The Most Common Interview Questions—and What to Ask Instead

Lists of the most common interview questions—10, 20, 50, even 150 questions—are all over the Internet. Many of these lists are intended for conscientious job-seekers who want to ace their interviews. Unfortunately, that also means that answers to these questions are endlessly rehearsed by candidates.

On top of that, answers to many of these questions don’t give you, the interviewer, the insight you need to make a good hiring decision. That’s why we’ve put together a list of the eight most commonly asked interview questions and what you might ask instead to really get to know a candidate.

1. “What is your biggest weakness?”
Though there are many contenders, this is by general agreement the worst interview question out there. For starters, it encourages candidates to lie. No one will answer it honestly—nor should they.

Ellen Jovin, a principal at Syntaxis, hates this question. “Their biggest weakness may well be really embarrassing,” she says. “Maybe they eat with their toes or compulsively steal beef jerky from gas station convenience stores or have 53 cats.”

What you should ask instead: What skill do you feel like you’re still missing?

Chad MacRae, founder of Recruiting Social, suggests asking this question. You want to find someone who embraces continuous learning, who is innately curious, and who is self-aware enough to understand that there are still valuable things she doesn’t know how to do. You probably want to avoid a Master of the Universe who merely needs to learn to be less of a perfectionist.

2. “Tell me a little about yourself.”
This harmless-sounding request is the No. 1 way to kick off interviews. The question, however, is so open-ended that a candidate may have no idea where to start. And given that a job-seeker has shared a resume, LinkedIn profile, cover letter, and possibly work samples, the request shows a lack of interest or preparation from the interviewer.

What you should ask instead: Which values of your current or previous employer most align with your own values?

This is a much better way to find out more about the person you are speaking with. Look for candidates who are excited about their values and love to go deep on them. Watch out for people who struggle to identify their own values let alone those of their company.

3. “Why should I hire you?”
This question is both thoughtless and unfair. No candidate can possibly know who else you’re talking to and what their experience and qualifications are. Ask this question and there’s a danger your candidate may start to think, “Why should I work for you?”

What you should ask instead: Tell me something about your experience, education, or personality that can help us.

This gives candidates a non-hypothetical question that allows them to show their understanding of what your role is and to demonstrate their relevant background or experience.

4. “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
In most cases, the question is completely off-topic. It is also somewhat pointless given how few people stay with a company for five years.

What you should ask instead: What business would you love to start?

This alternative comes from speaker and Inc. magazine contributing editor Jeff Haden. “The business a candidate would love to start tells you about her hopes and dream,” Haden says, “her interests and passions, the work she likes to do, the people she likes to work with. So just sit back and listen.”

5. “What would your last boss say about you?”
For starters, this asks the candidate to speculate needlessly. The hiring manager should find this out when she does reference checks. This line of questioning also seems to rise from a belief that bosses always have superior knowledge. In truth, a candidate’s previous manager may have been given the axe for incompetence, misconduct, or asking lame questions.

What you should ask instead: What was the best working relationship you’ve had with a manager and why did it work so well?

A thoughtful answer to this question could reveal a lot about a candidate’s values and what kind of company culture she would thrive in. And, if you were to hire the candidate, it would give you a leg up on successfully managing her.

6. “What would you bring to our department?”
This open-ended beauty seems like a call for a lot of boastful chest-thumping. It penalizes both the modest and the introverted.

What you should ask instead: What was the biggest achievement you had at your last job and what was your role in it?

Now you can see what your candidates value and how willing they are to share credit. Listen to hear if they mention how their accomplishment helped the company—or is it all about them?

7. “What is your desired salary?”
This one reveals some misunderstanding about the roles in the hiring process. The company should set the salary, making it commensurate with what other people at the company are getting paid for similar responsibilities. Not doing that is one of the things that leads to pay gaps between men and women, between whites and people of color.

What you should ask instead: This job pays between X and Y. Will that work for you?

This approach indicates that your company has compensation standards and is trying to apply them fairly. If the range proves too low, you’ve surfaced that fact before a job offer has been made.

8. “How many ping-pong balls can you fit in a 747?”
Okay, this exact question isn’t one of the most frequently asked, but brainteaser questions became a stock-in-trade, particularly in the tech sector, after Microsoft and Google became famous for using them. But candidates hated them, the answers became readily available (22,870,000 ping-pong balls, if you must know), and the curveball questions were even less helpful than traditional ones.

“They don’t predict anything,” Laszlo Bock, the former Google SVP of People Operations, told The New York Times. “They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.”

What you should ask instead: Tell me about a big challenge you’ve faced at an earlier job, how you approached solving it, and what your results were.

This will give you an example that typically looks more like the problems and approaches you use at your company. It may show where your candidate had to use some soft skills—say, leadership, collaboration, adaptability, or time management.

Final thoughts: A chance to reinvent the interview
Though most companies (74%) still use structured interviews, they are intent on finding ways to better surface soft skills and weaknesses in the hiring process as they also look to reduce interviewer bias. LinkedIn’s Global Recruiting Trends 2018 says the embrace of new interviewing tools—online assessments of soft skills, job auditions, and meetings in casual settings—is one of the trends driving today’s talent acquisition.

Let’s add to that list the swapping out of overworked, underperforming interview questions with fresh ones that will give you the insights you need to hire the best candidates and build a better candidate experience.

How to answer the interview question: “Tell me about yourself?”

“Tell me about yourself?”

People hate this question because it is so open ended and there are too many answers, however, it is probably one of the most asked interview questions, especially in phone interviews.  Knowing how to handle this question can make the difference between advancing to the next stage or being told “we have other candidates that we feel are better fits for the position”—a nice way of being told, “thanks, but no thanks”.

When you are asked “tell me about yourself”, ask the interviewer, “I’d be happy to, where would you like me to start?”  This allows the employer to tell you what aspects of your background they want you to address, and most importantly, keeps you from having a long-winded answer that isn’t what the employer wants to hear.  They rarely want to know all about your youth and where you grew up.  They typically want to know about your professional experience, but typically won’t ask the question directly.  Remember, this is sometimes used as a “trick” question.  Often times interviewers ask this open ended question because they want to see how you will answer it; personally or professionally, or a combination of both.  What they really want to know is how you can solve their problems?  Remember, you are hired because you either make money, save money, or makes things go more smoothly.

Here’s an example for a sales person: “After graduating from college, I took a job as a salesman at the XYZ insurance company.  I wasn’t experienced in insurance sales, but I worked really hard and became their Rookie of the Year.  After only three years, I was promoted to a Sales Manager and my team was recognized as the most improved sales team in the Western Region.

Here’s an example for an administrative person: “I started out in the insurance industry as a receptionist and policy clerk.  I didn’t have my license, so I studied on my own time and passed my insurance exam on the first try.  My boss, seeing that I had a knack for the business, moved me into an Account Assistant role.  I worked hard to learn the book and was rewarded with my own accounts in only 12 months; this was a record in my office.  I have since moved up again, and now I’m a Senior Account Manager working with our most prestigious clients.”

Your answer to this question shouldn’t be more than 2 or 3 minutes long. It should be concise and well thought out. Getting this one right will open the door to the next step; the face to face meeting.

How to answer the interview question: “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”

“Where Do You See Yourself in 5 Years?”

With this question, the employer is asking you to gaze inside your crystal ball and predict the future. It would be nice if that were possible, but with the quickly changing economy, it is not.  This is also a veiled way for the employer to gauge your real interest in being in the position they are hiring for right now.

Tips to Answer this Interview Question:

This question seems to trip people up because they start to talk about the future job they really want and they stop focusing on the position they are applying for now.  Employers often use this question to weed out people who they feel are the wrong “fit” or are “overqualified” for the role.

Don’t follow the employer’s lead when they ask you if you want to pursue positions other than the one you are interviewing for.  They can lead you down the “thanks, but no thanks” path if you’re not careful.  Once the employer starts asking you questions about why you want to be involved in the other position, the conversation can go sideways in a hurry.  The next thing you know, the interview is over, you think you “nailed it”, then you are surprised when you get a “no” letter in the mail saying they have found a more suitable fit for the position.  You are left asking yourself why you didn’t get hired because you had all the qualifications and experience the employer was looking for.  Don’t fall into this hiring trap!

Your answer needs to make sense inside the department you’re interviewing with.  If you are interviewing with a brokerage for an account management position, don’t start talking about wanting to be an underwriter.  That’s a company role, and while it’s an admirable goal, the hiring manager is going to think you’re using their firm as a stepping stone to get to what you really want to do.

Instead of stating an actual position that you might like in the future, tell the employer that you very open to future advancement and, and strive to have a long term career with their firm.  Tell the employer you learn quickly, excel at your job, and have been handpicked for promotions by past managers based on your work performance and peer recommendations.

Here’s an example: “In five years, my goal is for you to tell me I have mastered this position, clients really like me and appreciate my hard work, and that my co-workers see me as a good resource for information or as the ‘go-to’ person in the department. I think that would be a win/win for both of us and would show that I am very serious about my career with your firm.

The key to answering the five-year question is to stay logical, poised, and reasonable. You don’t want to be a threat to the hiring manager since you most likely do not know his/her internal promotion track record, and you don’t want to come off as uninterested in the job at hand.

After you answer the 5 year question, a good follow-up question for the hiring manager is to ask how they rose to the position they are in now. That answer will give you clues as to your real promotion opportunities with the new firm.

How to answer the interview question: Tell me about your greatest success?

“What Is Your Greatest Success?

Tips to Answer this Interview Question:

Think about your work accomplishments.  What have you done that really made you a “game changer” for the company?  For instance, did you win a key piece of business, save a huge account, develop a new program, or mentor someone that turned out to be a terrific asset for the company?

The key is to focus on the “impact” of what you have done. You need to quantify your answer and show how you made money, saved money, or made things run more smoothly for the organization.

Here’s a sales example:  I targeted a prospect that was currently doing business with one of our biggest competitors.  When I first approached them, I got the typical response;” no, we already have a broker we’ve been working with…thank you, good bye”.  I didn’t let this first “no” deter me; in fact, I started out by identifying customers of their business that were also clients of ours.  I also sent the prospect articles that were about his industry and followed up with him on a regular basis.  I made friends with some of his support staff and other department decision makers.  In time, I was given the opportunity to bid on his business, and I’m proud to say, I was able to win the account and have now received two additional referrals from the customer’s vendors resulting in $100K of new revenue for my agency.

Here’s a non-sales example:  When I joined the ABC firm, they were still using paper files in addition to trying to use AMS360.  Because I came from a paperless office, I was able to help teach my supervisor some tricks to automate the business and eliminate some of the redundancy.  She was so impressed that she arranged a meeting with the owner who ended up putting me in charge of automating the office and helping to train the support staff.  As a result, I was promoted to the office trainer and was able to help the firm reduce the amount of time it took to process a renewal by over 25%.

Once you have told your story, make sure that you link the results back to the job you are applying for.  This will cause the employer to see you as a results-oriented candidate and will help to increase your chances of landing the job.

 

How to answer the interview question: “Why did you leave your past job?”

 

“Why did you leave your past job?”

As a recruiter, I get asked this question every time I submit a resume. As an applicant, you can bet that 99% of the employers will ask you why you left your last position.  It’s is a difficult question; your integrity is on the line with this one.  Most candidates don’t answer the question directly, hoping an indirect answer will deflect the real reason why they left.  This is a fatal interview mistake that you don’t want to make!  You must be honest and forthright about why you left prior jobs!

Tips to Answer this Interview Question:

“It was mutual” or “I was laid off ” or “lack of work” doesn’t cut it, especially if the hiring manager knows someone else who is now doing your former job, knows your former boss, or has friends working at your former company. If you were laid off due to no fault of your own, whenever possible, obtain a letter from your prior company outlining the reasons for your layoff.

Here’s some examples of why people leave jobs or are out of work:

Personal reasons/medical/taking care of a family member: If you had to leave your past job due to personal reasons such as medical issues or caring for a family member, say so if you are comfortable with the details. If you are uncomfortable sharing the specifics, tell the interviewer you had to take care of some personal or family affairs and didn’t want your work to suffer, so you chose to resign until you could fully commit to a full-time role again. Explain that the situation has resolved itself and you are ready and excited to resume your career. Add that you kept your skills sharp by staying abreast of industry news and trends while you were not working.

Fired for cause/laid off without notice or reason: Most employers will only give dates of employment and maybe verify your title, but that’s just as bad as saying you were let go. In this case, no news is not good news! Be honest; again, it only takes a couple of phone calls in the industry to uncover the truth. Use the firing or termination experience to show how you learned from it and how your work is much better today as a result.

Short-term jobs/job hopper: Everyone is afraid to hire the job-hopper. You will always have an uphill battle with this one, but you can lessen the climb by talking about how and why you moved from job to job. If the company went out of business, relocated or closed your division, that’s legitimate and not your fault.  Remember, the employer is looking at how long between your jobs and is asking themselves why it took so long for you to be hired by the next employer. You have to satisfy their curiosity fully, or you will not be hired.  If you were recruited away, say so, just make sure you reinforce that you left for more opportunity and career growth and not just for more money. Explain that you were “referred” into the next job. Employers think the best people are always referred to them so use this to your advantage.

Long gaps between jobs/part time work: Don’t gloss over or make up bogus answers for significant time gaps in your résumé. If you were temping, say so. There’s no harm in that, at least you were working. If you have been unemployed for more than six months, and have been diligently looking for work, say so, but add that you have been taking classes to keep your skills current.  If you took a sabbatical to go back to school, start a family, or change careers, or were just burned out and needed a break, be honest and explain that the time off allowed you to refocus your energy and that you are now ready to resume your career full time.

Spouse relocation/military transfers: If you have moved a lot due to a spouse’s job or military transfers, say so, and tell the employer how moving around has enabled you to quickly learn new computer systems and procedures. Have solid examples of where you have come up to speed quickly and preferably letters of recommendation from past managers.  Stress that you are looking to stay in the area long-term.

We all leave jobs for various reasons. Remember that employers are simply “employed applicants” and they have also made good and bad choices with respect to the jobs they have held.  The key is to take responsibility for your job movements, good or bad, show how you career has progressed as a result, and move the conversation forward.  You can’t change the past, you can only shape the future and pick your next job wisely.

 

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