Whether you’re applying for a wait staff position at the restaurant around the corner or for your biggest gig yet at the top of your company, there are a few basic questions you can expect to be asked at any job interview. And while we can’t tell you exactly what to say (that, of course, depends on your individual experience and background), we can give you the basic formulas to help you nail each question.
Here, we asked business coaches and hiring managers how to ace every common job interview question, from “What are your weaknesses?” to “What is your dream job?” We promise you’ll never be confused about how to tell someone “a little bit more about yourself” again. And for examples of exactly what not to say, check out these 15 Worst Answers You Can Give in a Job Interview.
“Tell me a little bit about yourself.”
It’s the ultimate opening question, which means you’ve got to nail it. Keep things short, sweet, and memorable with a concise 90-second response, says Denise Dudley, business consultant and author of Work It! Get In, Get Noticed, Get Promoted. “Briefly mention your personal and professional background,” she says. “But don’t waste time reciting what’s on your résumé.”
Instead, use this question to make a high-energy first impression. “As soon as possible, launch into your dazzling array of killer attributes,” she says. “You love challenges. You thrive on crazy deadlines. You’re a problem solver, a peacekeeper, or a natural leader. Wow your interviewer with palpable energy and perceivable enthusiasm.” And if you need some help in that department, try one of these 50 Ways to Be a Higher-Energy Person Immediately.
“What are your strengths?”
“Interviewers are expecting you to strut your stuff, so this is no time to be humble or self-effacing,” says Dudley. “The old standbys are still the most popular strengths: an ability to work well with others (co-workers, clients, bosses), organizational skills, self-direction, and leadership skills—in that order.”
And don’t waste valuable air time touting strengths that don’t relate to the job. “Every single minute of the job interview is precious real estate, in terms of selling yourself, so match your strengths to the strengths the interviewer is probably looking for,” she says. Your knack for debate is totally irrelevant to your career as an executive assistant.
“What are your weaknesses?”
You know you’re not perfect and so does your interviewer (heck, they’re not perfect themselves!). That said, don’t totally throw yourself under the bus on this one. “If you say you’re no good with numbers and you’re interviewing for an accounting position, we have a problem,” says Tim Toterhi, an executive coach and founder of Plotline Leadership and the author of The HR Guide to Getting and Crushing Your Dream Job.
“On the other hand, if you say something like, ‘I’m a perfectionist’ or ‘I try too hard,’ you’re going to get an eye roll. Be honest and strategic. Pick something that is an ancillary part of the role, convey that you’ve received feedback about the weakness, and then, most importantly, tell me how you are going to fix it.” Doing your interview over the phone? Learn the 18 Phone Interview Tips for Talking Your Way to the Job You Want
“Why are you interested in working here?”
Hopefully, you actually do want to work at the company, which means you can give a genuine and enthusiastic answer to this question (and if you can’t, you might want to reconsider your motivations). “I always tell my candidates to do research on the company and then use relevant news or press to say why they want to work there,” says Rona Borre, the founder and CEO of staffing agency Instant Alliance.
“I also recommend saying something about the job description or posting that enticed you to apply. Even if you’re applying to dozens of jobs, something stuck out about this one that made you submit your résumé. Take some time and craft an answer to this question. Even if it’s never asked, it’s a great way to wrap up the interview to show your excitement for the role.”
“Tell me about a recent challenge you faced and how you overcame it.”
Whether you’re a born raconteur or not, you’ve got to tell a story for this one. Fortunately, there’s a simple formula to make sure you hit all your plot points. “Think about the STAR approach: Situation, Task, Action and Result,” says Matthew W. Burr, human resources consultant at Burr Consulting, LLC.
Walk the interviewer through a quick sentence or two for each point, and make sure to include as many details as possible (if there’s any data or other type of positive feedback you received that could help illustrate your success, you’ll definitely want to include that). A strong response to this question could help move your application to the top of the pile.
“Tell me about a recent accomplishment.”
“As a hiring manager I want to see that you faced a challenge, took action, and that your efforts provided results,” says Toterhi. “[The accomplishment you discuss] can be an example from work, volunteering, or even school. The size and scope will change during the course of your career. What I’m looking for is a pattern of thought and action.” And if you need some help doing that effectively, learn these 25 Genius Tricks for Working Smarter and Not Harder.
“What’s your dream job?”
Applying to a job in advertising but really want to be a magician? You probably shouldn’t bring that up. “Think of a job that could be obtained with the skills you’ll develop or the relationships you’ll build in this job,” says Borre. “In my opinion, short of saying that you’re looking to take the interviewer’s role in five years, you can’t shoot too high. As an employer, I want ambitious employees and this question lets me know what they hope to achieve and how I can best motivate them. Always try to tie back you answer to something that will be relevant to the job or industry you are interviewing with.”
“Why are you leaving your current job?”
Frame your response to this question as moving toward an opportunity rather than away from a less-than desirable situation. And whatever you do, don’t bash your current employer. “Even though many interviewers are authentically interested in why you’re looking for a new job, they also want to see where you go with your answer,” says Dudley. “This question helps them get to know your temperament, and whether you can answer a challenging question without launching into a negative diatribe.”
“What do you think we could be doing better?”
As an outsider, there’s a lot you don’t know about the processes and challenges within the company you’re applying to. So instead of reciting a half-informed laundry list of things you think could be improved, approach this question delicately.
“I suggest starting with something positive, even if you’re not asked,” writes Jaime Petkanics on the job search blog The Prepary. “For example: ‘Something I think the company is doing great is X–and one thing that I think could make even more of an impact is Y.” If you get the job, there will be plenty of time for blunt honesty later.
“What can you offer us that no one else can?”
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question—which means it’s a great opportunity to let your passion and enthusiasm shine through. “If you have an incredible thirst to learn new things, talk about how that will positively impact your work even though it’s not a direct requirement for the role,” says Borre. “Whatever is one of your strongest attributes that is not commonly required for a role, discuss how that would help position you for unique success in the role that you are pursuing.”
“Why was there a gap in your employment?”
Maybe you learned fluent Spanish by spending a gap year in Spain. Or you gained some serious time-management skills after taking a few years off to raise a family. “Keep it positive,” says Dudley. “Since you already know the interviewer is going to ask about the gap, be prepared to share what you’ve learned by being away from the working world.”
And if your gap was due to a personal or confidential reason, remember that you’re under no obligation to share any details with your interviewer—just avoid sounding too mysterious. Say something simple, like “I needed some personal time off from work, which I took, and now I’m ready and eager to resume my place in the business world,” says Dudley. A respectful interviewer will let it go at that.
“Why were you fired?”
Obviously, you can’t lie here (and if you do, you can expect to be fired again if anyone finds out). “Professional interviewers have heard it all,” says Dudley. Instead of trying to dodge this question, use it as an opportunity to get honest. “Say that your skill set didn’t end up matching with the job as well as you and your manager originally anticipated,” she says. “Or that your skill set wasn’t what the company was looking for, even though you and the hiring manager thought so in the interview.” For more incredible advice, check out the 40 Best Ways to Jumpstart Your Career