how to answer the most common job interview questions

Some interview questions come up so reliably that you’d be missing a huge opportunity if you don’t bother to prepare for them — like “tell me about yourself,” “what interests you about this job,” and many more. There’s real benefit in thinking through your answers beforehand so that you won’t forget key details that you want to include, the substance of your answers will be more organized, and you’ll sound more polished.

Here are six interview questions that are so common you’d be foolish not to prepare for them.

1. “Tell me a bit about yourself.”

People are more thrown by this question than they should be! It doesn’t mean “give me a full personal history.” It means “give me a broad overview of who you are, professionally speaking, before we go deeper into specifics.” Your interviewer is looking for an answer that’s about one minute long and summarizes where you are in you career and what you’re especially strong at, usually with an emphasis on your most recent job. Keep it focused on the professional you — most interviewers aren’t asking to hear about your family or your hobbies. (But it’s fine to throw in something at the end about an interest outside of work; just don’t make it the focus of your answer.)

2. “What interests you about this job?”

It sounds like a softball question — you’re interested in the work, after all — but you can mess this one up if you focus on something that’s a very small part of the position (thus indicating that you don’t fully understand what the job is all about and may not be happy once you do); or the benefits, salary, or short commute (thus indicating that you’re not very enthusiastic about the work itself); or even sometimes if you focus mainly on getting a foot in the door (thus indicating that you’re more interested in a different job rather than the one they’re hiring for). Instead, your answer should focus on the substance of the job itself — the work you’d be doing day-to-day and the outcomes you’d be working toward. Interviewers want someone who’s enthusiastic about doing whatever the person will be spending most of their time on.

3. “Why are you thinking about leaving your current job?”

(Or if you’re unemployed, “Why did you leave your last job?”) Job candidates tend to get worried about how to answer this question, but most interviewers don’t intend it as a “gotcha.” Your interviewer isn’t looking for a detailed accounting of your problems with your boss or a log of everything you don’t like about your office’s culture. They’re looking for a short explanation that makes sense and doesn’t raise red flags about your professionalism or ability to get along with others. It’s fine to give a fairly mundane answer like, “I’ve been here five years and am ready to take on something new,” or, “We’re having layoffs and I’m looking for something with stability.”

4. “Tell me about a time when …”

Good interviewers will ask multiple versions of the question, filling in the blank with situations and skills that are relevant to the job you’re applying for. For example: “Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult client” … “Tell me about a time when you had conflicting deadlines” … “Tell me about a time when you had to accomplish something by leading a team” … “Tell me about a time when you had to build a new system from scratch” … and so forth, depending on what it takes to excel in the position. The idea behind questions like this is that they elicit better information about how you operate than more hypothetical questions do. It’s pretty easy to bluff your way through a good answer to a hypothetical like, “How do you think you’d stay on top of this volume of work? Your interviewer will get far more useful information about you by instead asking, “Tell me about a time when the volume in your last job was at its peak. What did you do?” How did you stay on top of it all?

To prepare for these types of questions, think about what skills you’re most likely to need in the job and what the challenges of the role are. Then look for “evidence” from your past work experience that shows you’ll excel at this role — examples of how you’ve demonstrated those skills or tackled similar challenges. In preparing your examples, structure them by first talking about the challenge you faced, then what you did to respond, and then what outcome you achieved. That should get at exactly what your interviewer is looking for.

5. “Tell me about your biggest strengths and weaknesses.”

This question gets dressed up in lots of different ways, so it might not be worded exactly like this. Your interviewer might ask, “Why do you think you’d do well at this job? And which pieces might be more of a challenge?” Or, “What would your boss say are your biggest strengths and weaknesses?” Or even, “What kind of feedback have you received in past assessments of your performance?”

The strengths part of this is, hopefully, easier: Talk about what would make you really excel at the job. What sets you apart from others who might try to do the same work? But don’t just make subjective pronouncements that the interviewer would need to take on faith (like, “I’m great with people,” or, “I’m very organized”). Instead, give an example or two that shows that’s really the case.

Talking about weaknesses can be trickier and requires some honest reflection beforehand: What have you genuinely struggled with at work? What doesn’t come naturally, or what have past managers encouraged you to work on? Build your answer around that, but also talk about what you’ve done to ameliorate the effect of that weakness on your work. But make sure you resist the urge to answer with something that you secretly hope will sound good to the interviewer like, “I work too hard,” or, “I’m a perfectionist.” Those answers sound disingenuous, and your interviewer will see right through them.

6. “What salary are you looking for?”

Of all the questions people dread in an interview, this one probably tops the list. But if you don’t prepare for it ahead of time, you risk naming a number that’s too low or otherwise saying something that can hurt your negotiating position later. The only way to nail this question is to do some research beforehand: Check salary websites, talk to recruiters or professional organizations in your industry, and bounce figures off of people in your field. That should give you an idea of the market range for this type of job at your professional level and in your geographic region. If you don’t do this kind of research, you’re too likely to base your answer on what you’d like to earn or need to earn or what you were earning at your last job — which could result in a figure that’s too high or too low. This question is too important to wing in the moment; do your research beforehand so that you’re confident about your answer and don’t leave money on the table.

I originally published this at New York Magazine.

{ 74 comments… read them below }

  1. Anon Today Anon Tomorrow*

    “Tell me a bit about yourself.”

    This one is a huge source of debate where I work. Our head of HR wants a personal history. He asks follow-up questions, which illicit responses that provide more personal context that most of us who are hiring managers care about. For example, I don’t really care if a candidates parents were in the military or that they married “later” in life. It’s not relevant. But, it continues, because the head of HR feels that learning about the candidate as a person is critical to determining if they are going to be a good fit.

    1. BeenThere*

      I tend to fall in your camp. I think that the behavioral questions will generally elicit whether they’d be a good culture fit. Plus I tend to be very private and likely wouldn’t want to give an interviewer much personal information.

      1. nonymous*

        It helps if the interviewer sets the tone about how much personal information to include by going first. I personally respond to this type of question with low level trivia – something about my dogs (I’m always happy to babble about them!), something about my educational identity, and a personal connection to the company (like if I know someone who works there, or even just how they got on my radar as a good place to work). If that leads to followup conversation, great, but mostly it just humanizes the resume.

        The one concern I have about your org’s approach is that it encourages applicants to divulge possibly discriminating info, like marital status or whether they have kids. It’s against EEOC to ask those questions directly, which is why some hiring managers use open ended questions to interview for it. I had a previous manager share with me that one way she screened out single parents was asking about their transportation habits.

        1. Not Today Satan*

          I believe it’s not actually against EEOC to ask those questions, but it sets employers up for accusations of discrimination if they do ask a candidate to disclose that they’re married or whatever and then choose not to hire that candidate.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Yes, the act of asking the questions isn’t illegal (except for disability) but there’s no legal way to use the info — and it can seem like you did use the info, even if you didn’t — so it makes more sense not to ask (plus, so many people think the questions themselves are illegal that it tends to really unsettle people).

            1. Annoyed*

              Does that include something like “what’s your religion?” Particularly if it’s not a religious employer? How is that at all relevant to anything?

    2. Not Today Satan*

      Recently I had an in-person interview that I thought was a real interview, but it was really a “culture screen” where they literally asked me nothing but personal questions. I also had a second/final interview for a position where like, 80% of the questions were personal. I get wanting a culture fit or whatever, but both made me uncomfortable. (The “culture screen” doubly so because it seemed like it was possibly a “race/attractiveness/something else nefarious” screen.)

    3. Lil Fidget*

      I have definitely had people answer “Tell me about yourself” in an overly-personal way! They start with where they’re born (bonus: their astrological sign) and their family growing up. A better question is probably “tell me about your career so far.”

    4. Washi*

      Yeah,and once you get into really personal questions, it’s very likely that you’ll learn something that will be hard to un-hear and could potentially introduce bias, even unconsciously. It’s just not smart to start asking about when someone got married or if they have kids or their class background!

      Alison has said this before, but too often, an unexamined “looking for culture fit” really equals “finding people like me.”

    5. MsClaw*

      When I ask that, I want to know why I’m talking to you right now. Tell me about how ‘yourself’ is going to bring your experience to bear on my tasks. I had an applicant once respond to the question by saying he was ‘from a very diverse background’ so I’m thinking he’s going to say something relevant about having lived in different places, or having worked a variety of uncommon jobs that could give him unique insight, etc. Nope! He just told us about the different careers his parents and siblings have, which, tells me nothing about him or his qualifications. What your sister does for a living is of zero interest to me when I am interviewing you.

    6. Ali G*

      I just had an interview today and I really like how my interview approached this question. She basically said “I’d like to hear about you and your experience and why it brings you to us. Basically I want to know why you, why here and why now?”
      It was a definite cure that she was only interested in me as far as it related to the job (which I knew already but kept the temptation to stray at bay), and why I thought I was good for the job and also why I wanted it at this point of my career.
      Hopefully I did OK!

  2. DivineMissL*

    Great article. But I have questions – in the last part about salaries, AAM says “Check salary websites, talk to recruiters or professional organizations in your industry, and bounce figures off of people in your field. ” What are good salary websites? Glassdoor? Any others? Can I just call recruiters and ask them for information, or if not, how do I find/establish relationships with recruiters?

    1. whistle* is free. It’s better for some positions/locations than others but it will at least give you some info.

    2. Sled dog mama*

      My professional organization regularly publishes a workforce survey that lays out salary median (and 20th and 80th percentiles) by specialty, experience (in years), certification, degree and a few other things. Almost every position is advertised as pay in line with salary survey. This has also been credited with narrowing the gender pay gap in my field. Women can now in negotiations say that’s not in line with the survey. In fact that’s what I did in my last salary negotiation. The company gave me a number and I replied that they advertised compensation in line with the survey and based on the survey I would be willing to accept $X which they me.

    3. Ali G*

      One other thing is, if you are looking in the non-profit world, check their 990. They are required to disclose their “highest compensated employees.” In larger organizations this is typically anyone that makes over $100k. For smaller budget outfits, it might only be the top 1 or 2 employees. If you have enough information on where the job you are looking at falls in the hierarchy, you can sometimes back into a decent range of what they may be offering for the position (which may or may not be “market” but not everyone pays market in the NP world and sometimes that is part of the trade off).

  3. PB*

    Oh goodness, I’ve seen some bad answers to these. Notably, the candidate who took “Tell us about yourself” as “Tell us your life story” and talked for five minutes. Definitely follow Alison’s advice and try to keep it to around a minute. Also, “What interests you about this job?” is not the same as “Why are you thinking about leaving your current job?” In either case, your answer shouldn’t be a negative diatribe about your current job, but it’s especially notable when the only reason you cite for wanting *this* job is that your current job is terrible.

    1. BeenThere*

      LOL I was on that panel!!! The candidate told us all about her family (many grown children and grands) and way more info than I could possibly want to know…. We had limited time, and she sucked up a lot of it on this!

      1. PB*

        Yep. I can’t remember right now if interviews were 30 or 60 minutes, but either way, it was a finite amount of time, and she spent five minutes on the first question!

        1. Lil Fidget*

          To be fair, she is probably giving you good information about how she’d likely perform at the job – and that she may miss some social cues and conventions in her interactions. So … interview successful in that sense!

          1. PB*

            Very true! I mentioned that to the selection committee. They hired her anyway. Well… I was right.

    2. whistle*

      Ugh. I think it’s a good rule of thumb as an interviewee to give as short an answer as possible and look for cues that you should keep talking. Especially with an open ended question like “tell us about yourself.” I like to provide a brief response and then say something like “would you like me to expand on x y or z?” or “that’s the short version, but I can go into more detail if you’d like” etc.

    3. Sarah*

      One of the first interviews I was a part of at my company, the first question my manager asked was “Tell us a little about yourself and what brings you here today.” 45 MINUTES LATER the interviewee finally paused long enough for my manager to interject and end the interview.

  4. Not Today Satan*

    I’m terrible at thinking on my feet, so I got *so* much better at interviewing when I developed basically a “library” of possible “tell me about a time you….” stories/examples. I review the stories before interviewing and sometimes write some trigger/reminder words in case I draw a blank during the interview.

    Another thing that’s been crucial for me is keeping a record of everything I work on at work (I use OneNote, with a new page each week). Things can be so hectic that sometimes I forget a lot of what I have accomplished and worked on.

    1. PB*

      My second post-college supervisor encouraged us to keep monthly logs, something I continue to this day. The exact form has differed over time as my job and responsibilities have changed, but it’s so useful. When I’m working on my annual review, I can pull up all my monthly logs and see every major thing I did in all of the categories on the evaluation form. Need to upgrade my resume? Consult the monthly log. When I’m planning a project, I can look back at my old logs and see how long the last project took me and where the hang-ups were. I highly recommend it!

      1. That Would be a Good Band Name*

        The logs are great. We were required to keep notes in a shared spreadsheet from our 1x1s with our managers at OldJob and it made the annual review so much easier. I could see my notes and hers, so I definitely knew which accomplishments to talk about. Plus we were encouraged to keep a folder in our emails with “kudos”. Any time someone gave us praise in email (more than just a standard “thank you”), I’d put it in the folder so I have those to go back to as reminders of how my work positively impacted others.

    2. Artemesia*

      This is so smart. I worked for decades and dealt with lots of issues, but I am not sure I could come up with just the right and crisp story to fit the particular issue on the spot. If you have 6 prepared incidents where you had to deliver on the job in the face of a problem, you can probably adapt one of them to the unexpected question. There are obvious categories like interpersonal conflict, deadline issues, directing others or managing others etc etc. I cannot imagine today going into an interview for a job without a ‘library’ of these examples already developed.

    3. nep*

      I told a young co-worker to start noting things–praise she gets from customers and/or supervisors, specific accomplishments. She said she’d never thought of it before–‘good idea.’
      I wish I’d done it more in the past–definitely doing it now.

  5. Loubelou*

    I always ask ‘What do you think you’ll most challenging in this role?’ The other day, I had a potential intern tell me he didn’t anticipate finding any part of the role challenging. I probed, and he stuck with it. I have to wonder why he was interested in an internship if he had nothing to learn!

    1. PB*

      This makes me think of the candidate who, went asked about management style, just said, “I’ll be their boss. I don’t anticipate any pushback.”

      For this and many other reasons, he was not called back for a second interview.

      1. Genny*

        On behalf of everyone who would potentially have had to work for that guy, thank you for not hiring him. He couldn’t have screamed “I prefer the dictatorial management style” any louder if he tried.

        1. PB*

          Yes. One of his would-have-been direct reports was on the committee. She said, “If you hire that guy to be my boss, I’ll quit.” I assured her she had nothing to worry about.

    2. Rusty Shackelford*

      I can actually see someone inexperienced in interviews interpreting “challenge” as “something that’s hard for me to do.” And if he thinks he’ll easily learn everything, that doesn’t mean he thinks he has nothing to learn.

      1. Someone Else*

        Yeah, there is a difference between “challenging” and “difficult” but that intern candidate may have been viewing them as interchangeable.

  6. Vertigo*

    Can someone elaborate on good examples of answers to “Tell me about yourself”? I get that it’s not supposed to be my life story, but I don’t really understand what my ‘professional self’ is supposed to be. (I’m also in a situation where sometimes the job isnt actually in the career direction I want to go in, so I can’t necessarily mention the career path I truly want since I’m just trying to get gainful employment and escape the situation I’m in now.)

    1. Not Today Satan*

      I usually say something like this “I have X years experience in [industry/field/work tasks related to the job I’m applying for] and Y years of additional experience in [another field/type of role. Most recently I [brief description about my most recent role]. I’m interested in this position because I think my A and B skills and interests make it a good fit.”
      Alison’s examples are better, but if you’re someone like me who’s awkward in the beginning of interviews (when this question is asked) a simpler script might work for you.

      1. Someone Else*

        What always makes the question difficult for me if I think the good answers to it are essentially…the sort of thing you’d say in a cover letter? So, how best to answer but not sound like you’re just repeating what you already said in your cover letter.

        1. Blue*

          Maybe it’s just me, but my “tell me about yourself” answer is a bit more big-picture than my cover letter. The cover letter tends to highlight experiences that make me particularly qualified for the position, and the interview answer is more about my overall career trajectory, I guess you could say. It’s worked well for me so far.

        2. CAA*

          It’s o.k. to repeat information that’s in your cover letter or your resume. You shouldn’t just recite your entire cover letter again from memory, but it’s fine if your answer is pretty much a summary of that same info.

    2. CAA*

      This is a very rough outline, but something like this is pretty common:
      “I’ve been working in x field for y years now. I got into it because I loved subject z in college and I’ve been able to do this list of things, which were really exciting because … I like working in a team that uses the aaa methodology to structure their work because bbb. I’m pretty friendly and have always gotten along well with my coworkers. Also, I am a morning person, so I’d rather start work early than stay very late.”

      Mostly about the work and the kind of thing you want to do there or have done in the past, but mention a couple of positive personal traits that will show up at work. If you can remember, try to smile a bit as you answer this question. It will help with your tone of voice and also alleviate some nerves.

      For jobs that are off your career track, you still talk about what you’ve done, but anything about the future should be focused on how you’re interested in applying what you’ve done in the past to this new role and you’re looking forward to whatever it is that you’d be doing there.

  7. Nanc*

    If an interviewee showed up dressed like the woman in the photo I would hire them for the fashion gumption alone! I’d probably regret it at some point but until then I would totally enjoy the daily fashion show!

    1. fposte*

      I also love that it looks like she only has a top half. She’s so impressive that’s all she needs.

    2. Marthooh*

      AAM Tip o’ the Day: It doesn’t matter how you answer, as long as you’re wearing that jacket.

  8. irritable vowel*

    As an interviewer, I hear “the commute will be easier” way too often as a response for “what interests you about this job?” Even if it’s true, it’s such a turnoff – I don’t want to hear that you’re mainly interested in joining our staff where because it’s closer to where you live. When you’re asked that question, it’s about the job, not the geographic location! (And even if you’re interested in relocating, and that’s why you’re looking for jobs in my area, that’s not actually the reason you’re interested in THIS job.)

    1. Lil Fidget*

      I agree, I think that’s one of those keep-to-yourself type answers, along with “for money” in answer to “why do you want this job?” It’s true, and it’s annoying that we have to play these games, but we live in a world where we have to pretend to be super fascinated by admin tasks, versus admitting that you mostly work for money and convenience!

    2. Let's Talk About Splett*

      One time I was thrilled to land a job literally 2 blocks from my house at the time. A month after I started, the company was acquired and we moved 25 minutes away.

      In other words, locations aren’t set in stone anyway.

    3. Sophia Brooks*

      When I interview for student workers, I love the answer for the money! I work at a university with a lot of wealth, and the students who need the money prioritize things like showing up for work and doing their job!

      I wouldn’t like it for a real job, though.

  9. LV426*

    When I was asked in an interview one time what I did in my spare time I mentioned that I like to take my dogs out to go sheep herding. Of course that opened up a whole can of questions about what that entails and I basically drive an hour away on Sundays to take the dogs out to herd sheep. The interviewer commented that my kids must like that but I explained I don’t have children that my dogs are more than enough like toddlers for me to keep up with and sadly that lead to a very uncomfortable situation where she told me that it was my “god given duty to bear children”. Of course I ended the interview immediately. I don’t want children and I don’t want to work for someone who thinks it’s my duty to have them.

    Sometimes I feel like interviews are like navigating a minefield because anyone can take anything you say and make it a negative.

    I accidentally posted this response in another old thread so I apologize if you’ve read it twice.

      1. LV426*

        Indeed she did and it wasn’t a religious organization. I was interviewing to be a project manager for a telecom company.

  10. Videogame Lurker*

    The money one trips me up as an idea, and where I work (Public School District) the pay is described on the application (so had never been asked) but if it cropped up, my first response before the filter kicked in would be, “A living wage, one that I can pay my bills, buy groceries, and help keep my classroom stocked.”
    Which would totally be the wrong answer, though would this 25 year old get some Gumption Points for it?

    1. Videogame Lurker*

      I am joking about the Gumption Points because no way would I say this in an interview, really. I would stammer and freeze up first before going back to my copy of the job description and using its numbers for my work.

      1. Zona the Great*

        haha yep that is an odd question and I basically did stammer my way through the answer.

  11. Bitter, obviously*

    If I had a more in demand skill set I’d never answer “Tell me about yourself” with anything other than “it’s on my resume” again. Hate that question.

  12. Kat in VA*

    I’ve mentioned it elsewhere, but in a recent job interview, the very first question was “What are your hobbies?”

    I must have given my best expression of a deer in the headlights, and he explained that it gave him insight into what kind of person I was *outside* of work.

    “You can tell me all about what you’d do here, and how you’d do it, but I’m also interested in what you do for fun when you’re not here. It tells me a lot about you as a person.”

    So I told him I read everything and anything I can get my hands on. And at the moment, I was reading a book on physics and theoretical physics, parsed into layman’s terms. And that I played classical nylon string guitar, but badly.

    It led into an interesting discussion – and gave me a little insight into him, as well. (Surprise! He plays nylon classical as well, and one of his favorite duos is one of mine. I was not expecting that.)

    As an icebreaker, it was a good one – just not what I expected in an interview.

  13. durr*

    Usually I get so nervous before an interview that I forget every piece of advice I ever heard, and make an ass of myself.

    One time the interviewer asked me about my religious beliefs. I gave him some polite answer, but that was a deal breaker for me. Even though I am somewhat religious, that is absolutely nobody’s business but mine. And in my country, the laws are quite clear: you can’t ask questions about religion, sexual orientation, etc.

    1. nep*

      I’m really good at making an ass of myself in interviews.

      Well, at least with the ‘what are your religious beliefs’ question, you know where you stand straightaway and no need to spend more time on that pursuit.

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