expect these 5 questions at your next interview

While you can never predict for sure what questions you’ll be asked in a job interview, there are some questions that are so common to be ask that you should expect to hear them – and more importantly, should spend time preparing your responses to.

All of these questions have the potential to cause a serious flub if you wing them. They’re crucial enough that you need to prepare answers ahead of time, not leave them to change.

1. “Why are you leaving your job or why did you leave your last job?” Interviewers ask this because sometimes the question produces highly relevant information – such as that you were fired for poor performance, or you’re leaving because you can’t get along with your boss, or that you actually left your “current” job five months ago even though your resume says you’re still there.

Your goal in answering this question is primarily not to throw up any red flags. As long as you present a reasonable explanation for why you’re leaving or why you left – one that doesn’t badmouth other employers or make you sound like a problem – most interviewers won’t care too much about the details. (But of course, your answer needs to be truthful, and employers may verify your answer during reference checks.)

2. “What salary range are you looking for?” Many candidates are so uncomfortable discussing salary that they don’t prepare to answer this question and instead just hope that it won’t come up – and then end up having to come up with an answer on the fly when their interviewer does ask. That can lead you to undercut your own negotiating position, so it’s essential to prepare an answer for this question ahead of time. That means that you’ll also need to research the market rate for the types of jobs that you’re applying for, so that you’re able to ground your answer in real data and an understanding of what a reasonable range is.

3. “What have you been earning in the past?” While some employers stick to what you’re seeking to earn now, others will ask about what you’ve been earning previously. Employers who ask for your salary history typically claim that knowing what you’ve earned in the past helps them figure out how much you should be earning now – but it’s entirely reasonable to decide that your salary history is no one else’s business. If an interviewer asks for your salary history, one option is to respond with your salary expectations instead (for example, “I’m looking for a range of $50,000 to $60,000, depending on benefits”).

4. “Why would you would excel at this job?” Too often, job candidates approach the hiring process as if they only need to demonstrate that they’re qualified for the job. That’s the wrong approach. Being qualified isn’t sufficient to get you a job offer; for most job openings, employers are flooded with tons of qualified candidates. To get an offer, you need to show not just that you’re qualified to do the job, but that you’d excel at it. That means that you need to come to the interview prepared to talk about “evidence” in your past that demonstrates your success in each of the key qualifications the employer is looking for – examples of times that you’ve used Skill X or Trait Y to drive a project to success, times that you’ve used Skill Z to overcome a work-related challenge, and so forth.

Assume that your interviewer will ask you to talk about times in your past when you displayed each of the key qualifications of the job, and prepare your answers ahead of time. For instance, depending on the job, you might prepare for questions like these:

• Tell me about a time when you had to take initiative.
• Tell me about a time when you had to deal with an unhappy customer.
• Give me an example of a challenge you faced in your current job and how you solved it.
• Tell me about a time you faced an unrealistic deadline and how you handled it.

5. “What are your weaknesses?” You might not hear the question asked in exactly this way; aware that it’s a worn-out question, interviewers are increasingly presenting it in other forms, like “What’s an area where you’re working to improve?” or “What has your manager urged you to do differently?” But ultimately, this question is about weaknesses, and interviewers ask because they want to make sure your weaknesses – and everyone has them – won’t get in the way of you doing the job well.

If you’re tempted to answer this question with “I’m a perfectionist” or “I work too hard” or other clichés, don’t. You’ll sound disingenuous, and savvy interviewers will push for a more sincere answer. Instead, come prepared to honestly discuss your weak spots. What have you struggled with in the past? What have managers encouraged you to do differently? And what are you doing to address it? This type of answer will help you have an honest dialogue with the hiring manager to figure out if this role is the right fit for you, and you’ll come across as thoughtful and self-aware.

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

{ 49 comments… read them below }

  1. Ali*

    Perfect post just in time for my interview later this afternoon!

    I always dread what is your weakness because I have some answers that I fear might be dealbreakers to a lot of employers, but until I read here, I had no idea how to be forthcoming about them. I was one of the “I pay too much attention to detail” varieties for the longest time.

    1. Sarahnova*

      Depending on the job, that can be a real weakness, where people get mired in detail and struggle to see the big picture or make timely decisions. Perfectionism can utterly derail people at the senior level.

      But it’s obvious and unappealing when people don’t answer this question honestly. Talk about a real challenge of yours, for sure.

      1. Nashira*

        Delving into too much detail can absolutely be a problem, and is actually something I struggle with at work. My boss needs a top level view but I automatically drill down two or three levels, so I have to plan out what I want to say and present it in stages. That way, if she needs the detail, I can share it, but otherwise I don’t waste her time.

        It’s honestly been difficult to learn, but I’m glad my boss is willing to help me work on it.

  2. A.n.o.n.*

    Great timing! I have a phone interview in a few hours. It’s the first one so I’m hoping they don’t dive too deeply yet. I’ve never had a phone interview so I’m already nervous.

    I find it tough to come up with examples on the “tell me about a time when…” questions.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      You should prepare ahead of time for the “tell me about a time when” questions! It makes a huge difference, and if they ask them (and they might — I do on phone interviews), you’ll be really glad that you did.

    2. L*

      Agreed, great timing – I have a phone interview later this week too.

      A.n.o.n., if nothing else, the one behavioral question that you absolutely must be prepared to answer are “tell me about a time when you had to solve a problem/challenge/difficult situation”. The great thing about this question is that you can tweak your answer so that it can be used to answer other questions, like “what’s the project you’re most proud of working on” and “have you ever had to deal with a demanding client”.

    3. Jubilance*

      Absolutely have your scenarios ready ahead of time. Generally you’ll get standard questions like tell me about a time when you had conflict with a team member; when you made a mistake and had to correct it; when you had to influence others to make a big change/decisions; when you had to make a decision quickly without all of the information, etc. You can Google and find lots of example questions. When I work on my scenarios, I write them out and I use the SAR method – situation, action, result. I set up the situation, then I explain my actions, and finally what the result was.

    4. Elysian*

      I agree that these can be hard. However, when I’ve prepared for these, I’ve found that you don’t really need to prepare 100 different examples for all types of questions. Once I had maybe 5 good narratives about my work experience, I could usually tweak them fit what the questioner was asking about. My “tell me about a time whens” overlap quite a bit, so you don’t need an infinite number of them. The process of preparing them also helped me when I was asked about things I hadn’t prepared – I knew better how to thing about the question. And if worse comes to worse and you get really thrown, you can always pick your favorite narrative and tell it even if it only barely answers the question – that’s obviously not ideal, but at least then you can tell the interviewer something and you’re not sitting there stumped.

    5. Hillary*

      During on-campus interviewing we practiced behavioral interviewing at the bar. We’d pass around a handout and take turns asking each other the worst questions on it. They were usually awful answers, but we all got used to the format.

  3. Anonie*

    I do my job and past jobs very well. I have never been told you could do this better or work on this. I follow instructions very well. I can do things my way or someone else’s way if needed. I don’t have hang ups about that stuff. I think my weakness is that I can’t be phony and play the game as in hanging out with coworkers after work or pretending to like someone I don’t really like. I am not mean or anything like that but if someone I don’t care for invites me out to lunch or a party I have no problem saying no thank you. I think that is a weakness and has the potential to keep me from moving forward. I am not the go along to get along girl. I struggle with the weakness question because I don’t want to bring up what I think is my true work weakness. Don’t get me wrong people like me and I have lots of friends but I have seen people get far in their careers because they are good at brown nosing but I just can’t be like that.

    1. Armchair Analyst*

      If I were you, I’d say, “My weakness is that although I’m strong at communicating about my work, I’m not great at being social in the work environment. I prefer to focus on my work and my projects, and not really on the inter-personal aspects of the job. I prefer jobs where those aren’t necessary to my success, but I’m always looking to improve those aspects of non-verbal communication in the workplace.”

      I think this covers what you said, without insulting people who are good at non-verbal communication in the workplace (we’re not all brown-nosers).

      1. ProductiveDyslexic*

        I’m not so sure that this would be a good answer. To me, it would sound like you couldn’t work in a team or get along with colleagues.

        Perhaps something along the lines of placing a high value on integrity and honesty, such that you have to make a real effort professionally with those who don’t meet your own high standards.

        1. The IT Manager*

          This sounds like a “fake” weakness like being a perfectionist. Armchair Analyst’s answer was better IMO.

      2. Anonie*

        The only problem is the not being great in a social environment is not true. I am very social at work with the people I like. The problem is not being able to fake it with people I don’t like which is where the problem is because others will see me hanging out with co-workers or will hear that I went to dinner with coworkers but then someone I don’t really like invites me and I say no. I actually had a supervisor tell me once that one of my coworkers was upset because I kept turning down her invitations to hang out and I finally had to tell my supervisor that I didn’t like the coworker and didn’t want to hang out with her. My problem is I can’t pretend to like someone I don’t like or respect. I’m never rude about it but people can see the difference in some of the office relationships I have. I sometimes think that my work should be enough to move me forward but I think not being able to “pretend” or “go with the flow” and do the happy hour with coworkers I don’t care for has the potential to affect me negatively. I think it is my “work weakness” because it is more of a conviction that I have that I won’t be forced to play with the kids I don’t want to play with. I think that can impact you negatively if you have a boss or higher ups that feel you should be able to fake it until you make it! My saving grace is that I do a good job and a lot of people like me at work but there is always going to be that one or two people who get offended because I am not interested in becoming buddies and hanging out after work.

    2. Dan*

      “I don’t do well in environments with a strong after-work happy hour culture.”

      Nobody says that your biggest weakness has to be a weakness for that particular employer.

      Hell, my biggest weakness is that I don’t take effective notes. In my environment, it’s not a huge problem, and it’s legit enough that I can use it as an answer. That said, I haven’t been asked that in years.

    3. Sarahnova*

      Have you asked about what you could do better? There are many things that all of us could do better, so if you don’t take the initiative to ask this regularly, this is a good place to start. (If you don’t do this, then a possible weakness is that you could be more proactive about driving your own learning.)

      The other is to consider where your strengths might have a less-positive flip side. Perfectionism, for instance, is genuinely great if you have a job that really requires high standards and attention to detail, but in many jobs or in pressured situations it can be a liability. If you’re very self-sufficient, maybe you need to work harder as a manager; you’re less likely to anticipate your team’s needs because you don’t share them. If you’re great at getting people to agree, are you also prone to be uncomfortable challenging others? And so on.

  4. Vee*

    Another big one is any variant on “What can you tell me about [this company]?” We always ask this and a staggering number of candidates can only make the most basic reference to our industry. This includes candidates at all job levels–from entry level to upper management. It makes me want to scream.

    1. Robin*

      Yes, this or “why do you want to work here?” A slightly different question than why would you excel.

      1. Adonday Veeah*

        If asked this question, please don’t let your only answer be “because of the benefits.”

        1. Vee*

          Or “Well, I’ve been looking for a long time with no luck, so I figured I’d put in here and give it a shot.”

    2. blu*

      You may want to consider rewording that question. It reads very vague to me and I’m not sure what answer your looking for there. It may be better to ask something like what do you thing are the biggest trends in the industry or as a company in x industry what do you think our biggest challanges are etc.

      1. the gold digger*

        Exactly. As an interviewee, I wonder why I am being given a pop quiz about the company about information you already know! Yes, I should know what your company does, but more importantly, I should be able to tell you how I will do a great job for the job you are filling. I really don’t care about the noun – I care about the verb. What kind of widget we are making doesn’t matter.

        1. Kelly O*

          I will add it is really hard to figure out what interviewers are getting at with some questions. “Tell me what you know about Chocolate Teapot, Inc.” could have a multitude of answers, and while I may frame my answer in terms of the position I’m applying for and the department, if you’re looking for my knowledge of the general company history, I won’t know that and probably won’t answer it.

          I had someone ask me once if I knew in what year the company was founded. Nope. Sorry. I read up on this department and how it fits in your larger company picture, and I read about your acquisition of Caramel Teapots, but the year the company was founded? Sorry.

          1. Vee*

            We don’t use that blunt of a question as I presented originally, and aren’t looking for bits of trivia or a rundown of our history, but *something* to show that they made a bit of effort regarding the organization and what we do and didn’t apply because it was a job with benefits. I even appreciate it when someone says, “I looked at your website and realized you made white chocolate teapots, but I’m not sure how that differs from other chocolate teapots. Can you tell me more about that?” I get exasperated when people start completely guessing. I’ve had candidates say, “I’m really interested in your focus on peanut-brittle teacups!” when that is not even something we do. Even a cursory skimming of our webpage makes that clear.

    3. Malissa*

      I love this question, unless it comes from a closely held partnership or corporation. Anybody else I can usually talk about what I found fascinating on their last annual report. Which really helps when I’m looking at financial positions.

    4. Marcy*

      I have also had them read from our website, word-for-word, on phone interviews. It helps me screen them out. I would prefer to have them admit they don’t know much but are interested in learning more than to have them read our website to me.

  5. GrayThan*

    I always ask candidates some version of “Why do you want THIS job?” as in, what interested you in this particular position in this company at this time? I want to know that they read the job description, looked at the website, and are considering how they fit the position and the place at this point in their lives and careers. There’s no right answer, but there are thoughtful answers and throwaway answers.

    1. hayling*

      Me too. It’s amazing how many people haven’t even read the whole job description or even looked over your website.

  6. L*

    Speaking of interviews, does anyone have any advice on interviewing with a company that’s in the same building?

    With any other interview, I would’ve just changed into a formal outfit at any coffee shop closest to the potential employer, but when it’s in the same building as my employer (there’s only one elevator and I frequently run into coworkers there), I’m just struggling to think through the logistics behind not being seen by any coworkers. Maybe wearing a gigantic jacket to cover up my outfit? Have a pair of closed-toe shoes in my bag and slip them on as soon as the elevator doors close? Would anyone have any experience related to this?

    1. Puddin*

      Can’t you just wear the interview outfit? If someone asks, let them know you have an event to go to. No need for specifics…

    2. ThursdaysGeek*

      It’s too late for you, but for others who are thinking about looking: start dressing up every week or two, just because. When people ask, tell them it’s Tie Tuesday or you wanted to take the suit for a walk, or something. But after awhile your dressing up won’t cause any comments, and it will be no big deal to dress up on an interview day.

      1. jag*

        ” start dressing up every week or two, just because”


        As a bonus, if you’re not already very comfortable in your formal clothes, this will help.

      2. Pennalynn Lott*

        “I forgot to do laundry and so I’m left with the dry-clean stuff from the back of the closet.”

  7. Anon for this, just in case*

    Re “what are your weaknesses?” I have one that I’ve had to deal with on several occasions in the past: I’m not good at dealing with team members who attempt to undermine my authority. The two cases which come most readily to my mind both involved me being assigned “team lead” – a position that had responsibility but no authority – when some member of the team felt they were better suited to being “lead”. On both occasions I had to deal with a lot of passive-aggressive crap that made my life miserable. Oh, and to add to the fun, my management at the time made it clear that they didn’t want to hear about these kinds of issues and I could expect zero backing from them.

    Sorry if this is TMI. How damaging might this admission be during an interview? I could see myself talking about this and then moving on to how when my mgmt backed me, this kind of thing was no issue. I like that this answer is truthful. But is it too truthful?

    1. Clever Name*

      Honestly, if I were a hiring manager, and a candidate in an interview mentioned this, I would think, “Does not play well with others”. I totally understand that having a position of no real authority or management backing and trying to get stuff done really sucks, and I also totally understand not wanting to deal with BS. I’m certainly this way. Still, I would try to come up with some other weakness.

    2. James M*

      Yeah, I wouldn’t phrase it that way. You can say your weakness is “As a team lead (not actual management), I’ve had trouble managing uncooperative team members”. I know that’s not a 180º spin, but I think it’s free of passive-aggressive nuance. If pressed for detail, you can mention jealous coworkers, zero backup from management, etc…

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I think, though, that you’d want to be prepared for the fact that it will be a real negative if you’re interviewing for a role where you’ll need to manage a team. (That doesn’t mean you should hide it, but it’s probably a flag that you should think about whether you even want those roles or would shine in them.)

    3. MaryMary*

      As an interviewer, I’d want to know what you learned from a situation like that, and what you’d do now if you were in a similar situation. In general, when I ask the weakness question I’m as interested in how the candidate copes with their weakness as I am in what the weakness itself is. If you’re a procrastinator, I want to know how you’ve learned to manage your time. If you have difficulty with public speaking, I want to know if you go to Toastmasters or practice presenting to your cat. If you’re a perfectionist, I want to know how you work with us less perfect people, or how you balance being a perfectionist in a fast paced environment.

      1. Jillociraptor*

        I agree. One level of a “good” answer to this question is being self-aware enough to recognize your own limitations. That’s important. But also important is: what are the implications of that for your work? How are you working to either grow in your area of weakness, or minimize its impact on your work? I need employees who have a growth mindset about their own work. There are definitely some things that will just never be your strength, which is fine and inevitable, as long as you’re not complacent about the effects.

    4. Anon for this, just in case*

      Thank you, everyone. Yes, I can see how this might not be a good weakness to discuss. In truth, I’m actually very good at leading teams if we’re all working together, and I could relate some nice success stories (and at the risk of seeming defensive, I practice “lead by consensus”, not “lead by fiat”). But admitting that I’m not good at handling mutiny is probably not suitable interview material.

  8. Clever Name*

    Ah, the weakness question. For me, one of my weaknesses really is being a perfectionist. It really is a weakness that can take its toll on your personal life as well as your professional life. I actually refer to myself as a “recovering perfectionist”. Since it is so cliche, I think I may change my standard answer to, “my weakness is that I tend to take everything literally”. If a PM tells me to do X, I do exactly X. No more, no less. It’s tough because some people really expect you to read between the lines, and it’s something I really struggle with. It is great when it comes to communicating to certain engineer types. I just tell them exactly what I need, and they give me exactly what I asked for. It’s great. :)

    1. Jen*

      I think the weakness is called ‘not being a mindreader’, lol Its’ expected a LOT in my current job, and drives me nuts. I’m pretty good at figuring out if X is requested, then you really need Y and Z too, but they’re often good at coming back and asking for something out of left field like it should have been obvious.

  9. Jen*

    Definitely be prepared for #4 or variations such as ‘why should we hire you’, ‘what makes you a good candidate for this job’ etc. I don’t think I’ve had an interview where this wasn’t asked, in fact this was the only question asked in my phone interview a few weeks ago (ok it wasn’t a good interview from the get-go, but that’s beside the point). Essentially you need to prepare a sales pitch.

  10. Billy*

    These are baseline questions for people already in the workforce. However,for candidates with no references or jobs like me, I’m expecting a longer day in the interview process: Minimal info= more questions and a longer sales pitch.

  11. A.n.o.n.*

    I snagged an in-person interview!! Thanks, AAM and fellow readers!

    I was worried for nothing. It turned out to be a lot of talking about my background and the HR person told me a lot about the company. I like that they’re very involved in the community. She did that a downside for some people is there isn’t a lot of turnover.

    I’m very happy that it’s a management role. I miss it.

  12. Anx*

    Okay. So if ‘perfectionism’ is a fake weakness, how do you assess in an interview whether or not you could do the job if you do suffer (and I do mean suffer) from perfectionism?

    I would not want to be in a position where I felt I needed to hide the fact that I’m recovering from perfectionism.

    1. Aussie Teacher*

      Following this! I also suffer from perfectionism and am worried about how to answer this question if it’s perceived as a fake weakness.

      Example: as a first-year teacher, I wanted to make a photocopy of a page of a book for the class with some useful information on it. I photocopied the page. Then I cut out the writing (because there were black photocopy marks around the edges of the book) and stuck it onto a new white page. Then I taped the edges down and re-photocopied it. Then I used white-out to cover up any tiny black lines or marks on the page. Then I photocopied it for the class. This took me 40 minutes. It was really difficult for me to take a step back and go “You know what? I just need to get the information to the kids. Black marks around the edges will not detract from the information, nor will the kids care.” I really struggled with time management as a result, especially in my first term of teaching (we’re talking 80-90 hour weeks).

      1. Anx*

        I’m tutoring and perfectionism is tricky because I have all of these ideas I really want to put into place, but I can get assigned a class on the fly and have to be ready to roll. Don’t get me wrong, I can usually jump right in and get to the point, but my weekends are filled with trying to find the best (free) animations for each subject. And then trying to organize my presentations for each of the different courses for that subject. Then there’s trying to find out exactly what each teacher tests on.

        It hasn’t held me back any in this job, but it does in my personal life. I spend so much time trying to temper it in my professional life that the second-guessing, procrastination, etc. spill into my school work. I was doing very well in overcoming until last night. I couldn’t get my paper submitted on time and will be getting a 0. All because of second guessing. I wish my teacher had let me talk to her about the paper ahead of time, but the first week of class she expressed how much she did not want to hear about special circumstances. Part of what helped me turn my academic was knowing that I could always talk to my teachers when I started to struggle, so I wouldn’t need to hide the struggle. Just having the option was very empowering. This instructor however was very anti-getting to know students and my anxiety skyrocketed.

        That’s why I really hope to find a position one day where I can let a manager know ahead of time when I’m concerned about the track I’m on. Admitting my perfectionism seems like it’s a giant red flag and pretty much asking an interviewer not to hire me, but in environments where communication is encouraged and struggles aren’t immediately punished, I tend to thrive.

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