By Deborah Acosta – The Wall Street Journal
In the process of preparing for your interview, you have researched the company, figured out how your skills align with the job requirements, and come up with some thoughtful questions to ask. You might not be able to predict exactly which questions you will be asked during the interview, but there are many common questions that you will likely be asked, and it is helpful to have a strategy for answering them.
“You only have so much control over the success of an interview,” says career coach Lauren Berger, the founder of CareerQueen.com and InternQueen.com. “You don’t know what the other person is wanting, you don’t know what the other person is thinking, you don’t know what other candidates might be in their minds, so all you can do is control you and the way that you attempt to do your best to answer these questions.”
Study some of the common interview questions employers ask below so that you can avoid any surprises when in the hot seat.
Answer general interview questions with your best elevator pitch.
One of the most common interview questions is “Tell us about yourself,” says Ms. Berger. For the interviewer, it is an easy way to start the conversation. For you, it is a chance to set the foundation for your relationship with the employer during the interview and hopefully, over the years you will be working together. While you can take it in any direction, don’t fall into the trap of going on and on about your work and life experience, getting lost in irrelevant asides.
“I always say this is a little bit of a trick question because people take it literally and they give their life stories,” says Ms. Berger. “When you’re asked the ‘tell me about yourself question, it’s really important to keep your answers short, sweet and to the point and always bring everything back to the employer.”
A rough structure to guide your answer could be: “‘I’m so and so, I’m from here, I do this, I have experience with this, and this is why I’m the best fit for your company,’” says Ms. Berger. “So you’re basically tying every answer back to the company to keep your interviewer’s ears perked up.”
Common general questions:
- Tell us about your background. Tell a concise story with a beginning, middle, and end that explains your current career status, why you are qualified, and clearly defines why you are the best candidate for the job.
- Why do you want to work for us? Focus on what makes you passionate about the job and company. Demonstrate how you fit into the company’s culture.
- Tell us about something from your résumé. Pick out the accomplishment that most clearly relates to the job.
- Why should we hire you? Use your concise elevator pitch, which should touch on the skills and experience you have that qualify you for the role.
Highlight your achievements and credit those who helped you along the way.
“It’s really important to make sure that you tailor your experience for the position that you’re applying for.”
When discussing your achievements, Ms. Berger stresses the importance of tailoring your response to the job you are interviewing for. “People tend to talk about why they’re the best candidate in the world instead of the best candidate for that specific role,” she says. “It’s really important to make sure that you tailor your experience for the position that you’re applying for.”
If you find it difficult to talk yourself up during an interview, it may be helpful to mention some of your colleagues who helped you hit or surpass targets as part of a team effort. On the other hand, if you can speak confidently about your achievements, a bit of humility also goes a long way and shows the employer that you are a team player. Employers typically want to hire high achievers who can work well with others.
- Tell us about a challenge you faced at work and how you dealt with it. Highlight your problem-solving, teamwork, and leadership skills.
- Why are you the best person for the job? Focus on past successes that are most relevant to the job.
- What is your greatest achievement? Tell a short story about an achievement, how you overcame challenges to accomplish it, the impact it made, and what you learned in the process.
Be honest, positive, and constructive as you consider how to answer interview questions about flaws and failures.
Employers ask some questions to identify any potential red flags. Keep in mind that, while everyone has failures in their careers, the way you frame them is important. “Is the candidate pointing fingers and not taking ownership? That’s a key indicator of their ability to work as part of a team and of taking ownership of the product and decisions that are being made,” says Paul McDonald, senior executive director at Robert Half.
Never criticize your previous employer or company. It reflects badly on you. “You don’t want to be negative about the organization. You don’t want to talk down about supervisors that you’ve had,” says Mr. McDonald. “A good interviewer is going to pick that up, and it doesn’t bode well for your candidacy.”
Common questions to assess your flaws:
- What did you like least about your last job and why? Focus on some of the day-to-day drudgeries that didn’t inspire passion but had to be done. You can also mention anything about the position you are interviewing for that would be an improvement on your last job.
- What is your biggest weakness? Identify something job-related that you have struggled with but which you have worked to improve. Avoid tired responses like “I am a perfectionist.”
- Tell us about a time you made a mistake. Acknowledge your part in the mistake and avoid blaming others. Explain how you learned from the experience.
Use your responses to creative-thinking interview questions to demonstrate how you solve problems.
“At work sometimes you do face challenges and what you don’t want is a team member who throws their hands up in the air and gets frustrated, gets mad, gets overwhelmed, shuts down, like so many do,” says Ms. Berger. “You want to hire that team member that has the FIO mentality—the ‘figure it out mentality’—and is going to do whatever they need to do to get the job done.” Have fun with your answer and don’t worry too much about being right, because typically, there is no right answer, Ms. Berger says.
Common creative-thinking and problem-solving questions:
- What animal describes you? Use the answer to highlight a feature about yourself that is pertinent to the job. If you say you are a lion because you are brave, for example, talk about the bravery it took to apply for a role at a company where you have no connections.
- How many tennis balls fit into a Boeing 747? Walk your interviewer through the steps you are taking to solve the problem. Ask for clarity if you need to, and share your assumptions, the calculations you are making, and any necessary caveats.