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Advice / Job Search / Interviewing

How the Interview Question “What Are Your Interests?” Can Help You Avoid a Workplace You’ll Hate

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I’ve had some jobs I really hated. And I don’t just mean jobs that were a bit boring or had less-than-savory duties. I mean the kinds of jobs where each day is more spirit-draining than the last and you wake up every morning, fantasize about quitting, and check your bank account to calculate how long you’d have to find a new job before your life fell apart.

Sometimes the problem was that my coworkers constantly wanted to wax poetic about football when I’d much rather talk about dogs or books or, yep, anything but football. Other times the issue was that I could muster more excitement about watching paint dry than doing the job I was hired for. Let’s just say none of these were great situations for me, my coworkers, or my employers—and I didn’t last long.

Well, there’s an interview question that can help out both sides. Employers don’t want employees who’ve already checked out after a few weeks. So they ask interview questions like “What are your interests?” to try to suss out how engaged you’ll be in the position and on the team.

And you don’t want a job that feels like it’s eating away at your soul. So when you answer this question, be honest. Then pay attention: How does the hiring manager respond to your interests? Do they share them? Do they seem engaged when you talk about something that matters to you?

Here’s how to give an answer that sounds good and helps you avoid walking right into a job you’ll hate.

Step 1:
Understand why they’re asking

There are two different reasons an interviewer might ask “What are your interests?”:

  • To find out what parts of your job or career you’re most passionate about. Are you a marketing manager who loves creating campaigns for clients in the healthcare space? Are you an IT professional who nerds out about all things cybersecurity? Or do you just love any opportunity to learn more, solve a problem, or come up with creative ideas?
  • To learn more about who you are as a person beyond work. Interviewers want to see how you’d add to the existing team, and might be wondering if you’re “someone they can see themselves enjoying their time with,” says Muse career coach Leto Papadopoulos. How would the small talk be? What can they learn from you? You might “hit it off based on your response if you share interests,” Papadopoulos says. But if not, don’t worry. “At the very least, they can appreciate what you like to do,” she says, and know you’ll have something new and exciting to share.

So how do you know why this particular interviewer is asking about your interests? Most likely, “If this question is at the beginning or end of an interview, it’s a chance to share interests that you’d talk about at a polite dinner party,” as in outside-of-work interests, says Muse career coach Matthew Ford. But “if it’s in the middle, it’s probably more of an ask about what you feel driven to do in your career.”

And if you’re still not sure? Ask. Say something like, “Do you mean outside of work or are you asking more about my professional interests?” and respond accordingly.

Step 2:
Choose a genuine interest

Regardless of why the interviewer is asking about your interests, you need to be honest about what they are. “Be yourself,” Papadoupolos says. “It’s best to find a work environment that suits you.”

If you’re talking about job-centric interests

Look back to the job description or think back on what you’ve already learned about the role and company from interviews. What excites you most about the job? Why did you apply?

Choose something you’re actually interested in and can talk about with some emotion. If you say you’re interested in spreadsheets but can’t back it up with any explanation or a single shred of enthusiasm, you’ll sound either disingenuous or like some sort of job robot created to perform VLOOKUPs—neither of which is super appealing in a coworker.

That’s not to say you can’t be passionate about spreadsheets—you do you. It’s all about what you bring to the rest of your answer. You might explain that you love Excel “because it’s a powerful tool that most people only scratch the surface of. I’ve been able to streamline so many calculations by figuring out the right formula or function and it’s so satisfying when I can solve a problem or realize that I just made a five-step process into a one-step process. Plus, I love when I can teach my teammates how to do something new with it.” Boom, suddenly you sound less like an automaton and more like someone who’s interested in learning more, solving problems, and helping your coworkers with something they may find boring or confusing.

If you’re talking about outside-of-work interests

In this case, “What are your interests?” is very similar to “What are your hobbies?” except that while hobbies are generally activities, interests can be much broader (and you can speak about either or both in your answer, Papadoupolos says).

If you have an interest that’s directly related to the job or you know is shared by people at the company, you can certainly bring that up. For example, if you’re interviewing for a cosmetics company and you love trying out new makeup looks, mention it. If you know that the company hosts bimonthly karaoke parties and you love to sing, talk about that.

Choosing a genuine interest you can speak about with passion will help you make a stronger connection and find the right environment. Personally, a workplace where one of the main bonding activities is a fantasy football league would be a living hell. So I’d never say I’m passionate about fantasy football just to land the job—instead I’d answer honestly and see how the interviewer responds. If I say I love spending time with my dog and they reply with, “We’re a pet friendly office and our Slack channels are full of dog pictures,” great! But if they respond to my interest in current events by saying, “Cool, we’re not big on swapping headlines but we do keep up with Elon Musk’s Twitter feed,” I’m (politely and professionally) running for the hills.

Avoid talking about any interest that might not be appropriate for the workplace. Steer clear of religion and politics—unless you already know that this organization is cool with these discussions or it’s important to you to find out. Otherwise, think: Would you chat about your interest with your grandma over Thanksgiving dinner? If not, maybe choose something a bit more safe for work than your fascination with erotic fiction or how you love clubbing every weekend.

Step 3:
Put your answer together

There’s no set structure for answering “What are your interests?” So think about what you really want your interviewer to know about you, Papadopoulos says, and let that guide you. No matter what kind of interest you’re talking about, you should always include:

  • What your interest is and how you actively interact with it (a brief description)
  • Why it interests you
  • What you get out of the interest: It might help you learn or hone a skill, get exposed to new people or ideas, or give you a chance to unwind. “For example, if you're really into swimming, talk about how that’s your reset time, or how working out helps clear your mind,” Ford says.

If you’re talking about a work-related interest, make sure it’s clear how your interest makes you a stronger candidate. If you’re talking about a personal interest, you might mention a few of the skills the interest has taught you, but you don’t need to directly connect it back to the job at hand.

Step 4:
Check out these example answers

The ways you can answer this question are as varied as the interests you might choose to talk about. But here are a few examples.

If you’re talking about a professional interest:

I’m really interested in what goes into crafting a sales pitch so that it really speaks to the customers as individuals. One of the great things about sales is getting to interact with so many different people, but with those different people come different wants and needs. So I love taking the time after an initial cold call or email to really think on what the lead said and figure out how to pitch to them in a way that makes the product I’m selling the obvious choice. In fact, I’m also taking a marketing class online in my spare time to learn more about how to tailor a message to a target audience. We’ve talked about how your company is launching a number of products in the coming months, and I’d love to help create sales script options for different kinds of customers or various pain points they express.

If you’re talking about an outside-of-work interest:

I’m really passionate about photography. From the time I got my first camera as a kid—it was Pokémon themed—I’ve loved preserving events and experiences through taking pictures. But lately, I’ve gotten more into exploring different elements of what makes a “good” picture—composition, color, lighting, all of that. I live near the park and every weekend, I’ve been going out into nature to take new pictures as I learn about new theories and techniques. Whenever I can, I also like to take photos at events like concerts or parties. It’s so satisfying when I can use artistic and design theories to capture the aspects of these experiences that make them truly worth preserving.

As you answer this question, remember that talking about interests—whether or not they’re shared—is a great way to make a connection. So be prepared to answer any follow-up questions the interviewer might have about your interest and let it unfold as a conversation. For example, if you mention your interest in art, and the interviewer starts gushing about her love for Frida Khalo, you might mention the exhibit you recently saw that displayed personal artifacts alongside her work and ask if they caught it as well. See how it flows from there. You always have a better chance of getting hired if the interviewer leaves feeling like they had a great time talking to you.