Top 20 common interview questions (and answers)
A job interview can be a nerve-wracking ordeal — but it’s also an opportunity. What questions can you expect to be asked, and how should you answer them?
A potential employer will put candidates through a multi-stage process before awarding a job. But one step, in particular, is dreaded by many of us: the interview. It’s one thing to make yourself look great on paper or over the internet, but in an interview, there’s nowhere to hide!
Here we’ll mostly be looking at the candidate’s side of the table. But that’s not to say that interviewers themselves can’t also learn from the common interview questions and why they’re being asked.
The right interviewing and onboarding process will help your business attract and develop the best talent, which in turn will provide a platform for future success. If you’re an employer looking into how to conduct an effective interview, then you can check out this guide.
If you’re a graduate and you’d like to learn more about how you can get your career started, then you might want to look at this course from Chris Davis, the Graduate Coach. But for now, let’s talk interview questions!
How to prepare for a job interview
Getting ready for an interview involves several distinct activities. You’ll need to prepare yourself psychologically, as well as amass all of the knowledge you need to impress the interviewer.
To succeed in this situation, you need to be adaptable — adaptability is one of the key skills we focus on in the Wellbeing and Resilience at Work course from the University of Leeds. You might also look at courses that address upskilling more broadly. Or, alternatively, if you’d like more of an overview, check out our Essential Skills for Your Career Development course.
Researching the role and the company
If you don’t know the job that you’re applying for, then you’re unlikely to fare well in the interview. After all, the entire process is (or should be) designed to determine whether you’re a good match for the position!
Ideally, your knowledge should extend beyond the job, to the wider company in which it’s set. Do your research independently and impress the interviewer with your proactive approach. Interviews come in a range of styles and formats, and knowing something about the company will allow you to predict the kind you’ll face.
Addressing each point on the job spec
The questions you’re asked should be designed to cover everything that you’ll be required to do in the role you’re applying for. The job spec should clue you in on what’s important to the company and what isn’t.
If you are expected to have experience in a relevant field, then be prepared to be quizzed on that. In many cases, the things furthest up the job spec will be the ones that carry the most weight.
Conducting a mock job interview
Your mock interview should simulate everything as fully as possible. This might mean a dress rehearsal. You should get someone you trust to conduct the interview and recite some of the key questions you’ve picked out. By doing this, you’ll be better prepared for the stresses of a real interview situation.
Green flags and red flags in an interview
Before going into an interview, it’s a good idea to think about what your potential employer might be looking out for.
Green flags are signs that show someone might be a good fit for the role, whereas red flags are indicators that someone might not be the best possible choice. Knowing about potential green and red flags before your interview will help you to ensure that you cover all bases.
Green flags in an interview
- Genuine interest in the company. It should be quite easy to tell whether you’re truly interested or passionate about the role and company. Make sure you demonstrate your prior knowledge and enthusiasm in an interview.
- Effective communication skills. Interviewers will be looking to see whether you’re an effective communicator by observing whether you listen to questions properly, display positive body language, and ask appropriate questions.
- Explainable gaps in resume. It’s normal to have a few gaps on your resume, but can you explain them easily? If not, it will look suspicious.
- Positive mindset. Most people want to work with others who have a positive presence and help to keep the team morale high.
- Specific answers. It’s best to be as specific as possible when answering questions, to show you’ve really listened to the interviewer and are able to think on your feet.
Red flags in an interview
- Not asking questions. If you ask zero questions at the end of an interview, it may tell the employer that you’re not interested in the role.
- Job hopping. Explainable gaps are one thing, but hopping from job to job purely in search of better pay or because you’ve struggled to stay in one position can be a bad sign.
- Inadequate listening. If you’re not able to listen properly to all of the questions asked, this can be a red flag – make sure you don’t lose track of the original question and go off on too much of a tangent.
- No accountability. Benjamin Stenson, the CEO of Norsemen says “When anything goes wrong with a project, people who aren’t aware of their own weaknesses prefer to point the finger elsewhere rather than take responsibility for their own actions.”
- Numbers not adding up. If you’ve referenced some numbers highlighting your performance or achievements, be sure to remember them and be able to justify them. You don’t want to sound like you’re making it up.
- Wanting any old job. Sometimes, it’s very clear that an interviewee wants a job. Thing is, an employer wants to know that you want THIS specific job, so be sure to make that obvious.
20 common interview questions and how to answer them
So, what are those common interview questions? Let’s run through the ones that are most likely to crop up in any kind of interview. If you prepare answers to each of these, you’re unlikely to be blindsided come the day of the real interview.
1. Why do you want to work here?
Here’s where you demonstrate that you’ve done your research and you know about the employer. Run through the positives, but make sure that you emphasise things like values and personal fulfilment rather than convenience and money.
2. How did you learn about this job?
Here you can just be honest. Try to put a positive spin on it. If you’ve picked out the position, or the company, then say so — and explain why. If this is just one of many jobs you’re applying for, mention what made this one worth applying for.
3. What’s your unique selling point?
In other words, what are you going to provide that other applicants aren’t? Here is your opportunity to distinguish yourself from others in the field. So, pick out your rarest and most impressive qualities and explain how they will work for the role.
4. What are your salary expectations?
If you can’t answer this question, you’ll look as though you haven’t done your research about a reasonable salary for this position, keeping in mind your current experience. Asking for too little will make it look like you’re unqualified for the position; asking for too much will make hiring your unfeasible.
5. How well do you cope with pressure?
Your answer here should be a variation on ‘very well indeed’. Ideally, you should have examples of your pressure-handling skills to draw upon to demonstrate your point. If you’d like to learn a few strategies for dealing with stress, then you might look at our course, Workplace Wellbeing: How to Build Confidence and Manage Stress.
6. Can you explain this gap in your employment history?
Everyone goes through rough patches in their career, so don’t expect to be judged too harshly. You should have an explanation for any spells of unemployment. Resist the temptation to disparage your former bosses. This will reflect extremely poorly on you.
7. Why did you leave your last job?
This is another question that might tempt you into speaking negatively about past experiences. Instead, look to put a positive spin on your true motivations. If you found that the previous position was unfulfilling, stressful, or that there were limited opportunities for advancement, then say so. But do it in a way that’s gracious.
8. What are your strengths and weaknesses?
This is a little bit different from the ‘what makes you unique’ question. You can hold strengths in common with other applicants. If you have a broad range of them then you’ll give the impression of a safe pair of hands. It should be sufficient to briefly run through three or four of them, along with examples.
Many of us are more comfortable talking about our weaknesses, especially if we’re conscious of them. The problem is that it’s easy to do it in the wrong way. The interviewer wants to know that you’re capable of self-analysis and error correction. They don’t want a long list of reasons not to hire you!
9. What do you hope to accomplish in the first few months here?
Often this question will be broken down into 30, 60, and 90-day intervals. Have an answer for each timeframe prepared. Know what you’re going to accomplish in the short to medium term, and have a rough roadmap for how you’re going to get there. This might include learning about the job and how you’re going to train yourself up and become competent at it.
10. Are you willing to work overtime?
You might think committing as much of your time as possible will give you an advantage. But it might also present you as someone with their priorities in the wrong order. If you have commitments that prevent you from committing too much time to work, then say so.
11. Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
This one is a bit of a cliché, but it’s overused for good reason. The interviewer wants to make sure that you don’t see the job as a stop-gap position. They also want to establish just how ambitious you are. Talk about how you’d like your career to progress, and demonstrate your knowledge and enthusiasm for the industry.
12. What is your dream job?
This question might be deployed to sniff out dishonesty. If you really do think that you’re applying for your dream job, then be prepared to justify the assertion. It’s okay to reply that you’re a few steps away, or that positioning yourself for your dream job is a long-term endeavour.
13. What has been your biggest failure?
If you’ve been working for long enough, then you’ll have had the opportunity to make a mistake or two. Focus on how you dealt with the aftermath of the mistake, and how it changed your behaviour subsequently. If it seems like you haven’t reflected on the error, then you’re going to come across badly.
14. What has been your biggest success?
If you have an accomplishment that you’re especially proud of, then here is your chance to flaunt it. Try to pick out something that’s relevant to the position for which you’re now applying, and focus on why it made you proud.
15. What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Here’s where you can earnestly talk about what’s driving you. If it’s something that comes across as shallow or petty (like fame and money), then spin it so that it’s positive. Show that you’re enthusiastic about what you do for a living and that your enthusiasm isn’t going to be dimmed by changes of fortune.
16. How would you deal with a disgruntled client/customer?
If you’re applying for a public-facing role, especially one in customer or client relations, then it’s inevitable that you’re going to be on the receiving end of anger sometimes. If you have experience in doing this, cite examples. Demonstrate that you can placate without folding into every demand.
17. How would you discipline an employee?
If you’re going into a management role, you’ll be expected to maintain discipline and perhaps even fire people. Have a series of steps in mind that you’d go through. If you have any underlying philosophy underpinning your approach to discipline, here’s your chance to lay it out.
18. What do you do for fun?
This part of the interview is where they try to get you to relax and open up. Have an answer ready that’s interesting, and that’s actually active and creative. Don’t just say that you watch TV, read books, or play games — unless you do these things to an impressive degree.
19. Where do you get your news?
This is a way of asking what newspapers you read and what websites you visit. If you get all of your information from a single source then you might come across as incurious and lacking in critical thinking skills.
If you’d like to improve your critical thinking skills, incidentally, you might look at our Logic and Critical Thinking course from the University of Auckland.
20. How would you describe your personality?
Here, you’ll be judged not only on your personality but on your ability to self-reflect. This is an excellent practice to get into, even outside of an interview situation.
This might be an opportunity to talk about your ability to work independently or as part of a team, your approach to dealing with high-stress situations, and the ways in which your personality aligns with the role you’re applying for.
How to follow up your interview
Just because the interview has ended doesn’t mean that your window of opportunity is over. You can still impress your qualities on the interviewer even after the last question has been answered. Let’s look at how.
Good questions to ask in an interview
If you don’t have questions of your own to ask, then the interviewer might rightly assume that you haven’t taken much of an interest in the position. These questions might occur to you as the interview unfolds, but you should always have a few pre-prepared.
That way, you’ll have something to fall back on. Remember that research you conducted on the company? That’s where you’ll unearth those key questions.
Examples of questions you should ask
- Can you describe the company culture?
- What is the next step in the hiring process?
- Where would the company like to be in five years?
- What do you enjoy most about working here?
- What does this company value the most?
Examples of questions you should never ask
- What does the company do?
- Will I have long hours?
- How much holiday do you offer?
- Why did the company make people redundant last year?
- When will I be promoted?
Email after the job interview
After you’ve finished the interview, you should be prepared to touch base via email. This will demonstrate that you really want the job, and remind the interviewer you exist. It might even put you at an advantage. Just be sure not to pester.
Reviewing your performance
The chances are that this won’t be the last interview you ever participate in. Take the time to review what went well and where it didn’t go to plan. Ask for feedback. If you didn’t succeed this time, try to take it on the chin and build for the next interview. In most cases, candidates who look for feedback are going to be viewed in a positive light.
Your performance in an interview situation can have significant repercussions for your career. It’s therefore worth taking the practice seriously — especially if you don’t take to it naturally. You can test your knowledge of basic interview principles with this quiz, which will help you to identify some common blunders.
If you’d like a more thorough walk through the process then why not check out our How to Succeed in an Interview course from the University of Sheffield? Remember though, that the interview is just one step in the process of landing in the world of work. Luckily, we offer a range of courses that will help you to feel work-ready.
With the right preparation, there’s no reason you can’t smash the interview out of the park. Give yourself the best possible chance going in, and don’t be disheartened if you don’t succeed on the first attempt. These things often take time!