This isn’t your parents’ job market. Today recruiters can find you on LinkedIn before you’ve even considered getting a new job, and they can read your freshman-year term papers after a single Google search.
But once you get to the interview stage, employers still want to know why you applied and why they should hire you. Knowing you’ll encounter these common interview questions, and others, means you can prepare — and walk into the room with the confidence you’ll need to get a job offer.
1. ‘Can you tell me a little about yourself?’
What they’re looking for: This question sounds like an invitation to catalog your work history or divulge your quirky hobbies. But employers want you to cut to the chase. What expertise and relevant experience will help you meet their team’s, and the company’s, goals? Think of this as a golden opportunity to highlight what differentiates you from other candidates and how your unique skills make you the best fit for the job.
How to answer: Prepare a brief script that summarizes your most recent job experience, your strengths and what you’re looking for in your next role.
If you’re interviewing for a marketing job, you might say something like, “Most recently, I’ve been working as a marketing associate at a nonprofit health care agency. Because I’m a strong public speaker, I had the chance to deliver presentations about our work around the community, which led to a 25% increase in visits. I’m now looking for a marketing manager opportunity where I can best utilize these communication skills, which is why I was excited to apply for this role.”
Maybe using a script seems inauthentic and you’d rather personalize your answer. In that case, ask the hiring manager what he or she is looking for, says Matt Kaufman, an executive search consultant in West Palm Beach, Florida, with The Mullings Group, which places employees in roles at medical-device companies. One employer might, in fact, want to know about your interests, while another may want you to describe your education in detail. Kaufman recommends saying, “I’m happy to tell you about myself. There’s a lot to tell. Where would you like me to start?”
2. ‘What interests you about this position?’
What they’re looking for: Employers want to see you’re genuinely excited about both the position and the company’s overall mission. They recognize that dedication translates to higher productivity and better business outcomes. That means avoiding focusing only on how this position will strengthen your own career or how it seems like the logical next blurb on your resume.
How to answer: Explain what attracted you to this field, perhaps using an anecdote from your personal or professional life. Then tailor your answer using a thorough understanding of what the company is currently focusing on and where it wants to go. Deep interest in the mission only goes so far. From there, it’s on you to demonstrate how you can take the company’s work to the next level.
Here’s an example: “I love working in health care marketing because when I was growing up, I wanted to be a doctor. But I realized in college that I enjoy spreading knowledge about health and preventive medicine on a large scale more than working one-on-one with patients. I believe that your health insurance product is making a huge difference in the communities I care about, and I know my ability to connect well with clients will help spread that message.”
3. ‘What are your biggest strengths and weaknesses?’
What they’re looking for: In these answers, interviewers want to see authenticity. Avoid turning a negative into a positive (the classic “weakness” example, “I’m a perfectionist,” comes to mind). Developing thoughtful answers will keep you from reaching for an example that’s either overwrought or underwhelming.
How to answer: Think about your true strengths and weaknesses, and prepare one in advance for each. Employers across industries will value strengths that relate to your communication skills or your ability to solve problems. Choose one that’s specific, like “I’m comfortable in front of a crowd,” “I manage stress well,” or “I build rapport with others quickly,” Kaufman says.
Your weakness might be that you’re impatient, you’re not a strong number cruncher or you don’t ask for help well. But steer clear of weaknesses that cast doubt on whether you’re a team player (like “I work better alone,” Kaufman says) or that would seriously compromise your ability to do your job well. You can explain in one sentence how you’re working on your weakness if that makes you more comfortable. But not apologizing for or qualifying it might even make you stand out.
“There’s a certain level of acceptance that most people respect when you say, ‘That’s just who I am,’” Kaufman says.
4. ‘What would you do in your first 90 days here?’
What they’re looking for: You can’t know all the specifics of your job or the internal processes necessary to get it done before you start. Rather, this question is a way of assessing your understanding of the position and the company, and your attitude when you approach a new challenge.
How to answer: Pore over the company’s website, your interviewer’s and the CEO’s LinkedIn posts, and news about the company’s initiatives. Then come up with three steps you’d take once you’re in the door to help them achieve a goal your team is likely working toward. You can say, “I’d start by fully acquainting myself with the marketing team and all of the adjacent teams I’d work with, like design and accounting; diving deep on our target client segments and getting in front of as many clients as possible; and working with the growing research team to identify future markets.”
5. ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’
What they’re looking for: You don’t need to pledge loyalty to the company, but interviewers want to see that you’re ambitious and plan to grow in your role and at the organization. That shows you won’t leave them in a bind as soon as a better opportunity shows up.
How to answer: Many early-career employees won’t expect to work at the same company for five years. So it’s OK to be vague. The most important element is to show drive and development. You can say, “I plan to lead a team of marketers that tells compelling stories about a product I’m passionate about.”
6. ‘How did you overcome a significant challenge at school or at work?’
What they’re looking for: Employers ask behavioral questions like these because past experiences can be solid indicators of future conduct, says Larry Nash, the U.S. recruiting director for EY, a global professional services firm. Interviewers want to understand the specific steps you used to solve a problem. Nash says he looks for answers that show adaptability, creativity and agility, or the ability to pivot quickly if an approach isn’t working.
This question can also take the form, “Tell me about a time when you’ve worked under pressure to deliver something a client needed, or in school when you had a short time to complete a project,” he says.
How to answer: Pluck three jobs from your resume and for each one, prepare an example of a challenging situation you overcame through problem-solving. The setting matters less than the step-by-step process you undertook; you likely overcame difficulties not only at full-time jobs, but when you were the president of a college club, you volunteered at an animal shelter or you were an intern. Prepare a few examples so you can fall back on them if your interviewer asks this question multiple ways.
One possible answer: “When I was treasurer of my college’s community service organization we were severely understaffed for an upcoming volunteer event. I analyzed how many more volunteers we’d need to make it successful, called a board meeting to brainstorm recruitment strategies and ended up targeting underclassman education majors who needed volunteer hours to meet major requirements. We ended up overstaffed by 10 volunteers.”
7. ‘Why should we hire you?’
What they’re looking for: Even if your instinct is to shrink from this question, push that aside and show confidence. You can hammer home concrete examples from your background that make you a strong candidate, but most importantly, stay self-assured and persuasive. If you don’t think you’d be great at this job, why would the interviewer?
How to answer: Perhaps it’s clear from the job posting or the interview that the team or company has a need for a specific skill, like grant writing or bookkeeping, that you are especially prepared to take on right away. Remind them you can solve that problem for them. And then, why not go for it? Say, “I have the skills and experience you’re looking for, and I’m a strong candidate for the position.”
Brianna McGurran is a staff writer at NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @briannamcscribe.