If you’ve arrived at the interview stage, then you’ve already made a good impression with your resume and cover letter! How can you keep the positive vibes going and impress the hiring manager face to face?
The key to rocking your interview is preparation, and this guide’s here to help you along the way. Read on for the do’s and don’ts of answering seven of the most common interview questions, along with real sample responses to guide your thinking.
Common Interview Questions and How to Answer Them
The seven questions in this guide are some of the most common ones that interviewers ask. Even if you don’t get these questions exactly, you’ll likely get variations of several of them.
Typically, hiring managers will start with some open-ended questions aimed at getting to know you, your work experience, and your professional qualifications. Then they might move onto behavioral questions, which ask you to provide specific examples of accomplishments, challenges, conflicts, or even failures. Some hiring managers also like to throw in curveballs to get a sense of your personality, creativity, and ability to think on your feet.
Below you’ll find seven common interview questions, advice for answering them, and a sample response for each one. For a comprehensive list of the 100 most common interview questions, check out this guide! For now, let’s consider one of the most common openers that interviewers use to get the conversation started.
Question 1: Tell Me About Yourself
This opener's a common icebreaker question. It’s so open-ended that everyone can think of something to say. Hiring managers often use this prompt or something like it to invite you into conversation and help ease the normal job interview anxiety.
The open-ended nature of this kind of prompt can also be challenging, though. While you can definitely think of something to say, you also want to be strategic and not say too much. Below are some pieces of advice for answering this question, as well as some tips for what not to do!
There are two important guidelines to follow when preparing to answer this question:
Tailor your answer to the job and organization.
Structure your answer in a clear way.
For the first guideline, you should highlight your skills and experiences as they relate to the job description and organization. Stick to what’s professionally relevant, and consider what qualities are essential for the new role.
To help you do this, you might rephrase the prompt as, “Tell me about yourself as I consider you for this role.” Your aim is to show the interviewer that you have the desired skill set and would bring value to the position.
As for the second point about structuring your response, you might start in the present, bring in the past, and then talk about the future. You could describe what you’re doing now and then go into what you did in your work history and education to get there. Then you could discuss where you’re aspiring to go and why (i.e., in this new job and organization).
You might bring in a specific example here if you feel it illustrates your skills. Pinpointing an important moment in time can be helpful if you tend to speak in vague or jargon-filled ways. This approach isn’t totally necessary yet, though, as you’ll have a chance to share anecdotes in response to behavioral questions.
Tailoring your response and structuring it in a clear way are important guidelines for preparing your response to the classic “Tell me about yourself” prompt. That being said, are there any mistakes to avoid here?
“Well, I swim everyday, I love musicals, and I have two cats and a French Bulldog. I’m an Aquarius, and I love long walks on the beach and candlelit dinners…”
Ok, that sample response started to veer into personal ad territory. But the point is that you shouldn’t be overly personal in your response. While you can share some insight into your personality, you mainly want to remain professionally relevant.
Not only should you avoid irrelevant and overly personal details, but you also shouldn’t go on and on about your whole life story. If you find yourself starting with, “First, I was born on a cold December night,” then you’ve rewound too far.
Keep your answer concise, clear, and structured, and consider what main qualities, or “core competencies,” the job description calls for. For instance, the sample response below is a strong one if the hiring manager’s looking for strong interpersonal skills and a positive attitude.
Sample Answer to Question 1
In this sample response, the applicant’s applying for a customer service job in a retail company. The job she seeks calls for strong interpersonal skills and an upbeat, optimistic attitude.
I’ve always loved interacting with people and feel I have strong interpersonal skills. I studied Communications at University X, and that gave me a whole new set of skills to work with people and help them get the information and support they need.
After graduating, I sought out a position on the customer experience team at Dubspot, where I’ve been working since. In this position, I communicate with dozens of customers everyday over the phone, by email, and through instant chat. I help resolve any issues with the software and lead trainings for new clients.
I enjoy helping people resolve issues and aim to continue on in a customer-centric role. Since I’m passionate about the fashion industry, I’m looking to move into a customer experience in a retail, rather than software, company. I’m a huge fan of your products and am a long-time customer. I find helping people to be very gratifying, and I’m really excited to contribute my interpersonal skills and positive attitude in this role.
If the applicant wanted to add a specific example to illustrate her love of working with customers, she might say something like this:
Last week, to share one example, I got a complaint from a customer about a number of issues with the software. Sensing her frustration, I invited her to call me so we could troubleshoot over the phone and she could feel her concerns were heard. We spent 45 minutes addressing her concerns. At the end of the call, she was very happy and sent a long email thanking me for my help and attention. She even referred two new customers to the company.
Again, honing in on an anecdote can be a useful approach if you tend toward vague language, but it’s not necessarily expected at this early stage of the interview. Now let’s take a look at two more classic questions that ask about your strengths and weaknesses.
Are you ready to talk about your personal superpowers?
Question 2: What Do You Think Are Your Greatest Strengths?
If you only prepare one talking point for your interview, it should be the strengths you’d bring to the role. While the hiring manager might not ask you this exact question, she’ll probably use some variation of it, like,
- What are you good at?
- What skills would you bring to this role?
- What would you contribute here?
- What would your manager or coworkers say are your greatest strengths?
In essence, she wants to know why you think you’re qualified for the job. Below are some tips for how to prepare your answer, along with some don’ts to avoid when talking about your key strengths.
As you go through this guide, you’ll notice a common theme start to appear, and it’s this: you should tailor your answers to the job and organization at hand. Talking about your strengths is no different.
Consider what strengths the new hire should have to succeed in this role, based on the job description and your research into the company. Then consider how your own skills align, and choose to discuss the ones that match up. This way, you’re still being accurate and authentic while also targeting the job description.
You may also benefit from bringing in a specific example, even one that uses data if relevant. If you’re talking about your skill in sales, you may talk about a particular client acquisition, your numbers from last quarter, or selling in the top 10% of your peers.
Finally, choose your words carefully and avoid cliches. Rather than talking about your people skills, for instance, you could hone in on a strength like clear communication or productive collaboration. Some phrases have gotten so common that they don’t mean much, so aim for specific language and ideas that will help you stand out.
While you should tailor your answers to the job description, you shouldn't claim competencies if you can’t back your statement up with specifics. The hiring manager may well ask you to elaborate on a strength or give an example. If you don’t have one, then your claims of being organized or creative or collaborative might ring false.
Another mistake to avoid here is highlighting too many strengths and thereby diluting your message. Picking out two to three of the most important and relevant ones is a good approach. Similarly, you probably won’t see much pay off from delving into strengths completely unrelated to the position at hand.
While lots of people might shy away from talking about their strengths, others run the risk of appearing too overconfident. Make sure you talk about your qualities in a meaningful, assured way without sounding braggy or arrogant!
Below is one sample answer to this question of, "What are your greatest strengths?"
Sample Answer to Question 2
Here’s a sample answer from someone applying for a managerial position in a restaurant. The new job wants someone who’s willing to take on a number of responsibilities.
I’d say my greatest strength is a willingness to take on a wide range of responsibilities. While I was technically a server at Solera Restaurant, I also helped plan large events, do event set-up, process payments, and bus tables. I work hard and try to contribute where I can, especially when things get busy or people seem overwhelmed. Not only does this help ease the burden on others, but I get to learn about different aspects of the industry firsthand. I support my fellow workers and get the chance to expand my skills at the same time.
This response targets the job description by highlighting the applicant’s willingness to wear a lot of professional hats. He proves that he has his strength by talking about his duties in his last restaurant position and desire to help his coworkers.
I know you're steady, but I've also heard you're quite slow. Can you speak about this weakness a bit?
Question 3: What Would You Say Are Your Greatest Weaknesses?
If you’re not prepared to talk about your weaknesses or "growth edges," then this question could seriously trip you up in an interview. You’re focusing so much on showing that you’re the best person for the job, so how can you shift to talking about weaknesses in a strategic way?
Some variations of this traditional question might be:
- What are some areas that you need to develop?
- What are some skills areas that you could grow?
- What would your manager or coworkers say are your greatest weaknesses?
Read on for the do’s and don’ts of tackling this question.
Be honest! But also strategic. If one of the core competencies of the new job is attention to detail, for instance, I would avoid choosing that as your greatest weakness. You might subtly choose the opposite - "Sometimes I get caught up in the details and need to remind myself to step back and see the bigger picture" - or choose a weakness that wouldn’t impact your performance very much in the new job.
As with the greatest strengths question, you should prepare a specific example. You should focus not just on your weakness, but on the steps you’ve taken to overcome it. You can acknowledge the weakness, talk about what you learned from it, and expound on the steps you took the overcome it.
Just like with any of your responses, make sure to prepare for follow-up questions. Here, the hiring manager might ask how this weakness could limit your effectiveness in the new position. Be ready to speak at length about what you’re doing to learn and grow.
First off, don’t evade the question. The interviewer wants to see how you self-reflect and are honest about your weaknesses, so don’t respond with, “I don’t have any.” Similarly, don’t go with an obvious cop-out answer like, “I work too hard” or “I care too much.”
A second mistake would be to choose a weakness that would seriously inhibit your ability to succeed in the position. If the position wants someone who keeps clear records and notes, then talking about your lack of organization and poor record-keeping skills probably won’t help you get the job.
Finally, avoid playing the blame game by attributing your weakness to external factors. Don’t say that you showed this weakness due to previous job circumstances, like the work environment, your boss, or your coworkers. The interviewer wants to see that you can own your weakness and show a proactive approach to improving your skills.
Sample Answer to Question 3
Here’s one sample answer to the "Tell me about your greatest weaknesses" prompt:
I’ve struggled for a long time with public speaking. This weakness was a big challenge in college, where presentations were a major part of several of my classes. I realized early on that I needed to improve in this area, so I started by meeting with my advisor about resources for improving public speaking. We talked about techniques like challenging myself to participate at least once in every class and calming nerves with breathing. I also took a public speaking class recently that helped me improve a great deal. A couple months ago, I gave a presentation in front of about 60 students and parents, and it went really well. My nerves are still there, but I feel like I’ve come miles from where I was freshman year of college. Working on my public speaking is a skill that I actively continue to work on and try to improve.
Assuming that public speaking isn’t a major part of the new job description, this answer is a strong one to the "Tell me about your weaknesses" prompt. Notice how the applicant focuses on the proactive steps she’s taken to improve her public speaking skills. Your answer will probably look quite different, but you can similarly choose a strategic weakness and talk about what you’re doing to improve.
Why do you want this job, anyway? What makes you think you're qualified?
Question 4: Why Do You Want This Job?
This question wants you to explain why you’re pursuing the position and why you think the organization should hire you. Presumably, you’ve done some thinking about this before applying. Now it’s time to form an answer that won’t just share what you want, but will also show the manager that you’d make a great hire.
How can you answer this interview question, and what mistakes should you avoid?
This question's the perfect opportunity to showcase your enthusiasm for the new job and show why you'd excel in the role. Make sure to give specific reasons for wanting the job. Show that you don't just want any job; you want that specific job. If you have any particular connections to the company - maybe you use its products or know someone who works there - then you could bring that up here.
Of course, the interviewer wants to hire someone who's not just enthusiastic, but who's also qualified. In your answer, then, don't just talk about your aspirations. Talk about what you could do for the organization. Demonstrate a thorough understanding of the organization's mission, and show that it aligns with your own professional goals.
You don't want to be too practical in your answer here. "Because I need money for rent, food, and Netflix," while true, isn't an ideal response.
You also don't want to be too generic or vague by saying something like, "I heard this company's an awesome place to work." Aim to be much more specific than that.
Check out a sample response to this question below that's specific, shows enthusiasm, and incorporates both the speaker's goals and the organization's mission.
Sample Answer to Question 4
This applicant’s applying to a programming position in a start-up in the environmental sphere. The job description wants someone who’s willing to take on a range of responsibilities, cares about its environmental mission, and knows CSS, Java, and Ruby.
I’m drawn to start-ups because I’d love to be part of building a company from the ground up. I really appreciate its culture of a small, close-knit team of passionate people who are ready and willing to wear many hats. With my versatile skill set in computer programming and experience building websites, I feel my interests and skills are perfectly aligned with this position of web developer. I would use my knowledge of CSS, Java, and Ruby to build out the company website and grow our online presence. I also share this company's commitment to sustainability. I’m extremely motivated by your environmental mission and could immediately start taking steps to meet your short-term and long-term goals.
This sample response sounds honest and authentic, while also bringing in some core skills of the jobs.
Don't evade this next question about a time that you failed, but make sure to shift focus onto the personal and professional growth that followed.
Question 5: Describe a Time That You Failed
This question is a behavioral one, because it asks you to talk about a specific example that illustrates something meaningful about you as a professional.
Some variations of this question might ask you to talk about a conflict at work, a challenge, or a behavior that negatively impacted your team. So how can you describe a failure while still leaving a positive impression of your skills and abilities?
Just like with the weaknesses prompt you read about above, you should focus on the failure as an opportunity for growth. Be honest about your past mistake, but then shift focus to talk about what you learned from it, how you changed, and what you would do differently next time. This not only shows that you’re willing to acknowledge when you mess up, but it also shows that you’re continuously seeking to improve.
Again, you should probably avoid choosing a failure or conflict that arose because you lacked a core competency of the job. Just as with all your other answers, you can be strategic about what you choose to talk about here.
While talking about failures can be uncomfortable, you shouldn’t evade the question. Nor should you speak in vague language about lacking a certain skill or knowledge. This behavioral question wants you to share a specific example, so make sure you have one to fall back on.
You also shouldn’t focus too much on the negative aspects of your example. As mentioned above, you should talk about what happened and its context, but otherwise focus on the growth and learning that came from it.
Below is a sample answer that does this well.
Sample Answer to Question 5
In this sample answer, a teacher talks about a mistake she made with a summer course she taught. Notice how she talks just as much about what she learned as about the failure itself.
The first class I taught was a four-week essay writing course for high schoolers over the summer. Due to the short-term nature of the course, I jumped right into the material without setting aside time to talk about behavioral expectations. Issues later arose, like students showing up late, talking over each other, and using cell phones in class, that could have been prevented, or at least reduced, if I’d taken the time to lay the groundwork.
That course was a huge learning experience for me, and since then I always take time on the first day to discuss classroom norms. To make students feel more invested and accountable, I also elicit ideas from them on what they need from me and from each other in their ideal learning environment. That mistake in my summer class taught me a lot about the importance of proactive behavioral management. I can always loosen the reins as I go, but it’s much harder to rein them back in once they’re out.
Don't be shocked if you interviewer throws a curveball question at you, like, "If you were an animal, what animal would you be?"
Question 6: If You Were an Animal, Which One Would You Be and Why?
Ok, so chances are you won’t get this exact question. But lots of interviewers like to throw in random curveballs that shake you out of your comfort zone and call for some imagination and quick thinking.
Beyond offering a chance for some lighthearted humor and creativity, these seemingly random questions may represent one more way that interviewers try to gauge your cultural fit.
Instead of asking about your spirit animal, a hiring manager might ask what you would change about the last five years of your life, what the name of your debut album would be, or what your personal motto is. You can find more examples of curveball questions here, including some that were asked by big companies like Dropbox, Hubspot, and Whole Foods.
So is there any way you can prepare for the unpredictable? Check out the advice below, as well as a sample answer to this question.
Show your personality! Have fun with these questions. They’re opportunities to spark a connection with your interviewer and say something memorable.
You may still have the chance to tailor your answer to the job description. Someone applying to a customer service type role, for instance, might choose a dog in answer to the animal question. Dogs are loyal, friendly, and supportive, so they could link well to the job description.
If you’re totally thrown, you might buy yourself some time by saying, "That’s a great question. I’ll have to think about that for a second..."
Depending on your rapport with the interviewer, you could even ask her what her answer would be to that same question!
Don’t overthink these questions too much. They’re typically meant to be more lighthearted and fun. At the same time, don’t dismiss them as entirely silly; some might be aiming to learn more about how you deal with unpredictability in the workplace, or instance.
In answer to the animal question specifically, you should also avoid choosing something with largely negative connotations for the sake of trying to be unique. I’d probably avoid the snakes and vultures, unless you can think of a really ironclad reasoning for going this way!
Sample Answer to Question 6
This might be a good answer for a job that calls for a lot of teamwork and collaboration.
I’d be an elephant. They’re smart, loyal, and work well in groups. Plus, the elephant was my beloved college mascot.
Make sure to save a few great questions for the end of your interview. They could start with any of the five W's, but don't be afraid to think outside of the speech bubble.
Question 7: Do You Have Any Questions for Me?
Finally, almost all hiring manager ask this final question at the end of the interview. Even if you’ve asked questions throughout, you should have two or more good ones saved for the end.
Ask questions! You might ask about what the day-to-day is like or if the interviewer could give more insight into the culture. You could ask the interviewer to elaborate on something you discovered through your research, as this is one more way you can show the effort you put in to learn about the company.
Ask questions that show you want to know more about what you can do for the organization and are genuinely interested in learning more about the workplace and its values.
Don’t say, "No, I’m all set. All my questions have been answered.” You should absolutely ask questions at the end of your interview.
Besides declining to ask questions, another mistake would be to ask easy questions that you could easily answer through research on the website. You want to show that you’re knowledgeable about the company, so don’t ask anything too obvious, like, "So what exactly do you do here?"
A first interview might also be too early to ask about schedule, benefits, and salary. At this point, you’re trying to show the hiring manager all the value that you could bring to the role and company, so continue focusing on what you could do for them. Similarly, I’d also avoid asking when you can expect to get promoted!
Below are some possible questions to ask your interviewer. If you can think of questions in the back of your mind based on what you’ve discussed during your interview, all the better!
Sample Questions to Ask:
- Could you tell me about a typical day here at the company?
- What sort of training could I expect for the position?
- How do you evaluate performance here? Do the expectations change at all over time?
- What directions do you see the company going in in five years? Ten years?
- Could you tell me a little more about the team members I would be working with?
- How would you describe the work environment here?
- Would you say that people work more collaboratively or more independently?
- What do you love most about working here?
- What would you say are the most important qualities that the person in this position should have?
- What qualities do your best performing employees share?
- How does the organization help its employees succeed?
- What could I do to go beyond expectations in the first 30 or 60 days?
- If I were to start in the role tomorrow, what would be my first priority?
- Are there opportunities for more training or education?
- What are the next steps in the interview process?
The hiring manager might ask you all sorts of questions, but several are likely to be a variation of the common ones you see above, if not those questions themselves. You’ll talk about your strengths, weaknesses, goals, and background, all the while tailoring your answer to the job description and company mission.
You might have noticed some similar themes pop up in terms of how to prepare your responses. Below, you’ll find four steps that will help you answer just about any job interview question.
Beyond the specific questions above, let's consider some universal steps you can take to answer any interview question.
How to Answer Job Interview Questions: 4 Key Steps
Doing well in a job interview isn’t just about presenting all your strengths and skills. It’s also about strategically convincing the hiring manager that you’re the candidate she’s looking for.
So how can you be strategic about each of your interview responses? Read on for four steps that will help you answer any interview question.
Step 1: Deconstruct the Job Description
Before you interview, if not before you apply, you should take some time to understand exactly what the company is looking for. What responsibilities does the job description entail? What skills would you need to be successful in the role? What kind of person does the company hope will join its team? What does your interviewer do in the company, and what connection could you make with her?
Your mission is to show that you have the skills and experiences to contribute in the role. You want to show that you’d bring value and make a strong cultural fit. As you research the organization, you might also look for any “pain points,” or problems that it needs solved.
Once you’ve deconstructed the job description and have a thorough understanding of the role and organization, you can reflect this awareness in your answers to interview questions.
Step 2: Come Up with Specific Examples
Hiring managers often look to your past behaviors to get a sense of your future behaviors. They also want to see how your skills and experiences express themselves in concrete actions.
To prevent your answers from seeming overly vague, you should be ready with examples. To help you brainstorm, you might consider the STAR framework, which stands for Situation, Task, Action, and Result.
You start by describing the situation you were in and the task that you had to do. Then you talk about what you did and how you did it, and finally elaborate on what happened as a result of your actions. You could talk about an impact that your action had on your team or what you might improve for next time.
To prepare for the various types of behavioral questions, you could collect stories that have to do with a time that you succeeded, failed, faced a challenge, handled conflict, demonstrated leadership, and impacted your team in some way.
Make sure that all of your examples, even the ones that point out a conflict or mistake, are success stories. Even if you failed in some sense, you learned from it and improved for next time.
If you don’t have directly relevant professional experience, you should still root out examples from other jobs, your education, or even personal life that illustrate your qualifications.
Don't look now; you're being followed! Your interviewer's likely to follow your lead and ask follow-up questions based on your responses.
Step 3: Prepare for Follow-Up Questions
Beyond the initial interview question, your interview may ask you to elaborate on something you said or dig deep into a certain aspect of your answer. Most interviews are more like a conversation than a question-and-answer session. Your interviewer will likely be actively listening to what you say, reflect your words back, and follow-up with a related question.
As such, your answers and examples should be substantial enough to speak at length about. As you prepare, you might imagine yourself in the shoes of the interviewer. What aspects of your answer would stick out? Which ones would be intriguing and warrant additional discussion?
Don’t expect to answer every question in one go and go on to the next. Be prepared to dig into your responses and branch into new directions.
Step 4: Customize your Answers
Finally, the theme that’s pervaded this whole guide is that you should customize your answers to the job and organization. As you prepare, consider what qualities the organization and hiring manager are looking for.
Your answers aren’t just about you and what you want. They’re also very much about the organization and what it wants.
Most hiring managers have a clear idea of the skillset and other qualities they’re looking for in a new hire. Show that you possess those core competencies in each of your answers. If you can also offer something beyond expectations, all the better!
While you should be authentic and allow your personality and goals to shine through, you should also be strategic about what you say. Everything you share could ideally go on the hiring manager’s list of reasons to hire you for the job!
You’ve just considered seven of the most common job interview questions. Now check out our full list of the top 100 questions that hiring managers ask in an interview!
Beyond preparing your responses, what else can you do to get ready for interview day? Check out our top tips to help you feel prepared and confident to rock your job interview.
One of the first steps to applying for a job is putting together a great cover letter. Our cover letter template helps guide you through the writing process, step by step. Plus, you can read six samples of excellent cover letter samples for jobs!
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Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.