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COMMON INTERVIEW QUESTIONS – What Do They Really Mean?

December 16, 2011

I was recently asked to prepare a list of common interview questions for a group of women involved in a nonprofit leadership program, so I decided to share them on my blog as well.    While they may seem cliché, the fact is that recruiters and employment interviewers use them all the time.  It’s also the case that sometimes some of the questions are not as transparent as they seem.  It is important to understand what they really mean, so you can respond appropriately.

Tell me about yourself.

What it means: This is one of the most common open-ended questions.  Remember that the interviewer is not asking about your personal life, they are asking about your professional persona, and fishing for information that will help them determine your fit.

Answer: This is your cue to deliver your elevator pitch.  Keep it short and sweet.  Make sure you are addressing the value you offer that will make you successful in the job.

Start with your first job (or the one listed farthest back on your resume or employment application) and explain the reasons for leaving each job.

What it means: The interviewer is looking for patterns, such as terminations, leaving without notice, or quitting after a short time period.  She wants to see a stable, reliable person who will show up, do the job, and not be a problem child.

Answer: Be honest, but frame it properly.  If you were fired for attendance problems, don’t volunteer that you were terminated, just state that you had a temporary problem that conflicted with your work schedule or transportation, which is now resolved.  Give specific examples of why you are now a “reliable” candidate, even offering references to counter any blemishes on your record.

Explain your employment gaps, including what you have been doing the past (time period) you’ve been unemployed.

What it means: They want to know that you are committed to being in the workforce, and that you are not hiding a bad reference (or something worse) with an apparent employment gap.

Answer: While vague, nonspecific answers are usually taboo during an interview, you also are not required to share extremely personal information.  “Acceptable” reasons for women are usually related to caring for family (children or parents), or returning to school.  Since 2008, many Americans have become “long-term unemployed,” so stating that you have been seeking work during this time, while volunteering or working on personal development, is not as hard to overcome for a job seeker as it was when unemployment was low.  If you are long-term unemployed, be prepared to describe how you have kept your job-related skills up to date during this time.

Why have you applied for this particular job?

What it means: The interviewer wants to know that you are focused on this job, at this company not “any job at any company.” While it may seem otherwise, they are not asking about what you want.  The underlying question is “Have you taken the time to research us, and do you know enough about the job and company to describe what makes you a great fit?” 

Answer: Describe your most relevant skills for the job, as well as personal attributes that will make you a good fit.  For example, if you are an Accountant applying at a SCUBA company, after you describe your accounting skills, it would be a great idea to add that you have been a certified diver for 10 years and use their products regularly (as long as it’s true, of course).

What are your strengths?

What it means: Almost all interviewers ask this.  They are looking for job specific strengths (your golf handicap is only relevant if you are applying for a position as a Golf Pro).

Answer: This is where you have to sell it, don’t just tell it.  List three or four skills, such as your ability to learn quickly, strong communication with customers, and some job-related technical skills.  But don’t stop there – give specific examples that back up your assertions.  For example, “on my last performance review, my Supervisor commented that my communication skills contributed to the highest account retention rate our group has experienced in 5 years” adds much more credibility to your claim than “I think I’m a great communicator.”

 What is your greatest weakness?

What it means: Everyone has weaknesses.  The interviewer is checking your self-awareness, as well as that your professed weaknesses are ones that will not be a hindrance for this particular job.

Answer: Do not say you can’t think of any right now – this is clear evasion and untrue. My favorite strategy is to share something completely unnecessary for the job. For example, if you are applying for an exclusively post-sales client services position, you could mention that in your last job you struggled with closing the sale since you were more focused on building a relationship with the prospect.  Since closing sales won’t be a job requirement (and relationship building will be), it’s a safe admission, and it subtly works in a strength that is relevant.

 What has been your favorite job, and why?

What it means: A variation on the strength / weakness questions, this question is really to find out if you are a cultural fit with the company, as well as a skills fit for the job.

Answer: This may seem like an easy question, but it’s tricky.  It is important to make sure that your “likes” correspond to the skills or environment of the job you are interviewing for.  If you like dealing with people, but you are applying for an isolated mail-room position, find something else to like for this answer (and maybe re-think the jobs you apply for).

What was your worst job and why?

What it means: This is the flip-side of the “best job” question, and it is also to fish for indications that you are (or aren’t) a  fit with the company and position.

Answer: Be cautious with this answer. “My boss was a micromanager” is a no-go, even if it is the truth (after all, the hiring manager may be a micromanager, too).  One approach is to choose a characteristic of the company (that doesn’t match the company you are interviewing with).  Examples could be the company size or the fact that your boss was located across the country.  Make the point that you realize every company has its own dysfunctional attributes, but that you don’t let it bother you too much.

Have you encountered these common interview questions? 

If so, have you ever considered the hidden meanings before? 

Will this change the way you respond in the future?

13 Comments leave one →
  1. December 16, 2011 8:15 AM

    Hi Karleen,

    You picked the right questions and great advises for answering. Globally you are saying be specific but not too personal and never criticize a company or a boss !

  2. December 18, 2011 1:16 PM

    Good questions and suggested answers. Job seekers should find a non-family member, whom they trust, to do a mock interview with them, and provide honest feedback.

    • December 18, 2011 1:47 PM

      Thanks Grace! You are 100% correct. Practicing answers is important – with someone qualified to provide feedback. Job seekers can also polish their answers by recording themselves and replaying it until they can deliver it smoothly and confidently.

  3. December 19, 2011 5:05 AM

    Excellent article. I love the way this was written and the format. These were great tips and I learned quite a few things that I definitely will be sharing. Thanks.

  4. December 19, 2011 10:31 AM

    Thank you so much for writing these questions out and explaining them. I haven’t had a real job interview in a long time but I do have to present myself to potential clients. In a way, they ask some of these questions as well. I am going to write an elevator pitch as well as a list of my weaknesses. 🙂 I agree with Dawn, the format of the post is really nice as well.

  5. December 28, 2011 2:09 AM

    What a great post! These are great questions, answers and I love the “what this means” section! This will definitely help a lot of people who are on the job search! 🙂

  6. January 2, 2012 10:29 AM

    Great post! I wish I had seen this when I was going through the interview process. You can bet I’ll be showing this to my clients as they get to that point in their job search.

  7. January 3, 2012 11:06 AM

    Excellent post! Especially the advice regarding explaining gaps in employment. Many employers are being very selective these days and having a glaring gap in your resume can even be the reason you are not called for an interview. Volunteering and taking classes are excellent ways to fill those gaps, while you search for the right position.

  8. January 4, 2012 6:56 PM

    Karleen,

    Great post, and so timely as many seem to be getting job interviews as the economy picks up just a tad.

    The layout is perfect, the questions helpful, and the answer is just enough to give the reader a path to success.

    Thank you for your professional approach. A resource to send people to for sure!

    ~Keri

  9. January 7, 2012 2:54 PM

    Hi Karleen,

    Some really great advice for job seekers.

    As an employer running a small business, I don’t tend to frame my questions in the same way. The interviews that I conduct are a lot less formal, but the details that I am trying to get to are exactly the same.

    Not asking the questions in the same way throws some applicants, they are prepared for the standard questions but fall away if they cannot just repeat the script in their heads. It’s like they are on auto-pilot. So, I would also advise job seekers to have a think about the different ways those questions might be asked.

    Kittie

    • January 8, 2012 4:22 AM

      Kittie,

      Thank you for adding the employer’s perspective! I also typically avoid these questions as a recruiter and would opt for more behavioral-based interview questions. However, many employers still use these questions, cliche as they are. Candidates should be prepared for anything.

      Karleen

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