1. “Tell me a little about yourself.”
If you’re the interviewer, there’s a lot you should already know: The candidate’s resume and cover letter should tell you plenty, and LinkedIn and Twitter and Facebook and Google can tell you more.
The goal of an interview is to determine whether the candidate will be outstanding in the job, and that means evaluating the skills and attitude required for that job. Does she need to be an empathetic leader? Ask about that. Does she need to take your company public? Ask about that.
If you’re the candidate, talk about why you took certain jobs. Explain why you left. Explain why you chose a certain school. Share why you decided to go to grad school. Discuss why you took a year off to backpack through Europe, and what you got out of the experience.
When you answer this question, connect the dots on your resume so the interviewer understands not just what you’ve done, but also why.
2. “What are your biggest weaknesses?”
Every candidate knows how to answer this question: Just pick a theoretical weakness and magically transform that flaw into a strength in disguise!
For example: “My biggest weakness is getting so absorbed in my work that I lose all track of time. Every day I look up and realize everyone has gone home! I know I should be more aware of the clock, but when I love what I’m doing I just can’t think of anything else.”
So your “biggest weakness” is that you’ll put in more hours than everyone else? Great…
A better approach is to choose an actual weakness, but one you’re working to improve. Share what you’re doing to overcome that weakness. No one is perfect, but showing you’re willing to honestly self-assess and then seek ways to improve comes pretty darned close.
3. “What are your biggest strengths?”
I’m not sure why interviewers ask this question; your resume and experience should make your strengths readily apparent.
Even so, if you’re asked, provide a sharp, on-point answer. Be clear and precise. If you’re a great problem solver, don’t just say that: Provide a few examples, pertinent to the opening, that prove you’re a great problem solver. If you’re an emotionally intelligent leader, don’t just say that: Provide a few examples that prove you know how to answer the unasked question.
In short, don’t just claim to have certain attributes — prove you have those attributes.
4. “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
Answers to this question go one of two basic ways. Candidates try to show their incredible ambition (because that’s what they think you want) by providing an extremely optimistic answer: “I want your job!” Or they try to show their humility (because that’s what they think you want) by providing a meek, self-deprecating answer: “There are so many talented people here. I just want to do a great job and see where my talents take me.”
In either case you learn nothing, other than possibly how well candidates can sell themselves.
For interviewers, here’s a better question: “What business would you love to start?”
That question applies to any organization, because every employee at every company should have an entrepreneurial mind-set.
The business a candidate would love to start tells you about her hopes and dreams, her interests and passions, the work she likes to do, the people she likes to work with … so just sit back and listen.
5. “Out of all the other candidates, why should we hire you?”
Since a candidate cannot compare himself with people he doesn’t know, all he can do is describe his incredible passion and desire and commitment and … well, basically beg for the job. (Way too many interviewers ask the question and then sit back, arms folded, as if to say, “Go ahead. I’m listening. Try to convince me.”)
And you learn nothing of substance.
Here’s a better question: “What do you feel I need to know that we haven’t discussed?” Or even “If you could get a do-over on one of my questions, how would you answer it now?”
Rarely do candidates come to the end of an interview feeling they’ve done their best. Maybe the conversation went in an unexpected direction. Maybe the interviewer focused on one aspect of their skills and totally ignored other key attributes. Or maybe candidates started the interview nervous and hesitant, and now wish they could go back and better describe their qualifications and experience.
Plus, think of it this way: Your goal as an interviewer is to learn as much as you possibly can about every candidate, so don’t you want to give them the chance to ensure you do?
Just make sure to turn this part of the interview into a conversation, not a soliloquy. Don’t just passively listen and then say, “Thanks. We’ll be in touch.” Ask follow-up questions. Ask for examples.
And of course if you’re asked this question … use it as a chance to highlight things you haven’t been able to touch on.
6. “How did you learn about the opening?”
Job boards, general postings, online listings, job fairs … most people find their first few jobs that way, so that’s certainly not a red flag.
But a candidate who continues to find each successive job from general postings probably hasn’t figured out what he or she wants to do — and where he or she would like to do it.
He or she is just looking for a job; often, any job.
So don’t just explain how you heard about the opening. Show that you heard about the job through a colleague, a current employer, by following the company … show that you know about the job because you want to work there.
Employers don’t want to hire people who just want a job; they want to hire people who want a job with their company.
7. “Why do you want this job?”
Now go deeper. Don’t just talk about why the company would be great to work for; talk about how the position is a perfect fit for what you hope to accomplish, both short-term and long-term.
And if you don’t know why the position is a perfect fit … look somewhere else. Life is too short.
8. “What do you consider to be your biggest professional achievement?”
Here’s an interview question that definitely requires an answer relevant to the job. If you say your biggest achievement was improving throughput by 18 percent in six months but you’re interviewing for a leadership role in human resources … that answer is interesting but ultimately irrelevant.
Instead, talk about an underperforming employee you “rescued,” or how you overcame infighting between departments, or how so many of your direct reports have been promoted….
The goal is to share achievements that let the interviewer imagine you in the position — and see you succeeding.
9. “Tell me about the last time a co-worker or customer got angry with you. What happened?”
Conflict is inevitable when a company works hard to get things done. Mistakes happen. Sure, strengths come to the fore, but weaknesses also rear their heads. And that’s OK. No one is perfect.
But a person who tends to push the blame — and the responsibility for rectifying the situation — onto someone else is a candidate to avoid. Hiring managers would much rather choose candidates who focus not on blame but on addressing and fixing the problem.
Every business needs employees who willingly admit when they are wrong, step up to take ownership for fixing the problem, and, most important, learn from the experience.
10. “Describe your dream job.”
Three words describe how you should answer this question: relevance, relevance, relevance.
But that doesn’t mean you have to make up an answer. You can learn something from every job. You can develop skills in every job. Work backward: Identify things about the job you’re interviewing for that will help you if you do land your dream job someday, and then describe how those things apply to what you hope to someday do.
And don’t be afraid to admit that you might someday move on, whether to join another company or — better — to start your own business. Employers no longer expect “forever” employees.