5 most common interview questions and how to answer them

December 5, 2017

Last updated:

Every interview you have will include some variation of the same common questions. As part of your interview preparation, rehearse (but don’t memorize!) your responses to each of the five questions and you’ll nail your interview and get the job.

1) Tell me about yourself

A guaranteed question! Many employers will start the interview with this question. And it’s not because they want to know your life story or test whether you can recite your resume from memory. Rather, the interviewer is giving you the opportunity to introduce and pitch yourself.

Even though this is a simple question, this is the MOST important question of the whole interview. The rest of the interview will be guided by what you say in these 3-5 minutes. No pressure, right?

Though this is a fairly open-ended question, be concise. You will have additional opportunities to discuss your qualifications so don’t try to cram everything into this answer.

The most important thing to remember when answering this question is to make the story concise, linear (as much as possible), and show how everything has led you to this job interview.

Answering as a college student or recent grad (1-2 years experience)

If you are a college student, your story should follow the following elements (more or less):

  1. Why you chose your college
  2. Why you chose your major
  3. What clubs you’ve participated in and/or interesting courses you’ve taken and how these things led you to discover your interest in industry you’re applying to or gave you certain valuable skills
  4. Different internships you’ve participated in and how they’ve guided your career decision
  5. How all of that led you to this job opportunity

You don’t need to tell you story in this order. The important thing is to have a compelling story about how your various decisions have led you to this interview, at this company, and for this job. At the end of the article we give you an example.

Answering as a more experienced candidate (2-5 years experience)

After you have a few years experience under your belt, your time in college will matter a whole lot less. Your formula will include the following elements (more or less):

  1. Very briefly describe you time in college, focusing on why you chose your major and any major internships/accomplishments (if it relates to the job you’re applying to)
  2. Why you decided to take that very first job
  3. Your major accomplishments at your job, skills you’ve learned, and how they apply to the position you’re applying to
  4. Why you are looking for a new opportunity
  5. How your past led you to this job opportunity

Remember to make this a story. At the end of the article we give you a quick example.

Pitfalls to avoid:

  • Taking more than 5 minutes to answer this question. The interviewer will be looking for you to communicate what is most important without rambling.
  • Not showing a logical progression in your experiences (even if it is a stretch). You want to show how A led to B led to C which led you to this amazing opportunity. You want to show your showed consideration for each step of the way.

2) Walk me through your resume

If the interviewer does not start your interview with the question above, then she will start it with this one. How you answer this question is essentially the same as the one above. Your response to this question should provide additional details and context that wouldn’t come through from just reading your resume. Provide insight into why you made the academic, professional and extracurricular choices you have made (for example, “I chose to attend my college because of its strong finance department”).

As you talk about your experiences, make sure you highlight the skills and knowledge you gained that are the most relevant to the job and will set you apart.

At any given point, it is likely the interviewer will interrupt you and ask you some additional follow up questions on a particular question. Therefore, it is essential that you can speak in depth about any experience on your resume.

Pitfalls to avoid:

  • Assuming the interviewer has memorized your resume. The interviewer has reviewed many resumes for this position and may not remember everything you included in yours. So if there is an element that is important and hasn’t been covered in your conversation, highlight it.
  • Giving a brain dump of everything you did and learned for each item on your resume. Your interview time is valuable so don’t waste it on details that won’t build your case.

3) Why are you interested in this position/company?

This is a chance for you to show that you did your homework. We call this “showing up”. You would be shocked how few candidates spend time doing research. If you spend 2-3 hours researching a company and the position before the interview, you’ll be ahead of 75% of all other candidates.

Research the company, the position, and current events in the industry so that you can be specific about what interests you. What is the company’s mission statement? What is company culture like? Why do others enjoy working there? What major items has the company been working on? This information is also important to know in case the interviewer specifically asks you what you know about the company.

This question will also help the interviewer determine if you are a good fit for the position and company culture. Cultural fit is critical to an employee’s success and is most effectively evaluated during the interview. Show your enthusiasm for the position as well as your interest in learning and ability to add value.

Pitfalls to avoid:

  • Being too vague. If you are applying for a marketing internship, it is important to describe why you are interested in marketing but also say why you are interested in marketing in this particular industry and at this particular firm.
  • Focusing on “shallow” interests. Don’t respond by saying you are interested because of the company’s benefits or convenient location. The interviewer wants to see that you have a passion for the work that you would be doing, not for the amazing commute that you would have.

4) Tell me about a time when you handled a difficult situation

Expect a behavioral question such as this to evaluate how well you work with others or under pressure. The interviewer will likely ask a more specific question so prepare by brainstorming different types of difficult situations you may be asked about (such as serving a demanding customer, working with a difficult team member, meeting a tight deadline or handling problems on a project). Then think of experiences where you have dealt with these challenges successfully.

Pick a story that best demonstrates your qualities and skills that are also crucial to the job description (such as handling tough conversations, time management, leadership, and initiative).

Pitfalls to avoid:

  • Ranting or providing unnecessary detail.
  • Criticizing others. Employers will not be impressed by candidates that blame or disrespect others. Be tactful as you describe the situation.

5) What are your greatest strengths? What are your greatest weaknesses?

Employers almost always ask at least one of these questions in some form. Sometimes they might say, “If I were to ask your manager to describe you, what would they say?”. To prepare, reflect on your actual strengths and weaknesses and ask other people for their input. Then study the job description to identify the characteristics that are most important for the position you are applying for.

The interviewer doesn’t want to listen to a laundry list of your many talents – he or she is looking to see whether your strengths align to the qualifications of the position. Select a couple of your strengths that are the best match and that will set you apart from other candidates. Prepare examples of how you have demonstrated and developed those strengths. Be confident but don’t exaggerate or sound vain.

Talking about your weaknesses is tricky because you don’t want the interviewer to think you’re incapable of doing the job. But you also don’t want to sidestep the question or provide a strength cloaked in weakness (“My biggest weakness is I’m too efficient with my time”).

Provide a genuine weakness, but don’t identify a weakness in any attributes that are essential to the position (for example, if you are interviewing to become an accountant don’t say that you are terrible with numbers).

As you choose a weakness, identify a positive spin such as the initiative you have taken to better yourself. Perhaps you struggle with public speaking so joined a Toastmasters club to practice. Use this question to show that you evaluate yourself and are striving to improve.

Pitfalls to avoid:

  • Portraying yourself as perfect. The interviewer knows that every candidate has weaknesses so don’t try to pretend like you don’t have any. Avoiding the question or giving an insincere response about your weaknesses will damage your credibility.
  • Providing vague answers. Anyone can say they have strengths but you must show how you have demonstrated them. A couple of relevant answers with examples will impress more than a long, vague list of strengths.

Examples

Tell me about yourself (college student)

I grew up in Connecticut but always dreamed of going out west for school, specifically Colorado. The mountains called me. So when I was accepted to the University of Colorado, I quickly accepted. Like most freshman, I was entered not knowing 100% what I wanted to do, but knew I wanted to be in business.

I ended up taking a range of courses in finance, accounting, marketing, and so on, but found myself very drawn to supply chain. I loved the idea of improving processes and making a company more efficient. This interest was further solidified when I joined the Supply Chain Management Association and became an active member.

My favorite experience was traveling to Utah to participate in BYU’s Supply Chain Case Competition. My team and I ended up finishing 2nd out of 10 different schools. As I’m entering my senior year, I’m looking for an internship that will provide me with hands-on supply chain experience specifically in the retail sector which I find particularly interesting. All of that leads me here today. I would love the opportunity to intern with ABC Retailer, learn what has made the company successful, and add some of my unique perspectives to the team.

Tell me about yourself (young professional)

I grew up in Connecticut but always dreamed of going out west for school, specifically Colorado. The mountains called me. So when I was accepted to the University of Colorado, I quickly accepted. at CU-Boulder, I quickly discovered my interest in supply chain. I fell in love with the idea of improving processes and making a company more efficient.

For my summer internship, I interned with ABC Retailer in the supply chain group. Working with a mid-sized company gave me amazing opportunities to work on all aspects of a project. The lessons learned were invaluable. After college, I decided to take a job at a larger retailer, XYZ Retailer, where I’ve been for the past 3 years. During this time, I’ve [insert 2 major accomplishments or projects you’ve worked on. These should be mentioned on your resume but you’ll provide further details here].

My only complaint about that company was there was little room for advancement. I’m young in my career and am hungry to keep on learning. And that is what drew me to apply to this company and brought me here today. I’ve talked with other employees and all of them have said the same thing: This company is all about giving employees more and more responsibilities and opportunities to grow, plus the company has an awesome culture. So I’m excited for this opportunity and believe my experience at XYZ Retailer and the skills I learned there would be a great for the role.

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