By: Brad Davis
Imagine that you’ve just been offered an interview for your dream job.
You’ve updated your resume. You’ve composed a beautiful cover letter. You’re wearing your best professional outfit. You’ve fixed your hair. You’ve pumped yourself up in the mirror with a little motivational speech.
Then, you sit down in the chair across from your interviewer. They start asking you questions and, suddenly, your mind goes blank. The wheel completely stops turning. You’d forget your own name if it wasn’t plastered on the top of your CV. By the end of it all, it more closely resembles an inquisition than an interview.
Being mentally unprepared to field an interviewer’s questions is an all-too-common mistake for jobseekers. It’s not enough to simply plan how you will answer the questions; you also need to think about what your answers will say about your experience, skills, and attitudes, and how those align with what the employer is seeking.
Below are 5 common questions asked in job interviews, along with some key tips on how to craft effective responses to them.
1. “Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?”
Sometimes, the easiest questions are the hardest. It’s very easy to give a rambling, aimless response in the moment that reveals little about your aptitude for the position. Interviewers want to hear a story, but they don’t necessarily want your whole autobiography. In particular, they want to see how your experiences have shaped your values and attitudes in relation to the role you’ve applied for.
When answering this question, focus on a few specific moments in your professional, educational, or personal history that brought you to where you are now. Don’t only give details that interviewers can easily glean from your resume, cover letter, or LinkedIn profile. Instead, talk about the challenges or hardships you’ve faced and the experiences that sparked your passion in the career path you’ve chosen. You will also want to draw specific links between your personal history and the skills you’re bringing to the role.
2. “Why are you interested in this position?”
If you’re like most jobseekers, you’ll be fighting the urge to blurt out something like, “I need to eat!” or “I have bills to pay!” Obviously, employers know that you applied to the job for largely financial reasons, but, of course, that isn’t what they want to hear. What they actually want is for you to explain why they should be interested in you as a candidate, not the other way around.
To respond, Chris Westfall of Forbes suggests that, because all employers ultimately seek “solutions providers,” your answer to this question should illustrate how you can provide those solutions. This is also a great opportunity to demonstrate your passion or commitment to your career. Additionally, you can discuss the company itself, and how its mission or culture aligns with your values, which shows you didn’t just apply to the job because it was open, but because you have a clear interest in the business or field.
3. “What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?”
Be careful–this question can be a trap! Resist the temptation to rely upon trite answers and blatant self-flattery. Interviewers want to see how reflective and honest you can be about yourself and are looking for a genuine answer with a healthy dose of humility.
In an article for the Harvard Business Review, columnist Joel Schwartzberg developed a step-by-step strategy for responding to this question. He encourages candidates to focus on strengths listed in the job description and to make those strengths as specific as possible. Rather than using cliches like “communication skills” or “creativity,” link those overly-general traits to more descriptive abilities, such as public speaking and presentation skills or the ability to employ innovative problem-solving strategies, respectively. Including a relevant example in which you applied those skills in previous jobs is also important.
When discussing weaknesses, Schwartzberg suggests avoiding examples that are actually strengths disguised as weaknesses, such as “perfectionism” or “being a workaholic.” Instead, he believes candidates should think about weaknesses as challenges to resist this tendency. The challenge you choose should also be a skill gap that is easily fixable, rather than a behavior, and not something that is crucial to the role.
4. “Can you explain the gap in your resume?”
There are any number of reasons why someone might take an extended hiatus from their career, and they’re more common than you might think. As a result, employers don’t necessarily see employment gaps as an immediate red flag–they did call you in for an interview for a reason, after all–but they might think you have something to hide or some problematic behavioral patterns.
It’s crucial to be honest when you answer this question, but you also want to try to flip the situation into a positive one. For example, if you took a break to care for your family, you could explain that this experience allowed you to realign your priorities and learn how to manage your responsibilities more effectively. A hiatus to pursue your interests outside work could be framed as an exercise in personal development, during which you gained some important skills relevant to your career. Any explanation should emphasize your eagerness to return to work and clearly illustrate you weren’t just wasting your time.
5. “Do you have any questions for me?”
Perhaps the biggest mistake an otherwise perfectly suitable candidate can make during an interview is failing to engage with this final question. Not having a set of your own questions to pose to your interviewer is akin to lying down and taking a nap in mile 25 of a marathon. It can truly be a make-or-break moment. Even when you feel as though all your nagging concerns have been addressed, you should still take advantage of the opportunity to learn more about the job and show the interviewer you’re truly serious about getting hired.
In a column for The Cut, Alison Green compiled a list of questions designed to impress the interviewer and reveal details about the reality of working for the company. Some of these questions are:
- “Can you describe a typical day or week in the job?” This allows you to see a clearer picture of what you’ll be expected to do in the role, and, more importantly, whether it’ll be a good fit for you. No one wants to start a job that’s drastically different from what was advertised in the description.
- “What differentiated the ones who were good at this work from the ones who were really great at it?” Green states this may be the best question a candidate ever asked her. It demonstrates that you’re conscientious and driven, and that you care about the criteria for success.
- “What do you like about working here?” Interviewers who truly enjoy their jobs should be able to answer this question readily and enthusiastically. If they don’t have much to say, it could be a sign to move on to the next opportunity.
While these only represent a handful of the most common interview questions, the strategies employed to answer them can be transferred easily to prepare for anything a jobseeker might be asked. Hopefully, these tips will give you the confidence to crush your next interview. Here at PGS Worldwide, we’re dedicated to supporting our candidates throughout every step of the employment process, from the application to the interview and beyond.