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Five Questions to Get You Through Any Interview


Job interviews are scary.  Sure, it's great to land them, but once the initial glee over getting the interview passes, you're left with the anxiety over what they're going to ask and how they will feel about your answers.

'The transport worker.', Digital ID 411376, New York Public LibraryPreparing for a job interview can feel a lot like preparing for a cumulative final for a course that covers 200 years of history.  You could be asked about anything and it seems impossible to be prepared for every question.  According to Richard Nelson Bolles, author of What Color is Your Parachute?, all job interview questions boil down to five basic questions hiring authorities want answered.

1.  Why are you here?
2.  What can you do for us?
3.  Are you easy to work with?  Hard to work with?  Do you know?
4.  Why is it better to hire you than one of the other candidates?
5.  Will your salary expectations fit within our budget?

These questions undoubtedly trigger questions of your own, the main one being:  why don't interview questions sound like any of those?  Where does that annoying "tell me about yourself" thing fit in?  What about the strengths and weaknesses question?  How does that fit in here?

If you haven't already noticed, one of the keys to becoming an effective job seeker is to avoid being too literal.  While the five questions do not sound exactly the same as the classic interview questions you're used to hearing about, the more familiar questions are derivations of the five we focus on here.  Interviewing not only gives a hiring manager greater insight into your skills and abilities, but also helps them guage how well you understand the nuances of what is being asked.

Questions related to "Why are you here?"

  • What brings you to xyz company?
  • Have you had a chance to look at our website?
  • How would you say this position supports the mission of the organization?
  • What piqued your interest in this position?
  • How does this position fit in with your career goals?

Where do you see yourself in five years?

The interviewer is using these questions to see how interested you are in the opportunity and to get some idea of how long you are planning to stick around. Positive and enthusiastic responses are crucial.  It's also important to make it clear that you have gathered as much information as you could about the company well before the interview and that you've seriously thought about what a future working for them would look like.

Questions related to "What can you do for us?"

  • Tell me about yourself.
  • Tell me about an achievement you are especially proud of.
  • Walk me through how you approached a problem or challenge in your previous position.  What was the outcome?

    Most of these questions are behavioral.  The best way to tackle these types of questions is to prepare brief descriptions of achievements ahead of time. recommends using the STAR technique for responding to behavioral interview questions.  STAR stands for Situation or Task, Action, Result.  For questions like the ones mentioned in this section, think of examples that show
    you are solution-oriented and results-driven.  A lot of employees are good at pointing out what they think is going wrong, but you want to show that you will contribute solutions.

    Questions related to "Are you easy to work with?"
  • Why did you leave your previous position?
  • If I were to ask your previous supervisor to describe you, what would s/he say?
  • Tell me about a time you worked as part of a team.
  • Tell me about a time you had to learn something new on the job.
  • What do you do when you and your boss don't see eye-to-eye?
  • What is your greatest strength? What is your greatest weakness?

    While you can't use the exact same answer for all of these questions, they are all related to your work style, work ethic, and people skills.  Your responses should show that you are ethical, flexible, responsible, accountable, and focused on doing what is best for the organization.  Also, it's important to find ways to demonstrate that you're going to fit in.

Questions related to "What sets you apart from the competition?"

  • Why should we hire you?
  • What unique skills and talents do you bring to this position?

    Not surprisingly, there is some overlap between this question and "What can you do for us?" However, this is where you want to focus on knowledge or skills that you have that make you unusual.  Be creative!  What makes you an unusually good fit for the position probably isn't mentioned in the job posting.  Maybe you are applying for a fundraising position at a nonprofit and you have 20 years of sales experience under your belt.  At first blush, those may not seem related, but excellent presentation skills, a professional phone demeanor, and the ability to pursuade people are related to both positions.

Questions related to salary expectations.

  • What are your salary expectations?
  • What are you making now?

These are questions you need to practice not answering.  It's important for you to go into job interviews with a good idea of what your skills are worth in the current market .  It's equally important to have a sense of what each employer you meet with is willing to pay.  However, neither of you needs a specific number before an offer is on the table.  The classic response to these questions is to say something like, "We are still trying to determine whether or not this is a good fit.  Let's wait until we determine that we are both interested.  Then, we can discuss compensation.  At that point, I'm sure we will be able to work something out."

For those of you who still aren't convinced that preparing to answer these questions will prepare you for any question, you're partly right.  If you are interviewing for a consulting or a quantitative analyst position, you may need to practice answering case interview and possibly puzzle questions (aspiring Wall Street folks.)  Click here for case interview resources. Interviewing for Wall Street jobs?  Try Heard on the Street.