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.

Why did I lose my best candidate?

Tips for a successful phone interview

How to answer the interview question: “Why should I hire you over my other applicants?”

“Why should I hire you over my other applicants?”

This is one of those questions that you truly can’t answer because you typically don’t know who else they are interviewing. What the employer really wants to know is: WHY YOU?

Tips to Answer this Interview Question:

This question usually comes up towards the end of the interview, but sometimes it is one of the first questions asked. The key to answering this question is to sell yourself based on your understanding of the problems/pain that the employer is encountering by not having the position filled.

If you are interviewing for a job that is open because a long-term employee has moved away, you know that the pain the employer is trying to avoid is losing loyal customers to their competitors.  You also know that just because the position is vacant doesn’t mean that the work has moved away too. The work load has been dispersed among the remaining team members and they are probably not too happy about it.

If you are interviewing for a new “growth” position, you need to show that you are efficient, flexible, a fast learner, and can adapt quickly to change.

Example of an open position for an Account Manager: “You want to hire me because I understand what it’s like to work in a short-staffed office due to a key employee leaving. Often the Producer is scrambling to keep the customer, and the work load has been dumped on the rest of the staff who may not know the accounts very well.  You could also be at risk of losing the account to your competitors once word gets out that your key account manager has left. I was hired into this very same situation in my last position.  I was able to quickly work with the remaining account managers to understand the computer system and office procedures. I was able to review the files with the Underwriters and make contact with the clients who were up for renewal. I’m proud to say that we didn’t lose any business with the transition.”

The key to answering a comparison question like this one is to make sure the employer understands that regardless of who else they are interviewing, you “get it”. You understand the problems they are facing; the upset in the office due to the vacancy, the competition internally for the role, and most importantly, you show that you have the confidence to tackle the job head on.

If you are in the wrap up phase of the interview, ask the employer this question: do you see any reason why I wouldn’t be a great fit for the position? Remain silent, and if the employer is truly seeing you in the role, they will tell you that, or they will tell you their concerns.  Either way, you will know where you stand and hopefully will be one step closer to the job offer.

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: “What are your weaknesses?”

“What are your weaknesses?”

This is one of the toughest and least liked of all of the interview questions.  The problem with this question is that you have to answer it, if you say, I don’t really have any”, then the employer won’t believe you or will think you may be hiding something, however, if you say the wrong thing, without an explanation, you can be out at first base.

So what is the right answer?  It depends on how the question is asked.  Very few employers will ask this question directly anymore.  Often times it is couched inside of a more positive sounding question, such as “what are some of the areas that you have been coached on in the past?” or “what is an area that you have been working on for self-improvement?”  These are much nicer questions, but don’t be fooled; the hiring manager is asking you to reveal your weaknesses.

Tips to Answer this Interview Question:

The key to answering this question is advance preparation!  Start by thinking about the constructive comments that former managers have given you.  Criticism is never easy to stomach, so you need to think about the changes in behavior that you made, if any, as a result of your boss’s coaching. List the behaviors that were pointed out as “areas for growth and development”, another nice way of saying weaknesses, and think about how you responded to the advice. Think about how you applied the advice and changed your behavior in the workplace.  What were the results with your peers, with customers, with your supervisors?

Here’s some examples:

Too chatty in the office/not focused enough on your work: Explain that you were coached that you needed to be more focused and less chatty in the office. Show what you did to correct the situation, explain how you were able to handle more work in less time, and then give an example of the positive feedback you received from your boss and peers once you corrected the behavior.

Turning in work late/problems with prioritization: Explain that you used to have challenges with personal organization and task completion. Then show how you solved the problem by getting up an hour early or get everything ready the night before so that you aren’t running around frantically in the morning looking for things.

Spelling/grammar problems: Talk about how you took some remedial classes to correct the problem and how your boss complimented you on your improved written communication as a result.

Don’t let the “weakness” question get you down.  Show that you are accountable for your behavior in the office, are coachable, and can solve problems.