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How to Answer the 6 Most Common Job-Interview Questions

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You can never predict with certainty what questions you’ll be asked in a job interview, but some questions come up so reliably that you’d be missing a huge opportunity if you don’t bother to prepare for them.

Some of these questions sound straightforward enough that you might figure you’ll be able to come up with perfectly fine answers on the spot, but there’s a real benefit in thinking through your answers beforehand: You won’t forget key details that you want to include, the substance of your answers will be more organized, and you’ll sound more polished.

Here are six interview questions that are so common you’d be foolish not to prepare for them.

1. “Tell me a bit about yourself.”

People are more thrown by this question than they should be! It doesn’t mean “give me a full personal history.” It means “give me a broad overview of who you are, professionally speaking, before we go deeper into specifics.” Your interviewer is looking for an answer that’s about one minute long and summarizes where you are in you career and what you’re especially strong at, usually with an emphasis on your most recent job. Keep it focused on the professional you — most interviewers aren’t asking to hear about your family or your hobbies. (But it’s fine to throw in something at the end about an interest outside of work; just don’t make it the focus of your answer.)

2. “What interests you about this job?”

It sounds like a softball question — you’re interested in the work, after all — but you can mess this one up if you focus on something that’s a very small part of the position (thus indicating that you don’t fully understand what the job is all about and may not be happy once you do); or the benefits, salary, or short commute (thus indicating that you’re not very enthusiastic about the work itself); or even sometimes if you focus mainly on getting a foot in the door (thus indicating that you’re more interested in a different job rather than the one they’re hiring for). Instead, your answer should focus on the substance of the job itself — the work you’d be doing day-to-day and the outcomes you’d be working toward. Interviewers want someone who’s enthusiastic about doing whatever the person will be spending most of their time on.

3. “Why are you thinking about leaving your current job?”

(Or if you’re unemployed, “Why did you leave your last job?”) Job candidates tend to get worried about how to answer this question, but most interviewers don’t intend it as a “gotcha.” Your interviewer isn’t looking for a detailed accounting of your problems with your boss or a log of everything you don’t like about your office’s culture. They’re looking for a short explanation that makes sense and doesn’t raise red flags about your professionalism or ability to get along with others. It’s fine to give a fairly mundane answer like, “I’ve been here five years and am ready to take on something new,” or, “We’re having layoffs and I’m looking for something with stability.” (You can find more advice here on how to answer this question for some of the most common scenarios that cause people to leave their jobs.)

4. “Tell me about a time when …”

Good interviewers will ask multiple versions of the question, filling in the blank with situations and skills that are relevant to the job you’re applying for. For example: “Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult client” … “Tell me about a time when you had conflicting deadlines” … “Tell me about a time when you had to accomplish something by leading a team” … “Tell me about a time when you had to build a new system from scratch” … and so forth, depending on what it takes to excel in the position. The idea behind questions like this is that they elicit better information about how you operate than more hypothetical questions do. It’s pretty easy to bluff your way through a good answer to a hypothetical like, “How do you think you’d stay on top of this volume of work? Your interviewer will get far more useful information about you by instead asking, “Tell me about a time when the volume in your last job was at its peak. What did you do?” How did you stay on top of it all?

To prepare for these types of questions, think about what skills you’re most likely to need in the job and what the challenges of the role are. Then look for “evidence” from your past work experience that shows you’ll excel at this role — examples of how you’ve demonstrated those skills or tackled similar challenges. In preparing your examples, structure them by first talking about the challenge you faced, then what you did to respond, and then what outcome you achieved. That should get at exactly what your interviewer is looking for.

5. “Tell me about your biggest strengths and weaknesses.”

This question gets dressed up in lots of different ways, so it might not be worded exactly like this. Your interviewer might ask, “Why do you think you’d do well at this job? And which pieces might be more of a challenge?” Or, “What would your boss say are your biggest strengths and weaknesses?” Or even, “What kind of feedback have you received in past assessments of your performance?”

The strengths part of this is, hopefully, easier: Talk about what would make you really excel at the job. What sets you apart from others who might try to do the same work? But don’t just make subjective pronouncements that the interviewer would need to take on faith (like, “I’m great with people,” or, “I’m very organized”). Instead, give an example or two that shows that’s really the case.

Talking about weaknesses can be trickier and requires some honest reflection beforehand: What have you genuinely struggled with at work? What doesn’t come naturally, or what have past managers encouraged you to work on? Build your answer around that, but also talk about what you’ve done to ameliorate the effect of that weakness on your work. But make sure you resist the urge to answer with something that you secretly hope will sound good to the interviewer like, “I work too hard,” or, “I’m a perfectionist.” Those answers sound disingenuous, and your interviewer will see right through them. (You can find more advice on talking about your weaknesses here.)

6. “What salary are you looking for?”

Of all the questions people dread in an interview, this one probably tops the list. But if you don’t prepare for it ahead of time, you risk naming a number that’s too low or otherwise saying something that can hurt your negotiating position later. The only way to nail this question is to do some research beforehand: Check salary websites, talk to recruiters or professional organizations in your industry, and bounce figures off of people in your field. That should give you an idea of the market range for this type of job at your professional level and in your geographic region. If you don’t do this kind of research, you’re too likely to base your answer on what you’d like to earn or need to earn or what you were earning at your last job — which could result in a figure that’s too high or too low. This question is too important to wing in the moment; do your research beforehand so that you’re confident about your answer and don’t leave money on the table.

Order Alison Green’s book, Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work, here. Got a question for her? Email askaboss@nymag.com. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

How to Answer the 6 Most Common Job-Interview Questions