Job Interview Questions and Answers 101

By Mike Simpson

“And now, for our feature presentation…”

Normally these words would signal you to lean back in your movie theater chair, put on your 3D glasses and start shoveling buttery popcorn into your face for the next two-and-a-half-hours.

But in this case, while your job interview does have the potential to be an Oscar-winning drama (and hopefully not a B-rated bust), we’re not talking about the silver screen.

The “feature presentation” I’m talking about is in reference to the most important part of the entire interview process.

The Job Interview Questions (and Answers).

Gulp.

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If you’re anything like I was just over a decade ago, the very mention of interview questions is enough to make your temperature rise like a bad fever and your palms to sweat as if you were holding a never-ending tree pose during a hot yoga session.

But why the anxiety?

What is it about these simple little phrases that end with a question mark that causes us to lose our minds and run for the hills?

Well, much like anything else… it’s the fear of the unknown.

You’re afraid of not knowing what interview questions are going to be asked. You’re afraid of giving the wrong answer.

But more than anything, you’re afraid that if you don’t answer all of the questions in the most perfect way possible, you’re going to walk out of the interview room with no offer and make the long, shameful trek back to your parents’ basement.

And I’m not exaggerating. Even about the parent’s basement. Just ask Jeff (a story for a different day).

Here’s the deal: You should be a bit nervous.

There are hundreds of typical interview questions that you could be asked, and there are a right and a wrong way to answer each one of them.

Not only that, but you could be asked these questions at any stage of the 2017 interview process, from the phone interview (for help with these check out our article 8 Phone Interview Tips That Will Land You A Second Interview) all the way to the panel or group interview.

One little slip could mean the end of your chances if one of your competitors is able to do what you can’t and give smooth, confident answers to every question.

And the reality is, if you don’t…

Someone will.

people-out-of-workYou know the deal. There are approximately 90 million Americans that don’t have jobs and a large portion of those people are frothing at the mouth to get back in the workforce.

So needless to say it’s a competitive landscape out there and you need to do what you can to make sure you stand out from the crowd.

Luckily for you, Jeff and I have spent the last few years perfecting a method for how to answer interview questions perfectly, and I’d like to share it with you in this article today.

Before we get started you should download our Job Interview Questions and Answers Cheat Sheet.

It’s a great companion to this article as it gives you perfect example answers to three of the toughest interview questions you will face (not contained in this article) and will also give you access to our VIP Resource area where we have upwards of 10 more free job interview tools. Click Here To Get Interview Question Cheat Sheet!

The Basics: Traditional vs. Behavioral Interview Questions and Answers

If you’ve had an interview in the last few years, you may have noticed that nearly all of the tough interview questions you were asked could fall loosely into two types or styles, or should I say “broad categories”.

Generally speaking, every interview question that you can be asked is either a Traditional (sometimes referred to as basic interview questions) or Behavioral Interview Question.

*Now there are a few other categories of questions such as situational interview questions, case, technical and a few others that we’ll cover in future articles, but for the purposes of this article I’ve focused on the two largest types.

A hiring manager uses Traditional Interview Questions to get a general sense of who you are as a person and what your qualifications for the position are.

Quite often, their goal is to explore your professional aptitudes, attitudes and qualifications by asking questions such as, “What is your highest level of education?” or “What were your primary responsibilities at your last job?”.

Pretty straight forward stuff.

Behavioral Questions, on the other hand, are a whole different ball of wax (and the nemesis of a large portion of the job seeking community).

With Behavioral Questions, the hiring manager is trying to determine how you will act on the job (the one you are currently interviewing for) by analyzing your past behaviors.

In other words, the way you behaved in the past is a predictor of how you will behave in the future. These questions usually begin with “Tell me about a time that…” or “Describe to me a situation when…”.

NOTE: Today, our focus is going to be on Traditional Interview Questions.  For more information on how to answer behavioral interview questions, please check out our other in depth article "Behavioral Interview Questions and Answers 101."

 

Answering Traditional Interview Questions

Okay. So I think we can both agree that it’s pretty obvious that being able to properly answer the commonly asked interview questions is crucial if you hope to beat out your competition and get a job offer from your next interview.

Unfortunately for most people, knowing this and executing this are usually two different things.

Why?

Because most people don’t have a planA formula….

…. A way to answer every single interview question that ensures that your answer leaves the hiring manager’s jaw hanging open with astonishment and has them writing you up a job offer before you even stand up to leave the interview.

The reality is, most job seekers simply roll into their interview with no plan and try to “freestyle” their way through the interview.

Look, you might be able to string words together off the top of your head like Eminem, but we’re not auditioning for parts in 8 Mile here, we’re trying to get a job.

So leave the rhyming couplets behind and sharpen your pencil because you’re about to learn the step-by-step method that I know will give you an incredible advantage when you’re in front of the hiring manager.

“It’s Not About You, It’s About Them”

Before I break down our step-by-step method, there is something you need to understand. Actually, I’ll take it a step further. This idea is something that from here on out…

You need to live by.

As the title of this section says,It’s not about you, it’s about them.

Take that in for a second.

Say it out loud a few times. Let it rumble around in your head for a bit.

So what exactly does it mean?

Well to this point, you’ve probably approached your job interview something like this…

“I worked at Company X for six years…”
“I am highly proficient in the following skills….”
“I love working with children because…”

This is the point where my hand slams down on a big buzzer like in the Family Feud.

Why?

Because the company doesn’t care about you.

Okay, that is a little harsh. It’s not that they don’t care for you and your well-being (although I would argue that a lot of the major corporations simply don’t… but this is a discussion for another day), it’s that there is something that they are a LOT more interested in…

Themselves.

Now, I don’t mean to make the company sound like a selfish, controlling and manipulative ex-boyfriend, but the reality is, the reason they are conducting a job interview in the first place is because they have a specific goal in mind.

They are trying to fulfill their needs.

They have a specific individual in mind for this position, and it’s the person who is best able to satisfy these needs.

The company knows exactly who they are going to hire, long before this person even enters the interview room.

Now, they obviously don’t know the actual name of the exact individual they are going to hire (that wouldn’t be fair), but they do know the type of person that they want and more importantly, they know the knowledge, skills and abilities that this person MUST possess.

Just ask Miriam Salpeter from Keppie Careers, who says:

“While the focus of ‘Why should we hire you?’ (and other similar interview questions) is on ‘you,’ the interviewee, it’s important to remember the answer isn’t all about you..."

Okay, so taking that all into consideration, how do you position yourself as the type of person that this company wants to hire?

How do you ensure that you are demonstrating the knowledge, skills and abilities that your company clearly puts a lot of value in?

In general terms, you want to show the hiring manager the different ways you bring value to the company: how you can help them satisfy their needs and achieve their goals, based on your past training and experience.

You’ll get your reward if they hire you. But be more interested in them than you are in yourself. Be there for them.

Again from Miriam Salpeter

“Framing replies that demonstrate you understand their problems, or ‘pain points,’ makes a big difference when competing with many other qualified candidates.”

(Source: Keppie Careers Blog)

But how does one do this?

By using our Tailoring Method of course!

The Tailoring Method

No, I’m not talking about putting a hem on the bottom of your new trousers or letting the seam of your blazer out a little bit to account for the couple extra helpings of apple pie you had at Thanksgiving.

While that tailoring is also crucial (nobody wants to go into their job interview looking like Jeff does after his weekly visit to Krispy Kreme), the type of tailoring I’m referring to concerns your entire job interview, and more specifically, your answers to the interview questions.

So what is tailoring?

Think of it like “customizing“.

We now know that your company has a specific type of person in mind for the role that they are interviewing for.

They have a specific set of knowledge, skills and abilities that this person MUST HAVE in order to get the job.

So what do you need to do? You need to customize, or “tailor” your entire interview to the needs of the company.

Success Stories

Every interview question should have a base. A stable foundation to build on. Over here at Interview Guys Headquarters, we like to refer to these foundational elements as “success stories“.

A success story is an example from your past work experience that clearly demonstrates you succeeding in some way.

For example, a time that you solved a problem, excelled in a difficult situation or used a certain skill to get the job done.

success-stories(1)

Every time you go into a job interview, you should have several of these memorized so that you can use them to help formulate your answers to the interview questions.

For example, a success story might be:

  • How you analyzed the annual budget and decided to make cutbacks in certain areas that led to more profit in the company the following year
  • How you helped solve a dispute between two co-workers that allowed your team to work more efficiently and led to increased productivity
  • How you volunteered for the “culture committee” and were appointed lead, where you led the team to make changes to the office setup which improved workflow and overall efficiency

Now here’s the key, and something I hope that you noticed…

You want to be careful not to slip into your old habits and start saying “Me me me me” again. The key is to select success stories that highlight the knowledge, skills and abilities that the company desires.

Okay, so I know what you might be thinking…

“Mike, does this mean I need to have a Success Story ready for every single interview question? What if I get asked 30 questions in my interview? Do I need 30 Success Stories!???”

It’s a fair question.

Here’s the deal: Not all interview questions and answers will require you to go into the kind of depth where using a Success Story is completely mandatory.

As you prepare for your job interview and study the different commonly asked interview questions, you will see that certain questions will warrant an answer with a little more depth or back story.

But there will be other interview questions that are simpler and will only require a more literal, straightforward response. For example, “What is your five-year plan?” This question is forward looking and doesn’t necessarily require the support of a tale of success from your past.

So use your discretion.

Qualities

Okay, so I’ve mentioned a few times that every company has a list of knowledge, skills and abilities that their ideal candidate must have. We like to group these together into one category and call them Qualities. Common qualities include the following:

  • leadership
  • collaboration
  • vision
  • persistence
  • innovation
  • influence

Everyone has Qualities. Even my partner Jeff (although I’m still working hard to try and figure out what they are). 😉


Okkkk.... That's the second shot you've taken at me. I'll be sure to remember that while writing my next article 😉



Jeff
Jeff

What am I saying?

Just having Qualities isn’t enough. You need to have the Qualities that your company puts a lot of value in.

How does one find these Qualities?

Well, as our friend Miriam Salpeter says, “Use their in-depth job descriptions, view videos the employers post about their organization and visit their Facebook page and Twitter feeds.”

We couldn’t agree more.

You should be “mining” the company’s various web properties to look for these Qualities, and then infusing them (along with a supporting success story) into your interview answers.

Putting It All Together

So have you figured out what you’re supposed to do? This is how it works.

Once you’ve figured out the Qualities that your company puts a lot of value in, you need to be able to show them that “YES!”, you do have these Qualities.

The best way to do this is to choose success stories from your past that help highlight those Qualities.

This is the big key.

The shift from the traditional way of interviewing. The part that most people get wrong.

It’s in the selection of these success stories that you will separate yourself from the pack.

Here’s an example. Let’s say that you discover through your research that your company puts huge value on the candidate being detail-oriented. Well, you need to go into your interview armed with a success story that demonstrates you being detailed-oriented.

Pretty simple right?

Now, when it comes time to actually answering the question there is a little more to it than that, but don’t worry, we’re going to use three examples of questions that will clearly show you how to use a success story and Quality to answer the question perfectly.

MIKE'S TIP

Despite the winning formula we've just provided, you want to be careful not to overdo it. As I said earlier with Success Stories, some questions will simply require a literal, general answer, and should be treated appropriately. Don't try to get too cute by weaving an elegant success story laced with several Qualities when the hiring manager simply wants to know how long you worked at a past job, what your core responsibilities were, or something similarly simplified.  

Common Job Interview Questions

If you want some sample answers to some of these common answers that you can get inspiration from then you should get our “job interview questions & answers cheat sheet. It’s pretty helpful because in it we give you word-for-word sample answers you can model. Click Here To Get The Job Interview Questions & Answers Cheat Sheet

3 Examples of Typical Interview Questions With Sample Answers

In the following three examples, we’ll show you how to answer three common interview questions using the formula that we demonstrated above.

Beside each question is the Quality that the company values the most (which we discovered through our research done while preparing for the interview). In the answer to the question, you’ll see that the Quality that we are trying to highlight in the answer is in ORANGE, and the success story that we are trying to use to help support the Quality is in BLUE. Make sense?

You’ll also see that I’ve added a “tarp” that people fall into in each question. Remember as I said before, many interview questions have little traps, sometimes traps that are not so obvious, and you need to be able to identify and avoid them.

I’ll also wrap the question up with a few “Do’s and Don’ts” to remember when you go into the interview room.

EXAMPLE ANSWER:

1) What is your biggest strength? (Desired Quality: Versatility)

As an architect at the small firm Big Building Inc., I had to learn all phases of running a business, from taking care of the IT work to visiting construction sites to doing accounts payable and receivable. I also passed the Architect Registration Exam in the 90th percentile of scores meaning I bring my architectural expertise, but I also have the entrepreneurial strength and spirit. Since your construction company is a start-up, I think that would add a lot of value. My experience shows that I excel when wearing a few different hats, even if one of them is a construction helmet.

TRAP: Many people hear this question and take the opportunity to gloat about their accomplishments, losing sight of the fact that the ONLY important thing you need to do his highlight a strength that aligns with the company’s needs. Never has the importance of the Tailoring Method been so clear.

DO’ s

  1. Highlight one of your strengths that you know the company puts a lot of value in
  2. Use a story from your past to support the strength you are trying to demonstrate
  3. Quantify your level achievement (“90th percentile of scores”)

DON’T S

  1. Don’t brag about your accomplishments
  2. Don’t bring up strengths that aren’t relevant to the company you are interviewing with
  3. Don’t make any claims you can’t support with hard facts.

EXAMPLE ANSWER:

2) How are you with time management? (Desired Quality: Efficiency)

Working as a travel agent, I had to be excellent at time management, as I was expected to sell and coordinate packages of flights, lodging, car rentals, admission passes, and tickets. All of these items needed to be coordinated and documented efficiently in order to ensure that my clients’ vacation expectations were exceeded. One other aspect of this position that was time-related was the fact that time zones played such a big role in the process. I was able to factor these differences into my work and ultimately provide my clients with a high level of service. I'd say that this experience accurately demonstrates my proficiency with time management and I believe that I'm well prepared to manage similar tasks at you company."

TRAP: Literally EVERYBODY who answers this question is going to say they are organized, and the hiring manager knows this. They expect you to provide cold hard data and examples when it comes to your claims, so don’t even think about claiming your organizational aptitude if you can’t back it up with facts.

DO’ s

  1. Always support your statement with hard facts
  2. The Quality desired is almost always “efficiency”, “organization”, or “time management”, so there should be no surprises
  3. This is one interview question that you can be 100% prepared for because you know it is coming and what you can say to answer it perfectly

DON’T S

  1. Don’t make up any BS stories about being organized if you can’t back it up. Remember, all it takes is one quick call to your old boss about your habits and your House of Cards can come tumbling down pretty quickly
  2. This is a straight forward question. Don’t get cute and try to weave in any extraneous Qualities that aren’t relevant to your level of efficiency
  3. There is NO excuse to not have this answer prepared perfectly prior to your interview. You know it’s coming so make sure you have your success story ready.

EXAMPLE ANSWER:

3) Is there anything else I should know about you? (Desired Quality: Deals well with pressure)

I didn’t mention an interesting anecdote when I was the safety manager at SkyScraper Construction Co. I had just completed my CPR and First Aid courses, and a man on site suddenly went into cardiac arrest. My supervisor looked at me and said, ‘You’re in charge of safety!’ I had practiced on a dummy but never on a live person. I knew I had to keep calm and simply do what I was taught. I revived him while others called 911. He later thanked me for saving his life. Although I don’t anticipate such a thing happening often, the incident taught me that, no matter what happens, keeping calm and putting one’s training into motion will often resolve a threatening situation. I think that was excellent training for an air traffic controller position, in addition to my FAA certification, of course.

TRAP: You wouldn’t believe how many people hear this question come out of the hiring manager’s mouth and take it as an invitation to list off their hobbies and interests. Look. They’ve seen your resume and are well aware that you “enjoy hiking.” This is another opportunity for you to take control of the interview by zoning in on their desired quality and really hammering it home with a well-positioned success story.

DO’ s

  1. Turn the interview from an “interrogation” to a “conversation” by taking this opportunity to highlight one of the Qualities you’ve discovered in your research.
  2. Keep a few success stories in your back pocket just for open-ended questions like these. They will really impress the hiring manager.

DON’T S

  1. Don’t EVER simply say, “No, I don’t think so.” Use the opportunity you’ve been given.
  2. Don’t ramble on and on.  It’s not an invitation to tell your life story.
  3. Don’t simply list off your hobbies and interests.

The Home Stretch

Okay, so by now, you should have a pretty good idea of how to apply our Tailoring Method to answering a typical job interview questions with ease.

Success stories (when needed)?

check-mark-11-512Check.

Discovered Qualities through detailed research?

check-mark-11-512Check.

Formula for answering any interview question perfectly?

You bet!

The main thing to remember is that “it’s not about you, it’s about them“, so you should be answering every interview question with that in mind.

Find the Qualities that your company is looking for in their perfect candidate and infuse them into your answers. And if the question warrants it, reference the Success Stories you have in your back pocket to help demonstrate you have that Quality.

Now, of course, this assumes that you know what questions you are going to be asked.

And that’s the next step…

A Quick Word of Warning

Don’t make the same mistake that everyone makes.

Don’t go to Google and punch in “best answers to interview questions” and on the first site that pops up, print off all the questions and answers and memorize them.

The internet, while making great strides, is still the Wild West at heart. There is a lot of bad information out there that can really have a negative effect on your interview preparation.

So stick with the experts. Hmm… let me think if I know any I can recommend… 😉

Joking aside, you obviously need to go to a reputable place to get the information you need to ensure your interview success. At the end of the day…your career depends on it.

Good Luck!

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About The Author

Mike Simpson

Co-Founder and CEO of TheInterviewGuys.com. Mike is a job interview and career expert and the head writer at TheInterviewGuys.com. His advice and insights have been shared and featured by publications such as Forbes, Entrepreneur, CNBC and more as well as educational institutions such as the University of Michigan, Penn State, Northeastern and others. Learn more about The Interview Guys on our About Us page.