Advice for Common Job Interview Questions

The job interview can be a nerve-wracking experience for even the most seasoned workers, and even more so for a recent graduate fresh out of college. Here’s a secret: it doesn’t have to be! A little preparation can go a long way toward not only helping you impress your interviewer, but also giving you the confidence to go in and be yourself.

Before your interview, take some time to go through these and other common interview questions. Think about your responses, write them out, and practice them a few times in front of a mirror. Even better—practice them with a friend or family member. A few minutes spent rehearsing today will pay dividends when you’re sitting in a hiring manager’s office.

Below are some of the most common job interview questions, and our advice on how to tackle them.

Tell me about your previous job—was there anything you particularly loved or hated about it?

The main thing to keep in mind when facing this question is to avoid being too negative about your previous employers. Using this question as an opportunity to launch into a tirade about how your boss was an idiot and your coworkers were lazy will make you look petty and unprofessional.

Rather, use this as an opportunity to bring up positive points about yourself, and even the interviewing company if possible. Something like “I didn’t think my last job allowed me the creative freedom necessary to really make a difference in the company, and that’s a big part of the reason I’ve applied with you.” (A note of caution, however—use common sense and make sure you know what you’re talking about. For example, don’t say you’re looking forward to enjoying creative freedom in your new job if you’re interviewing for an assembly-line position.)

“Where do you see yourself in five/ten years?”

When asked about your future, be honest—but not too honest. If you want to start your own company or go back to school or travel the world, that’s great—but telling potential employers you’re not going to stick around isn’t the best way to land a new job.

At the same time, don’t pander to them. Saying that you’d hope to be working for your interviewer in five years will make you come across as presumptuous and sycophantic. You can imply it, however: give them your career goals—if there are any skills you’d like to gain, if there are any specialties or areas of expertise related to your field you’d like to learn, particularly if they’re related to the operations of the company you’re interviewing with.

And use this question as an opportunity to show your genuine interest in the company. After giving your answer, ask follow-up questions about the typical career path for people in the position you’re seeking, ask how long most people in the department have been with the company—if you feel comfortable with the rapport you’ve established with the interviewer, you can even ask them where they started in the company.

“What is your greatest weakness?”

Try not to give a pithy answer like, “my greatest weakness is that I’m too much of a perfectionist,” (even if it’s true!) or “I try to do too much and take on too much responsibility.” The interviewer knows you’re human, and knows you have flaws, and if the only flaw you’re willing to admit to is that you spend too much time being perfect and trying too hard, it’s going to come across as insincere and possibly even irritating.

Be honest in answering this question, but to a point. Don’t get into personal details, and don’t give say your greatest weakness is a crucial skill for the job you’re applying for. Before going into your interview, think about this question—think about something about you that you’d like to improve, or that you’ve already taken steps to improve, or something for which you’ve found tools to help with. You could say something like, “Personally, my greatest weakness has always been time management, and I’ve found that having a calendar that syncs between all my computers and my phone has been a great help—I’m still not perfect at scheduling my time, but I’m a lot better, and still improving.”

“How do you handle stress?”

Again: honesty is the best policy here—to a point. If you deal with stress by chain-smoking and screaming at anybody who tries to talk to you, it might be a good idea to leave that out.

Be mindful of the company you’re applying for, and the type of job. It’s sometimes helpful to break the question down into different kinds of stress. If you’re applying for a position that involves rigid deadlines and multi-tasking on several projects at once, hopefully you’re adept at handling that kind of stress—many people work best under tight deadlines.

You can give examples of how you try to minimize stress. Careful scheduling, planning, and communication between team members are the best way to keep unexpected stress at manageable levels.

Finally, you can mention ways you try to minimize stress in your personal life. Do you work out, do yoga, or meditate? Maybe you garden, or volunteer?

Breaking the stress question down into components can help clarify your answer, show your employer that you’re familiar with the ebb and flow of workplace stress, and that you’re comfortable handling it.

“Can you give an example of times you’ve worked within a team?”

Don’t overthink this question. Whatever your level of experience, whether you’re right out of college or you’ve been working for years, you’ve no doubt been in situations where you’ve had to collaborate with others. Talk about that experience, and discuss your role within the team, taking care to frame it within the job you’re applying for.

If you’re applying for a management position, talk about projects you’ve led, groups you’ve coordinated, or even sports teams you’ve captained. If you’re applying for a position that will entail working within a team but not leading it, try to discuss times you’ve contributed strongly to a team—and it’s worth mentioning even in this situation times you’ve led groups or shown leadership.

The point of this question is to figure out whether or not you’re comfortable working with others, and how you best fit into groups. Pick examples that show you can adjust to the work habits of others, that you can communicate effectively, and that you can work within a group environment to get things done.

“Tell me a little about yourself.”

This question is the most likely to make interviewees freeze up if they’re not prepared. How do you summarize yourself in a brief, concise answer? It’s not that tough if you think about it—so it’s best to spend some time before your interview thinking about this one.

There are two schools of thought, generally thinking, on this question. Some people ask it seeking to get a little better understanding of who you are outside of the workplace. They want to know what you’ve done that’s not on your resume. There are others who ask it looking for a brief summary of your professional qualifications and skills. So it’s best to have an answer in mind for both.

In certain instances, it’s best to mix it up. Give a brief summary of your recent experience touching on the skills most applicable to the job you’re interviewing for, and then spend 15-20 seconds talking about your interests outside of work.

If you’re not sure what your interviewer is looking for—ask them to clarify! You don’t want to ramble on about your love of windsurfing if they were looking for an oral version of your cover letter. Likewise, if your interviewer was hoping to get to know you a little better, you can come across as too stiff if you recite your qualifications when asked this question.

“What did you have in mind in terms of salary?”

The salary question is an uncomfortable one for most people, and understandably so. If possible, try to avoid being the first one to give an actual number. If you give a number that’s too low, you can devalue yourself—or get stuck in a job being underpaid. If you give a number that’s too high, you risk pricing yourself out of the running before the employer even gets a chance to really know you.

Before your interview, do some research into salaries in your industry and in your region; our career profiles can be great resources. Also, look at your own finances, and get a realistic idea of what you need to earn. If you absolutely have to give a number, try to give a range—say something like, “based on my research, it looks like positions in the area with similar job responsibilities as what we’ve discussed here usually pay between $X and $Y; is that about what you had in mind?”

“Do you have any questions for me?”

Always come prepared with questions for the interviewer. A flat “no” to this question makes it look like you’re not particularly interested in the job or the company, or that you’re not well-versed in the industry to understand what you should want to know about either.

Try to think about your last job—if you could do it all over again, what would you want to know about your position or the company before you started?

It’s also a good idea to ask general questions about the company, but take the time to investigate beforethe interview—asking a lot of questions about the company that you could have found the answers to by spending ten minutes on their website can make you look disinterested and lazy.

You can ask about the position itself—ask about why the position is open in the first place, or ask about the typical day or week in the job. Ask about what made previous people in the position successful or disappointing.

Finally, you can even ask the interviewer directly if he or she has any reservations about you as a fit for the job—this can give you a chance to polish up any rough edges in the impression you made.

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