If you understand my earlier guidance that you are always selling yourself and that you have nothing until you have an offer, answering interview questions will be easy. Interviewing is not a “two-way street.” It is a “one-way street” until you get the job offer. Once you have an offer, you can then ask all of the questions you want to see what the company is willing to do for you.
Some job search books devote the majority of their pages to providing answers for common interview questions. It isn’t a bad idea to have answers to most of the traditional questions, but they’re much easier to answer if you understand the underlying rationale for all of the questions you will be asked. Every question you will be asked, in every interviewing situation, can be categorized under four subjects. If you understand the four subjects, your answers will be a natural outgrowth from that understanding.
The four subjects that all interviewing questions fall under are:
- Can you do the job?
- Do we like you?
- Are you a risk?
- Can we work the money out?
I’ve discussed these subjects earlier. Just keep them in mind as you listen to any questions that you will be asked. Print this list of the most common questions you will be asked in an interview, and practice personalizing the sample answers I provide
Tell me about yourself. We discussed this before, but you need a 30 second “elevator pitch” that describes you. “I am a hard-working student who….. Worked my way through college…. studied hard….. held leadership positions…etc. I’m looking for an opportunity to commit myself to very hard work, but to learn and to grow. That’s the way I got through school, and that’s what I will do for you.”
Why did you choose________________ College or University? You’d better have a good reason for this. Don’t say something like, “Well, I couldn’t get in any place else so I figured this was as good a place as any.” If your decision was based on economics, proximity to where you live, a particular type of studies or anything reasonable, share it. Communicate that there was some careful thought as to why you went to school there. Even things like, “Well, my parents went to school here….” won’t be a good answer unless you can justify it with some forethought. Something along the line of, “Since I had to earn my way through school by working, I elected to live at home and go to school. It was a great experience. I had great teachers and a really enjoyed learning.”
Why did you choose____________ to major in? Again, have a good answer for this. Something like, “Well, I wasn’t sure what to major in so I simply picked ________ because it looked easy and I can get good grades,” won’t cut it. Make sure you communicate some forethought to your major. Something like, “I was always very good with math and always wanted to be an engineer. The courses were difficult but I sure learned a lot and glad I majored in __________ Engineering.”
Which class did you like the best? Don’t fall trap to this and say something stupid. An answer like, “I really enjoyed all of them, but my favorites were in my major. I especially liked ___________ because the professor was awesome and had a wonderful love of the subject,” works. Just have a good, intelligent reason for choosing your major.
If you could change or improve your college or university experience, what would you change? If you start knocking or criticizing your school, your classes or your professors, you will shoot yourself in the foot. Something along the line of changing yourself rather than the school might be best. “Looking back on it, I really liked most every part of the experience. I don’t think I would change too much. I made some mistakes, but I learned from them. There were a couple of classes that I could have studied a little harder for.”
How will your courses benefit your career? Whenever you are asked a question that has to do with what you learned, communicate that what you learn most was, “how you learned.” Something along the line of, “My courses in economics were very difficult. Most all the professors were good teachers, but were alsotaskmasters and encouraged us to learn. I learned a lot about economics, but, more importantly, I learned a process of how I learn. I feel like that if I approach every opportunity with the same kind of process, I will learn,” is an excellent answer.
Are you a leader or a follower? Be careful here and be smart. A good answer is, “I have been both. I found that there are times when I should lead and times when I should follow. When I was responsible for……….. (tell a story)…. I was more of a leader. When I was…..
..(tell a story)….. I was more of a follower. Probably in a new job I will spend a number of years following and absorbing.”
How do you know adapt to a variety of people? Your answer would be something like, “I was so fortunate in my school, work, and sports activities to be exposed to all kinds of different people. There were some very academic oriented people in my _________ academic society and there were some very, let’s say, less than academic people in my sorority. One great thing about my college experience is that I learned to work with all kinds of people. It makes life really interesting.”
Are your grades indicative of your academic achievement? If your grades were good, then be humble and say, “I was very fortunate to have very good teachers who made learning easy. Even though the classes were difficult, I applied myself and got good grades.” If your grades were not good, then you need to say something like, “The academic side of my college experience was very difficult at first. I had to really learn to focus on studying and it took a couple of years to do that. But you’ll notice in my last two semesters (… or three) I’ve improved dramatically. I was fortunate to have learned more than my grades indicate. It was a great experience.”
Why were your grades so poor? If your grades were not that good, you are going to get this question. Do not be defensive about your grades. Something along the line of, “I had to work very hard in school. I held a job (… only if it’s true) and was involved in _________ (… fraternity, sorority, social organization etc.). I learned a lot more than my grades would indicate and pure studying doesn’t come as naturally to me as it does to some. But I am a very hard worker and very well rounded,” will do. Admitting that your grades could have been better, without being defensive, is the key.
Why you want to work for us? Here is where the research which you’ve done will come into play. You need a real, solid answer to this question. Something along the line of, “Based on my research, the people that come to work here, out of school, work very, very hard, learn a lot, get good mentoring and have an opportunity for personal as well as professional growth.” You can also talk a little about the research that you have done on the company.
What are your short-term and long-term goals? If you have followed my advice, you have your goals written down, and it doesn’t hurt to show a copy of them to the interviewing or hiring authority. Saying something like, “I have learned to set goals both short-term and long-term. My short-term goals are to go to work for a good company, follow the instructions, work very hard and get a good foundation for my career. In five to ten years I would like to be working at a job that will challenge me daily and allow me to contribute to my company’s and my own personal growth,” will reinforce the goals that you have provided.
What are your personal characteristics that I need to know? Something like, “I am aggressive, assertive, I get up early, I stay late, I love learning and I am committed and passionate. These kinds of characteristics showed up in my education experience. In college (… or high school) I was…………. (story that demonstrates some of these characteristics)….. and I performed……. (story that demonstrates some of these characteristics). I was also……………. (story that demonstrates characteristics)…. I’m sure that the kind of work environment that I have heard about here is conducive to my ability to continue working and learning.”
Why should we hire you over the other candidates that applied for this job? “Because I am an extremely hard worker, committed, passionate and successful. I have been a success in high school as well as college and I’m confident I will be for whoever hires me. I’m simply going to work harder than most others.”
What is more important, job or salary? This is a dumb question but you are going to hear it. Obviously, the answer needs to be something like, “What I do in a job is much more important than the money. The harder I work, the luckier I will get. If I work hard the money will come.”
How do you deal with conflict? “Conflict is not that difficult to deal with as long as everybody feels like, ‘we’re all in this together’….in my….. fraternity…. sorority…. social organization….. club… etc. I learned to disagree respectively with people. Things did not always go the way that I thought they should, but we all got where we needed to in the end.”
Where would you like to be in five years? This is another dumb question but you’re going to need to have a good answer. “Well, since I’m just starting out, it is hard to know exactly where I will be. But I do know if I work hard today, pay attention and learn, tomorrow will take care of itself. Wherever I am, I want to be challenged, as well as learning and doing my best.”
Describe the situation….. where others didn’t do what they were supposed to do……. you didn’t do what you were supposed to do…. disagree with the decision…etc. The best way to answer this question is to tell a story about whatever the question is. You should be ready with stories for all kinds of “social” situations. You don’t need many stories to communicate your experience, but you just need to have them and be sure they indicate all of the things mentioned in the questions.
How would you make up for the lack of experience you have in our business? “Well, everyone has ‘experience’…. I just don’t have much business experience. But when I look back on everything I’ve tried, I’ve been successful. I didn’t go to high school before I went to high school and I was successful there. I hadn’t gone to college before I went to college and I was successful there. I’m confident that even though I don’t have any experience in what you do, I will be successful. Hard work and determination has worked for me before and it will again.”
Who has influenced you most in your life? It’s certainly safest to say your father or your mother. But, more importantly, whoever you talk about make sure you give them a good reason as to why they were an influence for you. For instance, if you learned hard work, determination, sacrifice, diligence, etc. from the person, share it. The story works well here.
Tell me about a time when you…. had to work with someone that was difficult …. had to make a difficult decision that was unpopular….. had a problem with your employer or professor …. had to build enthusiasm with other people …. etc… In any of these, “tell me about a time when… ” type questions, you want to have available to you three or four, maybe at the most, five stories where you were able to demonstrate leadership, decision making, rebounding from setbacks, determination, the ability to follow, dealing with a problem, relevant mistakes you made and what you learned, communicating well with others and anything else the leader might know to do. Practice these and commit them to memory so they “flow” from you when you are asked! So, right now, print out this page and come up with an experience, i.e. story about you that demonstrates:
What I learned ________________________________________
Good decision making ______________________________
What I learned __________________________
Rebounding from setbacks (i.e. personal, academic… “life situations”)
What I learned ___________________________
What I learned ___________________________
Dealing with a problem (i.e. personal, academic… “life situations”)
What I learned ____________________________
The ability to follow ______________________________________
What I learned ____________________________
Going “the extra mile” (i.e. going beyond what you had to do…doing more than necessary)
What I learned _____________________________
Mistakes I have made (make sure they are relevant to work)
What I learned ______________________________
Don’t forget, that as the interview comes to a close, you absolutely have to ask:
“Based on what we have discussed, I’m an excellent match for this company and the opportunity. When can I go to work?”
The expectations of any hiring or interviewing authority for someone with a new degree or just entering the workforce aren’t the same as for a more experienced person. Use common sense when you answer these questions and realize that they’re trying to find out whether you can do the job, do we like you to, are you a risk, and can we work the money out.