5 interview questions you should always be prepared to answer

While you can never predict with certainty exactly what questions you’ll be asked in a job interview, some questions get asked so frequently that you’d be foolish not to prepare answers for them in advance. Here are five of the questions that you’re most likely be asked.

(And even if these don’t come up, you’ll be better prepared by having rehearsed your answers to them, because they can easily be woven into the conversation to engage and impress your interviewer.)

What interests you about this job? It sounds obvious, but a surprising number of candidates don’t have a thoughtful answer prepared for this. Interviewers want to hire people who have carefully thought through whether this is a job they want and have concluded that yes, they’d be excited to do the work. If you flounder when asked about your interest and can’t explain why you’re enthused at the prospect of this particular work, you’re likely to get struck from the hiring manager’s list.

Why do you think you would do well at this job? The best answers to this question point to past experiences and skills that position you to excel at the work. You want to know your answer to this question backwards and forwards before walking into your interview … because if you can’t make a compelling case for why you’d be fantastic in the role you’re applying for, it’s unlikely that the interviewer is going to take the time to piece one together on her own.

What has been one of your biggest achievements? Savvy interviewers ask this question because they want to hear what you can achieve when you’re at the top of your game – and whether you’ve had many achievements at all. And moreover, even if your interviewer doesn’t this particular question, preparing an answer in advance is still helpful, because you work it into your responses to other questions. Being able to talk fluently about your achievements is a key way to show that you’re someone who produces outstanding results, rather than someone who simply does the bare minimum.

Tell me about a time when… (Fill in with situations relevant to the position. For instance: Tell me about when you had to take initiative … you had to deal with a difficult customer … you had to respond to a crisis … you had to give difficult feedback to an employee … You get the idea.) These types of questions – known as behavioral interview questions – probe into what you’ve done in the past, not what you say you’d do in the future. It’s key to prepare in advance for these questions, so that you’re not struggling to come up with examples off the cuff. That means that ahead of your interview, you should brainstorm about what skills you’re likely to need in the job and what challenges you’re likely to face. Then, think about what examples from your past you can point to as evidence that you can meet those needs. Talk yourself through how you’d present them in answer to these questions, making sure that you cover what challenge you faced, how you responded, and the outcome you achieved.

What salary are you looking for? If you don’t prepare for this question, you risk low-balling yourself or saying something that will harm you in salary negotiations later. Don’t let this question catch you off-guard; prepare for it ahead of time so that your answer works to your advantage.

I originally published this column at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 7 comments… read them below }

  1. Arci

    I will never forget the time I had an interview (of all places) at a college career center and was highly unprepared! I cringe thinking about it. Lesson learned. Thanks for the tips.

  2. Victoria Nonprofit

    Does it matter when your biggest achievement happened?

    I’ve always felt as though I should share something from my most recent position – and for the most part, because I have had positions of increasing authority and scope, my biggest achievement has naturally come from my immediate past role.

    But I wonder about my next interview, whenever that is. The role I’m in now is exciting and challenging and I have no doubt that I’ll be able to accomplish a lot. But, given the nature of my work now and my work in the past, I would be frankly hard pressed to do something “bigger” than what I did in my last role. In my most recent job I had a narrow scope of work (one very large project, with a very high profile and visible culmination) and achieved something that feels like a once-in-a-lifetime coup. Do I just milk that forever?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Yeah, if your biggest achievement is really old, your interviewer is likely to wonder why there hasn’t been one since then. But one way around that is to say something like, “My biggest achievement is probably X. (Details.) But more recently, I’m really proud of Y.”

  3. TL

    The achievement question always throws me for a loop, because: a) I’ve been unemployed for a year, so no recent work achievements, and b) most of my recent past jobs were entry-level contract work. It’s hard for me to nail down specifics, since there often wasn’t a clear beginning or end to a project; the work generally flowed together. (I didn’t keep many notes for myself at the time, so I don’t have a folder of Awesome Stuff I Did to refer back to. Lesson learned.) Still, I need to sit down and come up with a better answer before my next interview. I’ve been using an example from school (something with a measurable goal that I *did* feel proud of achieving), but I don’t think it’s gone over well, since that was so long ago.

  4. jesicka309

    What if you’re in a role, like many entry level jobs, where achieving anything beyond minimum is impossible? For example, data entry. There’s no real ‘measurable’ achievement aside from “got my data entry work processed early every single day, leaving me loads of time to twiddle my thumbs as no one would give me extra work”. And sometimes, being ahead is almost a negative, as you end up redoing your own work as the requirements change closer to deadlines. And in a role where you are tied to your desk, you can’t be going around ‘looking’ for ways to help the department.

    How do you address achievements in roles that just don’t seem to have any scope for that kind of thing? Other roles I’ve had I can list stuff like “I coordinated the Senior’s Week event, which ran smoothly and without a hitch.” or “I successfully trained two other crew trainers, one of which went on to become a senior manager after I left.” This role is very much about doing the work correctly, and any more than that is almost negligible. Ugh data entry.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Sometimes you really can’t, but it’s worth trying to. For instance:

      – Consistently processed all data ahead of deadlines, with lowest error rate in the department

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