Career Memo: How to Answer the 10 Most Common Interview Questions

A foolproof guide to nailing your next interview.

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I remember all too vividly the sleepless nights preparing for my first investment banking interviews when I was a junior in college.  The interviews are notorious for their brutality with questions ranging from how to interpret market nuances to brain-teasers (a.k.a. soul crushers) like how many ping pong balls would fit in a Boeing 747?  Cue the cold sweats.

In the years since those first grueling finance interviews, I’ve participated in innumerable interviews on both sides of the table.  Today, I’m excited to be joined again by Lauren McGoodwin of Career Contessa for a round-up of the most common interview questions and our tips on how to nail the answer. 

If you missed the first Career Memo where I introduce this new series (and Lauren!), be sure to check it out here!

Going into a job interview can be a little scary… err, a LOT scary.  After all, you’re usually interviewing for something you really want, and it’s hard to answer questions knowing that they’re being judged.  But have no fear.  You can ace virtually any interview by preparing answers to some of the most commonly-asked (but often hard-to-answer) interview questions that will pop up again and again.

How do we know these questions might pop up?  Well, as mentioned above, we’ve been on both sides of the interview table hundreds of times (plus, Lauren was a corporate recruiter for years).  Moreover, time and time again, we’ve actually seen most interviewers Google “What to ask in an interview?” before they walk in which goes to show that many interviewers are just as nervous about interviewing you and asking great questions as you are about performing well.  By breaking down answers to the most frequently asked interview questions, you’ll have the confidence you need to nail anything that comes your way.

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1.  “Tell me about yourself.” / “Walk me through your resume.”

You’ve probably heard this question a million times—even in situations that aren’t job interviews—so it shouldn’t sound too scary.  However, it’s important to answer the question succinctly and strategically.  You want to offer a brief summary of your background in the context of how and why it has led you to pursue this new role.  Interviewers don’t want your life story—they want the most relevant parts of your story.  If you’re interviewing for a position at a tech company, it may not be relevant to discuss your childhood obsession with horseback riding.  Instead, connect the dots between relevant points in your past with what you’re currently doing, and why you’re applying for a new position.

Stick to the highlights by giving a brief overview of the positions that you’ve had before, explain what you learned from those positions and how they might assist you in this new potential job.

2.  “What would you say is one of your biggest strengths? What about your biggest weaknesses?”

Undoubtedly, you’ve heard this one a million times too, but people still find it paralyzing.    How can there possibly be a good answer to the weakness part?!  The trick is to pick an answer that allows you to explain how you have worked toward strengthening and/or overcoming that “flaw.”  Maybe you have had trouble with time management in the past, but you’ve learned to overcome that by time blocking and diligently keeping itemized to-do lists.  Maybe you need to work on being more assertive in meetings, so you’ve volunteered to lead presentations at your current job.  As for strengths, the best one to choose is the one that would benefit the new company the best. They’ll love that you’re speaking to their needs.

3.  “Why are you looking for a new job?”

This question is not as tricky as it seems, but you’ll still want to be sure to spin your answer in a positive light.  If you’re looking because you hate your current job, don’t say that.  Even if you work in a truly toxic environment, it never sends a good signal to speak disparagingly of former employers or colleagues.  Instead, focus on the positives by explaining the reasons you feel the new job would be right for you.  For example, maybe your current job doesn’t allow for any upward mobility, and you want to make a change to give yourself the opportunity to grow and take on more challenging work.  Alternatively, maybe you are hoping to utilize your particular set of skills in a new way that your current position doesn’t allow. Whatever the reason, try to tie it back to why this potential job might help you to meet that goal.

4.  “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

We get it.  Sometimes it seems like you don’t even know where you see yourself in five days much less five years.  Since it’s hard for many of us to answer this honestly (lots of us are changing jobs often), do your best to go in with thoughtful career goals in mind already.  The real objective of this interview question is to gauge how driven you are and whether this role aligns with your long-term personal and professional goals.  If you’re applying for a marketing role at a cosmetics company but you answer this question by saying you’d like to be a personal injury attorney one day, the interviewer may feel that you don’t have a genuine interest in the position or the company.

If you have a specific job that you hope to have in five years that aligns with the position you’re applying for, great.  However, if you don’t, don’t be afraid to say that!  Instead of focusing solely on a specific role you hope to have in five years, discuss general areas of your career that you want to strengthen or continue.  For example, if interviewing for a junior investment advisory position, you could say that in five years, you don’t know exactly what role you’d take on, but you know that you have a deep-seated interest in financial markets and that you’re passionate about working closely with people to achieve their financial goals.  Perhaps you indicate that the position you are applying for will give you experience in portfolio management and help you cultivate your managerial skills so that you’re well-positioned to move into a role down the road which will allow you to combine both passions.

5.  “Why do you want to work for us? / Why are you interested in our company?”

Hopefully this one isn’t too surprising; after all, you are in the interview for a reason.  An easy tip here is to do your research on the company beforehand—Google them, check them out on LinkedIn, read their company profile on Career Contessa, and research as much as you can about the challenges facing their industry.  If you know about the company, you can easily explain why both the company and the particular position within that company is personally appealing to you.  If the position offers you specific opportunities, areas for growth, or the work style that you desire, explain that.  The ideal answer is one that shows that you are a good fit for the position and that in that position, you’d be a valuable asset to the goals of the company overall.

6.  “How do you manage your time and priorities?”

Basically, the interviewer wants to hear that you can manage your time effectively and that you’ll be a reliable, efficient, hard-working employee.  Explain what your work style is like during a typical workday and list a few time management techniques you employ (using an agenda or lists, delegating tasks, time blocking, calendaring, etc.).  If you’re applying for a job where you’ll be part of a large team, discuss how you work well with others to prioritize and efficiently work towards achieving team goals.  This can also be a good time to explain your priorities when it comes to life outside of work and the techniques you use to find a balance between your work and personal life.

 7.  “How would your current boss and/or team describe you?”

This question is a little awkward because it feels like you’re forced to brag about yourself.  And, to be honest, you kind of have to.  The key is to answer with as much humility as possible.  Go into the interview with some adjectives that you feel describe you and back up each description with an anecdote or way in which you exhibited that specific trait in the past. Maybe you explain that your team would call you compassionate because you organized a company charity event. Or, maybe they’d describe you as a problem solver because you worked to develop a new system for streamlining sales calls in your previous role that saved your team several hours of work each week. Try to find the balance here between noting your positive attributes and explaining how they came into play in a concrete way.

8.  “What would you do in your first 30 days on the job?”

There are lots of potential answers to this one, and they’re probably pretty similar across career fields.  This question gives you the opportunity to show that you’re a quick learner and eager to make an impact right away. Explain that you’ll quickly learn the ropes of the new position by reaching out to colleagues, asking questions, participating in any training offered and setting goals for yourself.  If there are any platforms you’ve never used before or skills you know you’re weak in, it’s also a good time to talk about how you’ll narrow those skill gaps so you’re quickly caught up with the rest of the team.

9.  “What are your salary requirements?”

This question is almost always asked, so definitely go in prepared. Career Contessa has a great resource called The Salary Project, where you can compare salaries of women in your field across the country.  Another good resource is Glassdoor’s Salary Calculator, which helps you calculate the amount you should request based on your experience level and field. Our best advice? Do your research by looking online and talking to real people so you’re confident with the salary range you tell the interviewer.

10.  “Do you have any questions for me?”

The short answer here is yes because you want to demonstrate a sincere interest in the position and the company and an eagerness to learn more.  Go into the interview expecting this question, and prepare by thinking of at least three questions to ask (there are a few good ideas here). These might change based on your conversation, and that’s okay, but at least you have something in your back pocket at the end of the interview.  Ask about challenges that face the company or the industry to show that you’re thinking big picture.  You should also ask questions that deal with what to expect in the prospective role.  For example, you could ask what a typical day looks like or about specific challenges that you might face.  Ideally, you should try to relate this discussion to how you would be great for the role, so that you end on a strong note and walk away from the interview feeling confident.

Looking for more help with job interview prep? Check out more potential interview questions here and this awesome set of job interview flashcards!

9 thoughts on “Career Memo: How to Answer the 10 Most Common Interview Questions”

  1. Once again, you’re a godsend. I have an interview on Friday with a board and now I feel like I have a whole arsenal of amazing interview responses. Thank you thank you thank you!

  2. Great post! Question 10 is very important as no question means no or little interest! Honestly I like interviews as to me it’s like playing chess and I’ve been on both sides: hiring or wanted to be hired! Latest job change was more tricky as for the first time it was a very long process with multiple interviews and interviewers. Last one was special as he told me he just wanted to see how I would answer to a question I have no idea about the answer! In clear: how do you react far from your comfort zone.

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  3. Yes, you are right about this, there are lots of candidates who are afraid to face the job interview irrespective of being a fresher or an experienced professional looking out for a job switch.That’s why everybody should prepare for this interview question “What Do You Know About Our Company?” this way you will be able to overcome the fear or at least face it boldly the interviews. Thanks a lot for your guidance on common interview questions.

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