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25 questions to think about before a job interview

Trying to 'wing it' is not the best strategy for getting hired.

By Karen Datko Oct 18, 2009 4:33PM

This post comes from Trent Hamm at partner blog The Simple Dollar.


I have conducted a substantial number of job interviews. Although the jobs I usually hire for are technical in nature, most of the truly telling -- and thus truly valuable -- questions I've asked are nontechnical questions. A great interview question reveals the nature of the person you're hiring -- honesty, reliability, ability to communicate intelligently and quickly.


Over time, I've collected a pretty good pile of questions I use in almost every interview. Here are 25 of the most reliable ones, along with a tip or two about what makes a good answer -- and what makes a bad one. If you can easily answer these questions, you shouldn't have much to worry about in an interview.

Tell me about yourself. This serves to make the person comfortable and gives me a chance to figure out how she or he talks. This is a question that every interviewee should be prepared to answer. The best answer highlights aspects of yourself that make you stand out from Joe Average in a positive fashion. Make a list of four or five and work them into a 30-second bit.


Tell me what you know about us. This question tries to determine if applicants have done their homework. An exceptional candidate will be able to deliver a lot of information about the company. In other words, before you go to an interview, know what the organization is.


What sets you apart from other people who might apply for this job? The answer is usually already known to the interviewer based on your resume, but this is a chance for you to sell yourself. Most interviewers will sit back and see how well you can sell. On occasion, surprises can be good here, but this can be tricky. If it's something that should have been on your resume, why was it not on your resume?


Describe the position you're applying for. This is a homework question, too, but it also gives some clues about the perspective the person brings to the table. The best preparation you can do is to read the job description and repeat it to yourself in your own words so that you can do this smoothly at the interview.


Why are you interested this position? This is a way of re-asking the second question (what you know about the company) and the fourth (what you know about the position). It's asked because it tells whether people give flippant answers to questions ("because I'm a people person") or whether they think about things and give a genuine question. Come up with a few things that intrigue you about the company and the position and reasons why they interest you.


What aspect of this position makes you the most uncomfortable? Most people think this is some sort of filter, but it's rarely used that way. This is actually an honesty question. No one on earth will like every aspect of every potential job. Location? Working hours? People? The company's too big? The company's too small? Honesty really works here. I'd prefer to hear a genuine reason for discomfort than a platitude. A good way to answer is something like "I've never worked in a company this large before" or "I've heard some strange things about the corporate culture" or "The idea of working for a startup at such an early stage makes me nervous."


What was your biggest success in your last job? What was your biggest failure? These questions are often paired, but the important one is about your biggest failure. The best applicant is usually someone who will admit that he or she made a disaster out of something and learned from it, an incredibly important trait.


Tell me about the best supervisor you've ever had. Tell me about the worst supervisor you've ever had. These questions seek to figure out what kind of management style will work best for the applicant and also how the person is likely to manage people. Let's say I work in an organization with a loose-knit management structure that requires a lot of self-starting. If that's the case, I want to hear that the best boss was very hands-off and that the worst boss was a micromanager. On the other hand, if I'm in an organization with a strict hierarchy, I might want to hear the exact opposite.


Your best approach is to answer this as honestly as possible. If you try to slip into a company where you don't match the culture, you'll have a hard time fitting in and succeeding.


Another tip: Highlight positives in all of the bosses you discuss. Bashing someone during an interview reflects poorly on you.


Tell me about the most difficult project you ever faced. The interviewer is looking to see if you have faced serious difficulty and how you overcame it. This isn't necessarily your biggest success or failure, but something you turned from a likely failure into some sort of success.


What do you see as the important future trends in this area? This question is easy to prepare for. Spend a half-hour reading some blogs on the specific areas you're applying for.


Have you done anything in the last year to learn new things/improve yourself in relation to the requirements of this job? This is a great "deer in the headlights look" question, as most people don't have an answer. The best way to handle this question is to always spend some time working on your skills. Write open source code. Participate in Toastmasters. Take a class. If you put effort into improving yourself every year, this question will be a nonissue.


Tell me about your dream job. Never say "this job" or mention another specific job. The first answer raises warning flags and the second says you're not interested in sticking around. Instead, name traits of your dream job. Some of them should match what the company has available, but it's actually best if they don't match perfectly.


Have you ever had a serious conflict in a previous job? How was it resolved? This question looks for honesty and also opens the door for people with poor character to  bash a previous employer, something that leaves a bad taste in an interviewer's mouth. Tell the story, but show that there are two sides to the story and that you've learned from the experience to see the other person's perspective.


What did you learn from your last position? Although it's fine to list a technical skill or two, it's important to mention nontechnical skills. For instance: "I learned how to work in a team environment after mostly working in solo environments."


Why did you leave your last position? A concrete answer is good here. "I wanted to move on" is not a strong answer. Downsizing is a good answer, as is a desire to seek specific new challenges. Don't bash your previous position.


Tell me about a suggestion you made that was implemented at a previous job. It's important that you have been involved in making a suggestion and helping it come to fruition. Not having an answer is generally a sizeable negative, but not a do-or-die negative.


Have you ever been asked to leave a position? Tell me about the experience. Obviously, it's great if you can answer "no." However, a "yes" can be turned into a positive. It's a great way to show you've made mistakes and learned valuable lessons from them. Be honest here, but don't spend time bashing the people who let you go.


Have you ever had to fire anyone? Tell me about the experience. This question is asked to see if you have empathy for others. It should not have been an easy choice or an easy experience. Do not bash the person you fired, either. Be as clinical as possible about the reasons.


Are you applying for other jobs? If you are, the best answer is, "Yes, in much the same way that you're interviewing other people. We're both trying to find the best fit for what we need and what we want." If your answer is no, then say, "No, I'm actually happy with my current position, but there were a few compelling aspects of this job that made me want to follow up on it," and list those aspects.


What do you think this position should pay? Surprising to many, this is often not salary negotiation. It's usually used as a reality check. If you're hiring a janitor who expects $80,000, you can probably toss the resume right then and there. At the same time, a highly skilled programmer selling himself for $30K is also setting off warning bells. A good answer is usually on target or a bit on the high side. Get an idea of the asking rate for the position before the interview, and then request about 30% more.


Where do you see yourself in your career in five years? This question filters for people with initiative. A person who answers "I'm going to be successful in this position that I'm interviewing for" either isn't motivated to improve or isn't being totally honest. I'd rather hear an answer that involves either promotion or some level of entrepreneurship. Strong organizations thrive on self-starters.


What are your long-term goals? People who plan for the long term are usually in a good, mature mental state and will often wind up being stronger workers than people without long-term plans.


Do you have any questions about this job? Yes, you do. Not having questions is a sign that you aren't really interested in the position. Your job as an interviewee is to have a few questions already in mind when you walk in the door.


Other articles of interest at The Simple Dollar:

Published April 18, 2008
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