careful here, as already discussed).

The key to answering this question is to keep it short. Don’t feel the need to expand your answer to include a lot of details.

[MORE: After You Quit, Answering Why You Left Your Job.]

13. Why were you fired?

This is another danger zone. This is not the time for defending yourself with a long story about you being the victim.

If you made a mistake, you are going to have to try to minimize the severity of the situation. An argument with a boss could be described as a difference in opinion. Not following orders because your moral compass told you not to could be described as “taking the high road.”

Just be careful not to cast blame on others. Consider including a “silver lining.” Did you learn a lot from the experience and now possess knowledge that will mitigate the chances of this happening again?

[MORE: After Being Fired, Answering Whey Did You Leave Your Job.]

Laid off is not fired: If you were part of a layoff, this is different from being fired. It was likely a financial decision and you were part of a group that was targeted as part of budget cuts. Layoffs are typically not personal—they are just business. Hiring managers know this (and likely have been involved in one at some point in their career).

[MORE: If You Were Laid Off, You Weren't Fired!.]

14. Explain your gap in employment

I’ve dedicated a whole article to this topic. The bottom line is you should make sure to paint a picture that you were productive, improving yourself, helping family, or something constructive.

Hiring managers don’t want to hear that you felt it was time for a “long-awaited break from the rat-race.” Or time to recharge your batteries. The first thought that will pop into their heads: When is your next break coming? Probably in the middle of a big project we’re working on.

[MORE: Answering Why the Gap in Employment Question.]

15. Do you have any questions?

My simple advice is: yes, you had better have questions. When I hired people to work on my teams in the past, I expected interviewees to have questions.

This is your chance to “interview the interviewer.” In essence, to learn about the company, the role, the corporate culture, the manager’s leadership style, and a host of other important things. Candidates who are genuinely interested in the opportunity, ask these types of questions. Those who don’t ask questions give the impression they’re “just kicking the tires” or not really too concerned about getting the job.

When given the floor to ask questions, you should realize the interview is not over yet. Good candidates know this is another time to shine. It is imperative that you ask questions that do three things:

  1. Show you did some research about the company.
  2. Mention something else (related, but interesting) about you.
  3. Will have an interesting answer or prompt a good discussion.

After you have had a chance to ask your questions, you will want to validate that you are an ideal candidate for the job. To do this, you should probe into the minds of the interviewers and see if there are any concerns they have about you.

The key question to do this can be along the lines of:

“After discussing this job, I feel as if I would be a perfect fit for it. I’m curious to know if there is anything I said or DID NOT say that would make you believe otherwise.”

The answer you get to this question may open the door to mentioning something you did not get to talk about during the interview or clarify any potential misconception over something that was covered. You may not get a chance to address shortcomings in a follow-up interview -- it is imperative to understand what was missing from the discussion while still in the interview.

{MORE: 50 Good Questions for You to Ask in Your Job Interview and 45 Questions You Should NOT Ask in a Job Interview.]

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.

More Help with Successful Job Interviews

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.

In developing your answers to the typical questions, focus on stories rather than simply stated facts. Read my post The Secret to Job Interview Success for details on how to choose and structure those stories.

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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 alistsolutions.com. Follow Jeff on Twitter (@JLipschultz) and on GooglePlus.


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