Common interview questions and how to answer them
Being taken off guard with an unexpected interview question is everyone's worst nightmare, so make sure to prepare for the most common ones...
Everyone works differently in an interview situation, be it in-person or via Skype. Some find themselves blabbing on and on in a quest to avoid awkward silences, while others struggle to even get one coherent sentence out.
Since neither of these are going to help you present the best version of yourself, your key to success is preparation.
While there's no guarantees, the below questions are some of the most common that crop up in job interviews time and time again. Prepare some kickass answers to these, and you'll be off to a flying start!
There's no room for modesty in job interviews! Think of yourself as a salespersonn trying to sell a product: yourself. You wouldn't dream of telling your potential buyers how that product is just 'ok', would you?
General questions about yourself and your experience normally come at the start of an interview. They're designed to ease you into the interview, but 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 you can best answer these kinds of questions.
Tell us a bit about yourself
This 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.
Tell the interviewer a little about any recent accomplishments, such as your degree or any relevant work experience. Don't go any further back than a few years though, and keep this part informative but most importantly, concise!
You could also use this as an opportunity to 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 your personal interests.
I studied History at the University of Hull, where I graduated with a 2:1. While studying I was heavily involved in student radio, presenting and producing my own breakfast show for two years.
In my final year I was elected as Station Manager, giving me the responsibility of running and managing the entire station. A big part of my 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 summer I carried out a marketing internship with a local charity, where I helped run their social media, organise events, and implement 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 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 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' or 'sociable'.
Resilient - I enjoy rising to a challenge, and being presented with tasks which push me out of my comfort zone
Adaptable - I love 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've learnt to always be welcoming and approachable, and to always listen to what others 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 such as "I want to be CEO of the company". You want to come across realistic in your ambitions, and don't want to imply that you're the kind of person who would trample all over your colleagues to get to the top.
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.
I want to be making successful contributions in my position, with the responsibility of managing my own clients and generating substantial revenue for the company.
I'd also really like to progress to a role which involves management or team leadership, helping to direct the future of the company and implement new policies.
What are your strengths?
This question really gives you a chance to demonstrate how perfect you'd be for the role. As with describing yourself, ensure the strengths you mention 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.
It's easy to go a bit too overboard with this one, so make sure you big yourself up without coming across 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 strong language skills.
What are your weaknesses?
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!).
However, 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!
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 here, and I'm really looking forward to using this role as a way to progress in this area.
If you're a recent graduate, your interview questions are likely to be tailored towards your uni course and work experience. The job role you're going for might not 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, research skills, a proven track record of meeting deadlines and independent thinking.
Why would graduates in your subject be good for this role?
Perhaps 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.
For a question like this, you should be mentioning particular skills that are common in someone graduating in your field and why these are specifically suited to the role.
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.
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.
They 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 will equip me well for this.
Talk us through your CV...
It goes without saying, but make sure you know your CV inside 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 your 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.
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, 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.
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 are in the surrounding area.
Organising and marketing the event was incredibly challenging, but a successful turnout on the day made it all worthwhile, and solidified my commitment to pursuing a career in recruitment.
You might have 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.
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?
The 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 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 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.
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.
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.
What are your salary expectations?
Anything 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 £23,000 a year, although many salaries start much lower or much higher than that. They'll naturally vary depending on your degree and your previous experience – check out our guide to current expected graduate salaries for your degree here.
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 - you may end up getting paid just that, and it will look bad if you undersell yourself too much.
You might not have gained a great deal of work experience relevant to your career path yet. Therefore, interviewers will try to suss out your 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.
Tell us about a time when you...
Arguably the most common competency-based question is the 'tell us about a time when you...'. This could quiz you on occasions such as when you have:
- helped resolve a dispute in the workplace
- showed great customer service
- made a difficult decision under pressure.
A well-known and effective way of answering this type of question is to use the STAR technique.
What is the STAR method for answering interview questions?
Situation: Describe the situation (in brief!)
Task: Describe what the task was and what it 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 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)!
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.
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!
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.
Have you got any questions for us?
Here's a list of a few good questions to ask the employer at the end of an interview:
- How would you describe the company's culture?
- Do you have any reservations about my qualifications or previous experience?
- Who do you think would be the ideal candidate for this position?
- Who would I be reporting to? Who would I be working alongside?
- What do you like most about working for this company?
- What are the main challenges someone in this position will 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 which 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.
Interview top tips
Show 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, you still need to give your interviewer the impression that this is your one and only interview by showing a real interest in 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 off any nerves you might have.
You've already done some sound preparation by reading this article - so good luck!
If you have any common questions that you know of and would like to know the best answer to, then give us a heads up in the comment section below.