Got an interview coming up? The best thing that you can do to prepare is to think through the questions you're likely to be asked and formulate answers ahead of time. Here are the seven most common interview questions, along with what a strong answer will look like.
1. "Tell me about yourself." This question means "give me a broad overview of who you are, professionally speaking, before we dive into specifics." You should prepare about a one-minute answer that summarizes where you're at in your career and what you're especially good at, with an emphasis on your most recent job. Keep your personal life out of it; your interviewer isn't asking to hear about your family, hobbies or where you grew up.
2. "What interests you about this job?" Your answer here should focus on what about the substance of the role most interests you. You should not talk about benefits, salary, the short commute or anything else unrelated to the day-to-day work you'd be doing, or you'll signal that you're not particularly enthusiastic about the work itself. Interviewers want to hire people who have carefully considered whether this is a job they'd be glad to work at every day, and that means focusing on the work itself, not what the job can do for you.
3. "Why are you thinking about leaving your job?" Or, if you're unemployed, " Why did you leave your last job?" This isn't the time to talk about conflicts with your manager or complaints about your co-workers. Job seekers are commonly advised to answer this by saying that they're seeking new challenges, but that answer only rings true if you're specific about what those new challenges are and how this job will provide them in a way your last job didn't. It's also fine to cite things like a recent or planned move, financial instability at your organization or other reasons that are genuinely true -- just stay away from badmouthing employers or complaining about work.
4. "Why would you excel at this job?" This is your chance to make a case for why you'd shine in the job -- and if you don't know the answer to that, it's unlikely that your interviewer will figure it out either. Since this gets to the crux of the whole interview, you should have a strong answer prepared for this ahead of time. A strong answer will point to your skills and track record of experience and tie them to the needs of the job.
5. "Tell me about a time when ..." Good interviewers will probe into times in your past when you had to exercise the skills required for the job. For instance: Tell me about when you had to take initiative / had to deal with a difficult customer / had to solve a problem for a client ... and so forth. Make sure to prepare in advance for these questions, so that you're not struggling to come up with real-life past examples. Spend some time brainstorming about what skills you're likely to need in the job and what challenges you're likely to face. Then think about what examples from your past work you can use as "evidence" that you can meet those needs. When you construct your answer, discuss the challenge you faced, how you responded and the outcome you achieved.
6. "What would you do in your first 90 days if you got this position?" Interviewers are looking for answers that reveal how you set goals and problem-solve, and whether you're ambitious without being unrealistic. You should also acknowledge that you'll need to take time to get to know the team, what's working and what can be improved before you make any big decisions -- but your answer should still get into specifics to the extent you reasonably can.
7. "What salary range are you looking for?" Job seekers are almost always asked this question, yet too often fail to prepare for it and then are caught off-guard when the topic comes up. If you wing your answer to this, you risk lowballing yourself and ending up with a salary offer below what you might have otherwise received. It's crucial to research the market rate for the job ahead of time. Don't let discomfort with talking about money thwart your ability to negotiate well for yourself.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.