Getting Started Job Interview Tips

How to Answer These 5 Common (but tough) Interview Questions

Written by Kate Lopaze

Even the best job interviews sometimes have deer-in-headlight moments…the times when you get a question you can’t answer with a breezy, offhand response. While your brain reaches for a response that sounds coherent and hire-worthy, the pause can feel like an eternity.

If you go into the interview extra-prepared to field some common questions, you can avoid that and come off as the smooth operator you know you can be. Also don’t forget to prepare for these hardest interview questions. You never know when you might get hit with these tough questions.

1. “Tell me a little bit about yourself.”

This is not an invitation to talk about your childhood hopes and dreams (unless you’re interviewing to be a cowboy astronaut) or a request to detail your square-dancing hobby. Remember what you’re there to talk about: you as the ideal candidate for this particular job. This question is a chance to give a quick outline of the elements of your education and career background that make you a super fit for this position.

2. “What are your strengths?”

Again, you need to target your response to the job for which you’re interviewing, but this one has the added sandtrap of testing your humility. If your answer makes you seem like a combination of Steve Jobs and Mother Theresa, dial it back a bit.

Before your interview, come up with three qualities that make you look like a strong candidate for the role. Good answers: “I’m extremely organized;” “I work very well in a team-oriented environment;” or “I have a long track record of turning leads into sales.” Bad answers: “I’m one of the smartest people I know” or “I win at any cost.”

3. “What are your weaknesses?”

Similar to #2, this is a bit of a trap. The interviewer is not your therapist/clergyperson. Don’t confess to lifting office supplies from your last job or talk about your weakness for buying Precious Moments figurines from Amazon. Make sure that your response contains a little bit of spin (but not too much—again, the humility thing comes into play here).

For example: a stated weakness could be that you try to take on everything at once. But as soon as you say that, acknowledge that you know the importance of delegating projects throughout the team and working together toward a common goal, so you will always strive to make that balance of your own hard work and looping other people in. Whatever you respond, be sure to flip the script and finish up with how it makes you a stronger candidate and how you know you can turn that into a productive quality for this position.

4. “Why did you leave your last job?”

Depending on how things went at your old place, you might be sorely tempted to be totally honest. However: bite your tongue. You will gain nothing from trash-talking your former colleagues and bosses—and things could get awkward very fast if your interviewer knows people at your last company. Instead, be as honest as you can while spinning it a little to emphasize your current opportunity: “I felt I’d grown as much as I could in my last role, and I think this job is a logical next step for me.”

If you were fired from your last job, this makes things trickier, but not a lost cause. Never lie about it (as this is easily checked by the interviewer), but rather talk about the reasons your last job was not a good fit for your goals or what you learned from the difficult situation.

5. “Aren’t you overqualified for this job?”

In a complicated economy, sometimes we find ourselves applying for jobs that might be a step back, qualifications-wise. Maybe you wanted that reach-y dream job, but your mounting bills and frustrations mean you’re willing to be flexible and take a job that might be slightly lower in seniority or salary.

If the interviewer asks you about being overqualified, emphasize the reasons you want this job. They’re asking because they’re concerned you might not find the job challenging enough or that you will skip out as soon as another opportunity comes along. You can reassure them by talking about how this role is in line with what you like about your field, and how you see yourself growing in the role.

You can also talk about how you understand that your resume may seem a few steps ahead of this particular role, but you’re interested in a permanent role at this company, and would like to bring your extensive experience to the job and make it your own.

Preparation is your friend here. If you think ahead of time about questions that are almost guaranteed to come up, you’re more likely to avoid the awkward deer moment and keep the interview seamlessly moving forward.

About the author

Kate Lopaze

Kate Lopaze is a writer, editor, and digital publishing professional based in New York City. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Emerson College with degrees in English and publishing, she is passionate about books, baseball, and pop culture (though not necessarily in that order), and lives in Brooklyn with her dog.