the most common job interview questions — and how to answer them

Got an interview coming up? The best thing that you can do to prepare is to think through the questions that you’re likely to be asked and formulate answers ahead of time. Here are the seven most common interview questions, along with what a strong answer will look like.

1. “Tell me about yourself.” This question means “give me a broad overview of who you are, professionally speaking, before we dive into specifics.” You should be prepared with about a one-minute answer that summarizes where you’re at in your career and what you’re especially good at, with an emphasis on your most recent job. Keep your personal life out of it; your interviewer isn’t asking to hear about your family, hobbies, or where you grew up.

2. “What interests you about this job?” Your answer here should focus on what about the substance of the role most interests you. You should not talk about benefits, salary, the short commute, or anything else unrelated to the day-to-day work you’d be doing, or you’ll signal that you’re not particularly enthusiastic about the work itself. Interviewers want to hire people who have carefully considered whether this is a job they’d be glad to work at every day, and that means focusing on the work itself, not what the job can do for you.

3. “Why are you thinking about leaving your job?” Or, if you’re unemployed, “Why did you leave your last job?” This isn’t the time to talk about conflicts with your manager or complaints about your coworkers. Job seekers are commonly advised to answer this by saying that they’re seeking new challenges, but that answer only rings true if you’re specific about what those new challenges are and how this job will provide them in a way that your last job didn’t. It’s also fine to cite things like a recent or planned move, financial instability at your organization, or other reasons that are genuinely true – just stay away from badmouthing employers or complaining about work.

4. “Why would you excel at this job?” This is your chance to make a case for why you’d shine in the job – and if you don’t know the answer to that, it’s unlikely that your interviewer will figure it out either, so you want to have a strong answer prepared for this ahead of time. A strong answer will point to your skills and track record of experience and tie them to the needs of the job.

5. “Tell me about a time when…” Good interviewers will probe into times in your past when you had to exercise the skills required for the job. For instance: Tell me about when you had to take initiative / had to deal with a difficult customer / had to solve a problem for a client … and so forth.) Make sure to prepare in advance for these questions, so that you’re not struggling in the interview to come up with real-life past examples. To do that, spend some time brainstorming 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 work you can use as “evidence” that you can meet those needs. When you construct your answer, discuss the challenge you faced, how you responded, and the outcome you achieved.

6. “What would you do in your first 90 days if you got this position?” Interviewers are looking for answers that reveal how you set goals and problem-solve, and whether you’re ambitious without being unrealistic. You should also acknowledge that you’ll need to take some time to get to know the team, what’s working, and what can be improved before you make any big decisions – but your answer should still get into specifics to the extent you reasonably can.

7. “What salary range are you looking for?” Job seekers are almost always asked this question, yet too often fail to prepare for it and then are caught off-guard when the topic comes up. If you wing your answer to this, you risk lowballing yourself and ending up with a salary offer below what you might have otherwise received, so it’s crucial to research the market rate for the job ahead of time. Don’t let discomfort with talking about money thwart your ability to negotiate well for yourself.

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

{ 67 comments… read them below }

  1. Jamie

    OMG yes to #1. Those of you new to the job market please memorize this.

    I hate this question, because the vast majority of entry level and a significant percentage of mid level people ime answer this with personal info.

    It’s a job interview, not a dating site, but the question is too ambiguous and I get that people assume they are being asked to fill in the blanks about themselves as people and not regarding work.

    This is where I’ve always learned about people’s taste in music, hobbies, and personal goals, and how they see themselves. This is where they say that they are “a people person” and other stuff about their personalities. (Ftr I hear about them as I sit on on interviews, I don’t ask this question.)

    1. CAA

      I’ve learned to say something like “Can you give me a short overview of your past jobs and the type of work you’ve done before?” Even so, I’ve heard about how great it was to have a foosball table in the break room and how often some companies do happy hours.

      1. Lisa

        But at least in that case they’ve given you some sort of valuable information about themselves! ;) Whereas I can easily imagine a new grad without a lot of professional experience who would nevertheless be a great employee misunderstanding “tell me about yourself.”

        It actually makes a lot of sense, in a way – you have my resume in front of you, you don’t need me to tell you again what I’ve done, but this is my chance to tell you about my personal attributes. I’ve probably only avoided this one because of my weird hangup about talking about myself to strangers. (I once had an interviewer ask me to talk about what I do outside of work and I had to bring it back to work because I was so uncomfortable.)

        1. Stephanie

          Yeah, I had an interviewer recently ask me about hobbies too. I always find it awkward as well.

          I mentioned I did improv outside of work and the interviewer’s like “Tell me a joke!” which isn’t really improv at all. Plus, I couldn’t think of any work-appropriate jokes at that moment.

          1. James M

            Think back to an interesting class you took in college and tell a funny anecdote (ix-nay on the asty-nay). E.g. in my ASL class, the professor begins each class by asking each student how we’re doing and each student replies (all in sign, of course). A popular answer is “sleepy” since it’s an evening class. However, a few students sign “wolf” (a similar gesture) instead, even after the professor pointed out the difference. Are these students huge fans of the “Twilight” series? Or should I beware the light of the full moon when class lets out?

            1. Julie

              I didn’t pay close enough attention when my friend showed me the ASL sign for “(be) quiet,” and I discovered that I had been signing to my dog “wolf” instead of “quiet.” No wonder it didn’t work…

    2. Ollie

      I’ve been asked #1 a few times, and I always ask the interviewer to clarify if they meant my internships/experience or what I do outside of work. Twice so far they actually said they wanted to know what I do outside of work. (Note: I’m interviewing for entry level positions if that makes any difference.)

      1. Audiophile

        I asked for clarification the last time I got this question and they didn’t really clarify, and I’m sure it was seen as a mark against me. It is a question, I genuinely dislike. Also ‘where do you see yourself in 5 years?’

        1. Ollie

          I hate “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” too. I’m entry-level, just trying to find a job (one at least indirectly related to my field of study). How am I supposed to even guess where I’ll be in 5 years?

        2. Stephanie

          Hate, hate, hate that question. I get what it’s trying to ask (i.e., how does this Teapot Manufacturing role fit into your career trajectory), it’s just hard to answer that without sounding overly naïve and ambitious (“I hope to be the Teapot Department Director!”), vague (“I want to have really improved my skills in this role”) or both. Plus, it just assumes things like the company/role will still be around, you’ll still be happy in the role, your boss will still be happy in the role, etc.

          /rant

        3. Kelly O

          I always want to answer “in the mirror.”

          I haven’t worked up the nerve yet, but I would LOVE to give that one.

          1. Stephanie

            HAHA.

            If I knew there would be no professional repercussions, I totally want to go into an interview and answer every question honestly and/or sarcastically.

            “I’m interested because you’ll pay me more than my old job and the commute’s shorter. And my current boss is psychotic.”

            “What would colleagues say about me? Sometimes I have my headphones on too loud at work and my cube mates all realize I’m listening to Katy Perry on repeat.”

            Of course…I know word travels. My sense of morality would kick in and make me realize that I’m taking the slot away from someone else. It’s fun to fantasize about, however. :)

            1. Audiophile

              I knew there was a reason I liked you. Another kindred spirit who has to bite their tongue to avoid being sarcastic all the time.

              I learned not to mention commute at all, after the time I brought it up in a phone interview and was promptly cut off and told “this would be longer than your current commute based on your address. Bye.”

              1. lampshade

                I took an improv class once at the local community college. My skit was on the interview process. I thought it was hilarious but I think my audience must have not ever had to interview for a job because there were no laughs. I said everything I wish I could say during an interview……… One friend who played the role of the interviewer couldn’t stop laughing when we practiced the skit.

        4. Jennifer

          Where do I see myself? Fuck if I know. But I thought I was going to leave where I work two years ago and I think I’m a lifer in reality, so.

          The last time I got asked I said I wanted to be (name of job), but that didn’t work either.

    3. Felicia

      Sometimes I start talking about my professional self, like why i got into the field I did, and what experiences I’ve had that I loved, and why, and then the interviewer will be like “actually I meant more about your hobbies, what ou do outside of work, your personality…”

      I hate that one more, because I’m not really prepared for it, and I wonder if they’ll judge me for liking symphonic metal music and writing fanfiction (which is what i’d mention if I were honest). I also read a lot, which seems like a hobby no one could judge, though mostly YA novels. When they turn it around like that I can’t help but wondering why they need to know about my hobbies.

      1. Anxious

        Fanfiction probably doesn’t come across well, but it should.

        It shows the ability to be creative within boundaries, work independently, courage in putting yourself out there (if you share), and develop an authentic community of readers/writers.

        1. Prickly Pear

          +1
          Writing fanfiction made me realize if nothing else, I can finish what I start, I can meet deadlines, and I can organize thoughts in an orderly fashion.

        2. Anonymous

          As a long time fan fiction reader and writer, I… am torn on this. Yes, writing fanfic does hone the skills you mentioned, but the majority of them aren’t really good quality. There’s nothing wrong with wish fulfillment and what if, but I wouldn’t use it as evidence for organizing thoughts in a logical fashion… because frankly, a lot of them don’t. (partly because the there is significant push back on anything less than glowing reviews to not hurt feelings, which is also a poor for for the workplace.) Not to mention quite a lot of it is for kink and other things that’d be best left out of the professional world.

          I love my hobby, and I’ve definitely read fic that matches published stuff in quality. But I think fan fiction should be separate from the white collar professional world.

          1. Felicia

            I think so too, and I don’t think I would mention it in a professional context. Just if a random person was asking me about my hobbies, that’s what I’d say if I was being honest. People also don’t seem to like when I mention symphonic metal, even though that is honestly what kind of music I listen to and that’s what they asked, because they have bad associations with metal. I think mentioning the types of books I prefer might make me sound immature. I also like to knit, and frequently got to comedy shows. But I don’t like when they ask about my hobbies in my interview, because I don’t know why they want to know that, and i worry how they might judge. Someone also asked me what my favourite TV show is…I said Doctor Who because it’s true, but that’s another of those questions I don’t understand

    4. Yup

      I honestly didn’t know this re #1 til I started reading AAM, and I’d been working full time for 15 years. I always treated it as a filler “how ’bout them Cubs” introductory blather question.

      I subsequently wrote out and practiced an answer (48 seconds!) that’s professional and focused.

      1. thenoiseinspace

        Agreed. This is one of those “once you know, you know, but until you know, you don’t even know that you don’t know” kind of things.

        It’s just like in school – my history teacher asked us the question “The settlers came to America in ___.” We said “boats.” He was looking for “family groups.” Each side thinks their answer is totally obvious and the only possible choice, and can’t figure out why the other doesn’t get it. But until you hear the other answer, you don’t know that there’s even another option.

    5. Gene

      And for all that’s holy, don’t start with a joke!

      We had one guy start with part of the opening line from “The Jerk”; “It was never easy for me. I was born a poor black child.”

    6. LV

      When I was doing a co-op job placement as part of my MLIS, I had to attend half a dozen workshops on how to network, how to interview well, office culture, etc. and NOBODY thought to tell us that question #1 isn’t supposed to be answered with personal info.

      I messed up a bunch of interviews partly because I didn’t know, and the interviewers were too kind to cut me off and set me straight. Since they were smiling and nodding and taking notes I assumed I was doing reasonably well… now I cringe to remember it, because they were probably scribbling “I wish this girl would STFU” or something!

      1. Jen RO

        I once interviewed a guy who did answer this question with his professional information – for 10 minutes straight. The other interviewer and I were inexperienced at this and too embarrassed to interrupt him.

  2. Felicia

    I have an interview late this afternoon, so perfect timing!

    In my experience all of those are questions most interviewers will ask, though I wish #7 wasn’t so common.

  3. A.Y. Siu

    A potential employer asking me #6 would make that company a red flag for me as a candidate. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to make a real difference at each of my last three workplaces, but I’ve been effective precisely because I DON’T come in with preconceived notions about how to change things there. Usually, I spend the entire first year just getting to know what the existing processes are, making only small tweaks here and there. The second and third year, I can get some real changes going to streamline stuff.

    1. fposte

      There’s some YMMV here, of course, but I don’t think it’s automatically a question about change; talking about how you’d start learning what you need to know is a legitimate answer too.

    2. Audiophile

      It’s interesting you mention taking the first year to learn the processes. I asked a potential employer, what they’d like to see me accomplish in the first year and was told, they wanted a quicker turnaround time than that.

        1. Audiophile

          Thank you. I was just baffled by her response that she’d expect me to learn the ropes that quickly. In fact, I might have said ‘6 months – 1 year’. Still, there needs to be some amount of patience on the part of the employer.

  4. Elsajeni

    So, is there a good way to answer a “Tell me about a time when…” question if the thing they’re asking about is something that really has never happened to you? I worry about sounding arrogant or overconfident (“Well, actually, I never have made a major mistake at work!” … partly because I’m great, yes, but also partly because I’ve been lucky and also don’t have that much work history to generalize from, so haven’t had that many opportunities to screw up), and also about annoying the interviewer by not giving them the information about my work style/coping skills/whatever they’re actually looking for.

    1. fposte

      What do you think you’d do in this situation based on either your experience elsewhere or knowledge that you’ve gleaned?

    2. Anonymous

      You can use examples from outside of work if you don’t have a work related example. I havent made major mistakes or had major conflicts with coworkers which are common questions but school examples work.

    3. Marina

      Think about what they’re trying to get out of the question. How do you respond under pressure? Do you own up to mistakes and work to resolve them, or panic and push them under the rug? You can also talk about what you do to avoid making major mistakes in the first place… organization, communication, etc.

    4. MaryMary

      In general, if you can’t think of a work example for a behavioral interview question (“Tell me about a time when…”), use a non-work example. It’s best to use a work example if you have one, but it’s better to use an example from school or your non-professonal life than to stare blankly at the interviewer. I once had an entry-level candidate tell me she’d never had to resolve a conflict with a coworker, but she was currently living with five roommates, and proceded to tell me how she kept the peace in her apartment. I thought it was a great answer.

    5. Jennifer

      I’ve just said it’s never happened to me. Like when they ask me if I’ve made an official policy change (why is this a question?!)–I’m a peon, I simply do not have the authority or option to do that sort of thing and never have. I just say it hasn’t come up or I don’t have that sort of opportunity in my work.

  5. Poohbear McGriddles

    #1 is a dangerous question.

    “Tell me about yourself.”

    Well, I’m a [protected class adjective], [protected class adjective], [protected class noun]. I’m a huge supporter of the minority political party in this area. But most importantly, I’ve been chosen by the Flying Spaghetti Monster to spread his message of peace and love to everyone I meet!

    1. Lynn Whitehat

      I have heard people give the advice to answer this question with “the things they can’t ask”. Seriously, there are people out there who think the purpose is to give people an opportunity to say “my dad’s black and my mom’s from France; everyone always wonders, so I just like to tell people up front.” Uh, no.

  6. Poohbear McGriddles

    Another interview question:
    “Do you have any questions for me?”

    As a new grad I seriously flubbed this one. I came into interviews having done all kinds of research, and felt I knew all I needed to know in order to accept an offer. However, I am sure my inability to probe deeper was seen as lack of interest. That couldn’t have been farther from the truth!

    Now, I always prepare several questions for the end of the interview. If they get answered earlier, I will summarize what I learned.

    1. Stephanie

      Oh man, I had the opposite problem when I fear started interviewing. I would do my research and then have all these super specific questions for the interviewer. I turn the interview into an inquisition almost. It took me a while to learn that you can ask too many questions in an interview.

      1. Felicia

        Now I have a few questions that I like to ask all interviewers, and I think it’s an important part. Especially when employers answer “I don’t know”. Like recently I asked what the biggest challenges would be in the position and apparently the interviewer didn’t know. They also didn’t know how success would be measured in the position, or what the goals for the position would be in the first year.

        1. Marina

          +1. I always ask what their goals for the position in the first year would be. Not knowing is a big indicator of the organization/management style.

    2. Lynn Whitehat

      I have some generic questions in case all my specific ones were answered during the interview process. What sort of person does well here? Can you describe the corporate culture? What does a typical day in this job look like?

      In my field, it’s typical for an “interview” to actually consist of 4-6 interviews with different employees. Honestly, by Employee #6, sometimes I feel like I know what I need to know. But not having any questions is the kiss of death because it comes across as a lack of interest, so I make sure to ask something.

      1. Stephanie

        Well, it sometimes can be helpful to see how different people answer the same question. But yeah, those multiperson interviews can get a bit monotonous as you find yourself telling the same answers repeatedly to every interviewer.

  7. Mints

    For “why are you leaving?” Does a bigger workload count as new challenges? If my real answer is I want a job that doesn’t involve twiddling my thumbs most of the day, can I have a version of that sounds okay, and not the “I’m willing to work a 100 hours a week for minimum wage” type of job seeker
    I just want to work 40 hours like a normal person!

    1. Sunflower

      Is it purely the lack of work or also the nature of the work? Think about what other kinds of responsibilities or skills might come with a bigger workload besides just more of the same. For example, if you’re in marketing and you are looking to be assigned more work, you might find that you’re assigned to doing things in digital, online, direct mail marketing as opposed to just one outlet. Or that you’re taking on more management duties or you’re involved in more meetings and you’re input is being heard more.

      1. Mints

        I’m a recent grad working admin, so while I’d like to be doing higher level work sometime soon, I’m still applying for jobs that are primarily administrative. I am, though, trying to apply at places where I’m more interested in the roles slightly past entry level, so hopefully I can do other things in my next job

    2. HR lady

      Mints, I think this is definitely a valid reason, and there are professional ways you can phrase it. Things like “I’d like to get more experience in XYZ and my current company only does it once a month.” or “It seems like I’m underutilized in my current job so I’d like to be in a job where I can contribute more and be busier throughout the day.”

      Also, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard interview candidates just come out and say “there just isn’t enough work for me at my current job, so I’m looking for somewhere I’ll be busier.” It might not be the best way to say it, but it is the truth, after all, and you wouldn’t really be badmouthing anyone.

      1. Mints

        I really like this phrasing, thank you! (trying to commit the word “underutilized” to memory)
        It’s kind of funny how easily I tell near-strangers “My job is boring” but then I’m like, wait I shouldn’t say this to employers

  8. Tara T.

    I like what Stephanie (2/24 at 3:57 pm) wrote: ““I’m interested because you’ll pay me more than my old job and the commute’s shorter. And my current boss is psychotic.”” Interviewers claim they want the truth, but they do not REALLY want it. I also had the same experience Stephanie wrote about in her other post: “I turn the interview into an inquisition almost. It took me a while to learn that you can ask too many questions in an interview.” At my interview, the interviewer kept asking if I had more questions, and I kept asking. So, I guess she decided I was too picky and rejected me, because I did not get the job. I now stop after a few questions and that is IT.

  9. Jen RO

    Is it common for interviewers to ask “Why would you excel at this job?” before they describe the job to you? Because I would have trouble answering that based only on the job description… in my (admittedly limited experience), the actual job is quite different from what’s stated in the job description.

      1. Dani S

        Thanks, Alison! It’s super helpful when you translate these kinds of questions. For some reason it helps me feel less intimidated by the questions and I am able to develop fresher, more specific responses.

  10. keli

    Well, I recently left a job. So when you answer the question “why did you leave your last job” make sure you think first before you answer because I put “unethical business practices” which it was. I worked 12 and 13 hour days with no lunch and breaks. They asked to come back this Thursday for an interview, I’m sure they will ask me to elaborate on that. How am I going to answer that with out being negative? I should have just said ” the hours of operation ” or something…I work in a dental office, 8 hours or even 10 hours is the norm….

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