Thinking in advance about the questions you're likely to be asked at a job interview can make a big difference. If you have thought about what to expect, and the rationale behind the questions, you will be in a good position to show yourself at your best.
Tips on answering interview questions
- Plan ahead and prepare answers to the questions you may be asked.
- Good answers should last between 30 seconds and two minutes. Be prepared to elaborate if necessary, particularly if you are asked a 'closed' question that demands a yes or no answer.
- Be honest: if you don’t know the answer, do not waffle.
- If you don't understand a question, ask for clarification.
Typical interview questions
There are common questions that you can expect to be asked at a job interview. This puts you in a strong position if you have thought ahead.
‘Tell me about yourself.’
Answer in about two minutes. You can prepare this in advance. Touch on your work experience, education, major responsibilities and achievements, and finish with a summary of your personal work style and career goals.
‘What do you know about our organisation?’
Show you have gone further than just reading their website. Mention what you have read about them in the media; talk about products, services, history and people, especially any friends that work there.
‘What are your strengths?’
Highlight three strong points, relevant to the job. Have examples to back them up.
‘What are your weak points?’
Focus on a past weakness and how you overcame it. Another approach is to give one that is really a positive in disguise, but beware of clichés such as ‘I’m a bit of a perfectionist’.
‘What is your greatest achievement?’
Think of something you are proud of and how it developed you. Highlight the skills it has given you relevant to the job.
‘Why have you chosen this career?’
Show what motivates you. Explain why this sector appeals to you and use any work experience you might have to back this up.
‘What do you look for in a job?’
The employer isn’t really interested in what you are looking for: they are interested in what they are looking for. Fit your answer to their needs and focus on the benefits you can bring to the organisation.
‘Why do you want to work for us?’
Be honest: this will allow your enthusiasm to come across. This is also a chance to demonstrate the research you have done about the company.
‘Where do you hope to be in five years?’
The best answer is one that will reassure the interviewer that you are looking to make a long-term commitment.
‘What’s the most difficult situation you ever faced in a job?’
Prepare ahead for this question by thinking of a story that has a positive ending – both for you and the company.
‘Describe some situations in which you have worked under pressure or met deadlines.’
Behaviour-related questions aim at assessing how closely you match the competences or personality traits required by the job. Use this opportunity to highlight success from projects, sporting or social activities.
‘How did you do in your third-level studies?’
Emphasise your best subjects and highlights of your studies. If grades were average, talk about leadership or jobs you took to finance your education.
‘What kinds of people do you find difficult to work with?’
Again, this answer should reflect company values, for example, by showing that you are a team player.
‘Why should we hire you?’
This may sound suspicious: actually, it’s a call for help. The employer wants you to help them to hire you. Prepare ahead your ‘one sentence reply’ highlighting how you match the job requirements.
Difficult interview questions
There may sometimes be some questions that you can’t prepare for. But if you can identify the underlying reason for them you will be able to deal with these curveballs as well.
If you’re asked a difficult question, you don’t have to give an immediate response. Have a stock phrase prepared, such as ‘That’s an interesting question; can I have a minute to think it through please?’. Take a sip of water while you ponder. Or buy some time by asking the interviewer to clarify the question.
'Sell me this pencil'
The interviewer wants to know how well do you think on your feet. (Clue: don’t sell the pencil, sell its benefits.)
'Tell me about a time where you were asked to do the impossible'
The interviewer is testing your problem-solving skills and how you manage pressure. Find an example of a task, at work or during your studies, which at first seemed impossible and show how you used your skills to resolve it.
'What kind of animal are you?'
The interviewer is looking for quick and snappy thinking as well as how you see yourself. Focus on the positive and make sure the qualities you talk about align to the job.
'Your CV looks a bit boring'
Sometimes there will be a deliberately provocative question. Don’t respond defensively: be assertive and treat this as an opportunity to show how your experience is impressive, interesting and relevant to the job.
Questions to ask at interviews
You can impress interviewers by asking intelligent questions: this will show you have done your research and thought about the job. And you don’t have to wait to be invited (traditionally, at the end of the interview): asking sensible questions throughout the proceedings shows you are listening.
Use ‘open’ questions that require more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. But don’t ask questions that you should already know the answer to.
Avoid, too, questions about social life, sports facilities or salaries: these are best kept for later.
Concentrate on questions that demonstrate a keen interest in the job and the organisation. These could be about:
- the business
- the job and training
- career progression
- company culture.