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How You Should Answer The 10 Most Common Interview Questions

We talked to hiring experts to find out which questions trip up most job candidates, and the better answers that could win you the job.

How You Should Answer The 10 Most Common Interview Questions
[Photo: dotshock via Shutterstock]

Going on a job interview can make you feel like you’re back in school taking an exam. Instead of the "test" having one clear and right answer, however, responding to questions feels like hopeful guesses mixed with uncomfortable posturing.

We talked to six hiring experts to find out which questions trip up most job candidates, and the better answers that could win you the job:

1. Tell Me About Yourself

The problem: Most candidates find this question overwhelming, says Michele Mavi, director of content development, internal recruiting, and training for the hiring agency Atrium Staffing. "As it’s a very broad and open question, candidates are prone to ramble, talking about their professional selves in very generic and general terms, and basically rehashing their resume," she says.

What you should say: A better way to answer it is to talk about your experience in a way that positions you as being a perfect match for the role. "Yes, you should tell a story, but one with a very clear beginning, middle, and end," says Mavi. "You should be able to end whatever you say with, ‘So that’s why I’m looking to make a move and am really excited about this opportunity.’"

2. Why Do You Want To Work For This Company?

The problem: A common answer to this question is to compliment the company by saying something like, "XYZ is the leading creator of innovative solutions, and I want to work for a market leader," says Matt Doucette, director of global talent acquisition for the job website Monster.com. A more honest answer, he adds, might be, "You were the only ones who read my resume, so of course I want to work for you. I need a job."

What you should say: A good answer, however, revolves around the mission, vision, and values of the company. "If they are a match for your goals and desires, then talk about that," he says. "Talk about being connected to the values of the company. Talk about how the mission speaks to you, and then tie those things back to the description and your unique skill set."

3. Why Are You Interested In This Position?

The problem: The biggest mistake candidates make with their response is focusing on how the role fits into their career plan, and how it will help them be more professionally fulfilled and advance their career, says Mavi.

What you should say: A better answer puts the company’s goals at the forefront. "People aren’t just hired to do a job; they are hired to be part of the company as a whole, a company that has very specific objectives and goals to achieve," she says. "The main focus of the answer should be centered around how the candidate is going to add value to the organization."

For example, you might say, "At my current job, I’ve learned skills that I’m ready to bring to the next level. I believe I can make a difference here."

4. Why Should We Hire You?

The problem: The common answer to this question is to list achievements and accomplishments that the interviewer can find on your resume, says Mavi. "You don’t know a thing about the other candidates, so you can’t really compare yourself to them, can you?" she says.

What you should say: A better answer is to first acknowledge that you can't speak about the merits of other candidates. From there, talk about attributes you have that aren’t listed on your resume, such as soft skills you possess that complement the role. Mavi suggests this answer: "I hope I’ve been able show you why I’m qualified from a professional achievement perspective. I can only imagine the other candidates are equally accomplished. What I can tell you is that I’m an excellent communicator and can think quickly on my feet. I’m very adaptable and don’t get thrown off balance in a crisis. This is a high-pressure role, and in addition to my five years of experience successfully turning underproducing sales teams into high performers, I think those soft skills are a critical complement."

5. What Is Your Greatest Strength?

The problem: A job candidate will often answer by calling themselves a hard worker, says Doucette. "They don’t really answer the question, and what I’ve found is that they can’t answer because most people don’t know their greatest strength," he says.

What you should say: A better answer involves some prep work. "Come up with a real answer," says Doucette. "As part of your prep, sit down and think about what your ‘special sauce’ is and how that will benefit this specific manager and the company."

For example, "I’ve been told that I bring energy to every project I tackle." Or, "I have the ability to connect with anyone on my team, bringing a sense of cohesiveness to the workplace."

6. Tell Me About A Time When You Failed

The problem: This question can trip you up if you blame someone else or say that you can’t think of a time, says Tom McGuire, cofounder and managing director of Talent Growth Advisors, a human resources consulting firm.

What you should say: A better answer is acknowledging that everybody screws up once in a while, he says. "The question, really, is looking to get at how well you learn," says McGuire. "A good answer would include, Here's the mistake I made, here is where I went wrong, and here is what I learned as a result."

7. What Is Your Salary Requirement?

The problem: Many job seekers throw out a number, and sometimes it can be based on how much they want the job, says Jayne Mattson, senior vice president of the career-coaching firm Keystone Associates.

What you should say: A better answer might be, "I do not have a set figure in mind as I do not know enough about the position," she says. "If you are pressed to give an answer, tell them what your salary was in your last role and ask ‘Does that fall within the range of this position?’" she says.

8. What Is Your Five-Year Plan?

The problem: This is a question that trips up a lot of candidates as it can be tricky to answer, says Tracy Cashman, a senior vice president and partner of WinterWyman Executive Search. "If your expectations are too aggressive, such as, ‘I’d like to be a manager,’ the interviewer could see you as a threat, wanting their job," she says. "If your answer is too mild, such as ‘I hope to be in the same type of role,’ you can be seen as not driven or ambitious."

What you should say: A better answer ties your future plans into your past experience and your selling points, says Cashman. "Use this as an opportunity to talk about why you're interested in them," she says. For example, "As you can see from my background, I am someone who has been fortunate enough to find good companies to work for where I have been able to progress and be continually challenged. I would hope that my next role allows for that to continue over the next five years."

9. Why Are You Looking To Leave Your Present Job?

The problem: Bad answers to this question include anything that is negative toward your present employer, sounds too vague, or involves confidential information, such as an impending layoff or client loss, says David Lewis, president and CEO of OperationsInc, a human resources outsourcing and consulting firm.

What you should say: The better answer is anything that implies you are looking to better yourself. "I feel like I can be doing more, and the next step for me there is too limiting or not really available," he suggests.

10. Do You Have Any Questions For Me?

What you should say: Candidates who pass on this opportunity are missing an opportunity to shine, says Mavi. "Having no questions shows not only a lack of interest in the role or the company, but also a total lack of understanding of what the interview process is all about," she says, adding that asking questions that are easily answered by a quick perusal of a company’s website is even worse, as it will highlight how little you know about that company.

What you should say: A better answer is asking a question that demonstrates an understanding of the competitive landscape of your particular industry, says Mavi. "This will highlight that you’ve given this opportunity some deeper thought," she says. "Of course, asking questions pertaining to what needs to be achieved, or what has made others succeed or fail in the role, as well as questions about how the department fits into the larger whole of the organization, are all great."

Related Video: How You Really Sound When You're Interviewing Someone

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