Common interview questions such as “Tell me about yourself” may not make you panic as much as a bizarre question like “How do you make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?” But they can still wreak havoc on your responses if you aren’t prepared.
Don’t be fooled by these deceptively simple questions. Experienced recruiters use questions like the ones below to trick you into divulging details you hadn’t planned on sharing during the interview. Here’s what employers are hoping to glean from these common yet tricky questions—and how you can prepare to answer them with confidence.
Tell me about yourself
Translation: Why are you a good fit?
This common interview question seems straightforward, yet it trips up many job seekers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched a candidate go off the rails and share personal details that have nothing to do with the job. When employers ask this question, they’re not interested in hearing your autobiography. Instead, they want you to share a tailored version of your career story. Based on what you know about the job requirements and company, succinctly explain how your previous experiences have led you to this opportunity, as well as how they’ve qualified you for this particular role.
What do you know about us?
Translation: Are you taking this interview seriously?
Recruiters aren’t merely asking this question to help you fill in the gaps. They’re using this question to gauge your interest in the job and the employer. After all, why should they be interested in you if you don’t appear to be interested in them?
The key to answering this question comes down to your preparation. If you’ve taken the time to research the organization, you shouldn’t have any issues responding to this question. Take a look at the company website, follow its social media accounts, and create a Google News Alert for the company to get a better sense of how it operates, how it brands itself to customers, and what it values in its employees.
Tell me about a time when . . .
Translation: Prove it. Give me an example.
Many employers like to use this line of questioning—a technique called behavior-based interviewing—to assess a candidate’s potential. A recent TopResume study revealed this to be the single-most-important factor to employers when evaluating a potential hire. These open-ended questions encourage the candidate to share a story that illustrates how they’ve handled a previous situation that is likely to occur in this new role.
When faced with this interview question, stick to the STAR Method (Situation, Task, Actions, Results). Describe a situation or task you handled. Explain the actions you took to resolve the issue or overcome the challenge and summarize the results of your actions. While you might be unable to guess every behavior-based question a recruiter might throw at you, the job posting will offer some clues. Use the job requirements to brainstorm relevant behavioral questions and succinct stories from your work history you can share to demonstrate your abilities.
Why are you looking for a new job?
Translation: Are there any red flags?
This question becomes especially tricky to answer if you’re miserable in your current situation, you’ve quit your job, or you’ve recently been fired or laid off. Employers want to dig into the details of your most recent job—and your departure—to understand what motivates you and to uncover any red flags about your candidacy. For instance, if you start complaining about how awful your former boss was, the interviewer may wonder if you are the problem, rather than your manager.
No matter how you left things with your recent job, avoid badmouthing your former employer or letting your anger enter the interview room. You shouldn’t lie about the situation, but you also don’t have to provide any details, either. Acknowledge the past, but don’t dwell on it. Instead, focus on explaining what you learned from your most recent job: about yourself, your skills, the type of role and work environment in which you thrive, etc. and how this experience has led you to this job. Your goal is to ultimately guide the conversation back to why you’re excited about this job opportunity, at this company, and why you are a good match for the role.
Do you have any questions for me?
Translation: How interested are you in this opportunity?
The worst possible way to answer this question is, “no.” In fact, the moment a candidate says they don’t have any questions for me, I consider it a strike against them. I don’t care if I’m the first person with whom they’re meeting or the 14th, I expect to be asked at least one thoughtful question.
Don’t get caught in this trap. While some questions will naturally emerge during the course of your conversation with an interviewer, it’s best to prepare a list of questions ahead of time that can be directed at practically anyone who is invited to speak with you. For example, it doesn’t hurt to ask each interviewer how they would describe the company culture or what they believe are the most important qualities in the person who accepts this job offer. If each person’s response is radically different, then consider it a red flag.
Amanda Augustine is the resident career expert for Talent Inc.’s suite of brands: TopResume, TopInterview, and TopCV. She has more than 15 years of experience in the recruiting and career-advice industry, and she is a certified professional career coach (CPCC) and résumé writer (CPRW).