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How to Answer Common Interview Questions

Interviewee during a job interview with a panel of 3 interviewers

To have a great interview, you need to think ahead about the questions the interviewer might ask. Questions about you could include your skills, your experience, attitudes, and more. Learn to research and prepare for the interview of your life.

Depending on who is conducting the interview, the questions you are asked may vary, but most interviewers will focus on questions about:

  1. You and your abilities
  2. Why you are a good fit for the job
  3. Why you want the job
  4. The salary you expect
  5. How committed you are
  6. Your fit with the company’s culture

You will want to prepare your answers in advance, and practise them so you appear poised and have a natural flow to your answers.

Common types of interview questions

1. Questions about you and your abilities

"Tell me about yourself" is something you will hear in just about every interview you have.

The interviewer may ask this at the start of the interview to see how well you deal with an open-ended question. Your answer is your chance to get the interviewer interested in hiring you.

Think hard about this question before your interview. Don’t just give a list of your skills or the reasons why you’d be a good employee. Instead, think of situations in the past that show how you used your skills.

For example, if you’re applying for a job where you need to deal with customers, tell the interviewer how you used patience and good communication skills to handle a tricky situation.

2. Questions about why you’re a good fit for the job

These questions will usually make up most of the interview. The interviewer wants to find out whether you and your skills are a good fit for the position. This is your chance to show that you stand out from the competition.  

The interviewer might ask in-depth questions about:

  • Your work-specific or technical skills, which could include using a software program, repairing a piece of equipment, or teaching a class
  • Your employability or transferable skills, which are the personal, teamwork, and fundamental skills you need to succeed in every work situation
  • Your greatest weakness and strength

If you don’t have many work-specific skills, don't worry. Many employers will hire individuals based on their personal skills, teamwork skills, and fundamental skills such as communicating well and solving problems because they know they can train you to do the technical work that is required for the job. Plus, you may have already picked up some of these skills through school, sports, or volunteer work.

If you are asked about your greatest weakness, do your best to frame it as a growing strength, and do not choose a weakness that would prevent you from doing the job. For example, you can talk about times you’ve improved your skills after recognizing a weakness or making a mistake. Maybe you are prone to mistakes because you like to work fast, but now you’ve learned that it’s more efficient to take your time and do the job right the first time than to rush it and have to fix mistakes later.

If you are asked about your greatest strength, focus on a strength that qualifies you for the job. Talk about a problem you solved or improvement you made in your last job, and how that represents the kind of worker you are.

3. Questions about why you want the job

Not only is the interviewer interested in why you want this particular job, they may also be checking to see why you want to work for this company and if you’ve done your homework. They want to know if you are interested enough in this position to research the organization and the job you have applied for.

The interviewer might ask:

  • What is it about our services or products that interests you?
  • Why did you apply for this job?
  • What do you know about our organization?
  • Why do you want to work for us?

To answer these questions:

  • Check out the company website
  • Read annual reports, news releases, and articles about the organization
  • Talk to people who know something about the organization
  • Find out more about what you’ll be doing on the job

By doing this research, you will have an easier time showing the interviewer why your skills and experience fit what the company is looking for.

4. Questions about the salary you expect

The interviewer wants to know what hiring you will cost them. They may also be checking to see if you have researched the job and what it typically pays.

They may ask questions such as:

  • What kind of salary are you looking for?
  • Do you have a salary range in mind?
  • What is your current salary?

As a rule, try not to talk about specific salary expectations until after someone has offered you a job. If you state a figure that’s too high, they may not consider you seriously for the position. If your figure is low, their offer probably will be too.

If the interviewer insists that you say what salary you expect, give the typical salary range for the type of work you’re applying for and say that you expect a reasonable salary for someone with your qualifications. It’s important you explain to the interviewer why you're worth the money you're asking for and you show that you value yourself. You can also let the interviewer know you’re open to talking more about salary, and that it could depend on the benefits they are offering.

Do some research if you don’t already know the typical salary range for the type of work you want. You can ask people working in the field or look it up on the Wages and Salaries in Alberta section on OCCinfo before your interview.

5. Questions about how committed you are

The interviewer wants to know if you will stay at this job for a while. They want to be sure that the time and money it takes to train you will not be wasted. This is your chance to show them that you are committed.

The interviewer might ask:

  • What are your plans?
  • Are you thinking of going back to school or to college?
  • What are your long-range goals?
  • Why have you changed jobs so often?

The best approach is to give answers that show:

  • You have career goals
  • Your goals are related to the position you’re applying for, which will help show the interviewer that you’re committed

Let the interviewer know you won’t quit after a short time. Talk about how the job fits into your career plans, but be brief. Remember that interviewers are more interested in hearing about what you can do for the organization than what the organization can do for you.

If you’ve changed jobs many times, explain why you felt you had to. If you were fired, be honest and try not to get emotional. Tell the interviewer that you expect to stay longer in this job (if that’s true), and focus on the positive things you’ve learned from your past jobs.

Then change the focus by asking a question. For example, you could say that you’re looking for a position that gives you the chance to develop. Then ask the interviewer if you’ll have a chance to do that in this job.

6. Questions about your fit with the company’s culture

Culture fit may be one of the most important aspects an employer looks at when it comes to assessing whether you will work out as an employee over the long term. The interviewer wants to make sure you fit in with the other employees, and that the company’s values make sense for you.

But culture fit is about more than whether the interviewer likes you.

The interviewer might ask:

  • Are you willing to relocate? Retrain? Travel? Work alone?
  • Can you work under pressure?
  • How do you handle failure?
  • What kind of supervisor do you prefer?
  • What would you do if...?
  • Do you have any questions?

If you’re willing to do what’s needed (relocate, travel, work alone), say so and explain why you’ll be good at it. If you’re unwilling to do these things, be honest.

When you’re asked about handling failure, chose a real failure that you can speak openly about. Talk about how you fixed the situation and what you learned. Interviewers understand that everyone experiences failures. You want to show that you know how to move forward positively when you stumble.

For questions about the kind of supervisor you prefer or your personal work preferences, answer tactfully and honestly. Don't use bad experiences at past jobs as an example of what you don't like. Instead, think about how you would have liked that experience to have been and make that your answer. 

It’s impossible to prepare a response for every “what if…” question, where the interviewer describes a situation and then asks you to explain how you would handle it. Just remember to be open and honest.

Remember to prepare a list of questions for the interviewer and ask them whenever it’s appropriate. The interviewer will probably ask you if you have questions and it’s important that you show your eagerness by having some ready.

Preparing for the interview of your life

Now that you know why interviewers ask specific kinds of questions, you’ll be able to prepare the answers that are most likely to land you the job. Let’s pay close attention to the first two interview questions we talked about:

  • Questions about you and your abilities
  • Questions about why you’re right for the job

These are key areas of any interview that need your special attention.

Prepare answers to questions about you and your abilities

  • Begin by writing a brief introduction of your education and experience.
  • Identify which of your skills and accomplishments will help you get the job.
  • Write a short summary of those skills and accomplishments. It should say how your qualifications fit the job you’re applying for, but not in great detail.
  • Give solid examples of how you’ve used your skills and experience to succeed in other situations. Try using the Situation, Task, Action, Results, Skills (STARS) method to help guide you.
  • Write about how you would use your abilities to meet the interviewer’s needs.
  • Write about how you see yourself developing within the organization.
  • Read over your summary.
  • Time yourself. Keep your answer to about 2 to 3 minutes.

Prepare answers to questions about why you’re a good fit for the job

It’s not enough just to think about the answers you will give to the most common interview questions. You need to go further by identifying your specific skills and writing them down so you can study them.

Identify your work-specific or technical skills:

  • As you prepare, list all the tasks you’ve performed in your current or past work.
  • Break down each task into the skills you use.
  • Be specific. The more detailed the list, the better. If you’re having trouble coming up with skills and descriptions, check out:

Identify your employability or transferable skills:

  • Personal skills, such as being positive and responsible, learning quickly and working safely
  • Teamwork skills, such as working well with others, and helping your team with their projects and tasks
  • Fundamental skills, such as communicating well, managing information, using numbers, and solving problems

Visit the Conference Board of Canada's Employability Skills 2000+ checklist for a tool that will help you identify your employability skills.

Write out your answers

Once you’ve identified your skills, you need to prepare an answer. This will help you feel more confident in the interview, and you’ll make a stronger impression.

  • Ask yourself some questions:
    • On the left half of a sheet of paper, list the work-specific and employability / transferable skills you’ve identified.
    • For each skill, ask yourself the questions—who, what, when, where, why, and how. For example, if the skill is teaching, ask yourself whom you teach, what you teach, where you teach, and so on.
    • Write the answers beside the skill.
  • Look through your portfolio:
    • To do this, you need to actually have a portfolio. Check out Building a Portfolio to learn more about why you should create one and how to do it.
    • Choose 2 or 3 items in your portfolio that are most closely related to the position you’re applying for.
    • Write a point-form description of each item. Include the skills you used to achieve the result that the item represents.
  • Use the Situation, Task, Action, Results, Skills (STARS) method to refine your answers. 

Practise your answers

Practise your answers until you’re comfortable saying them naturally, without looking at a script. This will sharpen your interview skills and give you confidence. Here are a few tips:

  • Set the scene of your practise interview by making it as realistic as possible.
  • Ask a friend or family member to play the role of the interviewer.
  • Make a special effort to practise your answers to questions about you and your skills.
  • Ask the person playing the part of interviewer to give you honest feedback. Make notes and work on your weak spots.

If you prepare and practise, you'll be confident and relaxed for your interview. Remember to respond naturally, and try to make the most of the opportunity to show you’re the best person for the job.

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