Common interview questions and how to answer them
Getting thrown by questions in interviews and application forms is not fun, but the key to avoiding it is simple: preparation. Here are the best ways to answer the most common questions.
Once you've managed to put together the perfect CV and blown away your potential new employer with a super convincing cover letter, it's time to jump the final hurdle of the job application: the interview.
It's natural (inevitable, even) to feel nervous in interviews. If you've done your research, though, they will be so much easier – we promise.
While there are no guarantees, the below questions are some of the most common ones that crop up regularly in job interviews and application forms. Prepare some incredible answers to these, and you'll be off to a very good start.
Common questions asked in job applications
12 common interview questions and the best answers
Here are the most common interview questions for students and graduates, plus how to answer them:
Tell us a bit about yourself
This question's partly used to break the ice and give you the opportunity to introduce yourself, but it can also show the interviewer how engaging, articulate and employable you are. It's your chance to make a good first impression and set the interview off on the right foot.
Tell the interviewer a little about any of your recent accomplishments, like your degree or relevant work experience. Don't go any further back than a few years though, and keep this part informative and – most importantly – concise.
I recently graduated with a History degree from the University of Hull. While studying, I was really involved in student radio, presenting and producing my own breakfast show for two years.
In my final year, I was elected as Station Manager which gave me the responsibility of running and managing the entire station. A big part of the role was marketing the radio station to students to boost our listeners, and that was when I decided to pursue marketing as a career.
Over the summer, I carried out a marketing internship with a local charity, where I helped run their social media, organise events and build partnerships with local businesses. Now that I've graduated, I'm looking to pursue marketing full time, and this is what led me to apply for this role.
Describe yourself in three words
This is your chance to show off how self-aware you are. Prepare for this question by reading the job description really carefully beforehand, as this will include an accurate description of 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 over-used or more colloquial terms, and opt for something a bit different.
For example, if you're usually described as 'friendly', you could turn this into 'approachable' or 'sociable'.
Resilient – I love rising to challenges and facing tasks which push me out of my comfort zone. I had one particularly tough module at university, but I was determined to do well in it – from putting in the extra hours and working hard, I achieved a first in the exam.
Adaptable – I enjoy learning new skills and working in different environments. Whether I'm writing a Geography essay or dealing with customers at my part-time job, I know how to tackle different situations with positivity and enthusiasm.
Approachable – My part-time job is a customer-facing role so I work with a welcoming and approachable manner, listening carefully to what others have to say.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
This isn't an easy question to answer, but the interviewer just wants to get an idea of what your ambitions are to gauge whether you plan on making a long-term contribution to the company.
Avoid overly ambitious responses like, "I want to be CEO of the company". You want to come across as realistic in your ambitions, and don't want to imply that you're the kind of person who'd trample over colleagues to get to the top.
Aim for responses that are in line with what the role offers and will suggest you plan to still be contributing to the company in five years' time.
I want to be making successful contributions in my role, with the responsibility of managing my own clients and generating substantial revenue for the company.
I'd also really like to progress to a position which involves management or team leadership, helping to direct the future of the company and develop new policies.
What are your strengths?
This question gives you the chance to demonstrate how perfect you are for the role. As with describing yourself, ensure the strengths you mention are tailored to suit the job.
For example, if you're going for a role that 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 with, concentrate on telling them how quickly you can adapt and learn new skills.
It's easy to go a bit overboard with this one, so make sure you big yourself up without coming across as arrogant.
My main strengths are my ability to think on my feet in challenging situations, and come up with creative solutions when needed.
Both my part-time job and my role as president of the hockey society show that I'm comfortable with positions of responsibility, and that I know how to lead a team.
Finally, the consistently high marks I achieved in my Spanish degree show that I have very strong language skills.
What are your weaknesses?
When it comes to weaknesses, stick to qualities that aren't too disastrous, and focus on things you can easily improve on (and say you're already working on them).
However, avoid the tactic of turning weaknesses into positives. Weaknesses such as, "I work too hard" or, "I'm a perfectionist" are seen as lazy and interviewers can see straight through them.
I get quite nervous presenting or speaking in large groups, but from doing a lot of presentations at university this year, it's starting to feel a lot less daunting.
However, I do know that there's still room for improvement here, so I'd love to work on my public speaking further in this role.
What were you doing during your gaps in employment?
For many students and graduates, this interview question may not even come up – that is, if you've followed the traditional route of school, college, then university. If you do have some gaps though, turn them into a positive.
It's unlikely that you did absolutely nothing for any period of time, so just think creatively about what you really achieved. This will help you describe your experiences during those gaps in education and/or employment as positively as possible in job interviews and application forms.
After graduating, I was looking for a challenge and wanted to discover new cultures as well as improve my communication skills.
I travelled around the world for nine months in order to experience different cultures. Over the nine months, I had to be extremely creative, and I worked hard to improve my organisational skills.
Why have you applied for this role?
Here, you should match your skills and experience to the job description to demonstrate how suitable you are for the role.
Pick out a few key points and give examples of how you've proven that you could excel, and avoid any answers that make reference to pay or benefits.
Having graduated with a degree in Engineering, I'm keen to pursue a career in this field.
During my time spent working with company X in the past, I managed to pick up many key skills needed for this role too. My real abilities lie in [example] and the job role advertised fits hand-in-hand with this.
Why would graduates in your subject be good for this role?
Students will often face a question like this in an interview or on a job application form. To maximise your chances of success, you should be mentioning specific skills which are related to your degree and explaining why these would be useful in the role.
If your degree isn't directly linked to your chosen career, don't try to gloss over this – you could use it to your advantage. Show how your personal experiences and education lets you approach the job from a unique, interesting perspective.
My degree in Psychology has prepared me for a role in marketing as I'm familiar with the different ways that consumers process information and make decisions.
The key to a successful marketing campaign is tapping into the human subconscious and encouraging consumers to think in a certain way – I believe my knowledge of the human mind would equip me well for this.Check out our template to create the best possible CV.
Talk us through your CV
It goes without saying, but you should make sure you know your CV inside out before you walk into an interview – this will allow you to talk freely and confidently about your experiences.
As we explained earlier, you may need to explain gaps in your education and employment, but try to chat about them as benefits (e.g. explain to your interviewer how spending your gap year travelling has made you more employable).
If you're asked why you left a certain job, try not to be negative. Rather than say you quit because your boss was difficult or the pay was bad, say that you felt you got all you could from the role and you now feel ready for bigger challenges.
Whatever you do, make sure you don't just repeat what's written on your CV – this is your chance to elaborate and add extra detail that you didn't have enough room to include.
What has been your greatest achievement to date?
Your 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 alternative achievement that your interviewer won't be expecting. For example, you could mention completing a marathon, taking an online course, organising a charity event or learning another language.
Relate these to the skills the job role might require like perseverance, taking your own initiative or being a great team player.
In my final year of university I helped to organise a careers event with local employers to help students see what graduate job opportunities there were in the surrounding area.
Organising and marketing the event was incredibly challenging, but a successful turnout on the day made it all worthwhile, and confirmed that recruitment's the ideal industry for me.Waiting for a call from a potential employer? Here's how to prepare for a phone or Skype interview.
Give details of your extracurricular activities and interests
For this interview question, select a few of your interests outside of university and explain what skills you've developed as a result and what you've learned.
Generic statements such as, "I enjoy listening to music" should be avoided. Pick examples of your extracurricular activities that demonstrate initiative, an ability to work in a team and communication skills.
During my time at university, I was part of a wide range of societies and clubs.
For a period of 18 months, I was part of the team that ran the music society and my role as events organiser meant that I had to be very precise so that everything ran smoothly.
I was also part of the football team which allowed me to improve my skills as both a team player and a leader.
Why do you want to work for this company?
This is another way of asking, "Why do you want this job?" – but it's vital to talk specifically about the company in your answer. It's your opportunity to show your understanding of the company's values and ethos, and match them with your own.
The best way to tackle this question is through lots of prior research. Take the time to get to know the company, and make sure you understand where they are in the industry in relation to their competitors.
Mentioning one of their competitors in order to compare them positively will work well if you can explain why this company appeals to your work ethic more.
It could be even more impressive if you refer to a time 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.
Your explanation of why you want to work there should ultimately show you have a genuine interest in the company. If you really want to work for them, they're more likely to want to work with you.
I'm really keen to work for this company as you're doing some pioneering things in the world of advertising.
I like the company culture and it's commitment to diversity – and I was particularly impressed by the award you won last year for this.
This company is a leader within its field and the team-based working environment is definitely one I feel that I could grow and excel in.
What are your salary expectations?
Anything to help you start paying off your Student Loan, right? Wrong.
Think of this interview question in terms of how much you think you're worth, not how much you need.
The average graduate salary is around £24,000 a year, although many salaries can be much lower or higher than that. They'll naturally vary depending on your degree and your previous experience – check out our guide to the average graduate salaries for your degree for a rough idea.
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 go super low and say you want £14,000, just to guarantee you get the job – you may end up getting paid just that, and it'll look bad if you undersell yourself too much.
Tell us about a time when you...
Competency-based questions often start with the classic, "Tell us about a time when you...". This could quiz you on particular occasions, like when you've:
- Helped resolve a dispute in class
- Worked well as part of a team
- Balanced several tasks at once
- Responded to a challenge creatively.
The best way to answer competency questions is to use the STAR technique.
What is the STAR method for answering interview questions?
- Situation – Describe the situation (briefly!)
- Task – Describe what the task was and what was required of you
- Action – Explain what action you took to address the problem
- Results – Tell them what happened as a result of your action.
Try to go into your interview with three or four 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 interviewers and recruiters will spot this a mile off).
Example STAR answer
Situation – At university, I worked as the editor of the student newspaper and one day, just hours before the print deadline, we encountered a problem which meant we had to pull the front page story.
Task – I had a very short amount of time to find another story to fill the gap, and get the full edition ready in time for the deadline.
Action – I called upon the team to use their contacts at different universities around the country to compare the prices of products at student unions around the UK.
Results – By delegating the task to others, I was able to get the data we needed and an article written in time for the deadline, showing my ability to think of creative solutions to problems, lead a team and cope well under pressure.Check out these free online courses with qualifications that will boost your CV and improve your job prospects.
Have you got any questions for us?
Asking questions at the end of an interview may be the last thing on your mind when you're desperate to get out of there ASAP. But, make sure you use this opportunity to ask questions and show an interest in finding out more.
It's not unusual for interviewers to be swayed at the last minute by a great question, so don't underestimate this bit.
The more specific your questions are about the role and company, the better. If you're really struggling to think of anything to ask, though, don't worry – we've got some suggestions.
Good questions to ask in an interview
Here are some great questions to ask at the end of an interview:
- What is the company's culture like?
- Who would I be reporting to?
- Who would I be working alongside?
- How would you expect the ideal candidate to have progressed in the role in six months' time?
- What do you like most about working for this company?
- What are the main challenges someone in this position might face?
- What is the expected length of the graduate role, and how will this lead to further progression in the company?
You want to ask questions which demonstrate that you're interested in learning more about the company, or questions that will help you elaborate further on your qualifications.
For example, if your interviewer mentions a concern they have about your previous experience, you've created an opportunity for you to convince them you're definitely up for the job.
Just be careful not to ask them to repeat something that's already been covered, or it will look like you've not been listening.
Have you tried finding a job using recruitment agencies? It could help (a lot!). Check out our guide for advice on using them.