How NOT to Answer 9 Common Interview Questions - Preparing for Job Interviews

Preparation leads to confidence and confidence is where our true personalty really shines. I can promise you that your interviews will go 10 times better if you prepare beforehand, especially because most people don't prepare or prepare enough.

So how do we prepare for a job interview? Let's talk about that.

This post is focused on preparing for soft skills interviews or the "1st Interview", for tips on how to prepare for technical interviews check out the following articles:

The goal behind a job interview from the company's perspective is to figure out a few things:

  • Do we have the qualities, skills and experience they need for the job?

  • Do we actually know how to code?

  • Have we worked on teams before?

  • Do we know how to support customers/clients?

  • Do we know how to follow directions?

  • Can we learn new things on our own?

  • Are we good at self improvement?

  • Can we take constructive criticism?

Traditionally we go about determining this by asking questions and over time, a list of common questions have formed like:

  • Tell me about yourself

  • What's your greatest weakness and how are you managing it?

  • Describe a difficult work situation and what you did to overcome it?

  • Why should we hire you?

  • Why do you want to work here?

  • What are your long-range goals and objectives?

Along with these common questions have formed common answers that have been used so often, they are practically meaningless. For example to "What is your greatest weakness?" many people think the best answer is: "I'm a perfectionist", but this has been used so much, it's become a cop-out answer.

Or when they ask "Tell me about yourself" the candidate proceeds to tell their life-story - which has nothing to do with the job whatsoever. For years now, we've been going about the job interview process all wrong.

Instead of giving responses we think interviewers want to hear, we should be giving (granted honest) answers we know they want to hear and we can find that information by dissecting the job posting itself. In Predicting Potential Job Interview Questions we go into some exercises for figuring out potential job interview questions by focusing on what the job post is looking for and what kind of questions one might ask to determine a person's qualifications.

Below we'll be talking about some of those common questions along with frequent misunderstandings and better ways to communicate an applicable response. Read on and you'll better understand what I mean.

The following interview tips have been pulled from a series of blog posts and "cheat sheets" written by The Interview Guys. You can find copies of all 19 Interview Guys cheat sheets here and after each question.

How NOT to Answer 9 Common Interview Questions

Tell Me About Yourself:

While many interviewers use this question to "break the ice" or lighten the mood, it's actually an excellent opportunity to segway right into what makes you the most qualified for a position. Take control of the conversation by saying something like:

"I'm a web developer, currently specializing in React. I've built a variety of applications, my favorite of which is an app that does..."

vs

"Well, I have 3 kids, enjoy skiing, grew up in Hawaii..."

The second response isn't horrible, but every time we do this, we're really missing out on a great opportunity to hop right into selling ourselves, vs hoping they ask a good question later on that will inspire talking about your Reacting project.

The Interview Guys have more examples and tips in the Tell Me About Yourself Cheat Sheet.

Why Should We Hire You?

A lot of times we want to answer this question by saying things like,

"Well, I'm a fast learner, easy to get along with...etc."

Rarely do we respond with: "I'm an excellent baker!" but you'd be surprised how many people do give unrelated reasons for why they might think they're a good fit for the job. With this in mind, instead of giving a generic response like being easy-to-get-along-with it'd be much better to focus on a strength you have that meets a requirement in the job posting.

For example, if the company needs a JavaScript developer and would really like Word Press experience if possible, you could talk about how you're not only someone with extensive client experience but that you also excel in the unique technologies required for the position including Word Press. Being as specific as possible by focusing on Word Press in this example, is also a great way to stand out from other candidates who e.g. might have JavaScript experience too.

The Interview Guys have more examples and tips here in the Why Should We Hire You? Cheat Sheet and Why Do You Want to Work Here? Cheat Sheet.

What's Your Greatest Strength?

Thinking back on the response "I'm an excellent baker!", while that may be a great strength, it has no relevance unless we're applying to be a Pastry Chef. Keeping this in mind, focus on what strengths you have that this job needs and highlighting those in your response to this question.

I would also recommend being prepared to back up your strength claims. If you're going to highlight yourself as an experienced Word Press developer, be prepared to talk about examples of that through perhaps projects you've built, etc.

The Interview Guys have more examples and tips in the What Are Your Strengths And Weaknesses Cheat Sheet.

What's Your Greatest Weakness?

Learning more about this question has really blown my mind and given me more insight into why it's asked so often. The downside is, most people give horrible responses to it even when they're trying.

Through my research I've determined that asking about a person's weaknesses is a great way to gain some insight on:

  • Personal introspection / Self Awareness

  • Interest in Self-Improvement

  • Ability/Willingness to Change

  • Ability to Learn From Experience and Mistakes

  • Desire for Improvement

  • Capacity for Empathy

All of which are excellent qualities in a potential leader and/or long-term, valued employee, but if we're always denying our weaknesses or not willing to improve them it makes it more and more challenging to communicate that we really are self-aware, introspective, and always improving.

The Interview Guys have an excellent posting on answering the "Greatest Weakness" question along with example responses. The key points, I would say, to a good response are focusing on a relevant weakness (not that you're horrible at roller skating) and what you have done to improve upon that weakness. Has it worked? Is there anything you would change? etc.

Another key point would be that your weakness doesn't have to be gone or "fixed" and maybe never will be. I actually like to ask this question in terms of "What is your greatest weakness and what are you doing to manage it?"

Don't bring up a weakness that implies you won't able to do the job, e.g. "Learning to code is really hard for me" instead focus on more specific things like:

"I have a hard time understanding new concepts after one explanation"

so:

"To manage this, I've learned not to be afraid of asking questions. I now make lists of questions while I'm listening. I also look for multiple resources in order to master a concept as I've found that different explanations make more sense to different people."

We may be still talking about how learning to code is a challenge (which it is for all people) but we're not describing it in terms of - "I'm going to be a really challenging person to work with and don't really know how to do my job".

Your weakness doesn't have to be technical, but remember, it should be relevant. Check out some examples in the Interview Guys Greatest Weakness blog post and What's Your Greatest Weakness? Cheat Sheet.

Describe a Difficult Work Situation and What You Did to Overcome it?

As what the Interview Guys call, a "behavioral question", a great tool for answering this and many questions like it is using what they call the S.T.A.R. method. This is also a great tool to use if you're ever asked a question you didn't think to prepare for. Never be afraid to ask for a few minutes to think on your response - it's not a test :) then take that time to answer the following S.T.A.R. questions:

Situation - What was the situation?

Task - What was the task you were trying to accomplish?

Action - What was your action to accomplish that? What did you do?

Result - What happened as a result? What did you learn?

Not all stories need to have a happy ending (though happy endings are best), but if they don't, be sure to emphasize what you learned and what you would do differently next time. This shows that you likely won't make the same mistake again, or likely will have a better result in the future.

If an experience was negative like most difficult work situations are, stay away from venting and focus more on what happened (Situation), what you were trying to achieve (Task), what you did (Action), what happened/what did you learn (Result).

Check out How to Master the STAR Method for Interview Questions blog post and the Behavioral Interview Questions Checklist for more examples and potential questions this method works best for.

Where Do You See Yourself in 5 Years?

While your ultimate goal might be to get to Google or even to run your own business, this question is not the right time to bring that up. When talking about the future in a job interview, always focus on longevity in the position you're applying for. Why?: Who wants to hire someone who's going to leave in a year or isn't committed to the company?

Maybe you do plan on leaving in just a little bit though? Should you tell them? I'd still say "no" because you honestly really don't know.

My goal was to leave V School after 2-3 years. That was 5 years ago and here I am :)

Instead focus on your personal growth within the company, your honest commitment to company goals and values.

Your career goals don't have to include management either, this is a common misunderstanding. While many organizations do lead to career growth through management, many develop through experience and additional training. It doesn't hurt to ask more about how career growth works within the company you're interviewing with and making it clear that you have a strong interest in growth.

The Interview Guys have more examples and tips in the Where Do You See Yourself in 5 Years? Cheat Sheet.

Why Did You Leave Your Last Job?

While this may or may not be a super common question, I still think it's a really challenging question to respond to in a positive way. Remember most of all that how you speak of others reflects on you.

Keep the focus on the future and how this new position is going to be an excellent fit for you. If you learned something relevant from the experience that you can describe with brevity, give it a shot if it feel right.

The elephant in the room is the employer determining whether or not you're worth taking a risk on - were you fired for something they'd want to know about or just laid off because of lack of funds? Are you hard to work with or just have a growing family and need a better paying job.

Don't avoid the question and don't bad mouth prior employers or coworkers. Be honest and again, lighten the conversation by bringing the question back to the present and why this new company is a great opportunity for you and them.

The Interview Guys have more examples and tips in the Why Did You Leave Your Last Job? Cheat Sheet.

Tell Me About the Salary Range You're Seeking

Many recruiters ask this during the first interview and it's always hard not to answer. If you can though, please do avoid answering it if possible, or at least give an educated salary range.

We talk more in depth about bypassing this question in my post on Negotiating Best Practices, but in short, your desired salary is best not to be revealed as it might be your one negotiating tool. If they already know that your ideal salary is $60,000 why would they give you more if you try to negotiate after you've already been offer $62,000? Thought their final budget might be $65,000, you've already stated what you wanted, it just seems silly and greedy to ask for me and they likely won't budge. Whereas if you haven't told them, they might just give you that $65,000 when you ask for more.

A great response for bypassing this question is something like:

"At this time I'm focusing more on finding a company that's a fit for me and me for them, but I'd be happy to chat more about salary options if we get to that point!"

Always do your research too on the average salary for this position and location in case they do get you to "crack", you wouldn't want to be the intern asking for $90,000 when the current average is $60,000...

The Interview Guys don't have a cheat sheet on this, but check out the negotiation blog post for more example responses.

Do You Have Any Questions for Me?

The biggest mistake people make here is saying: "No, I'm good." Don't do it! This is your opportunity to shine! Show off your true interest in the company by sharing what you've learned so far through prior research and ask the questions that came to mind while you did your research.

Doing research on the company before an interview will make your interview more productive too and get you more excited about this opportunity. I recommend starting by reading through the job post and pulling what you can from there. Most job postings include at least a paragraph on what the company sells and their values and culture. If it doesn't, or if you'd like more details, next head on over to the company website.

Most businesses have a Career page where jobs are often posted and information is provided on company values and why you might like to work there. Entrata has a great career page that goes into their product, company values and even employee benefits. Take the time to read through these materials and take notes. If something doesn't make sense or you'd like to learn more, write it down so you can bring it up during the interview.

This is probably the easiest question to respond to and the most beneficial to you. I've even heard of hiring managers who won't hire someone just because they didn't have any questions for them.

Check out the Questions to Ask the Interview Cheat Sheet for example questions. Doing your research beforehand and building questions from there though, is going to get you a lot further.

Other Tips:

What Should I Wear?

I get this question all the time. Short answer: Ask. If you don't get a response (which is rare) always dress a step above what people wear to the workplace. If it's a casual environment - shorts, t-shirts, sandals in the summer, you'll probably do fine in a nice pair of khakis and a nice button down shirt/blouse. You can pretty much never fail in a nice suite or dress/skirt, but some businesses might feel you to be a little over dressed.

Be Friendly to Everyone

My favorite story from a student is entering an interview where they were introduced to the person rearranging books on the floor and told he is the CEO - thank goodness she didn't treat him poorly as she initially assumed he was an intern.

Whether someone is your potential competition or not, always be kind to everyone you meet at an office. You never know who might be your potential supervisor or even who has a say in whether or not you move on to the next interview whether they are in HR or not.

Ask About Next Steps

Always, always, ALWAYS ask about next steps at the end of an interview. A great segway into this is quite frankly asking:

"So what are next steps in the interview process? Who can I follow up with?"

This is the missing link between know when to expect a response, who to contact when you don't, and when to move on when you haven't heard anything for a week. I've had students literally wait 3 weeks to hear back from a company only because they had no idea how or who to follow up with. If you ask, you further express your interest in a position and you set up a plan and expectation.

Follow Up and Follow Through

If you do mention that you will follow up, do it. Not following through isn't a good reflection on you. Even if you don't mention that you'll follow up - follow up.

I generally recommend moving on after following up 3 times with no response. There is no sense in crying over spilled milk :) and be sure to always be applying to other jobs while you wait. Learn more about that here.