Job interviews are often an unnerving experience. An interviewee can feel like they’ll be judged by every mistake they make, whether that’s in the way they move or the way they speak. There’s also an intense pressure to respond brilliantly to all their interviewer’s questions.
But if you’re in the hot seat, there are ways to prepare in advance, including anticipating questions you might be asked. A new survey by career site Zety may make that easier. According to the survey, there are questions you can expect to come up at every interview.
The most common? “Tell me about yourself.”
To uncover these common questions along with other interview insights, the poll asked 503 U.S. professionals involved in the hiring process and 1,025 workers a series of questions, including: yes/no questions, questions with level of agreement answers, questions that permitted the selection of multiple options from a list of potential answers, and questions that permitted open responses.
The most commonly asked are:
- Tell me about yourself
- Tell me about a challenge or conflict you faced at work and how did you deal with it?
- What are your greatest strengths?
- How did you hear about this position?
- What are your greatest weaknesses?
One thing uniting all the questions? They're all open ended. Jacques Buffett, a Zety career expert who worked on the survey, told Inverse this is a way to gain as much information as possible.
“A closed question limits the response to yes/no or a limited set of possible answers — A, B, C, D,” Buffett says. “An open question encourages a more detailed response and maximizes the information that the person asking the question obtains.”
As for some of the other top most asked questions:
Many of these questions are also situational. For example, “Tell me about a time you demonstrated leadership skills.”
“This means the interviewer wants to know about how you handled yourself in a past situation at work and uses that answer to gauge your experience and skills and whether they're a fit with what they're looking for in a candidate,” Buffett says.
This approach is supported by business leaders including Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX and richest person in the world, who asks every candidate he interviews this question: “Tell me about some of the most difficult problems you worked on and how you solved them.”
Another example of this type of question, from Lori Dickerson Fouché, C.E.O. of Prudential Group Insurance: “If you find yourself in situations where they’re not going the way you want them to, what do you do?”
Here’s a tough one, from Mark Lawrence, founder and CEO of SpotHero: “Can you tell me about a tough day you had at work and how you pushed through?”
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The Strategy — Now that you know some of the questions to expect at an interview, you can look back at your past work and reflect on experiences that may provide good answers for these questions. These experience-based questions and answers are important, as research published in 1995 in Personnel Psychology cited by Zety showed they yield higher levels of validity than hypothetical situation questions, so candidates can demonstrate how they acted in real-life situations, Buffett says.
There are multiple ways to do this during interviews, he says. For example, a job candidate can explain the problem they faced, tell the interviewer their solution, and show how the solution benefited their employer. Tone is important.
“While it's important to sound natural when responding, we'd suggest most hiring managers would want detailed and well thought out responses,” Buffett says. “Answering completely off the cuff may mean important details are forgotten. We recommend a blended approach: prepare, but work on sounding natural and tailoring your response to the requirements of the job you're applying for.”
Why this strategy matters to you — Interviews are a critical step in the hiring process for both companies and candidates. It allows hiring managers to determine whether a person is a good fit for a role and whether they’d fit in with its existing employees. For the candidate, an interview helps them learn about a company and whether they’d want to work there. Both parties should want to put their best foot forward during an interview.
How you can implement this strategy — While candidates should prepare responses for common questions, they should also be ready to query their interviewer.
“It's critical for candidates to remember they have to ask questions too,” Buffett says. “I can't over-emphasize how important this is. Our data reveals the questions interviewers want to be asked by candidates are open-ended too — [they want them to] show a genuine interest in the role and its responsibilities and show a commitment to growing and developing in the role.
“It never hurts to ask the interviewer about their role and career with the employer, especially if they will be the interviewee's manager. It helps build rapport, and most people love talking about themselves, so it'll get the interviewer to open up.”
The strategy's side effects — These aren’t the only questions you should expect to be asked at your next interview, of course. Some companies’ hiring managers like to throw out brain teasers or other oddball questions. In the case of Musk, he asked potential SpaceX hires the following riddle:
“You’re standing on the surface of the Earth. You walk one mile south, one mile west and one mile north. You end up exactly where you started. Where are you?”
The answer is the North Pole, but Musk would follow up, "Where else could you be?" The answer to that is somewhere near the South Pole, but the correct answer didn’t matter as much as “how [candidates] describe the problem and their approach to solving it," according to Musk’s biographer, Ashlee Vance, in Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future.
These oddball questions aren’t always just a fun way to throw people for a loop — a 2018 study published in Applied Psychology showed that people who tend to ask these types of questions may have narcissist and sadistic personality traits (sorry Elon!). Buffett says he believes there’s a place for these questions, however.
“Well thought out left-field questions can be useful and done with the best of intentions, but not when used merely to disrupt or throw an interviewee off balance,” he says.
The Inverse analysis — Be prepared to talk about yourself and your experience at your next job interview, focusing on how you solved problems in the past. Keep in mind that interviewers are looking to learn how you may help the company solve its problems. So prepare and put your best foot forward, and hopefully land that job.