...and how to answer (or how not to answer) them.
Before we talk about your approach to these questions, a word of caution. Every interview and every candidate is different so make sure whatever answers you prepare are personal and relevant to you - and to the job you’re going for. Having interviewed countless people, I can assure you that there is nothing worse that stock answers trotted out from Google searches - and interviewers will spot them a mile away.
"...there is nothing worse that stock answers trotted out from Google searches.."
Having said that, you will almost certainly encounter these questions, so it pays to be prepared.
1. Tell us a little about yourself.
This is often used to kick off an interview. It gives the interviewer a chance to see how you handle an open-ended question before they move on to the core job questions. It also quickly shows how prepared (or un-prepared!) you are. It is also a great question to trap a poor interviewee right at the beginning of an interview. This is not an opportunity to tell your life story!
Be succinct and focus on the core strengths that you emphasised in your resume. Don’t get into personal detail. Use natural language to describe what you do, what you are good at and what you have achieved. Keep your answer short, natural and job-relevant.
2. What is your greatest weakness?
This is a really common question but one you still need to think about very carefully. Think about why are they asking it.
Saying “I work too hard” or “I’m a perfectionist” doesn’t cut it as these are the stock ‘weakness as strength’ answers that everyone gives.
Pick something that is truly a weakness and talk about how you work around it. Preferably a weakness based on knowledge or experience (i.e. something that can be overcome).
One example could be: “I am not as experienced as some in interviews and meetings: to overcome this I tend to put is a lot of preparation. For example, before coming here I spent some time researching your company website and LinkedIn profiles. I feel that I know what your company stands for and that what I have to offer can really meet your needs”
The key is to avoid the stock ‘weakness as a strength’ answers (which they have heard a thousand times) and instead be honest about a weakness but add how you work around it to achieve results.
3. How would a friend describe you?
This is a sneakier way of asking how you would describe yourself and is actually more searching, as your answer will reflect how you think you are seen in the world. Whatever you answer, make sure it reflects the temperament and skills needed of the job you are applying for.
Some examples that might fit:
- As an organiser who gets everyone together to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do. For example in the floods I got a working party from our street organized to get help to friends and neighbours we knew had been affected.
- As a creative thinker who enjoys bouncing ideas off other people.
- An analytical thinker and a perfectionist who spends a lot of time on the detail, making sure everything is right.
Some examples that probably do not give the impression you hope to make:
- He/she is a real party animal and always the last one standing.
- Great fun to be around because he/she never challenges or questions others and goes with the flow.
- Relaxed, laid back and living for the moment.
4. Tell us about a work failure that you experienced.
This can be one of the most important questions as the interviewer is looking for some real life examples from your previous employment. Again, think about why they are asking the question. Be specific and pick something that again shows your resilience and perseverance. These are qualities that everyone wants.
There are really only two points to remember with this one:
- Make sure your example is relevant to the requirements for the job and
- You absolutely must include how you learned from the failure to avoid making the same mistake again.
That last point is the killer answer they are looking for: learning from mistakes. Every successful person will tell you that failure is the greatest teacher.
5. Where do you want to be in 5 years time?
This one gets asked all the time. I think half the time, interviewers aren’t even sure why they are asking it. Maybe it’s just on the interview sheet.
There are some definite wrong answers:
- In your job / in the corner office.
- I don’t know / I haven’t really thought about it.
The key thing here is to show commitment to the role you are applying to, realism in relation to your ambitions and acceptance that you will be rewarded and progress based on your performance. So you need to learn, get up to speed, show proficiency and then show hard results before seeking promotion. They will be looking for a payback of at least 2 years from any applicant in the role they are hiring.
You can then say you are interested in progression in the company and turn the question to how career development is handled in the company concerned.
You will of course encounter all sorts of other questions. The key to successful interview performance is preparation, so be sure you do plenty of it!