HR and Recruiting

The 12 questions you need to ask job candidates

Written by Kate Lopaze

When you hear the words “interview prep,” you’re probably thinking of a candidate getting ready to go in and interview for a new job. But the prep is just as important on the other side. You’re trying to fill a position with the best person possible, so you can’t just waltz in and wing it. Otherwise, it could be a waste of your time (and the candidate’s) if you’re not asking the right questions for the job you’re trying to fill. And as the interviewer, the onus is going to be on you to keep the interview moving forward. The best way to do that is to outline your questions ahead of time so that they’re ready to go—and you won’t find yourself drawing a blank after you say, “Thanks for coming in! Have a seat.”

If you’re having trouble coming up with the questions you want to ask or you want to add some new ones to your repertoire, read on to look at some of the top questions interviewers ask candidates.

The Blue Sky Questions

“Blue sky questions,” or questions that require a candidate to go off-resume in order to provide a thoughtful answer, deal with more abstract ideas. Most candidates know their resume points by heart and have a set of talking points ready to go. But blue sky questions can show you how a candidate thinks and reacts on their feet, or what their true priorities are.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

The five-year-plan. It’s an oldie but a goodie, because there’s no better way to get a sense of what the candidate’s ambitions are. If you get a deer-in-headlights look and an answer that shows your interviewee clearly hasn’t considered this, that could be a worrying sign. On the other hand, a candidate who doesn’t have to think too much before outlining their next steps is clearly prepared and has a vision in mind.

Tell me about yourself.

This one probably won’t reveal any earth-shattering information about the candidate, but it’s a great ice-breaker. It can set the tone for the rest of the interview.

What’s something you’re passionate about?

If the candidate’s answer just happens to match the job description exactly, then you’ve either got The One on your hands, or someone who has prepped very well for the interview. But this question is a chance to tell you (literally or not) what this person values. If they just shrug and can’t commit to an answer, then they probably won’t be very passionate about this job or company, either. This question is good because even though it’s a little off-topic, it gives you a more complete sense of the person behind the resume. You’re asking them to tell a story that they haven’t necessarily prepared ahead of time, so you’re likely to get a pretty honest answer. And who knows—you could learn some interesting trivia about a weird hobby you never heard about before!

What appealed to you about this job description?

This is a good get-to-know you question, but it can also help you identify candidates who are just looking for a job, any job, versus someone who really wants this job.

What is your greatest achievement in your career, and why?

This is a good way to suss out a candidate’s values in the workplace. Sure, if they’re an Oscar winner, that’ll be right on the resume and you can see it. But this kind of question lets the candidate talk about some of the smaller or personally significant victories that might not be apparent from the documents you’ve already seen.

The Verification Questions

These are the questions that will help you figure out if the candidate is on the up-and-up, or if they’re hiding something or trying to sneak things in on their resume that aren’t quite legit.

I see you’ve spent the past four years at X Corp. I’ve heard a lot about the culture there, but I’d love to hear how you see it.

This question helps verify that the person did, in fact, work at X Corp—but you could have a background check do that if necessary. The real goal is to see how the person answers the question. Someone who launches into a screed about how terrible X Corp is = red flag. Someone who hesitates or only speaks in the vaguest terms about the company = red flag.

I used to work with Phil from Accounting at X Corp. Great guy. Did you know him too?

This one can also count as “hey, small world!” small talk, but again—if the candidate seems shifty about answering, that’s good to know. The candidate may or may not have met Phil, but it’s more about the genuineness of the answer.

The “What Would You Do?” Questions

These are questions that get a candidate to think and respond on their feet, because there’s little way to prepare for these. In these questions, you give them a scenario and ask them how they’d solve it or ask them how they would react. These can be outlandish questions that no one could possibly know the answer to (like how many tall lattes does Starbucks sell in an average year?). It’s a test of how the candidate arrives at their answer. Or the questions can be practical questions about things that the candidate might face in this job. These questions give you a sense of how the candidate thinks and what kind of colleague they might be.

Tell me about a major obstacle in your career and how you overcame it.

This one doesn’t require a fancy scenario. Instead, it lets the candidate set that up and speak to how they approached it.

Say you and a colleague disagree on the next steps on a project. How would you resolve that?

This one tests not only problem solving, but also people skills. It gives you a sense of how the person communicates and how they might work in a team. And conflict resolution skills are essential to just about every job, so you can also get a sense of how well-developed the candidate’s own skills are.

Your client is about to miss a major deadline, putting you in a bad spot. How do you handle the situation?

Again, this is about having the candidate describe the process. This kind of question tests their customer service skills (because it is, after all, a client who’s dropping the ball) but also their management skills.

Let’s say you’ve got several urgent emails, a voicemail that needs to be returned, and an in-person request from your boss—all happening now. How do you prioritize these tasks?

This is a chance for a candidate to talk through her process for multitasking and handling issues that come up. It may not tell you much about how well they’d perform each task, but you can get a sense of how they rank order of importance when on the fly. If their instincts match up your yours, you’ll know they’re a good fit for your team.

The Closer Question

Don’t forget to ask this one at the end of the interview. The closer lets the candidate know that the interview is wrapping up, but gives the candidate a chance to bring up something that may not have come up during the interview.

Do you have any questions for me/us?

It’s not only a “last call” signal that the interview is ending, but it’s also a chance to see how well your candidate has prepared for the interview. If they don’t have any questions and seem anxious to get out, it could mean that they’re not especially curious or invested in this job. (Though if they say something like, “I was wondering about the sales development piece of the job, but you already covered that for me,” it shows that they’ve thought about their own questions ahead of time.) It’s a last chance to gauge the candidate’s engagement.

If you have some of these questions ready to go, you’ll never be at a loss for things to talk about in an interview (even if you get pulled into one at the last second). And you have any favorite go-to interview questions yourself, we’d love to hear about them in the comments.

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.