3. Answers To Common Interview Questions
Question 1: Tell me about yourself
Many job interviews start with this question, also known as the ‘elevator pitch’ (the concept that it reflects the idea that it should be possible to deliver your summary in the time span of an elevator ride in a way that interests others). It is primarily to serve as an ice-breaker and ease the candidate into the interview without making the person feel nervous. However, your answer can say a lot about your level of confidence and give an overall feeling for how you could fare during the rest of your interview. So be confident – your interview is your chance to shine and sell yourself and is no time for modesty!
In your answer, the interviewer will want to ascertain your background, your accomplishments, why you want the job and what your future goals are. Although the question can be misinterpreted, it is always focused on your job history and is not a platform to launch into your interests and hobbies! There is not a right or wrong if you do want to mention a hobby at the end which you think is interesting to talk about briefly as it may impress and gives an idea about your personality but don’t bother if your hobbies include topics such as socialising, cinema and family!
This question is not one to leave to chance on the day and does require preparation. Spend some time writing down your top few personal experiences. Use your ‘Personal Profile’ in your CV to help you form the basis of this answer.
Think about the main things you want the interviewer to remember about you and whether you have matched your goals to their needs. When you have finished answering the question, the interviewer should know clearly where your strengths lie and your significant accomplishments and most importantly, whether you are someone they should hire. It is very important that you tailor your answer to suit the needs of the job i.e. if you know that the position you're applying for will involve managing others, and you have been working towards a management qualification, pointing that out in your answer aligns your plans with the company's goals.
Allow yourself approximately 2-3 mins for this question but no longer. You will either bore them in the first instance or give away too much detail that should be reserved for other questions. A good way to prepare for this is to write out your answer to gather your thoughts. You will generally want to start with your education, unless that was a very long time ago. The aim is to quickly launch into your job history, keeping in mind that you want to highlight your top 3-5 experiences and not every last thing you did in each job. You should conclude with what your future goals/motivations are and why this company will benefit from your expertise in the position. These goals should match the opportunity presented by this company.
Whilst it is recommended that you rehearse this answer, it is also important that you sound natural, so remember to breathe and smile and not rush through it as you try to remember all the points you want to make!
Example Answer (short version):
I’m a highly motivated individual with 15 years’ project management experience acquired mainly in the engineering industry. After completing my Masters in Engineering I started my career in communication networks and have progressed to become Senior Project Manager leading a team of ten design engineers.
I have been successful on delivering projects to the highest standards ensuring company objectives are achieved whilst also maintaining a strong client focus. I enjoy being part of, as well as managing, motivating, training and developing a successful and productive team and in a recent employee satisfaction survey, I was the highest scoring manager in the department.
I thrive in highly pressurised and challenging work environments – in fact, a recent project I was heading up which contributed to a £4M saving in migration costs, was one of the most stressful because of the time pressures we had to fulfil, but because of our success, I was able to negotiate a 5-year contract for our project team to do the same for other sites.
I’m now keen to further my career by taking on increased management responsibility and building on my technical expertise with a fast-moving, progressive company.
Question 2 (Part A): What attracts you to our organisation?
You will need to show that you have a clear understanding of the organisation’s values and ethos and that they match yours. To demonstrate a genuine motivation to want to work for them, you should thoroughly read their website as a starting point to understand any recent developments and future plans. For many organisations offering graduate schemes, there is a section dedicated to what their employees say about them so this can be useful in understanding the culture of the organisation and types of people they generally employ (if you already know someone who works for them, they could help to give you an idea about this).
In addition, to further impress and stand out from the competition, you should aim to research them through other sources, i.e. industry sector trade journals, press releases, newspaper articles, etc. to find out how they are placed in the industry they are in.
With your exceptional award success, including being named the Graduate Employer of the Year for the last four years and being ranked No. 2 in the listings for the second consecutive year for ‘100 Best Companies to Work for’, according to The Guardian, affirms XXX’s position as one of the best companies to work for in the world.
XXX recruits over 300 graduates a year, so it will be fantastic to become part of a community which shares the same goals and provides a supportive work environment, allowing me to be the best I can.
There is a strong focus on career development at XXX, including the assignment of a Personal Development Manager to oversee my career - providing me with advice about progressing my career.
Besides this, training provided at XXX is world-class; I can develop my skills through the vast number of courses available to me, which I can put into practice in commercial surroundings. XXX provides the ideal environment for me to develop my financial skills.
Question 2 (Part B): What attracts you to this role/industry sector?
You should demonstrate a clear understanding of the job you are going for and that you have carefully assessed that it suits your interests and motivations. With regards to the industry sector, the employer wants to ascertain that you have a genuine interest for that sector rather than just ‘falling into it’. You should be able to convince them that you have made the right career choice and demonstrate how you are suited to it.
What does motivate you will depend on your background and work experiences, but try to make your motivation relevant to what this job can provide. For example if the job is a fairly isolated one do not give "working with other people" as a motivation! You can use this preparation as an opportunity to think about whether this position is really suitable for you.
A position in Strategic Marketing would give me the unique opportunity to work with experts in the field, learn from them and become an expert marketing consultant myself.
My masters degree has given me highly analytical problem-solving skills which are perfect for a career in Development & Marketing; allowing me to combine strategic business issues with innovative problem-solving solutions to help clients develop new strategies and allow their business to flourish.
Focused on the key strategic issues businesses face, which are constantly changing, I will be taking on a variety of work where each project requires a different solution. This will greatly improve my commercial awareness, and give me a distinct edge in the industry.
Lastly, I will be working with a wide range of clients (from FTSE 100 companies to start-ups, governments to financial institutions), on stimulating challenges in a vast array of different industries. I believe this will be exceptional experience that would be difficult to match elsewhere.
Question 3: What motivates you?
This question is more generic than those above but includes some of the same elements to talk about which you can split into three different areas; the job, the company and the industry. The interviewer wants to understand what you feel you need to be successful in the job, and wants to ensure it is a good fit.
Consider, in advance of the interview, what actually does motivate you and come up with some specific examples to share.
Your response will vary based on your background and experiences but try to include all three aspects related to the job.
I was responsible for several projects where I directed development teams and implemented streamlined processes. The teams achieved 100% on-time delivery of software products. I was motivated both by the challenge of finishing the projects ahead of schedule and by managing the teams that achieved our goals.
Working for an organisation that is placed in the Top 10 Best Employers is motivating for me. I have a first-class Economics degree that I want to put to best use and to work for an organisation that gives exciting learning opportunities to its employees besides the fantastic global exposure which you offer is a very motivating factor. It is also very encouraging to hear from previous graduates who have been through the process and speak so highly of the early training in their career.
I have spent my career in sales, typically in commission-based positions, and compensation has always been a strong factor in motivating me to be the top salesperson at my previous employers.
Note – this last example is only applicable for commission/sales-based roles as it a genuine factor for motivation in that sector. In any other role, money should not be presented as a motivating factor. Instead, find another factor linked to the role, or if you are in an industry where there are a lot of changes (eg medicine, law, accounting, finance, etc) you could talk about the need to learn constantly.
Question 4: Why are you leaving your current position?
Do give some thought as to how to answer this question so that it doesn’t put you in a bad light. Of course, it may be a straightforward answer around looking for a new challenge and out-growing your current position. However you should never badmouth your current employer, or give out too much information about the poor management style even if you know you could do your manager’s job better! (Interestingly, many people do cite poor management as a common reason for leaving). However, you will not come across as professional if you talk negatively about your employer and they would be right to wonder what you would say about them to your future employer further down the line.
Neither should you address the issue that you are looking for an increase in salary as this can make you seem only interested in money.
Some examples are:
I feel that I have reached a plateau at my current job so I am looking for new challenges with an innovative company
With the new re-organisation in my company, there are not any posts which would allow me to develop opportunities in the direction I would like to head in
To be honest, I wasn't considering a move, but, saw this job posting and was intrigued by the position and the company; it sounds like an exciting opportunity and an ideal match with my qualifications
I am interested in a new challenge and an opportunity to use my technical skills and experience in a different capacity than I have in the past.
I am interested in a job with more responsibility, and I am very ready for a new challenge.
I am seeking a position with a stable company with room for growth and opportunity for advancement and my company will not be expanding in the near future
If you have already left your company and no longer working, you could offer this answer if you asked about why you left without the offer of another job: I'm looking for a greater challenge and to develop my career and I couldn't job hunt whilst working. I felt it to be unethical to use my former employer's time
Question 5: What are you strengths / What can you contribute to this post?
This is one of the most important questions asked and yet many people under-sell themselves in their response and answer it in way that does not make them stand out from other similarly qualified candidates. Think about the ‘extra’ skills/advantage you have to compete with others and therefore the ‘ultimate results’ you can bring to the role or company. It is best to stick to no more than 3 or 4 strengths as you will need to demonstrate results for each point you make – if you can’t, don’t bother mentioning it!
It goes without saying that your points should be relevant eg. there is no point explaining how you are a great leader when you are applying for an administration role. Think carefully about what the recruiter wants an individual to achieve in the job e.g. what would be the significant bottom-line benefit to the organisation in hiring you? If you were to be hired today and reviewed a year from now, what would be the most important measurements that would determine your performance?
In considering your skills, you should look closely at the job description and its specifications to find out what the recruiter is actually seeking. As you build this list, try to fit your skills to the specifications in the Job Description. Also consider any other documents the recruiter sends you which may help you to understand the role/organisation further.
I understand the main reason this role was developed was to bring in someone who could manage the rapid process of change currently happening in your organisation. I am confident I have the necessary skills as I was successful in my last post where I was doing just that in the same industry sector so I understand the demands and pressures that the industry is currently facing...
To back up the claim, this would need to be followed with stating what those skills are and the clear achievements which verify your success. Where possible it is always useful to quantify your successes which helps the recruiter to understand the impact you have made i.e. increased revenue by 10%, negotiated a deal worth £1M.
When answering this question “Why should we hire you?” do not try and say that you are the best qualified person for the job as you do not know the skills and experience of other candidates. Instead, think about what differentiates you from other similar candidates in your field and why you are unique.
If you are in the position whereby you are looking to change careers and therefore do not match their exact requirements, please refer to the section on ‘Inexperienced or overexperienced’ where you can learn how to adapt your transferable skills to the job role.
Example answer 1:
I have the right combination of skills and experience for this job. I also bring the additional quality of strong analytical and problem-solving ability as shown by my introduction of a more efficient work flow system at XXX which decreased our departmental costs by £200,000 in the first year due to a reduction in use of agency staff…
I am also qualified and have extensive experience in Project Management having successfully managed remote teams across Europe. I was commended by my own Head of Department for delivering solutions at least six months ahead of schedule and within budget due to the fact that I was very hands-on throughout our activities and regularly travelled to spend time with my team members. Because of my regular communication, I was able to pick up on any problems early on which meant those issues didn’t escalate further and I could work collaboratively with my colleagues in finding solutions…
I am a fast learner - I had to learn a totally new operating system in my last job and I was up and running within a couple of weeks.
Example answer 2:
My abilities in sales are an excellent fit for this job. My success at XXX in achieving an annual growth rate of 30% support this. I have worked with a similar product line and have an in-depth understanding of the technical aspects and am currently training others on the more complex areas of the job and recently two of my trainees were the quickest ever to have been promoted because of their enhanced skills - the training they undertook normally takes a year but they passed their exams in eight months. This meant they had acquired the necessary skills to sell our more lucrative products so I was able to maximise productivity of our department…
Having successfully developed my own team, I am confident in managing and recruiting for your existing team as I have always received excellent feedback through 360˚ appraisals. I am very enthusiastic about the new challenges involved in this position and feel I am ready for this next step in my career.
Be enthusiastic about why you want this job
I really would like this job selling unique craft items and I strongly believe that I flourish in an environment where I am using my interpersonal skills. I enjoy talking to customers and helping them find what they are looking for. I look forward to having regular hours, yet more than happy to be flexible to cover holidays and I am very reliable. In fact, my reference emphasizes that as one of my strong points.
An excellent reason to employ you is that you are a hard worker. Candidates tend to underplay this quality when answering interview questions. Every employer wants a hard worker and whatever job you are interviewing for, hard work is central to succeeding in it.
As I left school with minimum qualifications, one of the first things I learned early on was that hard work is the key to success. Being someone who is very driven to achieve my goals, I have put in the hours and effort to make sure that I do the job to the best of my ability and I believe my numerous awards in Graphic Design are a testament to the creative flair of my work
Question 6: Describe your greatest achievement/challenge
Your answer should focus on an achievement that is related to the position and is fairly recent i.e. if you are applying for a Customer Service role it might be about how you won a bonus in your last post for being the only person in the department not to have a single error in an order over the past year.
Once you have chosen a specific achievement, you should give explicit detail about task; the actions you took, the challenges that you overcame, the value you made to the department/organisation and what you learnt from it. Interviewers are particularly keen to hear about achievements that increased profit, decreased expenditure, solved major problems, were innovative or improved a company's reputation.
Do ensure that you do focus on one task/situation only rather than a series of low-level achievements which are trying to compensate for a lack of anything substantial. It can be difficult to single out your best example so try to think of an achievement that required you to use a combination of skills and strengths to create an impressive answer.
If you do not have any work experience or only very little, it is perfectly acceptable to draw upon other achievements that you have faced in your personal life. For graduates, even if you did receive a 1st as your grade which will most certainly have required hard work, it is far more interesting to focus on non-academic related examples to prove you are a well-rounded individual i.e. if you chose to study abroad in a country where you did not know anyone, you could draw on a number of skills you acquired such as risk-taking, using initiative, communication skills, building relationships, learning independence, language skills, flexibility and adapting to change.
Question 7: How would your colleagues describe you?
The interviewer wants to find out about your perception of yourself and how your behaviour impacts on others. Your answer should also demonstrate an objective view of your strengths by using feedback you have received from others which is also a more subtle way of selling your attributes.
It is useful to have a few well-chosen adjectives to answer this question but do not the mistake of listing them off which will only prove you have remembered some buzz words for ‘team work’! Instead, pick out the words which you feel best describes you and bring it to life by giving some anecdotal examples to explain further.
I know my team consider me to be understanding and supportive as I am often thanked for helping out others and recently received a very touching thank you card from a colleague who had been really grateful for the regular updates I had given her about work after she had returned following a long illness.
My colleagues would say that I am an optimist, a motivator and can cope well under pressurised situations. I am a proactive person and will always seek to find solutions to problems but am a firm believer of working in a collaborative way and encouraging input from others. I try to organise regular social events as I think team bonding outside of the workplace is equally important to build good relationships.
Question 8: What are your career plans for the next five years?
It would be difficult to predict exactly what you will be doing in a number of years. You can answer in general terms about the type of situation you would like to be in and the way you want to have developed but avoid giving specific time frames or job titles. Instead focus on realistic career opportunities you could expect in your industry and what you hope to have gained from these opportunities.
Your answer should relate to the job you are being interviewed for in some way and you should indicate that you hope to remain with the company in a position with increased responsibilities and a more developed set of skills. Don’t sound over-ambitious and be unrealistic as the role you could be doing as you may sound as though you lack maturity (equally don’t tell them you would like their position!)
Even if you have a hidden agenda, definitely do not tell them that you are thinking of starting your own business once you have acquired the relevant skills, or look forward to being a stay-at-home mum!
I want to develop new skills and abilities and to have made the most of my opportunities. This position will give me the opportunity to learn more about running a department, which is a goal of mine. I would like to be recognised as an individual who has really added value to the company
I want to develop within my speciality and to have increased my responsibilities and skills. I want to be intellectually stretched and would like to know that I am constantly meeting new challenges. My goal is to be the best at whatever level I am working at within the company
You should demonstrate how you understand that reward (salary, promotion, responsibility) will be based on the quality and value of your contribution.
I want to make the most of my abilities and potential. By always doing my best I can ensure that there will be opportunities to increase my value and to grow in ways that benefit both the company and myself
Question 9: How do you handle pressure/stress?
This is a common interview question and should be answered in terms of how you handle stress at work rather than merely giving a list of your hobbies. It is great if you have stress-relievers out of work so do mention them but playing the piano will not help you in a pressurised work situation! You can use STAR to answer this to give a full example but ideas could include:
A certain amount of pressure is important to me and I can find it motivating and in fact, work more productively. I find the appropriate way to deal with stress is to recognise when pressure tips over into negative stress i.e. I get short with others, I start getting headaches, etc.
I react to situations, rather than to stress which helps as I am a very methodical person. That way, the situation is handled in a logical manner and I can remain objective to it, stay calm and work through step-by-step processes until a solution is found.
Prioritising my responsibilities so I have a clear idea of what needs to be done when, has helped me effectively manage pressure on the job. By being better organised, it has greatly improved my time-management skills.
From a personal perspective, I manage stress by visiting the gym every evening. It's a great stress-reducer and helps me to switch off. Because my job requires intense concentration, the adrenaline buzz I get from exercise allows me to energise and come in the next day with a clear head.
Question 10: What do you like to do in your spare time?
For certain roles such as graduate schemes, this question is designed to assess two key elements:
to assess transferable skills that you have attained through extra-curricular activities
your motivation to get involved in activities outside of your studies
Think about the skills that are involved in some of your activities which clearly demonstrate your ability, i.e. captain of a football club which would show leadership skills, treasurer of a society to demonstrate your financial acumen. However, do not assume that because you have merely stated that you were a ‘captain’ that this would suffice the recruiter in knowing you can demonstrate leadership skills, it is essential that you can outline the contribution you made and state what you gained from your involvement.
For other positions, you might talk about the contributions you make through voluntary work or personal interests that are constructive or contribute to your own health or well-being (i.e. reading, going to the gym, playing team sports, learning a musical instrument).