Wouldn't it be great if we knew in advance all the questions we'll be asked at an interview?
But that's like knowing exactly how the conversation will flow on a first date - handy, but not going to happen in the real world. The good news is that we can put in a bit of work to stack the odds in our favour. Whilst no two interviews or jobs are the same, employers are basically looking for similar things; so many common questions might crop up.
Preparing for your interview questions might seem like a double-edged sword - after all it's hard to be natural if you've just memorised your lines. So whilst it's not recommended that you learn stock answers by heart, we do think it's a good idea to get a feel for the type of things you could be asked. That way you can give some thought to your answers, and get your brain in gear quickly on the day.
Common Questions You Can Be Pretty Sure Of...
"Tell me about yourself..."
This one probably comes after the initial introductions and chit chat, so it's your first chance to shine. Keep it under four or five minutes - start with your new qualification (or training) that makes you suitable for the job, and why you decided to learn your new skill. Highlight your previous work, focusing on the relevant skills and achievements you've picked up, rather than details of the job itself. Speak with enthusiasm about things you enjoy, to give the interviewer a feel for your personality.
"What made you apply to work here?"
Never let the words "I just need a job" pass through your lips. Interviewers expect you to know something about their company, and a good answer will prove to them that you've done your homework. Even if they're a small business, get genned up on them beforehand, so you can wax lyrical about how your goals and ambitions match their company values and plans. It's a natural progression for you, and you'd really welcome the chance to contribute to their future success.
"What career plans do you have?"
This one's really worth thinking about, maybe more for you personally than for the interviewer. Thinking about where you want to be in five years helps you to apply for the right jobs now. At interview, you can talk about what you want to achieve, and work back to how this job will give you the opportunity to develop and cement your skills.
Some Of These Are Likely To Be Thrown In Too...
"Why should we select you?"
Look at the job description, and pick out some of your strengths that match what they're looking for. Even if your work experience has been in a different career, you can talk about things such as attention to detail, reliability, technical skills, customer relationship skills, seeing things through etc. Always think of examples that demonstrate the strengths you're promoting. If you're not used to blowing your own trumpet and worry that you'll sound like an ego-maniac, use the phrase "The guys I work with say that I'm good at..."
If you're struggling with this one, ask your mates or your mum what makes you special (but keep it relevant - best to leave out that you can drink ten large vodkas without throwing up...)
"What's your biggest weakness?"
This can be the scariest question of all, but it doesn't need to be. Resist the temptation to say "I don't have any weaknesses...", or "I'm just too nice..." - this will only have the interviewer reaching for a bucket! We'd also avoid phrases like "I probably work too hard..." unless you really do and can elaborate. Clearly this is also not the best time to blurt out that you're a two-timing liar with commitment issues...
The way to handle this question is to talk about something work-related that wasn't one of your natural strengths, but explain how you've already taken steps to improve it. If you can't think of anything work-related, maybe for example you feared doing a presentation at your sports club or school, but you did it anyway and started to conquer your fear. Nobody's perfect, including your interviewer, who's as interested in how you handle that question as in what you say.
"What are your strengths?"
This is similar to the "Why should we take you on?" question. Go through the job spec so you can give examples of why you're strong in skills that are needed for the role. Pick out three different ones that the interviewer's likely to be looking for. You might choose one that shows you can do the job, one that demonstrates your commitment and one that proves you're a good bloke/girl to have on the team.
"What's your current salary / What salary are you looking for?"
Another tricky one this, but the golden rule is never lie about your current income - they can always find out. That's not to say that you can't big it up by including any perks and bonuses though. If you're career changing and have newly qualified certifications, it's quite reasonable to expect a different salary anyway. If asked what you'd be seeking, mention that it's in the same area as the salary guideline for the job description, but try not to get involved in any detail. It's quite common to fine-tune the exact salary negotiation once you've been offered the job. If the recruiter doesn't bring up the subject, leave it until the second interview - you don't want to come across as only interested in the money.
And Now For Something Completely Different...
Some interviewers like to hit candidates with the odd 'off the wall' question. These can range from fairly logically sounding ones like:
"Who inspires you the most?" or "Who would you most like to be?"
...to truly 'bone-chilling' ones like:
"If you were an animal, which one would you be?" or "If you were a vegetable what would you be and why?"
Anyone unprepared for this might justifiably lose the will to live when thrown one of these. The important thing is to stay calm. Employers want to see whether you can think on your feet, how you react and how well you can bounce a response back. Keep in mind what characteristics are needed to get the job done and choose accordingly e.g. if you think they're looking for a leader, a lion might be more appropriate than a bunny (unless it's the Duracell bunny of course!) As for the vegetables, anything goes - just stay away from the couch potato...
Often there are no right or wrong answers here, just wrong responses. Resist the temptation to panic and blurt out the first answer that comes into your head, squeaking away at a hundred words a minute like Joe Pasquale. Breathe deeply and smile - this is a perfect moment to show you've got a sense of humour.
If your razor sharp wit escapes you momentarily, repeat the question slowly out loud; it's amazing how a couple of extra seconds can deliver a punch line to the forefront of your mind. Interviewers like to get a feel for the real person sitting in your seat - they want to work with someone relatable who can get along with everyone.
Answering interview questions is all about preparation, and finding the right balance between confidence and humility. Good communication skills (see Good Interview Communication) will help you to sell yourself well without sounding like a big-headed know it all.
Ways To Shine...
Always let the interviewer finish what they're saying before you jump in and respond. When we're a bit nervous, it's easy to half listen to a question and be thinking of the answer while they're still talking. The problem with that is it's easy to get the wrong end of the stick, and answer the question we fancy answering, not the one they've really asked. This is a massive no no - it shows disrespect, lack of attention to detail and miserable communication skills. In case there's any confusion here - Don't do it!
Listen carefully, and then take your time to expand on what they really want to hear.
Have a couple of copies of your CV handy. There might be an extra person on the panel who hasn't seen it yet, and having one available shows good planning and organisation (see Preparing Your CV). It's not a bad idea to have one for yourself as well - you might think you know it inside out, but when the employer asks you about a detail on it, you'll be glad for a quick glance down to avoid empty brain syndrome or going off at a tangent about the wrong thing.
Take a small notebook with you, with some questions of your own prepared to ask the interviewer.
It's likely you'll be asked at the end if you've any further questions, but even if you're not, ask some anyway (it shows you're interested in working for them). A good interviewer may have covered pretty much all you need to know about the job, so to avoid looking passive, have a list of extra stuff, and pick a couple out to finish on. Use your own words, but try some of these for size:
"What first attracted you to this company?"
"What's the best thing about working here?"
"Are there any company training schemes I could join?"
"Why did this position become available?"
"Are there opportunities for promotion within the company?"
"What's the management style like?"
"How would you describe the working atmosphere and company culture?"
"Where does this job fit into the team/company as a whole?"
"What's the staff turnover like?"
"How do you think the current economic situation will affect the business?"
Finally, always remember an interview is a two-way event. Sure you're there to sell yourself, but it also gives you the chance to get a feel for them. We wouldn't recommend storming out in a blaze of glory if there's the odd thing that doesn't float your boat, but you're looking to spend a chunk of your life there, so check out that it's the right fit for you.
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