Jobs & Careers

Common interview questions (and the best way to answer them)

As anyone who's ever landed a job in their lives will testify, job interviews can be nerve-wracking. The best thing you can do is come well prepared!
interview nervesSo you've managed to put together the perfect CV and blown away your potential  new employer with a super convincing covering letter – now it's time to jump the final hurdle: the interview!

Everyone works differently in an interview situation. Some find themselves blabbing on and on in a quest to avoid any awkward silences, while others turn to amateur dramatics in order to present an extremely confident versions of themselves (FYI neither of these techniques are particularly advisable).

However, while each interview candidate is different, you can generally rely on the interview questions being at least a little consistent across the board.

We've put some of the most common interview questions into categories for you, so they can be used as guidelines for putting together your case for employment on the big day – no amateur dramatics necessary!

Still on the hunt for your perfect role? We've got 12 tips for finding your ideal graduate job here.

'About you' questions

Modesty is a common British trait, but there's no room for that in job interviews! Think of yourself as a sales person trying to sell a product (yourself) – you wouldn't dream of telling your potential buyers how that product is just 'OK', would you? Same goes for marketing yourself.

More general questions about yourself and your experience normally come at the start of an interview, and although most interviewees think this is the easiest part, if you arrive unprepared you might find yourself drawing a blank and muttering your way through.

To avoid the rambling, let's look at how best to answer these kinds of questions.

"Tell us a bit about yourself…"

fairytale introThis is partly used to break the ice and give you the opportunity to get into the flow of speaking, and partly to show the interviewers how concise and articulate you are. This is your chance to make a good first impression and set the interview off on the right foot.

As polite as the question sounds, the interviewer doesn't actually want to know where you were born or what you got up to at the weekend – keep your answer brief and relevant to the job role!

Tell the interviewer a little about any recent accomplishments such as your newly-completed degree or any current and relevant work experience that you are partaking in. Don't go any further back than a few years, and keep this part informative but most importantly – concise!

Use this as an opportunity to also set yourself apart from other graduates by telling them about achievements you've made outside of uni that have made you more employable as well as a few words on how your personal interests have shaped the last few years for you.

"Describe yourself in three words…"

meThis is your chance to show off how articulate and self-aware you are. Prepare for this question by reading the job description carefully beforehand, as it's likely this will mention the kind of person they're looking for.

Draw out the key terms and use these as a guideline to think about how these apply to you personally.

You also need to be fairly honest with this one. Try to avoid the over-used or more colloquial terms, and opt for something a bit different.

For example, if you're described as "friendly," you could turn this into "approachable," "positive," or "a good communicator" (yeah, we know that's technically three words in itself but they'll let you off with that one!).

"Where do you see yourself in five years time?"

fortune tellerThis question has been known to break some graduates into a panicky, sweaty mess – and understandably!

This isn't an easy question to answer, but as fear-inducing as it is, you can get this bit right. The interviewer just wants to get an idea of what your ambitions are, and so gauge if they can see you making a long-term contribute to their company.

Avoid any sorts of overly-ambitious responses such as "I want to be CEO of the company" – you want to come across realistic in your ambitions, and also avoid looking like you're willing to trample all over your colleagues in order to get what you want!

Remember that companies looking to hire graduates are looking for team players who are keen to learn and adapt, so major ambitions for higher roles are not so relevant at this stage in your career.

Aim for responses that are in line with what the role can offer and will suggest you plan to still be contributing to the company in five year's time. For example, "I want to be making successful contributions in my position, such as [insert role-specific goal here]. Once I have achieved all I can with this, I'd like to aim for further challenges such as management and team leadership".

"What are your strengths and weaknesses?"

interviewThis question really gives you a chance to demonstrate how perfect you'd be for the role. As with describing yourself, ensure your strengths are tailored to suit the job at hand.

For example, if you're going for a role which involves dealing with customers, say you're a good communicator and negotiator. Similarly, if your role includes using technology that you don't currently have experience in, concentrate on telling them how quickly you're able to adapt and learn new skills.

When it comes to weaknesses, stick to qualities that aren't too potentially disastrous, and focus on things you can easily improve on (and say you're already working on them!).

For example, "I get nervous presenting or speaking in large groups, but since completing numerous presentations for my finals this year, the extra practice has made it a lot less daunting. However, I know there's definitely still room for improvement there."

Avoid the tactic of turning weaknesses into a positive. Weaknesses such as "I work too hard" are seen as lazy and interviewers will be able to see straight through them!

Experience-based questions

If you're a recent graduate, your interview questions are likely to be tailored towards your uni and work experience. It's natural that job roles wont be directly related to your degree subject, so it's important to be aware of your transferable skills.

Good transferable skills to consider include: the ability to work well within a team, good communication skills, computer literacy, organisational skills, research skills, etc.

"Why would graduates in your subject be good for this role?"

Finger with a question markCredit: Tsahi Levent-Levi – FlickrPerhaps you're an English Literature graduate going for an accountancy role, or you're hopping from a degree in Philosophy to a career in Politics.

Well, first of all – congrats! That must have been one convincing CV and covering letter you had!

Check out our template to creating the best CV you've ever written!

For a question like this one, you should try mentioning particular skills that are common in someone graduating in your field and why these are specifically suited to the role.

For example, how your degree in Psychology sets you up well for success in a marketing role as you're familiar with the different ways that consumers process information and make decisions. Highlight the fact that coming from a different academic background allows you to approach the job from a different perspective, and shouldn't be considered a disadvantage.

This is also a great opportunity to mention any forms of role-specific skills that you've picked up throughout your life. For example, if it is accountancy then you might want to mention how you budgeted your finances at university so you could go to the pub every weekend (Disclaimer: do not use this example).

"Talk us through your CV…"

cvGoes without saying, but make sure you know your CV inside and out before you walk in the door, as this will allow you to talk freely and confidently about your experiences.

You may need to explain gaps in education and employment, but try to turn this to your advantage (for example, tell your interviewer about how your gap year travelling has made you way more employable).

If asked why you left a certain job role, try not to be negative. Rather than say you left the fast food industry because you were fed up of smelling like greasy chips, say that you felt you got all you could from this role and are ready for bigger challenges.

The interviewer is giving you a chance to elaborate on your CV at this point, so it would be rude not to take up their offer. There's likely to be parts of your CV you'd have liked to have more space to elaborate on, and this is your chance to let them know the whole picture.

"What has been your greatest achievement to date?"

successbabyYour most recent achievement may be finishing uni, but just imagine how many other graduates will be saying the same thing! This won't make you stand out from the crowd.

Consider mentioning an alternate achievement that your interviewer won't be expecting, like completing a marathon, organising a charity event, taking an online course or learning another language. Relate these to the skills the job role might require such as perseverance, taking your own initiative or being great at teamwork.

Check out these free online courses that will pimp up your CV and improve your job prospects.

Company-based questions

It may be true that you've desperately sent out applications left, right and centre applying for everything from sandwich artist jobs to business graduate schemes. But your interviewer doesn't need to know that (and you shouldn't tell them)!

They want to know why you think their company is special and why you've chosen to apply to them over their competitors. In a way, they're looking for you to massage their egos whilst showing your commitment.

Don't forget that interviewers are just people like you and they love to hear good things about their business!

"Why do you want to work for us?"

job interviewThe best way to tackle this question is through lots of prior research. Take the time to get to know the company, as well as understand where they are in the industry in relation to their competitors.

Mentioning one of their competitors in order to compare them positively will also work well if you can explain why this company appeals to your work ethic more.

It might be even more impressive if you can mention any time you know of that they were in the spotlight or press for something they've done, and why this was of interest to you or brought the company onto your radar.

Alternatively, try to pick up on anything unusual or unique about the company and state why this appeals to you, for example it may be a family run business.

This answer should ultimately show you have taken a genuine interest in the company and aren't simply applying because you saw there was a vacancy.

"What kind of salary are you looking for?"

Tiny turtle - show me the moneyAnything to help you start paying off your student debt, right? Wrong! Think of this question in terms of how much you think you're worth, not how much you need.

The average graduate salary is around £25,000 per annum, although many salaries start at around the £21,000 mark. Salaries will naturally vary depending on your degree and any additional experience you might have – check out our guide to current expected graduate salaries for your degree here. Don't be afraid to ask for an appropriate salary!

Be aware that some employers ask what your expectations are so that they can gauge what they can get away with paying you. Don't say you want £12,000 just to guarantee you get the job, because you may end up getting paid just that, and it will look bad if you undersell yourself too much.

Competency questions

It's natural that most graduates won't yet have gained a great deal of work experience that will be relevant to their career path. Therefore, interviewers will try to suss out their compatibility for the role by discussing previous performances in various different situations.

This normally comes in the form of competency questions. Prior to the interview, think of examples which display qualities such as leadership, decision-making and responsibility as these are what competency questions are designed to address.

You can find more tips on how to prepare for this part of the interview here.

"Tell us about a time when you…"

competencySome competency-based question examples would be the following:

Tell us about a time when you…

  • helped resolve a dispute in the workplace
  • showed great customer service
  • made an important but difficult decision.

A well-known and effective way of answering this type of question is the STAR technique. This requires you to:

Situation: describe the situation (in brief!)

Task: what was the task was and what it required

Action: what action you took to achieve this

Results: what happened as a result of your action

Try to go in to your interview with around 3-4 versatile examples that can be transferred across various different questions. Our main advice for these sorts of questions would be to keep it concise, and don't lie (your interviewer will spot this a mile off)!

What questions you should be asking

Having your chance to ask questions may be the last thing on your mind, as you're desperate to get out of the interview ASAP!

However, make sure you use this opportunity to ask questions and show an interest – it's not unusual for interviewers to be swayed last minute thanks to good questioning from a candidate.

"So, have you got any questions for us?"

panelinterviewWe'll give you a clue: "What's your company policy on Monday absences?" is not the best question to be asking!

If you're struggling to think of anything to say for this bit, a good question to ask is, "What would you say are the most important skills needed for a candidate to be great at this job?". Make sure you take note of the answer they give you!

Alternatively, practical questions such as "what is the expected length of the graduate role, and what would be the next steps in the company following this?" demonstrate you're looking for a long-term commitment to the company and aren't simply looking to use it as a stepping stone to something bigger and better.

If your interviewer is a real talker, all this may already have been covered. If so, simply say "I was going to ask about X, but you've mentioned that, so I think we've covered everything". Be careful not to ask them to repeat something that's already been covered, or it will look like you've not been listening.

Final tips…

exhaustedShow some enthusiasm! You might be exhausted from all the applications you've been sending out, and maybe this is your fifth interview of the week. However, the keys is to give your interviewer the impression that this is your one and only interview by showing a real interest and being enthusiastic about both the company and role.

Another key to nailing your interview is to do as much research and preparation as you can handle. Knowing the company, the role and your CV inside out will allow you to articulate yourself best and fight of any nerves you might have lurking.

You've already done some preparation by reading this article, so on your way!

If you have any common questions that you know of and would like to know the best answer, then give us a heads up in the comment section below.

Looking for more interviews tips? Find out how to prepare for the big day, or read more general advice for the interview questions.

Most importantly – good luck!

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