Every interview has a unique focus, but some questions are asked so often, it makes sense to do all you can to prepare for them. In order to be successful, you need a strategy — not scripted answers. Your goal should be to emphasize the experiences in your background that best fit what each interviewer is looking for.
In this article, we’ll look at some common questions and what you should consider when formulating your responses. Work through each potential question, creating your own responses, and you will be in great shape for your next interview. It helps to write out potential answers. Even better: Practice aloud with someone.
Question: Where would you like to be in your career five years from now?
Intent: Early in your career, interviewers want to get a sense of your personal goals, ambition, drive and direction. At mid-career, they will be listening for responses relevant to their needs.
Context: You’ll need to decide how much to share. If you want to run your own business five years from now and need a certain kind of experience in a competitive company, don’t reveal that goal. But if you want to become a VP by age 35 and are interviewing in a merit-based environment, go ahead and tell the interviewer.
Response: “My goal is to be a corporate VP by the time I am 35.” Or you might give a more subjective answer: “In five years, I want to have gained solid experience in marketing communications and be developing skills in another marketing function.”
Question: Tell me about your proudest achievement.
Intent: This question, often worded as “significant accomplishment,” ranks among the most predictable and important things you’ll be asked. Interviewers want to hear how you tackled something big. It is vital you give them an organized, articulate story.
Context: This is a behavioral question — meaning you’re being asked to talk about a specific example from your professional history. Pick an example or story about how you handled a major project that is both significant to you and rich in detail.
Response: Set up the story by providing context. Recount the situation and your role in it. Next, discuss what you did, including any analysis or problem solving, any process you set up and obstacles you had to overcome. Finally, reveal the outcome and what made you proud.
Question: Give me an example of a time when you had to think out of the box.
Intent: This is code for asking about your innovativeness, creativity and initiative. Interviewers want to learn about not only a specific creative idea but also how you came up with it and, more importantly, what you did with that insight.
Context: This is another behavioral question, and the example you select is critical. It should be relevant to the job you’re interviewing for, and your impact in the story should be significant.
Response: Tell interviewers how you came up with a creative solution to a customer problem, improved an internal process or made a sale via an innovative strategy.
Question: What negative thing would your last boss say about you?
Intent: This is another way of asking about your weaknesses.
Context: A good approach is to discuss weaknesses you can develop into strengths. However, do not say you work too hard or are a perfectionist. These answers are tired and transparent. Come up with something visible to a past boss that was perhaps mentioned in your performance reviews as a developmental area.
Response: “I don’t think she would have called it negative, but she identified that I needed to work on being more dynamic in my presentation skills. I have sought out practice opportunities and joined Toastmasters. I have seen some real improvement.”
Question: What can you do for us that other candidates can’t?
Intent: Some interview questions are more important than others. This is one of them. It’s another way of asking, “Why should we hire you?”
Context: There are two nuances to this question. The first is asking you to compare yourself to other candidates — usually a difficult if not impossible task. More importantly, the interviewer is asking you to articulate why you are special. Your response should sum up your main selling points, related specifically to the job requirements.
Response: Consider what you have to offer: past experience directly related to the job; specialized knowledge; relevant situational expertise and experience (growth, change, turnaround, startup); skills; networks; demonstrated commitment and enthusiasm for the business or your profession; future potential.
Create a list of four to six categories of reasons that best support and summarize your candidacy, and put them in logical order, along with supporting evidence for each reason. Most points should be backed up with follow-up information.
Question: Tell me about a time you faced an ethical dilemma.
Intent: The interviewer is looking for evidence of your high ethical standards and honesty.
Context: You might want to say you haven’t had any ethical challenges, but we all have our ethics tested at some point. For example:
• You discovered wrongdoing, or someone asked you to engage in a cover-up.
• Your employer failed to deliver the full value and quality on products or services paid for by a client.
• A colleague cut corners on a project.
Response: Without naming names, describe the situation and how you dealt with it. The response may focus on you, or it may involve other people. Remember, your political acumen is being tested — sometimes the best action isn’t blowing the whistle but taking care of the problem yourself.
Question: Tell me about a time when you failed.
Intent: No one wins all the time, so the key here is to forthrightly discuss what you learned from a situation that went awry. The interviewer also may want to hear how you handled any resulting fallout.
Context: Failure comes in different forms: taking the wrong action, omission, or not doing enough or taking action soon enough. Some failures are big; most are small. Tell a story that isn’t a career killer but shows you learned something substantive.
Response: Perhaps you failed to trust your gut on a hire and the person didn’t work out, or you didn’t intervene early enough with a problem employee. Talk about the lesson you learned from the mistake.
Question: Tell me about a project you worked on that required heavy analytical thinking.
Intent: This is a behavioral interview question. The interviewer is asking you to demonstrate your competency.
Context: The only way an interviewer can determine if you have enough analytical horsepower is to hear an example of how you used your analytical skills to achieve a goal: What formal and informal analysis did you do? How did you structure the project? What obstacles did you run into, and how did you overcome them?
Response: “In 2005, I was given project X with a 10-day deadline and goal Y. The goal was clear, but I had to figure out how to get there. So here is what I did (analysis/decisions/actions). The end result was _______.”
Question: Why do you want to leave your current position?
Intent: The interviewer wants to make sure you won’t walk out after six months and that you’ll be satisfied in your new position.
Context: You have greater market value when you are looking on your own terms. Prepare a positive response you are very comfortable with. Refer to fit, personality issues or new directions. Your goals and readiness for a new kind of role are generally safe terrain. Just be careful to emphasize benefits to the employer, not your personal aspirations.
Response: Tread carefully. You don’t want to bad-mouth your current employer or put yourself in a weaker negotiating position. You could say, “Actually, I’m happy doing what I am doing now. But recently I have been keeping my eyes open for other opportunities. I don’t need to leave, but for the right opportunity, I would consider it. This opportunity seems to fit the criteria I set out.”
Question: What book are you currently reading?
Intent: The interviewer is exploring your intellectual curiosity, your interests or perhaps how in tune you are with industry or professional trends.
Context: Consider highlighting reading material directly related to the role and environment you are interviewing for: sales-excellence books for salespeople or talent-management books for HR workers, for example. Be prepared to talk about the book’s concepts and your opinions of them.
Response: “I just finished ________ and just started _______.” “I am in the middle of __________.”
Question:Tell me about a time when you faced a major obstacle at work.
Intent: Similar to the proudest achievement question, this is a behavioral interview question focused on an event. In this case, the interviewer is interested in your ability to overcome a major hurdle.
Context: Pick an example that illustrates a significant obstacle that best demonstrates how you work and that had a positive, tangible outcome. Obstacles might include business problems, a difficult objective, key people who stood in your way or lack of resources. Once you have your example, explain the steps you took.
Response: You could include the analysis you performed and the resulting strategy, the process you took, the key actions performed, your arguments or anything else that clearly demonstrates how you achieved your goal. A great response technique for this kind of question is to break your answer down into phases or steps: “First, I… Second….”
Question: How do you deal with conflict?
Intent: Conflict is part of any workplace, and the reality is that you often can’t get ahead or perform well in your job unless you can deal with conflict at a basic level. Do you avoid conflict or face it? Do you think it through, or are you impulsive? Do you use constructive techniques to resolve the situation?
Context: There are different forms of conflict of course: The everyday interpersonal sort, disagreements in direction or strategy, and conflict over resources. You should describe how you handle conflict at an appropriate level. If you are a manager or executive, for example, pick a reflective example.
Response: Consider offering a specific example to demonstrate how you resolve conflict.
Question: Tell me about yourself.
Intent: Such an innocent-sounding question, but it is a bit of a trap. The interviewer wants to see how you present yourself, but this is not an offer to recite your resume.
Context: This question, which when asked always occurs at the beginning of the interview, is a predictable opportunity to craft an engaging, intriguing executive summary of who you are professionally and why you are there. While there is no hard-and-fast rule as to how long it should be, let’s say it should last up to a minute. If you are given this opportunity, turn it to your advantage to establish momentum.
Response: The stronger the connection you can make between your background, knowledge and interests, and the job at hand, the more compelling you will be as a candidate. If there is something notable about your personal life that adds to your candidacy or helps explain your career trajectory, add it. Otherwise, leave personal details out at this stage unless invited to do so.
Question: How would you describe your work style?
Intent: This is a fairly open-ended question. At a basic level, the interviewer is interested in hearing how you both understand and articulate how you work. However, there may be a requirement for someone highly organized, or the team may have a specific way of working, and the interviewer wants to see if you fit.
Context: You may not have thought about this too carefully before. How do you best operate? What’s the optimum work situation for you? There are two sides to this: How you work and in what kinds of work environments you work best. Are you highly structured? Do you focus on one thing and get it done, or move multiple projects forward concurrently? On the environment side, do you do best in fairly structured workplaces, or do you thrive in chaos?
Response: Like any other answer, being specific and backing up your answer with a brief example works best. You could use the past week as an illustrative example.
Question: Why are you interested in this job/our organization?
Intent: Fair question. Why are you? The interviewer knows you are looking for a new opportunity, and at a basic level, a job. Why else? A candidate with good reasons why is going to be more interesting.
Context: This is not about telling them what they want to hear. Your reasons could involve opportunity, career fit, cultural fit, interest in their business, personal value proposition fit and your ability to be successful in the job. It’s also a great opportunity to illustrate the homework you’ve done on the company.
Response: You want to present your reason as a benefit to the employer. If it is the first interview, you might not have all the answers or will have not made up your mind yet. In this case, use a statement like, “From what I have seen so far….”
Questions: Tell me about an assignment that was too difficult for you. How did you resolve the issue?
Intent: The intent can be varied. The interviewer may be interested not only in your ability to respond to a challenge but also in how you respond. Or he may want to know how you define “too difficult.” Your ability to learn from a situation you considered too difficult is also relevant. Answer the right way, and you can impress with your coping skills and range of abilities. The wrong answer could take you out of the running.
Context: If you have been in challenging roles, then at some point you should have found yourself stretched to the limit. This is when we grow. So this question is a marvelous opportunity to talk about a time you dealt with a really big challenge successfully.
Response: Do not make the mistake of saying you have never had an assignment that was too difficult for you. Discuss an example of a time you had to overcome a lack of knowledge, skill or experience, or when you took your game to the next level: “I wouldn’t say that it was too difficult for me. However, I was faced with…”
Question: What is your management style?
Intent: This is a classic question for management-level candidates. The interviewer’s intent here is threefold: to find out if your management style fits, to determine if you have management ability and to probe how much you understand your own work style.
Context: Avoid responding with cliches. Hopefully you can say more than that you have an open-door policy or you manage by walking around.
Response: In today’s environment, you need to speak to leading and developing your team, communication, how you organize and plan, how you execute and how you measure progress. It need not be a long answer, but responding with a well-thought-out approach to your management style will make a better impression than spouting generalities.
Question: How would your past experience translate into success in this job?
Intent: Either the interviewer is asking in a tone that indicates his doubt about your legitimacy as a candidate, or he is asking you to make the connection for him effectively.
Context: You can blow the whole interview here. In fact, you have no business being in the interview unless you are clear why you have what it takes to do the job well.
Response: You might start with naming the top few requirements for this job and then describing how you meet or exceed each one. Or you might begin with your background and summarize how it has prepared you for this job. Often, the context of the job is almost as important as the skills required, so don’t forget to speak to the specific challenges and objectives you see in the role.
Question: How would you tackle the first 90 days?
Intent: This question is about thoroughness, process and appreciation for organizational complexity. In a second or third interview, the interviewer may also be testing how much you have thought about the job itself.
Context: Most people would say they would study the company’s business. You must go beyond this answer to speak to specific job’s key challenges or goals. You also want to assure your potential employer that current production will continue without interruption. Of course, you want to express that you would work with the team, your boss and any key influencers to get up to speed as quickly as possible.
Response: Unless asked to do so, do not get specific on changes or initiatives you would make. Instead, think of your response as an operating framework that demonstrates you have a solid, realistic understanding of what needs to be done and how.
Question: Give me proof of your technical competence.
Intent: This question is worded vaguely on purpose. In any number of ways, your interviewer will likely ask you to prove your competence in some technical area important to the job. You need to do so decisively.
Context: You could be given a hypothetical scenario, such as a case study or a technical problem to solve, or you simply could be asked to describe your level of competency in a specific skill. How you do this will depend on the kind of question.
Response: Remember the three possible competency scenarios: exceeds, meets or needs development. Even if you find yourself in the last category, you need to demonstrate that you are purposefully and rapidly developing in that area and trying to compensate with an area of strength. You are better off acknowledging where you are rather than trying to fake it.
You can see themes running throughout this article: Know yourself. Think about the position you’re interviewing for. Connect the dots between your background and the job and organizational requirements. Expand upon your responses to ensure you effectively communicate the depth and breadth of your experience. And of course, understand the nuances behind the questions. Good luck!
Article by Ian Christie. Founder of BoldCareer.com which helps individuals build bold, fulfilling careers and help organizations attract, develop and retain talent.