10 common job interview questions – and how to answer them

Job interviews can be pretty daunting.

But if you come prepared, it can make the experience a whole lot more manageable.

While there’s no denying that no job interview is the same, it’s clear that hiring teams and managers like to ask certain questions in particular, to get a feel for a candidate’s personality and experience.

As a result, similar ones seem to crop up, time and time again.

So, if you do a little preparation on these common questions, you’ll feel more confident and capable of answering them – avoiding any awkward pauses or panic.

Experts have shared some of the most common ones asked during a job interview and have shared their tips on how to answer them.

10 common job interview questions:

Can you tell me about yourself?

This is, without a doubt, the most common interview question – and experts say the key to answering it is understanding why employers are asking. 

Aimee Beesley, business partner at Gleeson Recruitment Group, says: ‘Often, it’s a way of easing into the interview process themselves, and a way to make you feel more relaxed before the “tough” questions begin.

‘It can also often be a way for your interviewer to figure out what they’re going to ask you next, and to suss out how confident you’ll be in front of clients or customers for the first time. 

‘When it comes to answering, really the key here is to speak with confidence and positivity, because this will really set the tone for the rest of your interview. 

‘You should also be careful not to go on for too long, or go overboard with details about your personal life. A concise, professional summary will suffice, rounded off with why you’re enthusiastic about the role on offer.’

Why do you want to work for us?

Another common question, and knowing how to formulate a meaningful response could be the difference between whether a potential employer makes an offer to you or another candidate, says Aimee.

She explains: ‘Your interviewers definitely don’t want to hear that you’re just looking for a way to pay the bills and put food on the table, or that the position is a stepping stone to bigger and better things. 

‘One way to come up with a compelling answer to this question is to flip it, and answer “why would this company want to hire me?”

‘That way, you can talk about what you’ll do to help the organisation succeed, the aspects of its values and mission you’re most excited about, and how you think you can complement the business’ culture.’

Where do you see yourself in five years time?

This question is both highly popular and, for some, exceedingly difficult to answer, explains James Reed, the chairman of Reed.co.uk.

He says: ‘One way to answer honestly is to acknowledge out loud that you’re there to talk about the job on offer, not the job it leads to. Also, use the opportunity to detail your achievements to date, before saying you’d hope to be equally successful at this company.

‘If you’re one of those super-human types with a well-mapped out career plan, (one that doesn’t sound too prescriptive and presumptuous), then by all means wheel that plan out when you’re asked this question.

‘Everybody else – i.e. most of us – should give themselves permission to not have the faintest idea where they’ll be in five years time. It’s perfectly normal and OK to not know. And if you make inner peace with not knowing, you will be on your way to giving a good answer.’

What are your greatest strengths/weaknesses?

James says the real question here is: do you really know yourself? 

‘My top-line tactic is to answer with the job description uppermost in mind – go easy on the adjectives and heavy on hard data,’ he continues.

‘Ultimately, you’re there to solve the employer’s problems and not to make people think you’re smart, nice or generally a good, professional all-rounder.

‘In terms of discussing your greatest weaknesses, my topline tactic is to bear in mind that the interviewer is seeking affirmation of predicted weaknesses, not information about new ones. The real question the interviewer will be asking is: “Are you going to give me the same old evasive answers that everybody else did, or are you going to level with me?”

‘There is no quicker way to break the rapport between you and your interviewer than to give a clichéd answer to this question, such as “I’m a perfectionist” (whatever you do, don’t say this: it’s been done to death).’

The right employer will value honesty and appreciate that someone is not the finished article. Self-awareness of weaknesses and acknowledgment of where you need to grow and develop is a hugely positive trait to demonstrate.

What do you know about our company?

This is ultimately an opportunity to show you’ve done your research and have come prepared.

Toby Thwaites, job interview expert at digital recruiters Futureheads, says: ‘You don’t need to walk them through the entire structure of their business, but top-line information on what you understand to be their offering, approach, and values towards that and why that resonated with you is a great and fairly succinct answer here.’

Tell me about a time you dealt with a challenging situation?

‘In my experience, this is about the solution rather than the situation itself,’ adds Toby.

This is because the employer is looking to understand why it was a challenging situation, and how you analysed/thought about the best approach – e.g. what considerations you made before deciding the way to deal with the situation.

He adds: ‘As with most questions like this, they will also be interested in the outcome. An employee who can empathetically work through challenging situations to positive outcomes is a huge addition to a business.’

What are your salary expectations?

This one is actually a very common question – so when preparing, always consider it and give it plenty of thought. 

‘It can often stump people, especially when they are unsure how much they should be asking for, as they may wonder: “how much is too much?”‘ says Gavin Beart, divisional managing director of education at Reed.

‘Have a look at the average salary for someone in this industry area who possesses similar skills to yourself, and you should get a basic idea. It is easy here to sell yourself short.

‘So if you’re not sure where to start – download salary guides to benchmark.’

Why are you looking to change jobs?

This question speaks volumes about why you are interested in the role and whether you are suitable for it.

Gavin says: ‘Avoid the temptation to criticise your employer; the interviewer will want to make sure you are moving for the right reasons, not just because you are trying to escape from a bad work situation. Stay positive but try not to lie. 

‘Always avoid saying that you’re simply looking for a new challenge if you can’t back it up, because the recruiter will dig deeper.’

What skills and experience can you bring to the role?

This is an opportunity to really sell yourself and make your experience shine.

Layla Greening, managing director at LEAD Talent, says: ‘What employers are generally looking for are key attributes such as, project management, technical knowledge, managing stakeholders, targets, and sales.

‘Explain how these will help you effectively complete the duties listed in the job description. Provide specific examples, interviewers are looking for how you have demonstrated your key attributes in previous roles and how they can be beneficial in the current role.

‘Be careful not to talk only about your transferable soft skills. Although, these are useful and should be mentioned so they can understand you more as a person and team player.’

I notice you have a career gap – what were you doing during this period?

While this question doesn’t apply to everyone, extended periods of furlough and redundancy during the pandemic means this question is definitely on the rise.  

Khyati Sundaram, CEO of debiased hiring experts Applied, says: ‘Career breaks are no bad thing, and ideally interviewees wouldn’t need to justify them at all. But it’s wise to prepare for questions around any time out of work, by thinking about the skills you gained during this period.

‘Whether you went travelling and learned a new language, or became a new parent and honed incredible multitasking abilities, make sure you showcase this. 

‘If the interviewer continues to pry at your career break, perhaps reassess whether the role is a good fit. 

‘Career breaks are natural, often unavoidable, and can be hugely beneficial – and an employer unwilling to recognise this is unlikely to promote employee wellbeing. ‘

The three different types of interview question:

Roddy Adair, a director at Hays, explains (typically) there are three types of interview questions: situational, competency-based and behavioural.

He outlines how to recognise them and approach them below:

Situational

Roddy says: ‘Situational interview questions are based on specific, practical scenarios that you might encounter in the new job. These are somewhat difficult to prepare for as they are designed to evoke a natural, kneejerk response – encouraging you to think on your feet.’

Example situational question: You’re working on a number of high priority projects with hard deadlines. How do you go about determining what to prioritise?

  • ‘How to approach: What this question is really trying to determine is your ability to manage your time strategically and effectively. Most jobs inevitably involve this situation on a day to day basis, so you should have experience to draw from.
  • ‘Good answer example: I would begin by listing all the tasks I need to accomplish in one place, with when they need completing by. I’d then rank the tasks according to importance or urgency to structure my day, and ensure that I am reviewing my workload regularly to check that nothing needs reprioritising. I try to keep multitasking to a minimum as starting a number of jobs simultaneously means that you are unlikely to give any of them your full attention.’

Competency

Roddy adds: ‘The aim of competency-based questions is to gauge the specific skills you possess, using the reasoning that your existing experience can be used as an indicator of future performance. They often require you to answer in the context of actual events, demonstrating some overlap with situational questions.’

‘The key to answering these is to use real-life past examples, using the STAR technique:

‘Situation/Task: Describe the task you were assigned to or the situation you faced.

‘Action: Explain exactly how you met the challenge and why you did what you did.

‘Result: Describe the outcome of your actions and the positive effect it had on your business.’

Example competency-based question: Describe a situation in which you led a team.

  • ‘How to answer: This might seem a bit of a daunting question – it requires you to “sell yourself”, and if you’re too modest then you risk downplaying your achievement. That is why the STAR format is so useful – it allows you to illustrate your approach and the result in a story format that accentuates your success.
  • ‘Good answer example: I was assigned to lead a group presentation to a number of important potential clients in the hope of winning their business. I then delegated sections of the presentation to various team members and systemically reviewed their progress as a team, ensuring that the messages were cohesive and made structural and narrative sense. I also led a series of practice sessions to ensure that everyone was word perfect and had full understanding of the role they were playing. As a result, the presentation went very smoothly and we ended up winning business from nearly all the clients present.’

Behavioural

Roddy continues: ‘Interviewers ask behavioural questions in order to elicit information about your character, based on descriptions of the ways that you have approached similar challenges in the past.

‘Whereas situational questions decipher your immediate, practical approach to certain scenarios, and competency-based questions are designed to gain information on the skills you possess, behavioural questions ascertain if you have the character traits they are looking for.’

Example behavioural interview: Tell me about a time you had to work on a project with someone whose working style clashed or didn’t align with yours.

  • ‘How to answer: Whilst this question does require a certain degree of honesty, it’s important to be diplomatic and not be too critical of your former colleague. The interviewer will be looking for flexibility here and a proactive approach towards overcoming challenges.
  • ‘Good answer example: One of my colleagues had a very creative mindset, and their approach to campaigns was more impulse-driven whereas I work better with structure. I knew that to get the best out of both of us it had to be a dual effort, so I conducted brainstorms at regular intervals that allowed spontaneous, organic idea generation but also had fixed, focused outcomes.’

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