Going into a job interview can feel a bit like prepping for the Hunger Games. You have a general idea of what you’re facing, but you don’t know the specifics—who knows what those devilish game makers will have in store for you? Nobody dies here (unless job interviews have really changed since the last time I went on one), but there can be only one person left standing: the victor, the one with the job offer. And as in any good conflict where you want to come out on top, you want to be as prepared as possible going into it. It’s impossible to know exactly what questions to expect ahead of time, but there’s enough commonality in how job interviews are structured that you can take an educated guess—and educate yourself accordingly. Here’s how to answer common interview questions.
The first thing to do is to figure out what kinds of questions you might face before you even think about trying to prep for specific questions. The question types fall into two categories: what we’ll call “standard” interview question and behavioral interview questions.
Standard interview questions are about what you’d expect: questions that ask you about your past experience, your current skills, and your professional goals. Some examples:
- “Tell me more about your coding background.”
- “Can you tell me about your day-to-day responsibilities in your most recent job?”
- “How did you get started in this industry?”
- “It says here that you worked for seven years at Job Co. What did you work on there?”
- “What is your biggest strength?” (And its devilish counterpart, “What is your biggest weakness?”)
- “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
These are straightforward questions with (hopefully) straightforward answers. You know your resume and your experience better than anyone, so own the information.
How to Approach Standard Interview Questions
If it helps, think of these questions as a kind of game show, like The Interview Guys do. There’s a concrete answer available for every standard interview question. “I don’t know” or uncomfortable silence will throw up a major red flag to the interviewer, so make sure that you’re solid on your resume, the job description for which you’re interviewing, and the talking points you want to use in the interview. (I’ll take “Leadership Experience” for $400, Alex.)
Top 5 tips for answering standard interview questions:
- Be confident! You’re talking about your best professional self, so be ready to cover your skills and accomplishments.
- Don’t give short answers. If you’re asked about your background in coding, don’t just say, “I took a class five years ago,” then wait for the next question to come along. Say, “I started with a class five years ago, and took off from there. I’ve used and grown those skills in my current job, where I was responsible for updating and maintaining the company website.” You don’t need a novel’s worth of details, but the interviewer is looking for you to expand on your own history—all he or she knows is what’s in the bullets on your resume. It’s your job to fill those out and make yourself look like a well-rounded candidate.
- Remember: it’s not about you. But, you say, isn’t it about my experience and skills? Yes and no. The whole point of the interview is to see how you’ll fit in with this job and this company. So when you frame your answers, make sure you’re always emphasizing how this skill or that experience point relates to the job at hand.
- Be honest. This kind of question is where, uh, soft spots on your resume might come to light. The interviewer will expect you to be able to answer all of these questions with concrete info, so if you can’t offer supporting information, or have long and awkward pauses, that’s a problem. If you’re not fluent in Spanish, don’t list it. If you weren’t really the youngest CEO ever at your last company, don’t suggest you were. Forget a background check—if you can’t back up your resume’s assertions in the interview, you’ll never even get to that stage.
- Be specific. This isn’t so hard for questions about your background or your software proficiencies, but it’s tougher when you get to questions about your strengths and weaknesses. The best way to hone in on these is to think of specific examples from your past. For example, “At my current job, I developed a workflow that improved sales reporting, so I’m very good at zeroing in on challenges and working with a team to solve them.” Or, “I’d say my greatest weakness is my tendency to try to take everything on myself. In my last job, that led to a lot of stress around deadlines, and I’ve since learned that I need to work harder on prioritizing and setting boundaries to get everything done smoothly.”
The best advice we can offer you is to think about how to answer common interview questions in advance and anticipate having to give anecdotes about your experience. You won’t know ahead of time which ones are likely to come up, but by having talking points in your pocket for every part of your resume, you can be ready for any standard questions that come up.
Behavioral interview questions are a little less straightforward, with no easy answer. These questions are kind of like storytime: the interviewer will ask you to talk about a specific time you faced a challenge or demonstrated a skill. You’ll know behavioral questions when you hear them because they’ll have telltale phrases like:
- “Tell me about a time you…”
- “What would you do if…”
- “Show me how you handled…”
- “Walk me through a time when you…”
- “How would you deal with…”
What do all of these have in common? There’s a performance element, and usually an action verb. It’s on you to come up with an answer, and phrase it in a smooth interview operator kind of way.
How to Approach Behavioral Interview Questions
The approach for these questions isn’t so different from that of traditional questions. They just require a little more thinking on your feet, because there’s no easy factual answer. You’ll be drawing from your history directly (“tell me about a time when you…”), or indirectly (“what would you do if…”).
Top 5 tips for answering behavioral interview questions:
- It’s not about you, it’s about them. The advice for standard interview questions (#3 above) remains the same here: remember that it’s really about the interviewer and the company, not you. You’ll be providing info that illustrates how you have operated and will likely operate as an employee, but that information will be weighed against what the company wants and needs for this job opening. You’re not answering the questions in a vacuum. So make sure that your answers dovetail with the job description.
- Don’t be brutally honest. If you’re asked about the biggest challenge in your career so far, and your most trying time happens to have been the royal-est screwup in the history of royal screw-ups, don’t bring it up. Before the interview, spend time thinking about less dramatic anecdotes that don’t make you look bad. Or if you do end up talking about a time you messed up, absolutely make sure to follow up with a quick point about how you learned from it and have turned it to your advantage.
- Come up with pre-answers in certain categories. Behavioral questions usually seek to draw you out on skills like leadership, problem-solving, and personal interaction. Long before the interview, start doing a personal audit of your work history and come up with a list of relevant anecdotes in the following areas:
- Challenges you faced, and how you overcame them
- Times you led others or managed a complicated project with numerous people
- Workplace conflicts or differences of opinion, and how you handled them
- Keep it brief. You don’t want to leave them confused or wanting more by being too abrupt, but if you feel yourself start to ramble on (adding details that aren’t really necessary, explaining things in tangents), then rein yourself in a bit. Rehearse your likely stories ahead of time, so you can adjust the flow, and what feels like the right presentation. Rambling can come off as nervous babbling, and you don’t want to undermine your confident aura on interview day.
- Keep it professional. They’re definitely not looking for examples from your personal life—make sure you limit your stories to things that happened at work.
The Trickiest Questions
Once you know the types of questions and how to mine your resume and experience to prep ahead of time, you can focus more on the most challenging questions of all: the “you tell us” questions. These aren’t really standard interview questions, because they’re not straight facts or expansions on points found on your resume. They’re not really behavioral, either, because they don’t illustrate how you’ve approached workplace issues in the past (or would). They’re open-ended, and that’s what makes them scarier. Some examples of these extra-hard interview questions.
- “Tell me about yourself.”
- “Why should we hire you?”
- “Why do you want to work here?”
- “Why did you leave your last job?”
- “Do you have any questions for me?”
- ‘What is your biggest weakness?”
- Spin negatives into positives. This applies most fully to the “biggest weakness” and “why did you leave your last job?” questions (especially if you were let go, or left in a bad situation). The kind of formula you should keep in mind is, “I experienced X, but I learned Y, and now I work very hard on achieving Z. It’s an experience that I take very seriously.”
- Don’t pull the interviewer’s leg. If you’re asked about a weakness, talk about a weakness…don’t try to say you work too hard, and gosh darn it, that’s your biggest flaw. Every single one of us has real flaws, and candidness can be the key to establishing trust with the interviewer. However, when you talk about a weakness or a challenge you’ve faced, always, always (did I mention “always”?) talk about what you did/do to overcome it, and what you’ve learned from it.
- Don’t panic…or pause too long. The deer-in-headlights reaction is not a good look during the interview. Either you look like you’re trying to invent an answer, or you look like you just don’t know how to respond. Practicing answers for the questions above (using, again, specific examples from your resume and your work history) can help you feel more comfortable with repurposing your material for a variety of potential questions.
- Always tie it to the job/company. Before the interview, review the job description, and highlight the areas that connect to your resume. If the job calls for managerial skills, “tell me about yourself” can be a quick walkthrough of your rise to leading men and women to greatness (increased sales or efficiency). If it’s a general question about why you want to work here,
- Keep it professional (redux). If you want to work for this company because your commute would be cut in half, don’t say that. “Tell me about yourself” is not an invitation to show pictures of your beloved pet lizard, Dr. Greenjeans III. Just give a quick rundown of where you are, professionally, and where you’re hoping to go. Personal opinions and personal life don’t really belong in an interview. (Exception: mild small talk before or after the interview—but even then, no big personal confessions or controversial opinions.)
The best way to deal with any interview questions is to prepare in advance—you can practice the spirit of them, if not the exact content. If you have a trusted buddy or family member, have them lob unscripted (professional) questions at you, so you can get better at fielding things on the fly. And if you need a cheat sheet on common interview questions and how to tackle them in the meantime, here’s a quick overview you can use as a reference.
And remember the most important part: you got this! Don’t panic no matter what you’re asked, and answer with confidence. May the interview go ever in your favor!