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Advice / Job Search / Interviewing

4 Common Interview Questions (and 4 Perfect Answers)

Interview invitations should really come with a warning: Strong feelings of excitement changing suddenly into dread are imminent upon receiving this invitation.

Career counselors (and yes, I’m guilty of this, too) will frequently say, “Oh, it’s a two-way street. You’re interviewing them as much as they’re interviewing you.” And while that is partially true—you should definitely use the interview as a way to gauge whether or not you want to work for a company—there is still a power imbalance. Ultimately, the hiring manager will get to decide first whether you’ll get an offer. So, it’s understandable to be nervous.

But fear not! With a little preparation, you’ll know exactly what to say to impress. To get you started, here are four tricky, but common, interview questions and how to tackle them.

1. Tell Me About Yourself

This completely open-ended opportunity to talk about yourself throws a lot of people off. Worse, it’s usually the first question interviewers ask! The confusing part about “tell me about yourself” is that it actually isn’t an invitation to tell your life story. The interviewer really just wants to know why you’re interested in this position and what makes you qualified.

One way to structure this answer is to start with your present, go into your past, and finish off with your future. This approach covers all your bases by answering the question, giving you an opportunity to talk about your relevant skills, and getting to what the interviewer genuinely wants to know: How are you going to perform in this position? Remember to focus your experiences and accomplishments on what’s most relevant to the position and the employer.

I’m a second-year master’s student studying computer science and a research fellow at the Hudson Lab. I have previous industry experience at Dell, where I honed my skills in modeling and data analysis. This experience really piqued my interest in the field of big data, so I’m excited to learn more about your company and the chance to contribute to your data science department.

2. What is Your Greatest Weakness?

Surprisingly, this isn’t actually meant to be a trick question. A more straightforward way an employer could ask this question would be, “Are you knowledgeable about the areas that you can improve upon? I prefer to hire people who are reflective about their skills and actively seek to improve themselves.”

And I’m sure you’ve heard the advice to spin this into a strength, but don’t. Don’t say you’re such a perfectionist that it sometimes affects your work. No one is going to believe that, even if it’s true.

Instead, give a genuine weakness—whether that’s delegating to others or attention to detail—but push it back into your past. Talk about the concrete steps you took to address your weakness and show improvement. Mention you’re still working on it, but you’ve made some great progress.

When I first started college, I was a pretty horrible public speaker. I knew this was something I wanted to overcome, so I promised myself to speak up more in small groups. Later, I took it a step further and took a public speaking class. Now, even though it doesn’t come naturally to me, I think I’ve made some big improvements. In fact, I recently presented at a student conference to an audience of over 100.

Not bad, right? Now just make sure you don’t say public speaking, because everyone uses that example. (Need some more guidance? This article has more advice on talking about strengths and weaknesses in an interview.)

3. Tell Me About a Time You Failed

Again, this is a time to be real. Talk about real failure, not the B+ you got in Introduction to Psychology. Maybe it was a group project that wasn’t meeting deadlines or a miscommunication with your supervisor during a previous internship—the failure doesn’t need to be huge. It just needs to involve a mistake that you can reflect on thoughtfully. Interviewers are less interested in making you cry and more interested in seeing how you handle setbacks. Do you bounce back? Ask for feedback? Learn from your mistakes? Talk about the failure and, most importantly, discuss the lessons you learned from the experience.

At my last position, there was a three-month period of time when my supervisor had a very intense travel schedule, which meant most of my communication with her was via email. At some point, there was some miscommunication over who would be the point person for a new client, resulting in some confusing interactions and repeat memos to him. Ultimately, it wasn’t the best customer experience. From then on, I personally made it a point to clarify what information I was sharing with each of our clients on a weekly basis to my supervisor if not in person, then over the phone. I definitely learned the importance of frequent and clear communication.

4. Where Do You See Yourself in 5 Years?

In other words, “How long are you going to stick with us? Are you worth the investment of training?” Ethically, you don’t want to say that you’ll stay with their company forever, because you probably won’t. Maybe you want to eventually move on to a smaller company or you want to go get your MBA—whatever your plan is, it’s probably not going to line up with what your interviewer has in mind.

The good news is you can still answer this question thoughtfully and with specifics without lying. After qualifications and fit, interviewers usually care more about your ability to make an impact at their company than anything else. So, play to that, but also bring up your excitement to join their company.

Well, I’m definitely really excited about the associate consultant position at Midnight Consulting, and I can see myself growing professionally in this role. I think, generally speaking, within the next five years I would seek to make a significant impact at Midnight Consulting, particularly in the energy sector. I’m also looking forward to eventually taking on additional managerial responsibilities and possibly taking the lead on some projects. Another big part of my life is mentoring, so I would hope to incorporate more of that as my knowledge of this industry develops.

As with all things, practice makes perfect. Make sure to practice answering these questions aloud several times for maximum confidence during your interview.

Photo of speech bubbles courtesy of Shutterstock.