[IWC] Post 6: 15 Common Interview Questions

In the previous post, we did a deep dive into behavioral-based interview questions. In this (super long) post, we’ll talk about open-ended questions. Just like the last post, the post follows the same order as the workbook so you can work as you read. As with the rest of the activities in this series, try to craft your answers with a spe­cific job in mind.

Now let’s get into it!

In addition to job-specific questions, there are questions that you will likely encounter in any interview regardless of the position or industry. Below, I discuss the rationale for these questions and how to approach answering them. Some of the explanations are longer than others because some questions are more complicated than others. Still, I try to give enough of a prompt for each one so that you can develop a proper response in an interview. In the worksheet bundle, I give plenty of space for you to brainstorm your own responses. The text boxes are pretty large because I want you to jot notes and possibilities before you get to the more concise, inter­view-ready responses.

Tell me about yourself.

You’ll get a version of this question in every interview you ever go on, so it’s good to have a strategy for it. This question tends to trip people up because it’s so open-end­ed that you could really take it anywhere. But you shouldn’t. The strategy for this question is to keep it your response in relation to the job you’re interviewing for. (In fact, I tell clients to mentally add “in relation to this job” to the end of that question, just so that they get into the right mindset to answer it.)

How to respond: Think about your past in relation to your present – How did you come to interview for that particular job at that particular company? Tell the interview­er about your first experiences with the field or industry – What piqued your interest? Who influenced you? This question should humanize you, so personal details are not off limits. For example, if you want to be a lawyer because your mom is a lawyer, this is useful information to share. Even if you want to be a lawyer because you were inspired by Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, share that, too… It’s real! In either case, back it up with examples of how you’ve done your own information gathering about the field. This shows that your decision to enter the field is an informed on – with it the entire point of this question!

How to screw this up: Unsuccessful respondents tend to fall in the two extremes: too autobiographical or purely professional. It’s okay to have personal details but if you start talking about the dog you had when you were five, stop. That’s way too much information! On the flipside, it’s not enough to give information related to school and work. Don’t list out everything on your resume because they know your resume! In­stead, provide personal context to your professional experiences and show the inter­viewer who you really are.

Walk me through your resume.

With this question, interviewers are looking to see how you frame your experiences because it gives them insight on how you think your background fits with their opening. If you highlight irrelevant parts of your resume, for example, then they may get the sense that you don’t know what you’re interviewing for, then not hire you. While you can point out especially meaningful experiences, keep this to a minimum if they’re otherwise irrelevant.

How to respond: First, go in the order of your resume so that it’s easier for the inter­viewer to follow. Second, be sure to highlight the most relevant aspects of your ex­periences. It’s okay to skip over things that don’t matter because, like I said before, these details are not important. (FYI: This should be how your resume is constructed anyway.) The flipside of this is if there are any background details or stories that you didn’t have space to share on your resume or in your cover letter, you should definitely tell them. For example, if you are interviewing for a marketing job and you didn’t have space to detail a marketing plan you made for a previous experience, use this time to talk about it.

How to screw this up: The most important thing to remember is ABP: always be posi­tive. You don’t want to speak disparagingly about an experience. If it’s that bad or that disconnected from what you’re currently pursuing, then don’t put in on your resume! Or just gloss over it with a comment about how it ‘showed you what you didn’t want to do’ and keep it moving. Speaking of keeping it moving: the responses to this ques­tion have the potential to be insanely long, so be sure to be as concise as possible. For a 1-page resume, 3 minutes tops. Finally, it’s not story time, so don’t read your re­sume word-for-word! This is the quickest way to create a disengaged interviewer and cost yourself a job.

Why do you want to work for our company?

This is one of the questions that consistently trips my clients up because people tend to be more concerned about the job they are applying to. I get it – it’s called a job search not a company search. But you have to consider the company because that’s going to determine how and the conditions under which your job is done. All companies have different cultures, values, professional development opportuni­ties, and priorities. It is up to you to know how the one that you’re interviewing for operates. You can get this information from the research you did prior to the interview. (See, this is why you need it!)

How to respond: To successfully answer this question, you need to 1) be able to artic­ulate the unique aspects of the company that set them apart from their competitors, and 2) show that you fit with the way they operate. Highlight the places where your skills and experiences would contribute to what they already do or what they are work­ing on.

How to screw this up: 1) You don’t have an answer. Always have an answer! 2) You give a vague one that makes it clear that didn’t do your research. 3) You highlight aspects of the company that have nothing to do with the position you’re interviewing for. All of these responses show a lack of preparedness for the interview, and a gen­eral disregard for the position and company as a whole. Applicants who display these characteristics are highly unlikely to get an offer.

What Is your greatest weakness?

This is everyone’s least favorite question, and for good reason – it’s hard! Interviews put people in the mindset of selling themselves and spinning everything positively, and this question asks you to do the opposite… At least, on the surface. In reality, the interviewer wants to know how you’re working to address whatever you think is a professional flaw.

How to respond: Just like in the “Tell me about yourself” question, this question’s unsaid part is ‘in relation to this job.’ Which of your weaknesses would make this par­ticular position challenging to perform? This is where you need to be strategic, as your weakness should not be an essential function of the job. If it is, then you’re probably applying for the wrong thing! Think about the weaknesses that you’re willing to talk about, and cross-reference them with the job description. This process should help you figure out which one(s) to avoid if asked this tricky question.

This question also has another unsaid part – ‘And how are you working on it?’ This is the part that most people forget, and why this question is perceived as a way to make applicants speak negatively about themselves. If you just float a flaw out there without addressing what you’re doing to fix it, the interviewer will be left with a bad taste in their mouth because it looks like you’re okay with the flaw since you’re not doing any­thing about it. Be sure to talk about the steps you’re taking to turn the weakness into a strength, and reassure the interviewer that it won’t be an issue on the job.

How to screw this up: I already discussed two wrong ways to answer this question: 1) Not giving corrective steps, and 2) Giving a weakness that is directly related to a key function of the job. A third is to say that you don’t have any weaknesses or “Can’t think of anything right now.” Umm, no. Never say that you don’t have any weaknesses. It makes you look like you’re full of yourself… which is definitely a weakness.

Why should you be hired?

This question is typically the last one that interviewers ask, so it represents your last chance to sell your qualifications for the position. While you’ve (hopefully) done this throughout the rest of the interview, now is the time to highlight the key points and leave the interviewer with no doubts.

How to respond: When preparing your response to this question, it is helpful to revisit the job description and whatever research notes you took to ensure you’re focused on the right things. (Good thing you have the IWC workbook!) Think about the strongest points that you can mention in your recap, and write them down so that you don’t forget while your under the stress of the interview. Stick to 3-5, so that you don’t find yourself monologuing at the end of the interview.

How to screw this up: If you feel that you’re missing something, don’t use your time to apologize for not have certain qualifications. Don’t remind the interviewers of your shortcomings, as this is not the last message you want them to receive. Rather, play up the strengths that you have in relation to the position, and emphasize your ability to learn quickly.

Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?

This question is often asked to entry-level and early career professionals, and is used by interviewers to 1) get a sense of where you want your career to go and 2) see if your desired trajectory fits with where the company is going/hoping to go. This is one of the freer questions, as you don’t have to necessarily tailor it to the company. Having a solid, thought out response that shows how the position you’re interviewing for fits with your overall plan is the key to this response.

How to respond: If your ultimate goals are (or could seem) totally different from the po­sition, it might signal to the interviewer that, if hired, you’re not planning to stay very long. If your ultimate goals are unrelated (and it’s okay if they are), be sure to discuss your timeline and how you see the position contributing to your goals. I’ve been in situations where a simple explanation to connect the dots goes a very long way.

How to screw this up: Not having a plan or saying that you see yourself in the posi­tion you are interviewing for are both ways to mess this one up. Even if your plan isn’t 100% fleshed out, you have to show that you’re thinking long-term about your career and taking your future seriously. Saying that you want to still be in that same position sounds bad because very few people stay in the same spot for that long. Same com­pany, yes. Same job, no. Both of these responses send the same message to the in­terviewer: You don’t know what you want. And, if you don’t know what you want, you probably don’t really want this job.

What did you learn from your last job?

IMHO, there is no such thing as a dead-end job. You should be able to learn something from every employment experience, regardless of the prestige or relevance of the position. Employers like to hear about what you gained from a previous job because they want to know how you take advantage of professional development, even if it’s not given by the organization.

How to respond: Now, professional development is a very fluid term. The conventional definition is that it is training or activities that help you do your job better, but it can PD can be anything that helps you decide the type of professional that you want to be. In the same way that taking an Excel training course can be useful, learning that you work better in a deadline-oriented environment is just as valid in developing you as a professional. When crafting your response, think of a more holistic definition of on the job learning and development and provide an answer that illustrates how you take advantage of all opportunities presented to you.

How to screw this up: You never want to say that you learned nothing from a job. Even if you weren’t given training that you think is relevant to your career, you still learned something. (In this case, you learned that you want to work somewhere that provides such training!) You may have to dig deep and get creative, but always provide your interviewer with a nugget that you’ve learned.

What past experiences most qualify you for this role?

Chances are good that if you’re being interviewed for a job, the employer believes that you’re qualified to do it. (Otherwise, they wouldn’t waste the resources to interview you.) An employer’s desire to see why you think you’re qualified stems from their want to hear it from you. They want to see if your explanation of your qualifications differ from theirs.

How to respond: Your response could either confirm their ideas of you or raise questions as to your motivations for applying to their job, so you need to be strategic. With whatever experiences you choose, include any off-the-resume details that are particularly relevant to the job. Dig deep into your reasoning, so that even if it’s different than the interviewers’ ideas, it works to contribute to their beliefs about your qualifications as opposed to detracts from them.

How to screw up: Since you can’t read the interviewers’ mind, it’s hard to know if your answers will coincide with their ideas. So as long as you back up your assertions with solid examples, you should be okay.

How will this job help you achieve your ultimate career goals?

This question asks you to situate the job you’re interviewing for within the context of your desired career path. Think of it as a more specific way to ask Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years, as the employer wants to get a better idea of where you think this job would fit in your trajectory.

How to respond: For this one, you want to convey how this job will be critical to your development as a professional in your field. Give specific examples of what you hope to learn, and how you plan to leverage these lessons moving forward. In addition, say why the company is the best place for you to be at that given point in your career. This is especially good to say if the job is one that you could do anywhere.

How to screw this up: 1) You say that you don’t know how this job will help you in the future. Even if you don’t really know, say something! Have a solid response so that the employer doesn’t think that you’re just taking the job to take it and will leave in a few months. 2) You say that you don’t have an ultimate career goal. It’s totally okay if you don’t know exactly where you want to be in the future, but don’t say this in an interview. Just pick something and go with it for the sake of the interview, especially if you’re genuinely interested in the job you’re interviewing for.

Why this field or career?

Employers ask this question to gain insight into the interviewee’s motivations for applying to their position that go beyond the position itself. This information is useful because it can shed light on the applicant’s current motivations and/or future plans. If the interviewee is planning to build a career in that industry, the employer may be comforted by that since it could mean they are more likely to stay in the position. If the interviewee is unsure, the employer could be leery of their commitment to the job.

How to respond: Your response to this question should include information that’s beyond the job description and include your interests in the industry as a whole. Say what brought you into the field and what you think your career will look like. Be sure to tell the interviewer how their position would help you along your career journey within your chosen field. (Good think you just thought about this!)

How to screw this up: If you’re unable to convey your interests beyond the job, it could hinder your chances at getting it. As I stated above, the employer might feel like you’re a flight risk and not hire you because they don’t want to go through the same process a few months down the road. If you’re genuinely not interested in the field but still want the job, be honest. Convince your interviewers that the job itself is something that you can see yourself doing for the long haul.

What is your ideal job or work situation?

This question requires you to think about your work style and the conditions under which you are most successful. Interviewers ask this type of question as a way to gauge your fit with the environment in their organization or department. If your responds runs askew of how they operate day-to-day, it could indicate to the employer that you won’t be satisfied in the job (even if you’re good at it).

How to respond: Be honest but strategic. Use your research to get an idea of how the department works, and highlight the places that you think your work style aligns with their environment. If you can’t find this information, then go with your gut. Say the things that would be deal-breakers for your professional success and satisfaction, and see where it takes you.

How to screw this up: Knowing how their company works and deliberately giving work conditions that run counter to it is really the only way to mess up this question. You have to highlight points of compromise or else you’re wasting everyone’s time in this interview, including your own. Remember: If they don’t operate in a way that will allow you to be successful, then this probably isn’t the job for you.

Where do you think you can add value to the organization?

Employers always want to feel like they’re getting a deal, so they prefer candidates that have skill sets beyond what is outlined in the job description. As the interviewee, it is your responsibility to highlight both your qualifications for the role and the relevant skills you have that can allow you to contribute in ways that other candidates may not. Even though they want people with more, the interviewers may not specifically ask about it, so you need to be ready to supply your extra skills whenever possible.

How to respond: Your research on both the job and the company will come in handy here, as you will know what skills the interviewer will value the most. Lay it on thick and discuss specific initiatives and/or projects where your skill set would come in handy. Technology and social media skills are great go-tos for this (unless you’re going for a job in tech or social media!) because there is always some program or software that can make projects easier, yet isn’t used by technophobes.

How to screw this up: You have to walk the line between “add value” and “fix problems”, as the employer may have a different idea of what issues they have. If you go in talking about how your skills can solve things that they don’t see as problems, the interviewer may feel slighted (even if you’re correct). Framing is the key to ensuring that you’re not being offensive.

If you were not extended an offer, why do you think that would be?

This question requires you to discuss the shortcomings of your application. Unlike a question like What is your greatest weakness, you don’t have to point out a specific flaw or discuss how you’re looking to shore up any issues that you may recognize in yourself. Rather, you have to provide the interviewers with the way that you would justify not being hired. It is a wordy way to ask Why wouldn’t we hire you?

How to respond: This is another one where you need to be honest but strategic in answering this question, as it is very easy to harp on the negatives. Instead of just pointing out a specific area where you are lacking, put the onus on the interviewers to see things from your perspective. For example: If the job wants 5 years of experience and you only have 3, bring this up in a way that shows that you don’t think it will be an issue if hired for the job. Something like “You may not hire me because I was unable to convey that, despite my lack of direct experience, I can still do this job very well” is a great way to convey your confidence in yourself.

How to screw this up: Saying “I don’t know” or something along the lines of “You’re dumb” are the exact wrong ways to answer this question. You have to show that you’re self-aware enough to know that you’re not the perfect candidate (because this person does not exist), but also show that you believe in yourself and your qualifications for the job.

If you didn’t have to work, what would you do with your time?

Questions about time spent out-of-work are ways that interviewers can get a better sense of who you are as a person. How you would spend your time if employment were not a necessity gives them an idea of your priorities, likes, and values. It is unlikely that employment decisions will be based on this information, but your responses could color the way your interviewers see you.

How to respond: Your response to this question could reveal information that is illegal for interviewers to ask, so be careful in how you respond. If you’re concerned that revealing your religion or culture could negatively impact your employment prospects, then steer clear of any answer that could reveal these things. Likewise, if you believe that your status as a parent or spouse could be red flags, don’t bring up your family. The safe way to answer this question is with an innocuous hobby or random dream career. (My go-to responses for this are that I would write full time and/or start an allergy-friendly food truck. Maybe someday!)

How to screw this up: This one is pretty open, so it would be tough to mess up. As long as you steer clear of illegal activities or things that run directly counter the job you’re interviewing for, you should be okay.

What resources do you use to stay on top of industry trends?

If you’re using your own time to remain current with the trends of your industry, it is clear that you’re invested in developing a career. This will show the interviewer that you’re in it for the long haul, which is definitely a good thing. As stated a few times above, commitment to the field illustrates to the employer that you want their job for the right reasons.

How to respond: The answer to this question is pretty straightforward: Just say whatever resources you use to stay current on the field. These could be keyword specific Google alerts, newspapers, books, blogs, LinkedIn influencers, etc. List them out along with the frequency with which you access these resources.

How to screw this up: The most obvious way to mess up is to not be current on industry trends. For the host of reasons outlined above, you should start this practice ASAP. Aside from this, if you say you use a resource but can’t discuss anything from it, then you’ll look like a liar. For example: If you say you read The Economist but don’t know what was in their most recent issue, the interviewer won’t believe that you actually read The Economist. Even if you do, don’t list out resources that you can’t speak intelligently about.

Now practice!

If you didn’t construct responses along the way, now is your chance to do that in the workbook. Just like with the previous post, sure to save your responses for the mock interview activity that is coming up next!


Dr. Lindsay is career development & academic success coach who loves helping people figure out and proceed to the next levels of their lives.