Top 10 Interview Questions and Answers
What stands between you and that great career move is often an interviewer's toughest questions. Handle these tricky interview questions with skill and you'll level the interview playing field and enjoy a better chance of getting the job.
Ever clenched your jaw at a tough interview question? If not, it’s only a matter of time until you do, or you’re working for daddy. I used to hate job interviews, and I confess that I usually wasn’t invited back for a second interview. I got so frustrated with the questions, so I researched psychology and business books, and I published a book on the top 100 questions. Yes, I guess this makes me an obsessive freak. This article distills my top 10 toughest interview questions of all time and shares what I consider to be solid answers in our Q&A.
Don’t get caught out by the questions. There’s a psychological game going on, so arrive prepared to win that career move. Before you can get to flexing your salary negotiation skills, you must first successfully navigate at least some of the important earlier stages of your interview Q&As.
Asking questions of your own balances out the interview power dynamics. It also shows your interviewer that you’re a thinker who has done your homework. Answer the questions you like, and reserve some of my aikido-like counter questions for the interviewer’s toughest questions. To learn how to leverage the best salary package, check out one of our negotiation courses.
Your Top 10 Questions and Answers
1. Why do you want to work for this company?
DON’T play into the interviewer’s hands here. This question is loaded with the presupposition that you want them. It’s important to avoid giving the game away too early.
“While I liked what I read on your website and in the job specification, I’m not yet convinced that this job is right for me. Would you mind telling me why you like working for this company?”
After they’ve sold the company to you, you’re on a more even playing field. You can then go into specifics about what you like about the industry, company, and position.
2. What makes you think you can do this job?
You risk coming off sounding conceited or the interviewer cross-questioning you if you answer this one too early. Instead, consider the following answers as possibilities.
“I don’t yet have enough information about the position and your company to tell you that I can do this job.”
Continuation 1: “Since you’ve invited me to this interview, could you please tell me what you see in my qualifications and experience that make you believe I can do this job?” (I’m not looking for assurance from them; I answer and ask with confidence in order to obtain information.) If the interviewer does not have a copy of my résumé present, I will instead ask if he or she has had the opportunity to review my résumé.
Continuation 2: “Would you mind if I asked a few questions I’ve prepared to better understand the job first?” The employer would be unreasonable to say “no,” and you can come back to answer their question later once you know more about the position.
3. In what area do you feel you need improvement?
A more subtle form of: “What are your two weakest areas?”
Option 1: Mention weaknesses that won’t affect this position much. If it’s a position that involves constant change and challenge, then mention that: “I get bored easily doing the same thing over.” (If it’s true, of course.) If it’s an early start, mention that: “I have more energy earlier in the day, and tend to become tired in the early evening. This was a problem in a previous shift job.”
Option 2: Talk about an area that you’re currently working on, or have recently solved. “This position requires project management experience. I’ve recently taken a course on MS Project, and have just successfully delivered a freelance project where I project managed outsourced developers.”
Option 3: Talk about weaknesses that they can already see on your résumé. Be the first to bring these up. If the interviewer brings them up instead, you’ll likely be on the back foot and will lose the opportunity to stay on top of things during the interview: “Your role has staff management responsibilities, and as you can see from my résumé, I haven’t yet had direct report responsibilities.”
Of course, if you have vacation or part-time staff management experience, mention it here. Don’t try to excuse any lack of experience or play the experience up, or you may come across as trying to compensate for a weakness.
Remember: The company invited you in for the interview despite this weakness, so if they weren’t overly phased by your weakness, you shouldn’t be either.
Continuation: “After reading through my résumé, what do you see as my areas for future improvement?” You don’t want to leave the interview room with the employer never giving you a chance to answer the REAL question behind the question they ask.
4. Are you punctual?
Are you? If you are, then great: this question will be a breeze for you to answer. If, like me, you’re the type who likes choosing your own hours and can get lost in analysis or code for hours and end up working late, putting in the hours and getting the job done, then you need to think about this one carefully.
“I’m very results driven, I get the job done, and I have often worked late hours to stay on top of projects to meet their deadlines. So how important is arriving bang on time and watching the clock by comparison?”
5. Are you happy with your current/previous employer?
If you like your boss, this question will be a breeze to answer. However, what if your boss makes Hitler look like a kindergarten teacher? You have NOTHING to gain by telling your interviewer that your ex or current boss is an ass.
“My boss and I have a dynamic relationship. We’re very different kinds of people, and although it was a challenge to start with, it’s taught me to (insert a lesson or two here). I’m in a company to work, learn, and grow. Can I ask if you have any personality challenges in this department?” To smart bosses, lessons are more important than the experiences.
6. What would your boss say are your two worst characteristics?
Double whammy question. Not only do you have to talk about a skills deficit or weakness, but you have to second guess the views of your boss.
You could sidestep this question and suggest that: “If you’re serious about offering me this position, then I suggest you contact my boss to ask him/her.”
I prefer taking this bull by the horns: “Not being a mind-reader, I can only tell you what he/she has said to me.” Then refer back to Point 3 above. You’ll seldom have to answer this question and Point 3 in the same interview.
I like following up with: “May I ask if any kinds of employee traits have or are providing a challenge to performance?”
Turn the spotlight back on your interviewer to find out if there was something behind their question. Better you find out now and not after you’ve joined…
7. Why are you leaving your present position?
One of the easier questions to answer if you have excelled and outgrown the position. How do you handle this question if you hate your job and have Shrek for a boss? Talk more about the future and the position being offered than the past and your current job.
“There are limited options currently at my present company, and the position you need to fill looks to offer some interesting challenges.” Then move on to ask a question about the position.
8. What kind of people do you have a difficult time working with?
“I enjoy a diversity of personality types, but don’t work well with dishonest people who are not team players.” Then before the interviewer has chance to ask tough questions about your experiences with these types of people, here are two questions you can ask: “Are your team all honest and team players?” or “Do you have any difficult characters in your team?”
Again, find out if they have a hidden agenda or skeletons in the closet, and move the spotlight away from you and this uncomfortable area.
9. Where do you see yourself in five years?
If you have charm and a great sense of humor, you could say: “Doing your job,” but I personally wouldn’t gamble on it.
Be careful to think about your job prospects for the interview with this company. If you’re only taking the job for what it has to offer you in the short to medium term, then you better feel comfortable answering this question.
If you’re still in your twenties, you can answer with: “When I left college, I thought I had my career mapped out for 10 years. Experience has taught me not to get ahead of myself with career planning. I’ve learned a lot about myself with each position. So, I prefer to now be open to more career paths to gain the necessary experience.” Then ask: “What do you see as possible career paths for the person who takes this position?”
10. May we contact your present employer?
“Yes. Provided you’re offering me the position, I’d be happy for you to talk with my present employer.” You would do well not to bug your boss with a phone call or e-mail to answer every interviewer asking questions about you.
I learned that telling your employer when you’re interviewing for another job is nearly always best. Why? It lets them know that you have options and that you’re confident enough to explore these options. Surprisingly, your present employer will often revalue you. They can then either increase your pay to avoid losing you or improve your working conditions.
You don’t have to get on a soapbox and announce your intentions. You may instead prefer to mention that you’re gauging the market. Beware: Some potential employers will contact your present employer even if you answer this question with a “no.”
The way you say something is more important than what you’re saying. Be sincere and avoid sounding sarcastic. A lot of these answers can come across as self-righteously cocky, if not delivered well. My answers and questions had terrific results. I found employers started trying to sell me on their respective companies, and interviews felt much less like I was being interrogated.
Why Are Questions So Powerful?
- Gets the other person talking and you listening
- Puts you in control
- Gets you information
- Helps you understand
- Impresses the other person
- Flexes your self-confidence
- Builds trust
Questions are the POWER of conversation. Most people like to talk and most people like to talk about themselves. Getting the other person to talk gets you information, helps you gain control of the conversation, and increases the time you will be listening and not talking.
The more someone talks to you, the more they trust you. I didn’t say it makes sense; I even find it counterintuitive. I’ve even had interviewers who talked the hind leg off of a donkey, thanking me for a fascinating interview! (Correct, I didn’t take that job.)
Just learning the different types of questions employers ask helped me gain confidence. Having prepared questions and answers made me an interview star. Yes, I know I’m being immodest by saying this, but I think deservedly so.
Of course, I did have to practice. How? I recorded my questions and answers and listened to them. Then, I got a list of about 100 interview questions and practiced answering the different types briefly. After that, I worked on my responses and my questions. I printed the questions on hard copy and had a friend role-play as the interviewer. She was amazed at my answers and questions!
I then interviewed for positions I didn’t really want or didn’t think I could get—just to get match fit. Having nothing to lose in these interviews took the pressure off.
I realized that preparation was the foundation of my confidence. You know that feeling when you see the exam paper and realize that you know the answers and are going to ace it? I prepared as many tough questions as I could think of, and I got on top in the interview game.
So, the time will come for you to ask your own questions. Your questions reveal a lot about you, and they are your chance to know if you’re walking into a minefield of a position. Here are my favorites to fire off at your interviewer:
- Is this a new position?
- What skills would the perfect candidate have? Do they need negotiation skills?
- What are the ways you measure the productivity and effectiveness of this position?
- How soon do you plan on hiring someone?
- What are the critical issues that require immediate attention?
- How many people have previously been in this position?
- How long have you been with the company?
- Is there someone in addition to you that will make the hiring decision?
- Who would be doing my job in the event of my vacation absence?
- Would I be expected to perform anyone else’s duties in the event of another employee’s absence?
- Do you have a policy and procedures manual?
- Who would I be reporting to?
- Could you tell me more about your company’s IT/growth/company strategy?
- How often does the company promote progressive employees and how soon can I expect a promotion?
- Do you think your company is one where I can excel and reach my potential? (This is one of my favorites. I’ve had an interviewer talk to me for 20 minutes about how great the company was after asking this one.)
It’s useful to have a quick cheat sheet up your sleeve (as I’ve shared above). However, to ensure you always have the upper hand, even when up against a veteran sixth-degree black belt interviewer, you need to know a little about the structure of the questions they’re going to hit you with. So, let’s get into the interviewer’s brain and learn just what they’re up to. Let’s find out the real intentions lurking behind the different types of interview questions.
Past Behavioral Questions
The idea behind these types of questions is that a person’s past behavior is usually a pretty damn good predictor of their future actions. The theory behind this is that we are creatures of habit, and habits are hard to change and are mostly not even known to us. Employers take significant stock in these answers.
- Our entire credit system is founded on this principle.
- People and businesses are loaned money based on how they have paid their bills in the past.
- Our judicial system relies on this principle. People with convictions for past criminal behavior are dealt with more harshly than first-time offenders.
So you need to be prepared to present your past in an honest and positive light.
Examples of past behavioral questions:
Can you tell me about a time when you had to choose between honesty and dishonesty and how you made your decision?
“I made that choice when I was in elementary school, and honesty has not been a “decision” since. Have you had issues with dishonest employees?”
Can you tell me about a past situation where you found a creative solution to a tough problem?
Here’s your big opportunity to shine. The tougher the problem and the better your solution, the better you look. Just keep your answer under five sentences. This question is so important that you would really want to write it down, at least in outline.
Can you tell me about a time when you had a problem employee, what the specific problem was, and how you handled it? (Management position)
“I had an IT team employee who was always grossly late for meetings. I explained to him privately how he was inconveniencing his co-workers and costing the company money. After this had no effect, I simply excluded him from the meeting discussing the team bonus program. When he questioned me, I informed him that promptness was a factor in earning the reward. He was not late again.”
Follow-up questions are aimed at measuring the validity of your answer. Such questions are so called because they “follow” another question. The interviewer might ask you to provide a supervisor’s name for them to corroborate your answers. The interviewer might also ask you “trip” questions to establish validity, such as:
Can you tell me what year and month that happened and at which job?
This question implies that the company might be validating this information in some way, and the candidate could suddenly feel a bit of uneasiness, especially if the answer was difficult to recall or deviated from the truth.
Can you tell me how the employee reacted?
Keep all of these answers as short as possible. E.g. “He was upset but expressed his understanding and appreciation for how I handled the issue.”
Can you tell me how your supervisor reacted?
E.g. “As he often does, my supervisor expressed his gratitude.” This answer implies that you must often do things that deserve thanks.
Some interviewers might even smell blood at this point and become quite persistent. If you find yourself in this situation, follow Douglas Adams’ advice (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy): Don’t Panic! Take a deep breath and slow down. I found that I could change the pace of an interview by pausing and talking more slowly.
A friend of mine uses this “slowdown technique” when we play poker. When one of the players gets on a lucky streak and wins several hands in a row, he finds a way to slow the game down. He can stall better than anyone I’ve met.
He will strike up a conversation, deal slowly, test everyone’s patience by not being able to make a decision on a “hit,” take a telephone call, and even resort to drastic measures like spilling a drink. As dramatic as this all seems, his stalling works. The momentum slows down and the luck of the table seems to change.
I’m not suggesting you have memory loss or take a telephone call during an interview. In fact, to remain professional, I strongly recommend you don’t! The point is that I found I could regroup and change the direction of an interview by altering the pace. The interviewer usually seems to lose interest in badgering me when he or she realizes that I’m not rattled. My sudden, seemingly methodical responses throw the interviewers off their game.
Past behavioral questions regarding school, personal, volunteering, or membership experiences might also be asked. So be on your toes during those moments of seemingly innocuous small talk.
Future Situation or Hypothetical
I like to call these types of questions “fantasy land.” After all, hypothetical is not that far from fantasy. Interviewers ask future situation and hypothetical questions to attempt to predict how you might react under a specific set of circumstances in the future. No one can predict the future, and you will not be held to your answers, so you get to be a superhero here.
Here are some examples of future situation or hypothetical questions:
What would you say if asked to work late on a Friday evening?
“I would volunteer to do whatever it took to get the job done. Of course, if this was a regular occurrence, it would usually indicate poor planning. Do you have emergency situations often?”
What if we lost an employee and your workload temporarily increased?
“I would concentrate on being as efficient as possible in order to perform all important work at my highest level. Do you have a high turnover rate here?” (Again, I end my answers with a question.)
What would you do if you knew one of your co-workers was stealing from the company?
“I would report this situation to my supervisor. Is employee theft a problem here?”
You cannot possibly have prepared and rehearsed answers for every type of hypothetical question interviewers conjure up. Remember to take your time when you answer. Another good stall to buy thinking time is simply repeating the question to yourself out loud—as if contemplating it carefully.
Knowledge and Experience Questions
Like it says on the label, these are questions about your knowledge and experience. When an employer calls you for an interview, it’s because of your knowledge and experience. Few employees are fired because they lacked the knowledge and experience to do the job (unless they lied at the interview and on their résumé, in which case they do deserve to be shown the door).
Your knowledge and experience that are relevant to the employer’s position are important, and your skill level might be tested. Finding out what kind of person you are, how you’ll behave, and how effectively you can apply your experience and knowledge are the employer’s main concerns. For our clients, the most vital experience they need are either sales negotiation skills or buying negotiation skills.
Verifiable Questions and Verified Questions
While your knowledge and experience will probably not be an issue, verifying that you have the knowledge and experience you claim can be an issue. Verifiable questions are, of course, negotiation questions that the employer can verify. Verified questions are verifiable questions that the interviewer has already verified. These are not rhetorical questions, because the interviewer expects an answer and the fact that the interviewer knows the answer is not so obvious. If you’re being honest, you should have little to be on guard against.
For our clients, the best ways to verify negotiation skills are negotiation courses on your résumé and, more importantly, to be able to demonstrate skills firsthand. For example, the interviewer could give you a role-play exercise and have one of their senior negotiators take the other side to negotiate with you.
More good news about interview questions:
- You already have the answers to past behavioral questions.
- Situational or hypothetical questions are not verifiable—you get to be a superhero!
- You already have the answers to knowledge and experience questions.
- When it comes to “you,” you’re the expert.
- Most employers will be asking other candidates the same questions.
Once I figured this all out, my courage soared. I thought about my past interviews and noticed the times I felt most confident were when the interviewer was telling me about the position and the company. They would talk as if they were trying to convince me of what a terrific opportunity the job was and how great the company is to work for. This felt like the interviewer was trying to sell me on the job. I was tired of trying to convince these suited strangers that I could do the job. I figured out how to turn the tables and get them trying to convince me that I wanted the opening.
Over Their Heads
I learned not to immediately use acronyms, jargon, or above-average vocabulary, and I suggest you do the same.
In IT we use so much language that leaves non-tech heads spinning. The person interviewing you might not be as skilled or knowledgeable as you about your niche. It’s sometimes a delicate balance to talk intelligently and impress but to avoid intimidating your future boss.
How you’re saying something can be even more important than what you’re saying. Your timing can show your level of anxiety or confidence, and your patience. Ask yourself:
- Commenting only at the appropriate moments?
- Interrupting the interviewer?
Be careful to not answer questions abruptly. Take your time, take your turn, and keep your cool.
Timing Is Key
I knew I needed great answers. I also knew I needed to fire right back at interviewers with questions to make my plan work and get in control. Timing is critical. Again, do not walk into an interview firing a barrage of questions. I always respond to the first three to five questions with one to three sentence answers, or a yes or no. Then I start adding a question after my answer.
I have been in or observed plenty of interviews where the interviewer does not give the candidate the opportunity to ask questions at the end of the interview. This can be a sign that they’re not interested in offering you the position. Again, I don’t wait for an invitation to ask questions, and I don’t care how tough the interviewer’s questions are; I still work my questions in.
There’s a great saying that goes something like: “He who creates the rules of the game, wins the game.” Most of your competition is walking into the interview room thinking to themselves: “The company is holding all the best cards. They’re interviewing me and can choose to reject me for the next guy. I better do well in this interview.”
Ever notice some of these thoughts creep into your mind? Don’t let them! They’re garbage. The employer usually has a problem and a need, and it’s usually gotten so bad that they’re going to the extraordinary expense and hassle of recruiting the right person.
If it’s good for the company to interview a number of skilled professionals to kill their pain, then you should be playing the same game. Interview with a number of companies and get your résumé out there. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
Design questions as a candidate to get the interviewer to sell to you. Remember, you’re interviewing the employer as much as they are interviewing you. So ensure you shine the spotlight on the interviewer, at least as much as they shine it on you. Interviewers are usually trained in selling the company—otherwise, the company would not trust them with finding new talent.
Any time you can get the employer selling to you, you’re in a stronger position. Now have some fun with my Q&As and let me know how it goes.
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