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13 common interview questions and how to answer them

James Davis

Congrats on getting to the job interview! If you can answer these interview questions consistently, you may just land the position.

Knowing how to apply for graduate jobs and internships is really important. It’s something we harp on about all the time! Unless you’re a complete pessimist, you’ll also need to learn which questions you’re likely to be asked in an interview so you can prepare some responses. That isn’t to say completely memorise a script! No, we simply encourage you to learn what they’re after and give an honest answer based on your experiences and expectations of the job. Without further adieu, here are some popular interview questions and how you should go about answering them. 

1. ‘Can you tell me about yourself?’

Unfortunately, this isn’t an invitation to talk about your undying love for garlic bread and the Bachelorette. What employers want here is a walk through your resume, even though you submitted it well in advance. This might seem redundant because, well… they have your resume. Ultimately what they’re looking for is how you sell your experience as relevant to the job you’re gunning for. To this end, you’ll want to sprinkle in tidbits about past work experience and how it helped you develop a skill you perceive to be relevant to the role you’re applying for. 

 

Now here’s the important bit: what if you don’t have any work experience? Well, there’s plenty you can say about miscellaneous developmental experiences you’ve had. Just about anything you’ve done can likely be interpreted as a ‘developmental experience’ resulting in you acquiring some new skills or a piece of wisdom. Ever get lost while camping? Tell the story and how it helped you develop resilience. Had a terrible group mate during an assignment? Talk about how you reasoned with them. That’s a demonstration of interpersonal skills. Think of literally anything you’ve done in your life and it likely developed something. Of course, be a bit strategic. They probably don’t want to hear when you learned about hangovers. 

So how do you weave these disparate anecdotes into a cohesive story? Well, just tell it like it is. If you’re applying for a graduate job or internship after all, they likely know you won’t have years of work experience to fall back on. Instead, go for the things you’ve learned throughout volunteering, university clubs, sports teams and anything else you can think of where soft skills were in play. If you haven’t done any of that, talk about what you’ve learned from your hobbies. Whatever it is, they just want to hear how you’re a good fit. Reaffirm their choice to interview you as best you can, even if it’s just you regaling them with tales of how Minecraft made you a better leader. So long as it’s true. 

2. ‘How did you hear about us?’

“With my ears” is a triple A plus reply, but won’t land you a job. This one’s a little more innocuous thankfully, but it’s still important. They’re looking to see how enthusiastic you are about the position. Yeah, that sounds like a stretch, but hear us out. You had to have heard about them somewhere; wherever that may have been, it lead to you reading about them and being convinced you should send an application. Why that is can earn you brownie points. Perhaps you liked the sound of their workplace? Maybe you heard positive testimonies from friends, who then recommended you? Perhaps you admired one of their recent projects? Whatever the truth was for you, let them know. If prior to the interview you don’t have a good answer to this question, double check the ad or offer you responded to and reacquaint yourself with what made it appealing. That’s your answer to this question. 

3. ‘What do you consider a weakness of yours?’

You can probably figure out what they’re after here, but this interview question is hairy all the same. They’re looking for how introspective you can be. If you can assess yourself honestly, that’s a great sign you’re capable of seeing your mistakes and learning from them. It’s a positive quality for just about any area of the workplace, so showing that humility off is important. Yes, we see the irony in that statement. 

To this end, you still want to be honest… but not too honest. This doesn’t mean lying, of course! The goal is to focus on maybe one or two weaknesses. Just address them, why you think you have that weakness, how you’re working on alleviating it and the progress you’ve made so far. This is one of the more productive ways of answering questions like this, as it shows not only honesty, but a desire to improve. It shows some initiative without appearing either meek or arrogant. 

Those are the two trappings of this question. If you sit there listing all your flaws in total honesty without showing further introspection, they won’t know what to make of you. You may appear like you’ve given up, lost hope or any number of negative attributes. Even if it’s honest, this isn’t the right road to go down in this context. Keep that for your court mandated therapy. Conversely, it can feel like non-weaknesses are the way to go. ‘I feel like I work too hard’ or ‘I’m just too persistent’ are transparent and disingenuous answers. Even if you mean them in good faith and they’re the absolute truth, you still want to avoid any answer that looks like this. Keep it to one or two weaknesses, how you’re working on them and how you intend to improve. Sharp and shiny. 

4. ‘What are your strengths?’

Unfortunately, this isn’t a license to brag, 007. Nevertheless, it is an opportunity to stay modest and focus on just a few main strengths. Similar to the previous question, look for ways of touching on a strength, but instead talk about how you’re working to keep improving and the ways in which you’ve already improved. Often, the effort exerted to achieve a goal is more attractive to onlookers than the goal itself. Use this to your advantage. If you can highlight the effort it took to become stronger in some ways, then you’re simultaneously answering their question and showing off how you can evolve to meet changing needs. Furthermore, you show you’re not arrogant in any regard and that even your strengths can always be improved upon. If you can always express a humble willingness to learn in just about any respect, you’ll become a far more attractive candidate to employers during an interview. 

5. ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’

This is less a prediction and more of an ambition. The point is to show them what you’re aiming for in the short run. Make sure the goal is specific, as an un-measurable goal is not only unattainable, but will make you look indecisive or evasive. To that end, talk about how you intend to get to that goal as well, even if you’ve got incomplete knowledge of what it will entail. In fact, that can even work to your advantage. If you’re missing pieces of knowledge you can’t possibly have on account of currently being outside the company, you’re well within your rights to incorporate learning into the goal. Furthermore, it’s another chance to show some self awareness. You can tell them you’ve not got all the answers, but here’s what steps you’ll take to get them. That’s attractive to any employer. As we say, graduates aren’t expected to know everything. They’re expected to know how to learn. 

This is a lofty question, but keep the answer to a simple plan. ‘I plan to be here in five years. Here’s how I intend to get there’. 

6. ‘How do you deal with stress?’

Eating a tub of ice cream and punching holes in plasterboard might work. Sadly, that’s not what they’re looking for. If your interviewer asks this, they want insight into how you perform under pressure to better understand how you may perform in their work environment. This is especially important in high-stress work places, but just about any workplace is bound to have its stresses. Knowing how to deal with them is therefore ideal. 

To answer this appropriately, start by thinking of several times you encountered stress and what you did to overcome it. This could be an exam you took in school, or perhaps a big footy game you had coming up once upon a time. The likely course of action was: you studied, or practiced, until satisfied with your performance and the stress was alleviated. Tell them that. It doesn’t have to be much more complicated. If you historically haven’t dealt with stress well and don’t have an honest account like that, use the formula given previously. Simply own up to it, but then go on to explain how you’ve gone about dealing with your difficulties handling stress and progress you’ve made toward improving. You can even incorporate some humour and start with “I don’t”. You might be surprised how charming and disarming that is. Follow it up with signs of improvement and you’re golden. 

7. ‘What are your hobbies/ what do you do for fun?’

What people do for fun says a lot about them. At the very least, employers think so! If someone plays team sports, perhaps they’re competitive and driven. If they’re a prolific reader, perhaps they have an insatiable curiosity. If they love painting, perhaps they’re creative thinkers.

Whatever it is you do, there’s likely a plethora of positive attributes bundled with it. Spend a few minutes prior to the interview being honest with what you enjoy and the skills or attributes required to excel in it. 

So what if you really don’t have any hobbies or interests? Don’t worry; you’re a student. You’ll get to have a life once you land your first job… probably. In the meantime, don’t just tell them “I like Netflix and sleep”. Consider what it is that’s taking up all your time, be it multiple jobs, familial obligations or a particularly rough couple of units. Be honest, say you don’t have time for fun and talk about why that is. If it’s the truth, tell them how you enjoy what you do. If you enjoy taking care of an elderly parent, talk about that. If you’re enjoying your units even though they’re stressful, just talk about that. It doesn’t communicate particularly good work-life balance, but it does show your work ethic. To address the former, you can even use that time-honoured trick of talking about how you intend to improve your work-life balance and the progress you’ve made thus far. 

Alright, what if you neither have time for fun and don’t enjoy what’s taking up all your time? Hats off to you. There’s still a way to deal with this question though. Simply take the time to talk about what you’d enjoy doing if you had the time and why. The why is most important. If you can express what it is that makes something appealing to you, that’ll leave more of an impression than their own presumptions of the activity’s merits. 

8. ‘When was a time you overcame a professional challenge?’

A bit of a slap in the face for a uni student, but not impossible! There’s likely to be plenty you’ve overcome at uni that warrants a story. After all, university is your profession at this stage of life, so don’t be afraid to just talk about it. For this question, interviewers are looking to see how you handle confrontation, difficult problems and other miscellaneous hurdles naturally arising throughout the course of work. Whether it’s uni or your part time job, use the STAR method to answer questions like this.

  • S = situation. Set the scene for the interviewer. What were you doing, where was it and what was the problem?

  • T = task. What were you required to accomplish in your role?

  • A = action. What did you do?

  • R = result. Were your efforts successful or unsuccessful? 

Now let’s put that into practice assuming you have no work experience. We’ll talk about the time a hypothetical you got a prickly group assignment done.

  • S: I was doing a second year group assignment at uni, but we were having trouble gathering the necessary research.

  • T: My goal was finding reliable sources of information relevant to our needs.

  • A: I asked five professors for recommendations on literature relevant to our task and combed through them with my group.

  • R: We successfully gathered a body of reliable primary sources for our assignment.

If you’ve got a part time job, something as simple as dealing with rowdy customers can be just as good. 

9. ‘What do you think we could do better?’

This cheeky devil of a question is often asked in total honesty. They really do just want to know how you think they can improve. It’s an insight into how an outside perceives the company, as well as a chance to test your knowledge of it. 

Just doing your homework is the best way to answer this. You’ll need to learn what you can about company culture, recent projects, deadlines and whether or not they’ve ever been in the news for anything. Perhaps you’ve used their products or services before? Maybe a friend has? These are all leads you can chase up to help answer this one. Just be honest and give them something they can use as respectfully as possible. Of course, don’t take this as an opportunity to wail on them! Make it as constructive and gentle as possible. 

So what if you can’t think of anything, regardless of how much research you do? Well, as always, honesty is the best policy. Just tell them you can’t think of anything, citing all the ways in which they excel currently and how they seem to have the most optimal way of conducting business. You can even spin that into a reason for wanting to work for them. Not all interview questions need perfect answers. So long as you demonstrate you’ve done some research, which is ultimately what they’re after, you’re in the clear. 

10. ‘Why should we hire you?’

This is basically what the whole process boils down to, isn’t it? The point of all these other questions is to answer this one. If you’re asked this point blank, this is an opportunity to really go to town. This is kind of like the ‘what are your strengths’ question, only you’ve got more of a license to be bold. 

A good way to answer this is going over the job specification prior to the interview and systematically answering why you meet each criteria. If you’re applying for a software dev position requiring C++, Python and some SQL, as well as interpersonal skills, resilience and team work capabilities, that’s a checklist. 

‘I know C++ due to my courses in the subject, Python due to personal projects and SQL from some database work I did during an internship. I built interpersonal skills in my role as a customer service rep for XYZ Corp. I learned resilience and team work skills through my time playing basketball through uni. Even though I feel accomplished in these areas, I’m always looking for opportunities to improve. I think we can offer each other a great deal, which is why I think you should hire me.’ 

You get the picture. 

If you don’t meet all the job specifications and can’t think how or why you’d effectively meet them, that’s OK. You aren’t out of the race. Let’s say you’re that aspiring software dev, but you can’t think of ways you’ve become a resilient team player. You can actually turn that deficiency into a selling point. If your potential employer requires those skills, they likely offer an environment demanding them, which means an opportunity to learn them. So, you can tell them you see yourself as a valuable asset to the company with plenty of room to grow resilience and team work skills. Emphasise your ability to learn. You’re a university student after all. That’s a selling point, not a weakness.

11. ‘Why do you want this job?’

Employers want to understand the motivations of their employees. Now’s your chance to reassure them you know what you want and why they’re the right way to get it. Whether they ask you this at the beginning of the interview or right at the end, dropping hints at why you want the job throughout other questions will help answer this one. The goal is simply to communicate what you hope to learn by working there, why you like what they’re doing, the industry and anything else you find inspires you about the organisation. 

Even if nothing immediately jumps out, there’s plenty to say of just about any organisation. Once again, it just requires research. You’ll be learning about their past accomplishments and history to prepare for other likely questions anyway, so jot down any positives you see. As for the more personal element, namely telling them why you find them appealing, this will require a modicum of reflection. What is it you hope to gain from professional life for instance and why? Does this company set you on the path to achieving that? This question’s as much a chance to elevate them as it is to tell them more about yourself. As such, don’t be afraid to be a bit selfish. ‘I love what you’ve done and the culture you’ve cultivated. I’ve heard so much about it from friends who recommended you and thought I could learn a great deal from working here.’ You then go into specifics, like what you hope to learn and why. 

12. ‘Do you have any questions for us?’

The answer to this should always be ‘yes’. Even if they never ask you this question, act as though they had and prepare your own questions. This is an invaluable chance to get some personal insight into what the company’s all about, what it’s like to work for and the sorts of responsibilities you’d have in the role. We’ve got an entire article on some excellent questions to ask during a job interview you can read here. If you don’t feel like clicking away, here are just a few examples:

  • What made you choose this company?

  • What does an average day look like for someone in my role?

  • What’s one of the most useful things you’ve learned working here?

You may be tempted to ask about salary, but don’t. If they haven’t already, they’ll ask you. 

13. ‘What are your salary expectations?’

To some, this is the prickliest interview question of them all. But it doesn’t need to be. Negotiating salary just requires some research beforehand. Use a site like PayScale to get an idea of how much you can expect in this sort of role, country, state and area. You’ll be given quite a wide range, as people submit their salaries at different points in their careers. As a graduate, you can assume your salary will start at the low end, but it doesn’t hurt to hustle a bit! Two guidelines to follow:

  • Always give a salary range. This shows you’re flexible. However, it’s likely they’ll just pick the lowest end in most cases, so make sure what you consider fair is at the lowest end, with the ‘blue sky’ amount being higher. 

  • Shift the range slightly higher than you’d expect, indicating you’d be open to negotiation. The person who makes the first offer, namely you, is often at a disadvantage. So start it high and work your way back. If you’d be happy to start on $65k, say your salary expectation is $68k - $72k… of course, that’s subject to your industry findings. How much leeway you have will depend on the volatility of the industry. If you’re applying at a government department for instance, there are fairly rigid paygrades. 

You should now be much better equipped to handle some of the most common interview questions. There are likely to be curveballs in every interview, but learning how to answer this batch will allow you to develop somewhat of a formula for answering. You’ve likely observed a recurrent theme throughout this article of remaining honest, humble and voicing your desire to improve and learn. If you carry these qualities not only throughout your job interview, but also when you get the job (we believe in you!), you’ll get much more out of professional life, as well as your interviews. Good luck! 

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