I often get asked to provide guidance to people looking for a career in PR and communications and many of their queries focus on how to handle job interviews.
Despite recruiting for very different organisations and roles, I find most interviewers tend to have a very similar approach to asking questions. Job interviews are a bit like exam papers – the same topics are always there, just sometimes dressed up in different ways.
I’m always surprised, therefore, when so few candidates shine in addressing the most obvious topics.
In my experience there are six questions that are likely to appear, in one form or another, in most interviews and if you prepare properly, these questions should provide you with all the opportunity you need to sell yourself effectively.
1. Why do you want the job?
An unbelievably obvious question. So obvious, in fact, that candidates seem to overlook its significance and don’t prepare a strong answer.
At a very simple level, if you can’t explain really clearly why you are interviewing for this role at this firm, you won’t get hired.
But many people focus too much on “the job” part of the question rather than the more significant “why” and “you”. This isn’t the time to talk at length about all the great things the job would involve. The interviewers already know that. It is the time to explain why you want it more than anyone else.
This is often the first question you will be asked in an interview and should be your strongest answer. Use it to set the scene for themes or arguments you want to develop in the interview, demonstrate your passion and interest in the job, and highlight the key reasons why you would be the perfect candidate.
2. Can you give a practical example of when you have done this?
Most jobs involve a level of technical knowledge or expertise that potential candidates need to demonstrate. Sometimes in interview you will simply be asked if you have a skill or not – eg. “have you got experience in dealing with the press?”. However for each key skill you want to promote, you should prepare a practical example of how and when you have used it, to help bring your abilities to life.
If you are applying to be a line manager, for example, it’s not enough to say you have lots of experience in managing teams. Be prepared to give a brief example of the sorts of team dynamics you have dealt with, maybe an issue or two you’ve had to overcome and the skills you’ve developed as a result. Similarly if the role involves budgetary control, be ready to provide brief examples of the range of challenges this has provided you with and what you’ve learned.
Experience-based questions make for better interviews, both for the interviewer and the interviewee. The employer gets more honest and grounded answers, the candidate gets the chance to provide a more memorable response. Make sure you take it.
3. Why do you want to leave your current role?
Interviews are a chance for candidates to tell their personal story – their narrative, if you like. Providing a sense of the journey you are on, where you have come from and where you are heading helps employers to see the logic of why you are sat in front of them today.
Unfortunately many candidates find it uncomfortable to talk about their existing role. Perhaps there are some frustrations about the role that the question may bring to mind – i.e. poor pay, fallouts with the boss, etc. In most circumstances, these aren’t relevant to why you should be hired for the next job, so set them aside.
Instead, try and explain what you have gained from the role and how it has helped you to progress your career on to the next stage. This could be opportunities it has opened up (the chance to develop new skills or experience) or avenues it has helped to rule out (confirming that you would rather concentrate on one aspect of the work rather than another).
Whatever it is, how you talk about your current role says a lot about how you think about your career and also the sort of employee you are. Don’t miss this opportunity to continue to reinforce your overall story.
4. What do you want to be doing in five years’ time?
Although another question people often find tricky, this is actually the same question as the one above, but framed in a different way. It is best answered by going back to your core narrative. What is your overall sense of purpose, professionally? What have you learned so far and where do you want it to take you? Providing this context will help the employer understand why you see this job as the important next step in your career.
Usually (though it does depend on the job you are applying for), prospective employers don’t expect people to stay in their organisation forever, so don’t feel the need to pledge the rest of your working life to your would-be boss. You also don’t need to describe in detail where you will be in the future (how could you know?), just the type of role and activity you want to be involved in. So if you are applying to be a press officer, saying you want to progress to the role of manager and ultimately to head up a busy newsroom shows ambition, is a logical next step and is a motivation most employers would see as a positive.
Of course there are some obvious watchouts here too. Where you are heading in the future does needs to fit with the role you are currently applying for. If you want to be an air hostess and are applying to be a trainee accountant, a reasonable employer might think you aren’t likely to be a good long term prospect. Also, whilst five years in the future is a good timescale to think about your next move, be wary of bringing that any closer. It takes a fair amount of time and investment to get the most out of new hires and employers will see it as a negative if you give off the impression you will want to move on too quickly.
5. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made and what did you learn?
It’s a less obvious question, perhaps, but it’s still not unusual for employers to ask about your weaknesses, mistakes you’ve made or things you’ve got wrong. Answering it successfully definitely requires some thought and preparation. Unfortunately, saying nothing at all or providing a poor example is just as bad as highlighting a major failure on something that is key to the role you’re applying for.
What employers are looking for here is honesty, self-awareness and the ability to learn from mistakes. So talk about something you took personal responsibility for, what went wrong and then, critically, the learnings and insight you took from the experience. Even better, choose a story that has an element of humour about it. Ideally they will come away thinking you are human and occasionally mess up but, perhaps unlike other candidates, you are open in admitting your mistakes and have taken steps to ensure you don’t repeat them.
6. Do you have any questions for us?
The final question of a tough interview and by this point, most people simply want to get out of the room. Yet the invitation to ask the panel questions is often the best opportunity of all to showcase your skills and reinforce your key messages.
This is because it is the main or only time the panel will talk without the help of a pre-prepared script. By asking smart questions, it’s possible to engage them in a conversation about something that accentuates your strengths.
It also provides you with a chance to direct the conversation. So if you didn’t get a chance to mention something that’s relevant to your application, or didn’t do justice to a previous topic, a carefully worded question could provide you with the opportunity to have another go.
In addition, there’s more than one person doing the choosing at an interview. Let’s not forget, you also need to decide whether the job is right for you. Showing you have done your homework and have well thought-out questions will give off the impression you are taking the opportunity seriously and will also help you to make up your mind about them as an employer.
Preparing questions for the panel in advance is a must, but try and make notes as the interview progresses so that you have something fresh and relevant to ask. That said, this doesn’t give you permission to grill them for 20 minutes. Two or at most three brief questions will suffice. Interview panels work to tight schedules and they won’t thank you if your interrogation means they overrun or have to skip lunch.
I tend to find most hiring decisions tend to come down to the same core set of issues. Who has demonstrated they have the best skills to do the job? Who seems to be the best fit with our culture and approach? Who has the most potential to grow in the role and organisation? And also who wants the job the most?
As the core issues about hiring are often the same, so the questions actually used in interviews are also fairly consistent. Even if they are dressed up in a different way, these six questions are common in interviews and you should be certain your answers to each promote your best qualities to the full.
Glassdoor has compiled a list of the 50 most common interview questions. If you are not familiar with Glassdoor, it's a website where employees and former employees anonymously review companies and their management. They also provide insight into the interview process of organizations. They found that the following questions are among the most common that organizations ask in interviews.
We won’t debate the relevancy of these questions and how it ties into making the best hiring decisions.That’s for another article.This is simply a quick reference guide to help you prepare for many of the questions that you will face.
I can’t guarantee that you are not going to have a few oddball questions thrown at you but I can almost guarantee with certainty that you will more than likely have to answer many of these questions at some point. Why not be prepared?
The best way to get ready is to practice, practice, practice and be ready to answer these questions with confidence and enthusiasm.
Most Common Interview Questions
What are your strengths?
What are your weaknesses?
Why are you interested in working for [insert company name here]?
Where do you see yourself in 5 years? 10 years?
Why do you want to leave your current company?
Why was there a gap in your employment between [insert date] and [insert date]?
What can you offer us that someone else can not?
What are three things your former manager would like you to improve on?
Are you willing to relocate?
Are you willing to travel?
Tell me about an accomplishment you are most proud of.
Tell me about a time you made a mistake.
What is your dream job?
How did you hear about this position?
What would you look to accomplish in the first 30 days/60 days/90 days on the job?
Discuss your resume.
Discuss your educational background.
Tell me how you handled a difficult situation.
Why should we hire you?
Why are you looking for a new job?
Would you work holidays/weekends?
How would you deal with an angry or irate customer?
What are your salary requirements?
Give a time when you went above and beyond the requirements for a project.
Who are our competitors?
What was your biggest failure?
What motivates you?
What’s your availability?
Who’s your mentor?
Tell me about a time when you disagreed with your boss.
How do you handle pressure?
What is the name of our CEO?
What are your career goals?
What gets you up in the morning?
What would your direct reports say about you?
What were your bosses’ strengths/weaknesses?
If I called your boss right now and asked him what an area that you could improve on is, what would he say?
Are you a leader or a follower?
What was the last book you’ve read for fun?
What are your co-worker pet peeves?
What are your hobbies?
What is your favorite website?
What makes you uncomfortable?
What are some of your leadership experiences?
How would you fire someone?
What do you like the most and least about working in this industry?
Would you work 40+ hours a week?
What questions haven’t I asked you?
What questions do you have for me?
Study the Company and Know the Position Description
Review the company’s website and other social media platforms before your interview. You should be able to speak confidently about the company services, customers, their industry, and know how you can fit into the organization to help them meet their future goals.
You’ll also want to review the job description. It’s a good idea to save a copy of the description in your own files as you apply just in case the description is no longer available online. Be able to speak in specifics about your experiences and how they match the company’s needs.
Mock Interview Practice
The best way to be prepared for the typical interview is by role playing and thinking about your response. Don’t worry if you mess up in the mock interview, you will be much better prepared for the real thing if you practice.
Practice using the S.T.A.R. method to answer questions that require more detail. You’ll likely be asked to expand upon your experience. The S.T.A.R. method is: Situation, Task, Action and Result.
First, present a specific situation you faced. Secondly, explain the task you had to accomplish and what action you took to address the issue. Finally, describe the results of your efforts. This last step is wrapping it up by explaining what you learned from the experience and how you will bring those lessons to the work that you will be doing for the organization.
Think about prior work experiences and craft a story to describe your accomplishments or to show how you dealt with a tough situation. Having a repository of career experience stories written down before an interview will make it easier to recall during the interview.
Keep a Record of Your Previous Interviews
After each interview, write down what happened, your impressions, the questions you were asked, and your general feelings.Try to do this as soon as you can after the interview. Reflect carefully on these because it will be a “lessons learned” so that you can use this to improve the next go round.
How to Answer Six of the Most Common Questions:
“Tell me about yourself.”
This may very well be the first question (although not really a question) that you will get. Be ready because this will set the stage for the rest of the interview.This is your chance to take control and showcase who you are and what you’d bring to the role.You want to paint a picture or tell the story to help the hiring manager see how you would be a good fit.
Don’t give your life history. Be brief. You want to be ready with about a one- to- two minute answer that summarizes your career with a focus on how your background matches the company’s needs.
Use a present, past, and future formula. Start with what you do now, then segue into the past, and top it off with the future and why you are excited about this opportunity.
List three to four key strengths you have that are pertinent to this job (experiences, traits, skills, etc.).
Talk about your strengths and abilities and remember to focus on the experiences and skills that are going to be most relevant for the hiring manager. It’s okay to tell a story or anecdote if it helps to relay the story to help them know a little more about you.
“Why are you leaving your current job?”
The reason why you are asked this question is because recruiters or hiring managers want to know your motivation for wanting to leave your current job. Is your boss a jerk? Do you want more money? Is your company culture a joke? One or all of those things may be the reason why you are looking but when you answer the question, be positive.You’ll want to discuss the positives that came out of your most recent job with a focus on why you think this new position is a great new career for you.
Never disparage your prior boss, co-workers, or the company. Are you looking to be challenged? That’s great. If the time has come to seek out a new opportunity, to expand your skills and knowledge, or to find a company in which you can grow, there’s nothing wrong with that. Those are positive reasons to seek out a new career. You rarely go wrong when talking about self-improvement. Interviewers love it when candidates are interested in bettering themselves. It’s a trait that indicates you could be someone who wants to grow with the organization.
Negativity never goes over well in an interview.You can always turn a negative into a positive and that’s the best rule of thumb for an interview.
“What are your strengths and weaknesses?”
Taking about strengths is an easy one. So, let’s focus on the weakness. The reason why a manager asks this question is to see if they are missing anything if they were to hire you. It’s also designed to test your character and mental awareness. Who’s perfect? Nobody. They want to see how you have identified what you need to work on.
Be sincere. Don’t just select a weakness just because it sounds good. Pick a weakness that is acceptable for the job in which you are interviewing. Don’t mention a weakness related to any of the required skills or desired qualities. For example, if you are a sales person, don’t mention that you have hard time meeting new people or by saying that you are too reserved.
Pick a weakness that is relatively minor and correctable. By correctable, that meanssomething you can improve through work, motivation, or training. If you say “It’s hard to speak in front of large groups of people.” That can be overcome and if it’s not germane to the role, it won’t matter to the hiring manager.
“What are your salary requirements?”
All companies have a budget and recruiters ask this question to make sure that everyone is on the same page. You will want to do your homework on this one.Know what you are worth and know what the same type of positions pay. There is enough information online that you can get a pretty good idea.
Know your “walk away” point. Know what you want and what you expect. Speak in ranges when giving figures. After you answer be comfortable with the silence that may come follow. Consider a statement like this: “I’m currently making $X, and I’m looking to make 10% to 15% more.
“Why should I hire you?”
Often times, this comes at the end of an interview. This is another great opportunity to seal the deal. By this time, you’ve heard about the position and should have a good idea of how you can contribute to the bottom line.
Stay focused on why your background makes you an ideal candidate. Tell them how you are going to contribute to the department and the company. Hiring managers love it when they think their job will be easier.
Tell them or explain how you will:
Do the work and deliver extraordinary results
Fit in well with the corporate culture
Bring a combination of skills and experience that make you stand out from the crowd
Make their life easier
This is an opportunity to reiterate your most impressive strengths and to describe your most memorable selling points.
"Do you have any questions for us?"
Of course you do. What is important to you? What do you want to know? This question works two ways: It also helps you to know if the company is right for you.So don’t be afraid to ask questions that give you some feel about what it would be like to work there.
Here are Some Questions to Consider
How does this position fit in with the rest of the company/organization?
Is this a new position?
If so, what made you decide to create it?
If not, are you changing it in any way now?
Where do you see this department / company going over the next year?
What would a successful employee make happen for you?
What kinds of things would you expect of me to enable me to advance within the company?
What kinds of advancement opportunities are there for someone in this position?
Is there anything else at all that I can tell you about myself to help you in your decision?
If I may ask, how long have you worked here? What do you like most about it?
What would a typical work day/week be like for me?
After I start, what would the first few weeks look like for me?
Are there any special projects coming up you’d like me to work on?
How would you describe the company’s management style?
How would you describe the company culture?
What would you say employees like most about working here?
Is there anything employees would say they like least?
If I do get the job, how soon would you like me to start?