Acing the interview isn’t just about having the perfect canned speeches . Yes, you need to show off your experience, talents, and personality—but before answering each question, you also have to figure out what the interviewer is actually asking you.
Those seemingly innocuous questions, like “tell me about yourself” and “where do you see yourself in a few years?” aren’t just get-to-know-you conversation starters . They’re one of the key ways an interviewer will seek to uncover whether you’re the right fit for the job.
So, before you start to share your life story—or recite the same answer you gave at the last interview—it’s important to figure out what the interviewer really wants to know. Check out our guide to translating interviewer-speak, and learn how to plot your answers accordingly.
1. Question: Tell me about yourself.
Translation: Tell me why you’re the right fit for this job.
The interviewer already has your resume and cover letter, so she’s not looking for a rundown of your employment history. Nor does she care that you grew up in Boston and love to jog on the weekends. She’s looking for a pitch —one that’s concise, compelling, and keeps her attention, and one that tells her exactly why you’re the right fit for the job.
So, while this is a good time to paint a broad picture of who you are, it’s most important that you include a couple of key facts that will sell you as the right candidate.
Think about the 2-3 specific accomplishments or experiences that you most want the interviewer to know about, and share them here. You can frame your stories or tie them together using a theme or a quote, if appropriate, such as “My first boss told me that fundraising is really building relationships, and that’s the approach I’ve taken throughout my career. For example…”
It’s also a good idea to practice your answer aloud, record it, then listen to your pitch. Are you engaging? Are you rambling? Are you getting your most important points across loud and clear? (This is good advice for any interview question.)
Question: How would you explain our organization’s mission?
Translation: Can you be an ambassador for our organization?
Any candidate can read and regurgitate the company’s “About” page. So, when an interviewer asks you this, she isn’t necessarily trying to gauge whether you understand the mission—she wants to know whether you care about it, and she’s looking for who in the applicant pool can most effectively discuss the organization’s work and its impact.
So, in addition to doing your research on the company’s work, think about concrete ways it relates to your passions and experiences, and weave them into your answer.
Start with one line that shows you understand the mission, using a couple key words and phrases from the website, but then go on to make it personal. Say, “I’m personally drawn to this mission because…” or “I really believe in this approach because…” and share a personal example or two. For example, if you’re interviewing at a school that stresses character, share some specific character-building education activities you’ve led for students in your last job. If you’re interviewing for a position at a hospital, talk about the 5K you recently ran to raise money for leukemia or your passion for volunteering your time to help children with cancer.
Question: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Translation: Do you care about our work?
Hiring someone is an investment, and interviewers believe (as you would expect) that someone genuinely interested in the organization’s work will be the better hire. So, what she really wants to know is whether this particular job and company is part of your career path, or whether you’ll be jumping ship in a year once you land your “real” dream job.
So how should you answer? If the position you’re interviewing for is on the track to your goals, share that, plus give some specifics. For example, if you’re interviewing for an account executive position an advertising firm, and you know your goal is to become an account supervisor, say that. And then add specifics about the sort of clients you hope to work with, which will help your answer sound genuine, not canned—and again show why this particular company will be a good fit.
If the position isn’t necessarily a one-way ticket to your aspirations, the best approach is to be genuine, but to follow your answer up by connecting the dots between the specific duties in this role and your future goals. It’s OK to say that you’re not quite sure what the future holds , but that you see this experience playing an important role in helping you make that decision, or that you’re excited about the management or communications skills you’ll gain.
Question: Do you have any questions for us?
Translation: Have you really been listening?
It’s easy to go into an interview with a list of questions about the position. But the tougher part—and what the interviewer really wants to see—is whether you can roll with the punches, engage in the conversation, and ask questions that weren’t already answered over the course of the interview.
This will require some thinking on your feet. As you’re going along in the interview, be thinking which key areas—job duties, company culture, the team you’ll be working with—haven’t been covered yet, so you can target your questions there. You can also prepare ahead of time by thinking of more non-traditional questions, or ask questions targeted to the interviewer herself, which probably won’t be covered in the interview.
Try things like: What you like most about working here? What drew you to work for this organization? What do you think are the current strategic challenges facing the organization? What advice would you give to someone in this role?
Remember, there’s no “right” answer to an interview question—or at least not one that’s right for every job. But by thinking about what an interviewer is really after, you can go a long way in showing her why you’re right for the job.
Sara McCord most often writes about making a better professional impression. She's been published on Mashable (where she was a regular career contributor), as well as Forbes, Newsweek, TIME, Inc., and Business Insider. A Staff Writer/Editor for The Muse, Sara has experience managing programs; recruiting, interviewing, and referring job applicants; building strategic partnerships; advising executive directors; and supporting a national network of volunteers. See more of her writing on her website or follow her on Twitter @sarajmccord.More from this Author