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I once had a conversation with a recruiter where she shared what she called “the kiss of death” for interviews: candidates answering, “Why are you interested in this position?” with something about being passionate about programming, writing, or some other skill with no mention at all of the company they applied to. To her, it’s an immediate red flag.

So this seemingly innocuous question can be a surprisingly tricky one—especially if you try to answer it without thinking about who your audience is and what they really want to know.

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Like the expected “Tell me about yourself” opener, “Why do you want this job?” is likely to come up in most job interviews. And even if your interviewer doesn’t explicitly ask you why you’re interested in the position, you should still know your answer and get that sentiment across while responding to other interview questions.

So what do interviewers want to know when they ask “Why are you interested in this position”?

Basically, your answer to this question says a lot about all of the most important things an interviewer is evaluating: what skills you have, how interested you are in this job (and why), and what you’ll bring to this team or company.

And they want specifics. With “Why do you want this job?” interviewers aren’t asking, “Why do you want to be an accountant?” they’re asking, “Why do you want this accounting position at this organization?” They want to know what motivated you to apply and why this position makes sense for you (and, of course, why you make sense for the company).

3 steps to answer “Why do you want this job?”

Luckily, there’s actually a pretty simple way to go about answering this question effectively.

Step 1: Show off what you know and why you’re excited about the company

You can talk all day about how excited you’d be to join the team, but it will only sound genuine if you actually know a thing or two about the company. So spend some time homing in on a few key factors to incorporate into your pitch for why you’re interested in this job.

It’s always impressive when a candidate has done their homework, but especially with smaller companies. And the best thing about this is you rarely have to go beyond reviewing the company website or having a quick conversation with a current or past employee to learn enough to sound like you’ve been following the company for a while.

Step 2: Connect your skills and experiences to the job description

Next, you want to sell why, exactly, you’re right for the role. There are two ways you can do this: You can either focus more on your experiences (what you’ve done before that brings you to this point) or your skills (which is especially helpful if you’re pivoting positions or industries).

Try to pinpoint what the job is all about, plus a couple of the “required skills” from the job posting, and make sure you speak to that. Keep it short—you’ll have plenty of opportunities to talk about how you got your skills and share relevant stories throughout the interview. For this question, just focus on highlighting a couple key relevant abilities or experiences for the position.

Step 3: Talk about where this role sits on your career path

Finally, you want to show that the position makes sense for where you’re going in your career. Ideally, you won’t give the impression that you’re just using the position as a stepping stone. Your interviewer will feel more comfortable investing in you if they think you’ll be around for the long haul. Of course, you don’t have to state specifically that you see yourself in the position for a long time. Just show that you’ve given some thought to how the job makes sense for you right now and how it will continue to make sense for the foreseeable future.

4 mistakes you might make when answering “Why do you want this job?”

Here are four common mistakes you should avoid:

  • Not talking about the company: Think about it this way: You can bring your skills anywhere. The trick is explaining why you want to use them for this particular company.
  • Only saying what’s in it for you: Maybe this job would give you the chance to learn a lot about marketing, or it’s an opportunity to grow your quantitative analysis skills—that’s great, but your interviewer wants to know what’s in it for the company, too. So align your interests with and express enthusiasm for using your skills to contribute to the company’s greater goals.
  • Bringing up points that aren’t relevant: In the heat of an interview, it can be really tempting to mention that the office is actually quite close to your daughter’s school or that the company’s flexible hours policy would make it easier to carpool with your roommate, but don’t give in. These are nice perks, but (hopefully) they’re not the only reasons you find this position exciting.
  • Answering the wrong question: Have you ever gone on a date with someone who wouldn’t stop talking about their ex? Well, turns out this happens during job interviews, too. Don’t be that person who can’t shut up about why you need to leave your old job, stat. Even if the reason you’re job searching is directly related to your previous position, focus on the future.

What would some example answers sound like?

Say you’re interviewing for an investment analyst job at a small quantitative asset management company. Your answer might sound something like this:

“The first thing that caught my eye when I saw the position posted was definitely that it was at EFG Advisers. I know that you build a lot of your tools in-house, that the team is small, and that you employ a variety of long- and short-term strategies in the U.S. equities markets focusing on quantitative approaches. But the part that really spoke to me was the chance to combine the programming skills I gained from being a senior software engineer and my knack for quantitative analysis in a position that lets me engage with my growing interest in investing and portfolio management. I’ve been interested in switching to finance for a while now and have been actively managing my own personal portfolio for a few years. Joining a quant shop like yours makes sense to me because I think it’s one of the few places where I’ll still be able to use my technical skills and also spend my day thinking about finance. I’m really excited to learn more and see how I’ll be able to contribute to the firm.”

Or if you’re interviewing for a social media position at a gaming company you might say:

“I’ve always been a fan of X Co’s products and I’ve spent countless hours playing your games. I know that your focus on unique stories is what drew me and other fans into your games initially and keeps us coming back for more. I’ve followed X Co on social media for a while, and I’ve always loved how you have people in different departments using the accounts to interact with users. So I was psyched when I came across this posting for a social media manager with TikTok experience. At my last job, I was responsible for launching our TikTok account and growing it to 10,000 followers in six months. Between that experience, my love of gaming, and my deep knowledge of your games and fanbase, I know I could make this TikTok account something special and exciting.”

If you’re looking to transition into a role at a nonprofit from a role in the private sector, your answer might sound like this:

“Ever since my brother was diagnosed with a heart condition, I’ve been training and running with him in your annual Heart Run to raise money for your organization and help support patients with expenses not covered by insurance. Each time, I’ve been struck by how truly dedicated and happy to be there your employees have been. So when I saw this posting for a fundraising role, it felt like it was meant to be. For the last 10 years of my career I’ve been an account executive for various SaaS companies, and I’ve really honed my skills when it comes to convincing organizations to make regular payments for something over the long-term. But I’ve been looking for a position in fundraising where I can use these skills to really help people and I’m highly motivated to do that with your organization.”

Updated 1/26/2022