By Susannah Snider, Senior Editor, Personal Finance
Before heading into a job interview, it’s essential to prepare to answer a range of common interview questions.
While you can’t anticipate – or memorize – the responses to every interview question you’ll be asked, practicing good answers, brainstorming illustrative anecdotes and doing the research to address these types of interview questions is a great place to start. Better yet, rehearse your answers aloud with a friend who can offer insightful feedback and help you practice to overcome your pre-interview jitters.
You’ll know that you’re ready for the interview when you fully understand the company, its mission, the job description and how your experience fits in with the goals of the position and employer. “Know your own narrative,” says Yasmin Sahami, ZipRecruiter’s senior manager of talent acquisition. “More importantly, know how your narrative meets the job requirements and how it relates to the responsibilities and deliverables of the job.”
Prepare for These Common Job Interview Questions
• Tell me about yourself.This “wide open” question is one of the hardest to answer, says Joe Weinlick, senior vice president of marketing at Nexxt, a Pennsylvania-based recruitment media company. Keep your answer short – you don’t want to start with the story of your birth – and use it as an opportunity to highlight the skills and experiences that mesh well with the job description.
• How did you find out about this position? Here’s your opportunity to spell out who referred you to the position or where you saw the job posting. Make sure you state your answer accurately. If a job applicant names a site where Sahami knows ZipRecruiter doesn’t list its job postings, it doesn’t come off well. “That person has not done their research and is just making something up,” she says.
• Why do you want to work here? You need to do your research before responding to typical interview questions such as “Why do you want to work here?” Get an understanding of the company’s initiatives, mission, industry and major projects – and use that information in your response.
• Why should we hire you? You’ll need to highlight what sets you apart from other candidates and why you’re a fantastic fit for the position. One trick: Use the language or words in the job posting when talking about yourself to subtly show your fit for the role, Weinlick says.
• What interests you about this job? Doing your research and understanding the parameters of the job is essential to nailing this common question.Before the interview, create a list of your skills that meet the job’s requirements and practice explaining how your work history sets you up to succeed and thrive in the new position. “This is where I’m listening for how much research, due diligence, they’ve done on the company, on our products,” Sahami says. “Is [what interests the candidate] our mission statement? Our product offerings? Services we offer? The great feedback they’re getting by reading employee comments online? I want to know psychologically what is drawing them to the position.”
• Have you used our product/service? If the company develops a product or service available to the public, make sure you’ve used it prior to the interview. Play around with it and think carefully about what you like about it – and what could use improvement. “The best conversations come from when the [job candidate] is speaking from their own experience,” Sahami says. “If they haven’t used ZipRecruiter in their job search, that’s a red flag,” she says.
• How would you improve our product/service? A familiarity with the services the company provides is crucial to answering this tricky interview question. “The best candidates can give me their own ideas or suggestions about how they can improve things,” Sahami says. “Get as much information as you can from what is available to you online, through user groups, professional groups. Get your arms around the products, services and technology as much as possible.”
• Tell me about a time when … You’re probably going to be asked to describe a time when you failed or succeeded. To answer these questions, prepare a few anecdotes that can work for a range of “Tell me about a time” questions, Weinlick says. And practice telling them before your interview. The one answer you can’t give: “Oh, I can’t think of an example right now.”
• What’s your greatest strength? This is an opportunity to sing your own praises, relating them back to your professional experiences. One way to really highlight your strengths: Use metrics, says Glassdoor community expert Scott Dobroski. If you worked in retail, talk about how many sweaters you sold or customers you talked to each day. If you’re interviewing for a technology job, talk about how much code you’re writing.
• Tell me about your weaknesses. To answer this, “You need to know where your gaps are,” says Cheryl Hyatt, CEO and partner at Hyatt-Fennell, an executive recruiting firm based in Pennsylvania. Prepare one or two examples of the skills you’re working to improve. Find the silver lining and the professional lessons that you can use when talking about the sections of your resume that are weakest. After all, everyone has a weakness or a resume gap and answering this question confidently is key to making a good impression on your interviewer.
• What salary range are you looking for? No interviewee wants to be caught off-guard by this question and accidentally suggest a lowball salary range. Research typical salaries and determine your wage range ahead of time in case this tricky question arises.
• What would you do in the first 30, 60 and 90 days on the job? When an interviewer asks this common question, he’s looking to hear a bit about how you’ll get up to speed while achieving “quick wins” in the first 90 days on the job, Dobroski says. “Say it explicitly,” he says. “In the first 30 days, I want to soak up everything I can like a sponge, but I’d also look for a few opportunities for some ‘quick wins’ to help move this department forward.” Pick a few concrete strategies that you’d use. They don’t have to net the company millions of dollars, but your ideas should be tangible.
• Do you have any questions for me? Your interviewer will close the conversation with this question for you. Make sure that you have some questions prepared. For examples of fantastic questions to ask your interviewer, please see below.
[These are the worst questions job interviewers ask.]
Prepare for These Tricky Interview Questions
Some of the notorious tricky interview questions that your interviewer may ask include these:
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• How many windows are in New York City?
• How many airplanes are currently flying over the United States?
• How many golf balls can fit inside a school bus?
• Why are manhole covers round?
• How many piano tuners are in Chicago?
• How many times do a clock’s hands overlap?
When interviewers ask these curveball interview questions, they don’t actually want to know how many golf balls fit inside a bus or why the city municipality decided to design manhole covers a certain way. Instead, “they want to know how you think,” Weinlick says.
Don’t feel obligated to answer these tricky questions right away. Buy some time – and some clues – by asking a few follow-up questions. For example, does the school bus include seats? Or is it empty? Then talk your way through your solution, including any numeric estimates you make. You don’t have to be right – you just need to talk your way to a compelling answer. “The purpose isn’t to get the right answer,” Sahami says. “It is to demonstrate your thought process.”
[Discover how to answer these odd interview questions.]
Questions to Ask During the Interview
• What have past employees done to succeed in this position? Asking this question lets you know how the employer measures success, understand the expectations for your job and determine whether you have the skills to do well in this position. It also shows the employer that you want to be – and plan to be – a star employee.
• How do you see this role making an impact and growing over one year or three years? Get a sense of the goals for this position and where it fits in with the larger company.
• I know that you’ve been here for five years. What are your favorite parts about working here, and what areas could stand improvement? Research your interviewer on LinkedIn or another job site to see how long he or she has worked at the company. Ask your interviewer about his or her favorite aspects of the job – and nicely ask about what could improve.
• What are some challenges that will face the person filling this position? Get a sense of the hurdles you’ll face while working at this job and in the industry overall. If your interviewer can’t name a single challenge, be wary. No job is perfect.
• What are the next steps in this interview process? Don’t exit the interview without having a sense of the next steps in the application process and when you should expect to hear back. You might also get a sense of how well you did by how enthusiastic and detailed the answer is.
• Is this a cross-functional or cross-departmental position? Sahami, of ZipRecruiter, likes this question in which the interviewer shows an interest in opportunities to work with other teams and different departments. “That’s an astute question to ask,” she says.
• What are learning opportunities or professional development opportunities I could take advantage of? This question demonstrates a candidate’s interest to not only improve his or her own professional skills, but to turn around and use those new skills to help the company in return.
In addition to the questions you’ve prepared to ask, bring up questions that arose during the interview. Asking good follow-ups shows that you were listening and are serious about the job.
[Learn more about questions to ask during an interview.]
Questions Not to Ask During the Interview
• How many vacation days do we get? This topic is better addressed after you’ve received the job offer and are discussing benefits, including vacation days, sick days and retirement offerings.
• How much does this position pay? Again, this is not the time to bring up benefits and pay. Save it for later in the process.
• Can my kids wait in the lobby? Don’t bring your kids, your mom, your friend or anyone else to the interview, even to wait in the company lobby. The interview is the time to stand alone as a professional.
‘IIlegal’ Interview Questions
• When do you plan to start a family?
• Are you gay or lesbian?
• What religion do you practice? What church do you go to?
• In what country where were you born?
• How old are you?
• Do you have a physical or mental disability? (Note: Before hiring you, employers are allowed to ask whether you can perform your job duties with reasonable accommodations.)
Depending on the state or municipality in which you live, it may also be illegal to ask for salary history.
If an interviewer poses one of these questions, it’s best not to respond aggressively or angrily. There is, after all, a chance that the hiring manager doesn’t realize that he’s treading into risky territory. Instead, politely decline to answer while refocusing the interview on your skills and fit for the job. For example, Dobroski says, you could say, “Thank you so much for asking, but I’d prefer to keep the interview focused on the job duties and skills required for this role.” If the question does seem to stem from somewhere malicious, consider it a red flag. You may want to contact the human resources department or rethink whether you will be happy working for this company.
Updated on July 12, 2018: This article was originally published on Sept. 25, 2017, and has been updated to include new information.
Susannah Snider, Senior Editor, Personal Finance