the best questions to ask your job interviewer

When your interviewer wraps up your job interview by asking if you have any questions, you might be thinking that he or she is finished assessing you, but that’s not quite the case. Interviewers will draw conclusions about you based on the questions you ask — or don’t ask.

If you don’t ask questions, you’re signaling that you’re not very interested in the job or you just haven’t thought much about it. And if your questions focus entirely on benefits, pay, and vacation time, you’re signaling that you’re not interested in the job itself, only the compensation. Instead, ask about the work, company, and team. Here are some examples of great questions for your interviewer.

1. What are the biggest challenges the person in this position will face?
This question shows that you don’t have blinders on in the excitement about a new job; you recognize that every job has difficult elements and that you’re being thoughtful about what it will take to succeed in the position.

2. Can you describe a typical day or week in the position?
This questions shows that you’re thinking beyond the interview and are visualizing what it will be like to be doing the work itself. This is different from many candidates, who appear to be focused solely on getting the job offer without thinking about what will come after that.

3. What would a successful first year in the position look like?
Asking this shows that you’re thinking in the same terms that a manager does – about what the position needs to contribute to the team or company in order to be worthwhile. You’ll also sound like someone who isn’t seeking to simply do the bare minimum, but rather to truly achieve in the role.

4. How will the success of the person in this position be measured?
This question is similar to the previous one, but it will also give you more insight into what the manager really values. You may discover that while the job description emphasizes skill A or responsibility B, the manager actually cares most about skill C or responsibility D.

5. How long did the previous person in the role hold the position? What has turnover in the role generally been like?
If no one has stayed in the position very long, it might be a red flag about a difficult manager, unrealistic expectations, or some other landmine.

6. How would you describe the culture here? What type of people tend to really thrive here, and what type don’t do as well?
If the culture is very formal and structured and you’re happiest in a more relaxed environment, or if it’s an aggressive, competitive environment and you are more low-key and reserved, this job might not be a comfortable fit for you. You’ll spend a large portion of your waking life at this job, so it’s crucial to make sure you know what you’re signing up for.

7. How would you describe your management style?
Your boss will have an enormous impact on your quality of life at work. While you can’t always trust managers to accurately self-assess, you’ll at least get some insight into their style by what things they choose to emphasize in response to this question.

8. Thinking back to the person who you’ve seen do this job best, what made their performance so outstanding?
Most managers’ ears will perk up at this question, because it signals that you care not just about being average or even good, but truly great. This is the question managers wish all their employees would ask.

9. Are there any reservations you have about my fit for the position that I could try to address?
This is a great way to give yourself the chance to tackle any doubts the interviewer might have about you, as well as for you to consider whether those doubts might be reasonable and point to a bad fit.

10. What is your timeline for getting back to candidates about the next steps?
Always wrap up with this question, so that when you go home you know what to expect next. That way, you won’t be sitting around wondering when you’ll hear something.

{ 24 comments… read them below }

  1. Charles

    At one interview for a trainer last year, which so far had seemed like a very good fit, I asked your magic question – “what would make the person in this role shine”. (or something to that effect)

    The two folks interviewing me seemed rather unsure of what to say; So, I then said let me ask the opposite, make that question a negative – “What would make this person NOT do well?”

    OMG, I am so glad that I asked. It was as if the flood gates opened. These two, rather reserved women, then quickly criticized the person they had just let go. Nothing was done to their satisfaction – nothing! They had a long laundry list of things that weren’t done properly, or not done at all, too much of the job was outsourced, folks weren’t getting the training they expected, etc. I listened to them ramble on for about 20 minutes or so.

    Finally they asked me, were they expecting too much? Well, I told them that yes, all of these things were possible; but could they tell me the time frame? Well, the previous person had been there a whole 3 months. Three months! Are you kidding me – the stuff they expected could have taken a year or more to accomplish. I felt, and told them, that everything that was accomplished in three months was good for a lone trainer to have succeeded at.

    Clearly, they have never hired or worked with a trainer before – training programs such as they wanted in place do not happen overnight!

    So, yea, one simple question helped me to dodge a deadly bullet.

      1. Charles

        How did they respond to my saying they had unrealistic expectations?

        Overall, they did seem a bit disappointed in my response; I wasn’t sure if they thought I couldn’t do the job or if they realized that their expectations were too unrealistic. Here’s why:

        They pointed out that they really didn’t know what to expect as this was a recently created postion; something that had been a long time, years really, in waiting. Okay, that’s an honest; but good response. Maybe that will give me, the trainer, some leeway in setting expectations as to what training can and cannot accomplish for them.

        However, when I pointed to one of their examples of how the previous person “dropped the ball” by outsourcing one of the trainings; I said that given the full work load I would have done the same – they said, “we cannot have that as everyone is expecting customized training since we have been promising employees training programs for years.” They were quite adamant about this – that’s not good; do I really need to keep promises that were made by others before I started there?

        It seems to always be like that with training; wait, and wait, and wait, then hire a trainer so long after they should have that everyone now has bad habits that have to be undone and lack of training has been the go-to excuse for any employee short-comings (whether true or not). As a trainer, I am used to that attitude and am quite good at re-setting expectations; but the fact that they rambled on so with such strong criticism of the previous person made me wonder if they even knew how to manage. It made me wonder how would I do in such a setting with management that doesn’t listen? Hadn’t they just NOT listened to me when I said I would have done the same thing; But, they gave an excuse as to why that wasn’t acceptable?

        I didn’t say it; but, I was really feeling sorry for the woman that they let go. She seemed to have done quite a bit in the short three months that she was there. And how they interacted with her I really have no idea – was she always banging her head against a brick wall by saying some things weren’t possible?

        But, here’s the whole point of my rambling on so – the funny thing is that I had been asking questions all along and thought they were answering honestly. I even ask for timeframes, standards, etc. and none of their answers seemed unusual. Everything seemed like a good fit. Except . . .

        AAM, if I hadn’t thought ahead of time to remember to ask your “magic question” – what makes a person really stand out in this role? (Which they really couldn’t answer, so I asked the negative of that.) They never would have spilled the beans and I could have been offered the job and accepted that ticket to hell. (mind you, being out of work, I still would have accepted the job; but would have been very clear about resetting the expectations.)

        So, yea, always ask questions at the end – you just might learn something that wasn’t covered during the interview!

    1. The Other Dawn

      Until I read that you said their expectations were actually unrealistic, my first inclination was to ask what they did to address the situation with the former employee; however, it’s clear by what you say a little further down that they really didn’t have a clue. On the other hand, had they sat down with the former employee to address their concerns, they would have found out that what they wanted done would take much longer and they wouldn’t have had verbal hemorrhaging when you asked the question. Yes, you dodged a bullet there.

    2. ChristineH

      Wow, definitely agree with the others! I wish I’d asked that question (or something similar) at the interview for my last job! I too am curious, Charles, how the interviewers responded to you saying the demands weren’t realistic.

  2. ChristineH

    I’ve always wondered – is it okay to take notes during interviews, particularly when I’m asking questions such as you described? I’ve always gotten the sense that it’s best to NOT take notes, and just jot things down as soon as possible afterwards, but I’ve found that to be difficult.

    1. Kerry

      I always bring the job description with me and take notes on that. It also helps prompt me for questions at the end, if I run out of broader ones to ask.

    2. Charles

      I always have the job descriptions printed out with questions that I want to ask written down. I will add more (or cross out) as the interviews progresses.

      While it might seem awkward if you are taking a looooong time to write notes, in general I see nothing wrong with taking notes – I think that it shows interest. That, plus my memory isn’t all that accurate!

  3. Bonnie

    This is not exactly on topic but our industry runs marathon interviews that include lunch, a meeting with younger staff, interviews with multiple members of middle management and exposure to senior management. This is common in the industry but candiates still come into my office and say they don’t have any questions because the last manager answered them all. How would you recommend that they handle that situation?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      It’s still useful to ask the questions to the other people, because different people may have different answers or different insights. So I’d encourage them to be genuinely curious about what answers they might get with the next person, even if the previous person gave them an answer.

    2. S.L. Albert

      Having (literally) just been through this as a candidate, I tried to spread the questions out during the day. Most places will give candidates a schedule, so you can see how many people you’ll be working with and, often, what level/which department they’re at/in. I tried to tailor the question specifically to the type of position they were in (ie, asking about teamwork/ideal teammate to the lower level where I’ll be working; asking about ideal employee for a manager). I’d normally have one or two questions that I’d ask everyone, to try to get the full picture, and a unique or semi-unique question for each person.

      I also had a very good specific question that I think got me in the door during the initial round of interviews before I got invited to the super day. I asked, “Where do you see the firm in ten years/which direction is it going in?”

      As a side note, be careful when you use this question, many firms say it on their websites in form of some sort of mission statement thingamajig. This firm in particular didn’t. Also, as it’s a mid-size firm that emphasizes its corporate culture, it was a pretty good question to ask. The interviewers (I was being tag teamed) said several times that they liked it because it made them think and made me sound really interested in the position for the company’s sake and not just for the money’s sake. Not a great question for all firms, but definitely a good one for smaller companies.

  4. Anonymous

    On a recent interview I used questions 2 and 8 and another question about a typical day in the position. I don’t believe I got the job (would have heard by now from the recruiter) but I know I presented myself in a really professional and intelligent way and I’m proud of that fact. I didn’t have to grope for questions and I answered questions asked of me very easily.

    Thanks so much Alison for the help. At least I have a much better interview technique now due to your advice! :)

    Btw, I’ve used number 8 a few times in job interviews before this one and the interviewers seem to like that question a lot.

  5. Pamela G

    I WISH I’d known about AAM when I was interviewing for teaching jobs straight out of uni! I never used to ask questions in interviews because I didn’t realise it was a good thing to do – I thought asking questions was for people who hadn’t listened during the interview, because otherwise everything would have been covered. And I had the mindset of ‘any job is a good job’, rather than assessing whether it was a good fit for me or not.

    I keep saying to my husband that now I know all this stuff, even though we’ve decided I’m going to be a stay-at-home mum for the next 5 years or so (until our youngest is at school), I really want to apply for a job, write a kick-ass cover letter and ace the interview(s), just because I think I could now! (and then turn the job down… wouldn’t that be a great look!)

  6. W

    I recently asked this question in an interview “what makes a person great v. good for this position”. Again the interviewers loved this question because it really allowed them to think what made folks stand out.
    Thank you Thank you for all your help! I got the job!

  7. AB

    I’m a new follower and current job seeker (finding myself forgoing sleep to read more of your archives…) and I had the perfect opportunity in an interview this afternoon to use a variation of your “magic question.” It was VERY well received!! I left feeling very good about things. Just wish I had found you sooner… Thanks for what you are doing for all of us little folks!

  8. Riki

    I have one to add. If you are interviewing with a company that is trying to obtain more funding, ask if they can support the position you are interviewing for without the additional cash. Funding deals fall through all the time and, sometimes, companies jump the gun when moving forward with expansion plans. No deal is closed until papers are signed and the check is in the bank. You do not want to be in a position where you are offered your dream job, only to have it snatched away shortly after because, oops, that sure thing funding deal fell apart.

  9. tango

    I asked the magic question too! I was offerred an intital phone interview with two department supervisors. I was told by the HR person the interview would last approximately 30 minutes. I felt I did ok to good during the interview but after 10 minutes the ladies were done and asked if I had any questions before wrapping it up. I panicked! I didn’t know if the short time was because I did well or did badly in their opinion. So I asked the magic question and both supervisors pitched in with what they felt made prior employees in the job succeed.

    Well, I then got invited for software testing, passed that and then invited for a round of in person interviews with 4 seperate people and a written assessment. Of course, I couldn’t really ask the magic question again since I was meeting with a few of the same people as I talked to on the phone but I did my best. And viola! I was offerred and accepted the job! I start next week.

    So possibly it wasn’t the magic question that clinched the job for me since it was so early in the process but it gave me confidence to ask it and see it was so well received. I’ve been a homemaker for years and only worked part time in retail the past year. So it’s not like employers were knocking down my door to interview me. I only got one phone interview in the 6 months of active looking before this company contacted me. And it’s a major company, biggest in their industry and expanding so I’m very happy they wanted me.

    I just wanted to share my success story. I was feeling pretty disheartened I wasn’t getting any interviews but I kept at it, read AAM and enacted some of the advice I found here and took some continuing education courses to update my software skills and in the end it all paid off.

  10. Mark

    I like the questions but not sure how to apply them to my situation. I work for the UK government, a promotion position has opened up and while I have been temporarily promoted into the position, it still needs to be advertised and I will need to apply and interview for the position.

    Given that I will have performing the role for about 3 months by the time the interview will take place, so will know a lot about the challenges by then and have an idea of my managers style.

    I cannot assume I will get the role due to the nature of the way the applications have to be handled and my current manager will not be the only person there. We have to have an independant person also attending (who generally is anything but independant but thats another issue :) ).

    Any question you would recommend to ask in this situation?

  11. Becca

    What’s the “magic question” that everyone is referring to? I’m assuming it’s one of the 10 but I can’t figure out which one.

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