The Secret Meanings Behind Four Of The Most Common Interview Questions

These common questions may feel clichéd, but there’s a reason why recruiters keep asking them.

The Secret Meanings Behind Four Of The Most Common Interview Questions
[Photo: Sladic/iStock]

Some interview questions lead to eye rolls by just thinking about them: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” “What’s your biggest weakness?” When you’re preparing for a job interview, it can be hard to know how to avoid giving trite answers to these equally trite questions. But one solution is simply to know what hiring managers and recruiters are actually trying to learn by asking them in the first place. So Fast Company hit up a few experts to find out.


“Tell Me A Little About Yourself”

Hidden Meaning: “I’m throwing you a softball and letting you get comfortable.”

Matt Hughes, head of talent at the career marketplace Hired, has simple advice for this one: Don’t overthink it–it’s just an ice breaker. Sometimes, he says, a hiring manager might be “trying to better understand what motivates a candidate to succeed in their personal lives and how that will translate into being part of the company’s mission,” but it’s often not even that purposeful. As LinkedIn’s VP of Global Talent Acquisition Brendan Browne puts it, this is an “okay warm-up question at best.”

“Getting people comfortable is key,” Browne explains, pointing out that “companies that try to create a tense situation or [use] an intense questioning style” aren’t likely to get a good read on a candidate’s skills and temperament. Knowing that, many employers try to put job seekers at ease. So save your best anecdotes for later in the interview when you’ll actually need them. This question is just about setting the tone.

“What Attracted You To This Position?”

Hidden Meaning: ” Do you really understand what this job entails, and do you really want to do it?”

“Sometimes people will say, ‘Well, I saw this listed in the job description, and it is exactly what I’m doing now,’ and then proceed to talk about how much they don’t enjoy that position and want to do something else,” says Joy Solorzano, HR manager at the advertising platform Intermarkets. So she asks this question in order to make sure a candidate will be as enthusiastic about the job as they claim they’d be.


“I also want to ensure that the candidate is looking at the role in its entirety, versus just honing in on one area of interest,” Solorzano adds. “Say one position has a video production component, but the majority of the role is focused on writing. If the candidate is drawn to the video component, but I know that might only be a few hours a week, I don’t want them to be sold on the idea of doing something in a role, only to find out that it isn’t a primary responsibility.”

Browne sees it as “a solid question about motivation . . . If someone says, ‘Hey look, I could work for a lot of different companies or a lot of different jobs, but here’s why I think I could do a great job in this role at this company,'” that’s a good sign they’ve thought things through.”

“There’s nothing worse than responding with a canned, surface-level response,” adds Hughes. “The hiring manager wants to hear specifics: What spoke to them about the role? Why do they want to be part of what we are doing?”

“Where Do You See Yourself In Five Years?”

Hidden Meaning: “What are your career aspirations and are they realistic?”

This can be one of the more annoying interview questions candidates face, but there are actually many good ways to answer it once you know what a hiring manager or recruiter might be looking to find out.


It “sounds cliché,” Browne says, “but the heart of the question is good,” and it’s going to come up eventually once somebody’s brought inside a company: What do you want to do with your life? Browne suggests focusing less on the five-year window than on that core question of motivation. “As a manager, if someone has clarity, it’s a heck of a lot more helpful and useful for me helping them. Then I can engage in a way that’s very specific”–for instance, by giving a direct report projects and opportunities that square with their longer-term goals and passions.

Solorzano sees this differently. “First, I want to measure if they have reasonable expectations,” she says. “If they are starting in an entry-level role and want to be a vice president in five years, that may mean they’re incredibly driven, or it may mean they have unrealistic expectations. We’d need to explore that a little more.”

“Career pathing isn’t dead,” Hughes says. “This question helps start the conversation around a candidate’s career aspirations that they can later fuse into an individualized career plan.” Like Browne, Hughes likes the way this question nudges job seekers to think about specifics. “If a candidate doesn’t come prepared to speak on this topic in an interview, they aren’t doing any favors for their professional development.” In fact, this type of conversation gives candidates a great chance to ask about growth opportunities in the role.

“Can You Tell Me About A Recent Failure?”

Hidden Meaning: “How honest and self-aware are you?”

“I’m looking to learn more about a candidate’s attitude and mind-set here,” Solorzano explains. “What were the lessons learned? Did this ever happen again? If you could go back and change something, what would you do?”


She prefers hearing about a firsthand experience, of course, but when a candidate struggles to think of one, Solorzano says, “I always give them an outlet. If you can’t think of anything from work, how about school? Sports? Anything? If they’ve prepared in advance, they should be able to come up with something. If they aren’t pulling from personal experience, at least you might hear some of their problem-solving skills.”

But for Browne, not having a compelling–and recent–narrative for the common “failure” question is a red flag. One candidate his team recently interviewed “literally had to go back many years” to find an experience to draw on. That made the LinkedIn recruiter think, “What’s up with that?” Brown recalls. “We followed up with the candidate and said, ‘To be very honest, when we asked you that question, you had to go back a long way. Can you tell me more about that?'”

In addition to understanding how a candidate handles failure, Browne adds, this question also helps hiring managers assess “how open and honest and self-aware they are. One guarantee” for everybody, he adds, “is we’re going to screw things up.”

About the author

Rich Bellis was previously the Associate Editor of Fast Company's Leadership section.