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Job Interview Questions: How to Anticipate and Answer Them, and What Not to Ask

No two job interviews are alike. There are far too many variables, including the culture of the company, the nature of the position, and the personalities of the interviewer and the candidate. But, there are better and more effective ways to prepare for an interview, as well as several rules of thumb that can be helpful to keep in mind. The key is to understand the purpose of the interview, and how it fits into the hiring process. It can also be helpful to anticipate the questions interviewers typically ask, and the kind of information they are aiming to elicit. Knowing what to ask, if prompted, and what not to, can also be a distinct advantage. As with acting, the best interview performances may feel effortless, but that is almost always the product of focused and thoughtful planning and preparation.

By the time a candidate reaches the interview phase, he or she has been subject to at least one screening. Someone within the organization has considered the candidate’s application, along with any other submitted materials (cover letters, portfolios, recommendation letters), and approved it. A candidate selected for an interview has presumably shown on paper, and possibly via additional screening, that he or she possesses at least the minimum qualifications for the position. The interview is part of the selection process. It’s an important part of the process, but it isn’t the first step in the process of getting hired.

Viewed through this lens, the interview becomes an opportunity to build on an already favorable impression. It may even be helpful to think of it as a live audition, one in which a confident and prepared candidate can demonstrate that he or she has the right skills and the right personality for the part. Having a clear yet flexible strategy, specific goals, and solid knowledge about the position and how it relates to the broader goals of the organization are practical ways to cultivate a competitive edge. Preparing in this way can also alleviate some of the anxiety and stress associated with interviewing.

Questions to Help Cultivate Situational Awareness

There is a lot of advice out there for would-be job applicants, ranging from what to wear to a job interview to whether or not to laugh, smile, joke, and/or accept a glass of water. While relatively trivial things can make a difference, what works well in one situation may not be optimal in another. For example, a male candidate interviewing at a Wall Street firm should probably wear a suit and tie; at a Silicon Valley tech company with a more relaxed corporate culture, that may be less advisable.

Personal appearance and presentation are no doubt important factors in cultivating a positive first impression. Decisions about such things are tactical in nature. They relate to and follow from a more strategic aspect of interviewing for a job: situational awareness. Simply put, the more information an applicant has about the company and the position he or she is competing for, the better situated he or she will be to make informed decisions about situational tactics, including how to dress.

The following questions can help cultivate situational awareness in the context of a job interview:

  • Is this an entry-level job or a more senior position?
  • Is a person with your skill set in high demand, or are there likely to be a surplus of qualified candidates for the position?
  • What are the industry norms for the position, and how would a person in that field typically present him or herself?
  • What is the corporate or organizational culture at the company, and how does the company present itself?
  • With whom will you be interviewing? Are you being interviewed by an in-house recruiter or Human Resources manager, a potential peer, or a potential boss?

The answers to the above questions should help suggest the degree of formality that may be appropriate in terms of dress and demeanor. They can also provide clues to the types of questions one can expect, and the kinds of answers that might be appropriate. For an entry-level position, candidates probably won’t be asked to articulate a bold strategic vision for the company. However, an applicant for a senior managerial position would want to have an answer to that question at the ready. For a job in computer programming or data analytics, candidates should be ready to address any relevant technical proficiencies. For a position in customer relations, demonstrating a reasonably sunny disposition while answering a question about how to best handle a hypothetical consumer complaint is likely to be a bonus.

Cultivating situational awareness begins with knowing and being able to talk pointedly about one’s own strengths and weaknesses, education and job experience, and work ethic and goals. But it also includes researching the organization, and being able to provide thoughtful answers that relate specifically to the job and/or the company. An answer about what you learned from a college internship will have far more resonance and relevance if you can connect it to some aspect of the job in question. This is a good general rule for framing answers during a job interview. Make sure your answers have a point, and think through how that point applies to the job.

The Five Key Interview Questions

There are legal and ethical restrictions on the kinds of questions an interviewer can ask a candidate on a job application and in an interview. Beyond that, most bets are off. There are more common questions, less common questions, and countless permutations in between. An interviewer may even ask something out of left field just to see how a candidate processes and reacts to an unforeseen challenge. With that in mind, it’s often more useful to think more broadly in terms of categories of information an interviewer will likely use in order to gauge a candidate’s qualifications. It is easier and more useful to prepare answers that cover relevant subjects than to spend time guessing which questions might be asked.

There are essentially five general areas that interviewers are likely to probe in one form or another. The phrasing of the questions may differ from interview to interview, but in most cases the interviewer is forming an impression and making an assessment based on the following concerns:

  • Does the candidate posses the proper educational background, technical training, and/or prior work experience?
  • Does the candidate have the right attitude and/or work ethic?
  • Are the candidate’s work habits and personality a good fit for the position?
  • Does the candidate understand and appreciate the nature of the job and mission of the company or organization?
  • Do the candidate’s ambitions and expectations match up well with the position in question?

Most but not all job interview questions will pertain to these primary areas of concern. Being prepared for an interview means being ready to address these areas with answers that incorporate specific examples and prior experiences. When asked about personal strengths and weaknesses, it’s helpful to have one or more examples of professional challenges that were successfully overcome. Personality is something that’s more easily shown than explained, but having an example of a situation in which you maintained a good attitude, persevered, or used communication skills to navigate a challenge can help to highlight desired qualities. The aim should be to make it clear through your answers that this is a job you’ve thought about, a job that you’re qualified to do, and a job that you would like to be offered.

Avoid Unforced Errors

Keep in mind that all questions asked within the context of a job interview are part of the interview. Failing to realize this can lead to unforced errors. For example, even a polite query about how your day’s been going may provide potentially useful information to the interviewer. It’s generally best not to turn these answers into a focal point of the interaction. If you overslept, missed the train/bus/connecting flight, waited in line for 20 minutes for coffee, had trouble finding a parking space, or encountered any other minor hurdles or inconveniences on your way to the interview, keep the story brief if you mention it all. The interviewer has a finite amount of time, and you’ll want to devote most of that to articulating your qualifications for the job, not to your difficulty navigating airports, parking lots, coffee shops and other day-to-day inconveniences.

Interviewers may also rely on a candidate’s application and/or resume as a talking point. Failing to prepare for this is another type of unforced error. If you recently left or are in the process of leaving a job, be prepared to answer questions about the situation in a way that emphasizes the positive aspects of moving forward in your career. If there are gaps in your employment record, be prepared to talk about something useful and constructive you accomplished during that period. If your college major was biology, but you’re now pursuing a career in finance, be prepared to explain how one led to the other. And, if you list any specific professional accomplishments or technical proficiencies on your resume or application, be ready to talk about them.

The Unexpected Question

Some interviewers use a tactic that involves asking candidates to answer a question that is unexpected and to some extent unanswerable. It may be a hypothetical question, or one that is simply too complex to answer in the moment. These types of questions can be a way to assess how a candidate interacts in a professional setting, particularly in challenging or stressful situations. The point may also be to get a sense of how the candidate thinks through certain types of problems. In either case, the right response is to take it in stride. Rather than assuming there’s only one right answer and responding with an “I don’t know” shrug, take it as an opportunity to demonstrate your critical thinking skills. Put some effort into arriving at your best answer. You might even note aloud that you weren’t prepared for a question like that, and ask if it’s okay for you to think aloud, or ask some clarifying questions.

What Not to Ask in a Job Interview

One of the final questions in many job interviews is a question every candidate should prepare for: Do you have any questions? If you don’t have at least one good question, you may risk leaving the interviewer with the impression that you don’t care, that you haven’t fully thought through the opportunity, and/or that you’re not fully engaged in the process of competing for the job. It’s helpful to have at least one question in mind. However, there are several categories of questions that are generally considered off limits in a job interview.

  • Questions related to compensation, including salary, benefits, vacation time, sick days, coffee breaks, gym memberships, and anything else that does not come into play until an offer has been extended. These may be important considerations, but asking about them during the interview process can seem presumptuous. The interviewer may bring these things up, but it’s generally not appropriate for the candidate to do so.
  • Questions about job performance reviews, raises, and other administrative issues. As with salary and benefits, these are typically not addressed until a job offer has been made.
  • Questions about telecommuting or any other special arrangements, including size and/or location of your office. You don’t want to leave the interviewer with the impression that you will be a high-maintenance employee. If telecommuting or any other non-traditional work arrangements are options, the interviewer can bring that up. Otherwise, these are things that can wait until an offer as been made.
  • Questions about social media use. Some employers have policies regarding employees’ social media activities, and may even monitor those activities. Asking about this during a job interview won’t change that, and it could raise a red flag, in the same way that asking about drug testing or inter-office dating polices may create unnecessary concerns. An interviewer may opt to address these issues during the interview, but candidates are better off waiting until a job offer has been made to ask about employment policies.
  • Questions that can be answered with a quick Google search. This includes any factual questions about the job/company/organization that is not publically available. On the other hand, questions that address qualitative matters, such as the organizational culture at the company, are a good bet because this is a key concern for many employers, and because it’s not something that you can easily look up online. Personalizing the question, by asking the interviewer what he or she likes best about working for the company, may also be appropriate.
  • Questions that begin with “why,” and end up sounding confrontational. You may have specific questions about the company/organization, but rather than asking “why”, rephrase each question as a factual statement and then ask the interviewer for his or her impression of the issue or situation. For example, if a company recently opened an office in London, asking about it may indicate that you’ve done your research. But instead of asking why they opened the new office, state that you read about this new development, and ask the interviewer how that has impacted the company.
  • Questions that indicate that the job you are applying for isn’t the job you actually want. It some cases it may be reasonable to ask about how the company promotes from within, or what the typical career arc is for someone entering in the position you are applying for, so long as the inference is that you are ambitious. But, it can be a mistake to do so if it creates the perception that you feel overqualified for the position, that you’re already looking beyond the job at hand, and/or that you view the job your applying for merely a steppingstone.

Concluding the Job Interview

It’s up to the interviewer to signal when the job interview is over. As the candidate, there are very few circumstances in which it is appropriate to end the interview before this happens. But there are a few things to keep in mind as the interview is concluding.

  • Take note of the name of the interviewer. It may come in handy at a later date.
  • Ask the interviewer if it would be okay to contact him or her with any further questions. If so, get the interviewer’s email address.
  • If you feel that you failed to answer a question fully or as well as you would have liked, you can mention this to the interviewer and ask if it would be okay to send him or her further thoughts, in which case it’s generally a good idea to follow through on that.
  • Email the interviewer a concise, personalized thank you note sooner rather than later. Later that day, or within 24 hours is generally a good rule in this regard.


Job Interview Questions: How to Anticipate and Answer Them, and What Not to Ask

Matt Ashare

Matt Ashare is a writer with 25 years of experience in publishing. He was an editor at the Boston Phoenix and a contributor to other publications, including Rolling Stone, Spin, and the Village Voice. He now teaches journalism at Randolph College, and occasionally writes a column for the Central Virginia weekly The Burg.