Often, interviews are as much about putting you under pressure and seeing how you react as they are about the actual questions and answers themselves.
Stay cool during your interview and keep calm. Be thoughtful and, most important, take your time in coming up with answers to the questions being asked. Avoid giving short, “canned” answers. The goal is to have a conversation and not make it an interrogation.
In this article, we’ll talk about the common job interview questions and how to answer them.
1. Could you tell me about yourself?
One of the most important things you’ll get asked is to talk about yourself. It’s ironic, but even though you’re the expert on yourself, this could also be one of the hardest questions to answer.
A typical answer to the question may look like this:
I’m Roberto and I’m studying economics at Stanford University. I graduate in June and I’m looking to go into a business-related role at an Internet company.
This answer is fine, but it’s too short and it doesn’t convey a lot about you, what drives you, or your proposed contribution to the organization. You can add to your answer by saying something along these lines:
I’m Roberto and I’m studying economics at Stanford University. I’m really interested in sustainable businesses that create financial value and profit while also providing a benefit to society. I enjoy solving problems by coming up with creative solutions and look forward to applying my economics background in a technical field. I like what you’re doing as an organization and strongly believe in your mission. I’d like to contribute to that mission by being part of your team.
Notice how the second answer conveys more passion and addresses a few points.
Come up with your own statement to describe yourself using this example as a guideline, making sure you cover the following points:
- Factual information about your education
- Your interest in the organization
- What you bring to the organization
- The research you’ve done on the organization
- Your enthusiasm for joining the organization
You’ll be surprised to find it’s not that hard to come up with a great introductory overview. Practice it and commit it to memory.
2. Could you tell me about your working experience?
You’re looking for your first job, and you have little or no experience. But most of the job openings you see advertised ask for some experience. Don’t despair. Sometimes the business world doesn’t make sense. Luckily, you can use some simple arguments and examples to prove that you do have experience. They didn’t specify what kind of experience you need, right?
Most likely, you worked on projects at school, had an internship, or did some volunteer work. You can glean good examples of your experience from these activities.
Internships: Internships serve well to showcase your experience, particularly if your internships were in an industry relevant to the organization where you’re interviewing or if the work is relevant to the job to which you applied.
Make sure to highlight anything you did during your internship that is pertinent to the job. This can include a project you worked on, day-to-day work, or anything you did as part of a group.
Class projects: Did you work on a course project with other students? If so, this provides an example of how you can work in a team. Teamwork is becoming more important these days. For example, if you worked on a marketing project to come up with a product launch plan, talk about this.
If you worked on an engineering project to create a program, an app, or some device, talk about what the team did, how you worked with others, and the outcome of your work. This is real experience you can point to.
Student organizations and clubs: Were you part of a student group, fraternity, or sorority? Were you an officer of the organization, in a leadership role, or part of an important initiative? Many organizations do fundraising for charities or for scholarships. Fraternities and sororities organize rush events to get new students to join.
If you were involved in such initiatives, you can talk about your involvement and the outcomes — for example, how much money was raised, or how many new members were recruited to the organization. These are good experience points that have relevance in the working world and count as experience.
Coding competitions: Showing experience is easier when you’re applying for a software developer or data scientist role. One way to do this is through competitions. For example, on Kaggle (www.kaggle.com), you can participate in contests and rank yourself against other peers. You can point to your track record as a sign of how you can perform on the job.
Building a mobile app or website: You can show off your programming chops and point to experience by building and launching a mobile app or website. Even if you build these on your own, without getting paid to do so, it shows that you have what it takes for the job. Even better, building something on your own not only shows experience, but also demonstrates that you take initiative.
Sports: Your athletic career paints a great picture and can be leveraged as relevant experience. Being an athlete shows an employer that you have discipline, that you can work as part of a team, and most important, that you can achieve goals. Employers look for athletes particularly for sales-related roles, because sales jobs also require discipline and a focus on meeting a goal.
Sample writing: If you’re applying for a literary role, whether it’s content writing, public relations, or copywriting, consider writing or pointing to pieces that you’ve written for public consumption. For example, you can write a blog using popular platforms like Medium or LinkedIn. If you’ve written for a particular publication or your school’s newspapers, these are perfect samples that illustrate your writing experience.
Volunteer work: Volunteer work is a great example of experience. It shows character because you’ve done the work for free, to help others. It also hints at what you’re passionate about. Good examples of volunteer work include tutoring kids or teaching Sunday school. Organizing volunteers for fundraising events also count as great experience. Volunteering to make calls for political campaigns also counts if you’re applying for a sales-related role.
Part-time work and babysitting: These activities are great for earning some spending money. Working in retail and dealing with customers point to your ability to be public facing, which is great experience to highlight. Babysitting hints that you have patience with children and that you’re responsible; it also implies that you’re trustworthy.
These are just some examples of experience that you can highlight in your interview or that you can build ahead of time. Think of other similar activities and plan your answer to this question accordingly.
3. Could you tell me why you’re interested in this job?
This is where your energy and enthusiasm need to come out. How you answer is as important as the answer. Talk about what you like about the role, the organization and where you see yourself in two to three years. Your vision for the future should align with the role you’re seeking.
Here’s an example of how you can answer if you’re interviewing for a sales role:
- I really like talking to people and helping to address their needs. An inside sales role in your organization would allow me to do this. I like talking on the phone and getting bonuses, so this seems like the perfect opportunity for me to do what I like to do and to learn, while also delivering value to the organization.
- Your organization has a great sales training program. I look forward to helping grow revenue while growing as a sales professional.
I’ve underlined some parts in the preceding answer that relate to the sales job. Talking to people, addressing their needs, and delivering value are parts of your answer that directly tie your explanation back to the role. You can do this for any type of job.
4. Could you tell me about your accomplishments?
This is a popular question among interviewers. You may get asked to name one of your biggest accomplishments or something that you’re proud to have achieved. An example can include winning an award or a tournament.
An achievement can also be something that others may consider commonplace, but that may entail a bigger achievement for you. For example, being the first in your family to go to college or complete an advanced degree can be a big achievement.
Having a high GPA is a big achievement on its own. Doing it while also doing sports or working to pay for school is an even bigger achievement.
Did you do any fundraising that resulted in exceeding your goal? This is something you can talk about. Any volunteer work where you made an impact on people or on an outcome also counts as a good achievement.
5. Could you tell me about your setbacks and how you overcame them?
Employers also want to know how you handle adversity or any obstacle that comes your way. Think of an example at school or from an internship where the odds were against you and you still came out ahead. You can also talk about failures and what they’ve taught you. Failures often teach us more than successes.
For example, were you working on a team project and had team members drop off along the way? You can talk about how you and the rest of the remaining team members rallied to pick up the workload to complete your project on time.
Any setback relating to resource constraints is good to use because it directly relates to the working world. A good example could be how you worked with little or no resources to put on an event, such as a job fair for a student group or how you helped secured parts for a solar-powered car project, with little or no funding, and your team ended up winning a solar-powered car race.
I just made up these examples, but if they apply to you in real life, then you’re a rock star! These are great experiences to mention.
Always stay positive and humble. When talking about challenges or adversity due to a person leaving your team or losing resources, spend more time talking about the team and how you collaborated. Be careful not to badmouth team members or to come off as being arrogant by saying you carried your team to achieving an objective.
5. Could you tell me about your top qualities?
Employers normally ask this question directly, as in “Tell me about your top qualities.” They may also ask this in a different way, such as “What would your friends or colleagues list as some of your top attributes?”
You’re probably an all-around great person with many good qualities, especially if you’re reading this article. But for the purposes of the interview, think of some of your best qualities, either that you can identify or that your friends would point out, that an employer would find appealing.
Here is a list of good qualities with reasons why employers like them.
- Curious: Curiosity shows that you want to learn. If you’re eager to learn and improve yourself, this sends a good message to the employer.
- Focused: Focus is the opposite of distraction. If you’re focused, you’re more likely to complete a task or achieve a goal.
- Committed: This is a quality that in the face of difficulty or obstacles, keeps you on the path to completing an obstacle.
- Tenacious: If you’re tenacious, it means you don’t give up. You keep trying until you reach your goal. This quality should not be confused with being stubborn, which can mean that you stay on a given course even though common sense and reason may tell you that you need to do something else.
- Disciplined: Being disciplined means you follow the rules. Most employers like this.
- Organized: Being organized can mean you’re able to work well in a chaotic environment or able to put order where it’s needed to get a job done.
- Dependable: If you’re dependable, it means team members can count on you to do your part on a project and deliver what you promised.
- Sense of humor: I personally like this quality and think it’s one of the best ones to have. A sense of humor allows you to get through tough times and defuse tense discussions or situations. If you have a good sense of humor that appeals to a wide variety of people, highlight this quality.
- Creative: You don’t need to be an artist to benefit from creativity. Creative people are good at solving problems, whether they relate to engineering, software development, life sciences, or any other field. If your classmates and friends describe you as being creative, definitely put this quality toward the top of your list.
- Thoughtful: This can mean that you’re kind and attentive to others. It can also mean that you’re deliberate and careful in how you approach a task or a problem. The opposite would be that you’re brash and rush into things.
These are just some of the many positive traits that make good potential employees stand out. Take stock of three to five of your top qualities and be ready to talk about them, giving specific examples.
Ask your friends, family, or significant other to name some of your top qualities, along with some examples. I sometimes find that others close to me tend to know me better than I know myself.
6. Is there anything you need to improve on?
Just as you’re ready to highlight your virtues, be ready to talk about those less-than-virtuous qualities. Employers won’t call them bad qualities. They’ll most likely ask you to list some “areas of improvement.” This is a tricky question. You don’t want to say you have no areas to improve because that’s simply not true — we can all improve in one area or another.
You want to show that you’re self aware and know the areas where you need to improve. Don’t make the mistake I made when I was interviewing for a job out of college. An interviewer at a large financial institution asked me about areas where my friends thought I could improve. I told her I didn’t have any. That interview ended quickly and I didn’t get the job. I thought I was being funny, but to the interviewer I came off as arrogant.
At the same time, you don’t want to scare the employer away from hiring you. Think about areas where you can improve but make sure these are “noble” flaws. In other words, you want to give the employer an answer, but you also want these characteristics to be valued by the employer, even if you don’t improve them. Here are some examples:
- Being too honest: Honesty is a great virtue, but it can go both ways. In my case, for example, one of my best qualities is that I’m honest. But it’s also one of my worst qualities. Sometimes I tend to be very direct with people and don’t sugarcoat feedback. This honesty can come off as being abrasive. This is an area where I can improve, but also one that is okay if I don’t improve.
- Working too much: Having work–life balance is good and healthy, and working too much is not always a good thing. This is an area where I’m improving, but I still have a ways to go. If you’re a workaholic, you can mention this as one of your weak areas. But rest assured, an employer won’t be dissuaded from hiring you if you don’t improve your work–life balance.
- Being too competitive: If you’re overly competitive and obsess about being the best or being in first place all the time, you may need to unwind and relax a bit. However, this is an example where an employer will still hire you, especially for a sales-related role, if you don’t slow down in your competitiveness.
- Taking loss personally: It’s good to keep your work and personal lives separate, especially when you suffer a defeat at work or in school. You can always go home to your friends and family for consolation. Taking work personally can be considered a flaw. But to an employer, this can be a good sign, because it shows you’re passionate about your work, even if you take it too seriously.
Come up with your own list of areas where you can improve. Ask your classmates, friends, and family to help you identify them. Then pick the ones that you think an employer would find appealing and be ready to talk about those, using examples whenever possible.
7. Could you describe a conflict that happened in your previous experience?
Certainly, you should approach the question with honesty—but also with a healthy dose of tact. An employer wants to know what kind of person and/or management style you work best with, of course, but he or she doesn’t really want to know that about past squabbles or the personal foibles of others.
Avoid any personal references, names, or other information that might tip the interviewer off to a particular person about whom you might be discussing. Indeed, it is best not to discuss others when answering the question, in general.
Instead, come up with a specific example wherein a negative experience—a clash of personalities, or a conflict of interests—created a temporarily difficult working situation, emphasis on the temporary. You want to end the story with how it was resolved in as positive a manner as possible.