During a job interview, you’ll be asked to talk about your experience, your qualifications, and frame yourself as a fit for a specific role.
It’s always nerve-wracking, whether you’re entry-level or a seasoned senior exec. Interviewers seem keen on asking trick questions and trying to figure out whether you’re a team player or a lone wolf.
But all of these seemingly dumb questions aren’t exactly set up to catch you in a lie or make you uncomfortable. It’s better to go in with the goal of showing how you fit into the organization and how you can change it for the better.
Below, we’ll look at some of the standard interview questions that give us all trouble — and how to navigate those tricky spots with confidence and grace.
How to handle common interview questions, even the tricky ones
Tell me about yourself
Employers are always seeking candidates who fit in within the organization as a whole or the specific department they’ll be working with. This question is a way for employers to see what a person can offer an organization outside of the bullet points on a resume.
“So, tell me about yourself.” It’s not an invitation to prattle on about your favorite hobbies and your point of view.
A lot of people feel uncomfortable answering this question. While you might be prepared to talk someone’s ear off about content marketing, sales strategies, or corporate finance, talking about you is a tough one. As such, you want to prepare for this one.
Use the opportunity to highlight victories you’ve had along the way, partnerships you’ve formed, and discoveries you’ve made. It’s a chance to talk about how you’ve grown and added to your skillset. Think of it as an “elevator pitch,” where you have only a minute to sell yourself.
Why are you leaving your job?
This one is tough because it’s bad form to blurt out something like, “I hate my coworkers” or “I need a higher salary to afford my new apartment.” Always turn this into a positive, even if that’s a bald-faced lie.
Frame your answer in a way that focuses on your enthusiasm for taking on a new challenge, rather than attempting to get out of a miserable situation.
What are your greatest weaknesses?
Okay, the tried and true response to this question is usually something cheesy like, “I care too much about my job.” “Sometimes, I’m too much of a perfectionist.” These responses will not get you far.
Still, the tactic of framing your weaknesses around your strengths is worth using. If you are a perfectionist, discuss how you care about doing the job right the first time, but you’ve been working on how to balance time management with a tendency to harp on the details.
You don’t want to mention a weakness that is too close to the job you’re applying for. Interpersonal skills like being too critical or public speaking might be good options, but only if they’re not part of the job description.
Finally, reflecting on positives is essential here. You might want to explain that even though you’re too sensitive sometimes, you’re an empathetic manager and a great team player — since you care how others feel. Or, you can talk about the actions you’ve taken to improve.
What do you do for fun?
Ugh. This question is aimed at uncovering whether you’re a cultural fit for the job. This question is another basic one — but it tends to feel like a trick question. You’ll want to go for something more “wholesome” than “I love going through a six pack every night” or “you’ll catch me at the casino all weekend.”
Still, it sometimes feels like all people do is eat, drink, and watch things, changing locations and groups on occasion. Prepare some responses that highlight hobbies or skills you have — things like running half-marathons for fun, baking, photography, ceramics, and reading novels in your spare time are good responses, but there’s no right answer.
Just make sure you don’t answer this with one word. Being able to pass along your passion and enthusiasm is the real thing interviewers are looking for.
What was your salary in your last job?
This one sucks. We’re just putting that out there.
The reason this has become a staple interview question is, employers often have a budget, they want to understand whether you know what you’re worth, and they want to see whether you’re applying for a job at the right professional level.
In some states, it’s even illegal to ask applicants for their salary history. Unfortunately, though, this question is still part of the standard list of questions in many places.
Career expert Liz Ryan recommends answering this question by deflecting. She says that job hunters should say something along the lines of, “I’m looking for a job in the range of $75,000, is this position within that range?”
The interviewer might answer, or not. They might also choose to circle back and ask again. If the hiring manager seems dead set on obtaining this information, it’s best just to be honest — unless it’s against the law to ask. If you have been underpaid in the past, make it clear that you believe this is the case and that you expect a significant increase in your next role.
It’s not enough to say you’re underpaid; you’ll need to do your research. Sites like Glassdoor, Payscale, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics can help you identify average wages for your field, experience, and where you live — so be prepared with the numbers if you want to make your case.
Brain teasers: decoded
Sometimes employers like to ask some challenging questions. This is a particularly common occurrence in IT companies. This piece from Career Sidekick looks at some of the most common brain teaser questions places like Facebook, Apple, and Google ask their prospective employees. Hint—there’s a lot of filling jugs, covering utility holes, and so on.
While you might not be able to prepare for the exact teaser at hand, there are some things you can do to be better prepared in the situation.
Bring paper and a pen/pencil to the interview — often, employers allow you to work through a problem on the spot. Bonus points for appearing prepared for anything.
Ask questions — If you’re unsure what the interviewer is asking, don’t hesitate to ask for clarification or more information. An interview is supposed to feel like a conversation, not a test. And while a brain teaser takes that dynamic and turns it on its head, it’s worth mentioning that you should feel comfortable asking questions.
Don’t worry about working through your answers out loud — Surprise, the answer is less important than A) your willingness to “play” the game and B) how you got there. Instead, the employer will look for creative brainstorming at play; they want to see how well you think on your feet, and how you might work through a difficult problem in a real-world scenario.
And if you’re stumped? If a brain teaser completely stumps you, it’s okay to fess up. Don’t get stressed out, instead, ask if you can come back to the question a bit later.
Overall, preparation is your best bet for nailing an interview. While these questions aren’t the only ones you may encounter, they are some of the questions that job hunters trip up on most often.
Before you go in, make sure you do your research and figure out where your goals and experience can bring value to this role. From there, tailor your responses, so they all show your interviewer how you intend to make their lives easier — even when the questions sound like they’re supposed to be about you.
And finally, once you’ve finished the interview, make sure you send a thank you note. Not only is it good manners, but it also helps to make sure the interviewer remembers you when it comes time to make a decision.