Ace Your Job Interview

How to answer 14 common but tricky interview questions

Job seekers, right, speak with recruiters at the San Jose Career Fair in San Jose, California.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Job seekers, right, speak with recruiters at the San Jose Career Fair in San Jose, California.

If you want to nail your next job interview, make sure you study up.

The most successful interviewees have done their thought work beforehand, according to Dev Aujula, CEO of recruiting firm Catalog and author of 50 Ways to Get a Job: An Unconventional Guide to Finding Work on Your Terms.

Those job hunters have asked themselves at a minimum what they want to learn from their next job, how the position will help them learn and whether their skills fit the company's mission.

Jobseekers who take these basic steps will feel more prepared and empowered when they step into any interview. "By knowing these answers, you'll also be able to answer what your weaknesses are and why you want to work there in a really proactive way," explains Aujula.

These interview basics — coupled with these 14 scripted responses to some of the most common interview questions — will ensure you'll make the right impression no matter what question comes your way.

1. Tell me a little bit about yourself.

Keep it brief and weave three simple facts about yourself into a personal story of how you came to apply for the company, recommends Ramit Sethi, New York Times best-selling author and founder of I Will Teach You to Be Rich. A story is a much more memorable way to leave an impression than the typical dry recitation of your resume.

What to say:

"Three things stand out. I grew up in rural Montana as the oldest of five kids. I had to lead and take care of others from a young age, which is something that's helped me throughout life. Second, growing up in rural Montana, I spent a lot of time in the outdoors, which is why I chose to study environmental studies in college. My recent experience with [Company X] has really allowed that passion to flourish. Finally, I've always wanted to go where my interests and skills have the most room to grow, which is why I learned so much at [Company X] for the past two years. Now I'm looking forward to taking my skills to a larger stage — which is why I'm here talking to you today."

2. Why are you leaving your current job?

Being too truthful in your response to this question can ruin your chances, according to Suzy Welch, a bestselling management author and founder of the Jack Welch Management Institute.

After all, hiring managers don't want to hear that you're not getting paid enough or that you don't like your boss, she tells CNBC Make It.

Instead, be straightforward, positive and avoid looking like the office troublemaker. "Your interviewer is trying to assess if you're the problem, not the job," Welch says.

And make sure to turn the conversation around to the new opportunity at hand.

What to say:

"I love my job, but there's just not a lot of opportunity. That's why I was really excited to hear your company is working on X and Y. I really want to brush up on my X skills and am looking for a new challenge."

3. There are a few gaps in your resume. Can you tell me about them?

First, don't make your resume an exhaustive list of every job and internship, says Sethi. Let your resume tell a cohesive narrative of your career and where you want to go next.

If you do have gaps, craft your resume to include the year you started and left your job to help control the conversation about your career path so far. As a result, your resume might look something like this:

Associate - Company Z
2016 - Present

Assistant - Company Y
2014 - 2016

If you're unable to avoid revealing gaps in your resume, talk about what you learned or how you grew during that time, he suggests.

What to say:

"I took some time to freelance and consult — which gave me the opportunity to consider what I want to learn next, which is how I found this job."

Or:

"I was let go from Company X due to budget constraints, and I've maintained a good relationship with my manager and colleagues. During the time off, I considered what I wanted to learn next, which is what led me to this job."

4. Have you ever quit a job? If so, why?

Candidates answering this question should be positive and underscore what they learned in that role that sets them apart, as well as how a new role fits into their career path, according to Sethi.

What to say:

"I learned so much about leadership from my time at [Company X], I felt that working for [Company Y] would be the next logical step for my career path."

You can follow up with a few specifics that attracted you to the position or company, such as the company's leadership in research and development, an area where you see yourself building your skills.

5. Have you ever been fired? If so, what happened?

Many people have been fired from a job at some point, according to Jessica Miller-Merrell, CIO of Workology, a recruitment and HR resource.

"When I ask," she says, "I'm not looking to hear the whole drama-filled story. I'm looking to see how the candidates handled the stress of a question like that. If their response is all negative, it tells me that the candidates can be a problem."

Be honest, frame your experience positively and talk about how the new job is a better fit and what you hope to learn.

What to say:

"The last job wasn't a good fit, which helped me to seriously examine my strengths and weaknesses and what I want to learn in my next job. That's what led me to this job today."

6. Who's your role model?

This question is a "gift from the career gods," says Welch. It's also a sign your hiring manager wants to know how well you know and love the kind of work you'll be doing, she says.

Have a strategy for this type of question, she says. Avoid saying something generic and naming your mom or dad. Consider someone your hiring manager might know and find influential, such as a former boss or a thought leader from your field.

Welch tells CNBC Make It that in the early days of her journalism career, she answered this question by talking about Miami Herald crime writer Edna Buchanan. The writer was fierce, relentless and respected by most people in her industry.

Find your Edna Buchanan, suggests Welch.

What to say:

"I've always admired [name of respected industry person]. I have great respect for [example of their work] and this person has forged the career I hope to have one day."

7. Describe yourself in 3 words.

Hiring managers ask this question to evaluate if you are self-aware and authentic, Welch tells CNBC Make It. They want to know how you think and operate.

When answering, consider words that describe the way you think. "Conceptual," "creative," and "curious," are all good choices.

Don't forget to incude a word that describes your character, she says. Good examples might include "kind" or "honest," traits any boss would want in a team member.

Lastly, take the opportunity to surprise your hiring manager with something uniquely you. Consider words like "calm" or "connector."

Whatever you do, she says, avoid jargon and avoid seeming generic.

What to say:

"Creative, kind, connector."

8. Tell me about a stressful time or challenging coworker and how you handled that situation.

This is another opportunity to tell a story, says Sethi. Set the stage for the problem and specific details about how the problem was addressed. Managers want to see specific solutions and coping tools, as well as your ability to demonstrate agency and maturity and he recommends the following format.

What to say:

"Once I had an idea for a project my team leaders liked but my immediate supervisor did not. This created tension between me and my boss and I didn't know how to proceed at first. But after considering the project further, I realized my plans would impact my boss's work in a negative way. I reached out to him directly, apologized for the oversight, and promised to keep him in the loop in the future. We haven't had an issue since."

9. What's your greatest weakness?

Don't tell hiring managers your greatest weakness is your perfectionism. It won't reveal much about you, according to Sethi, and it can make you look unoriginal. Instead, he suggests you take a negative quality and talk about how it helped you learn something valuable.

You can also use this technique for the question "What is your greatest failure?"

What to say:

"The majority of my career has been spent working for one industry. That can limit my perspective, even though I've worked in a variety of departments and been in several different positions. In fact, my curiosity and willingness to wear different hats helped me get promoted to lead up new projects. But I'm ready to take what I've learned from this one industry to a different culture and new industry, and that's why I'm here today."

10. What are your best qualities?

It's not enough to simply tell the interviewer that you're good at something, says Sethi. You need to demonstrate how that quality led to a specific result. This same technique can also be used if you're asked to share your best accomplishments.

Interview questions like this one can benefit from the STAR technique, advises Miller-Merrell. She explains that "STAR "stands for Situation, Task, Action and Result. This format can help you take an interviewer clearly through your experience, what you learned, and how it can benefit a new workplace.

What to say:

"I'm an excellent writer. In my last role, I researched our client's needs and crafted a marketing plan that generated $[Amount] in product sales for my company. While I got promoted, our company retained a loyal customer."

11. What are your salary requirements?

While it's illegal to ask about past salary information in some states, that doesn't stop interviewers from asking. Know the laws in your state before interviewing to know if you can legally exercise your right to decline.

Still, come to this discussion prepared so you can keep the conversation going. Miller-Merrell suggests that candidates prepare for the salary question by researching their desired salary range using sites such as Glassdoor, Salary.com or PayScale.

"Have a high/low range in mind for terms of negotiation, using your desired salary as the low range," she says, in case a recruiter responds that she needs to know salary range in order to move forward.

What to say:

"Before discussing any salary, I'd really like to learn more about what this role entails. I've done a lot of research on [Company X], and I am certain if it's the right fit, we'll be able to agree on a number that's fair and competitive to both parties."

12. Where do you see yourself in five years?

This can be an infuriating question, says Welch. After all, she says, it's hard to predict the future and most employers expect you to see yourself at their company.

It can also be a loaded question, according to Miller-Merrell. If you say you want a promotion in the next few years and there isn't a lot of room for growth, you can shoot yourself in the foot. Leave some wiggle room in your response to show that you have career goals and plans, and that you are considering whether they align with the organization.

While you should stress that you see yourself at the company for the long haul, set yourself apart, Welch says. Show you understand how the company will change and how you will evolve with it.

You should also show how you think you'll make an impact. This approach will demonstrate an understanding of the company's strategic goals and link your career trajectory to their achievement.

What to say:

"In five years, I'd love to be right here, hopefully having transitioned into a strategic role. I hope to be in a leadership role helping expand the company's incredible client base in the renewable energy sector. But I understand this company is very deliberate in the way it develops employees, so if my moving into strategy happens in five years or if it takes longer, I'm still incredibly excited to be a part of this organization and its mission."

13. Why should we hire you?

To truly answer this question, you need to know the company well, says Sethi. Do your research about the company in advance, studying both their pain points and their goals. Your response should reflect that you understand what the company's issues are and that you have some ideas for how you can help solve them.

What to say:

"I noticed that some of your challenges are X and Y, and here's how I would approach those problems."

14. What questions do you have?

This question serves as an interview's finale, says Welch, and it can make or break your chances.

Use your answer to show you've been listening to your interviewer and focus on an aspect of the job that you both discussed in your talk. She also suggests you show that you can think expansively by asking about the industry and this company's competition.

Sethi advises that candidates steer clear of asking questions about salary, what the company does (which you should already know) or saying that you don't have any questions, which shows a lack of curiosity and initiative.

What to say:

"From my conversations with [NAME], I know some of the biggest challenges facing your company will X, Y, and Z. What is the company's plan to overcome those challenges?"

Or:

"Mary said part of my job would be interfacing with the operations team. I'd love to hear a little more about what that entails."

No matter what questions interviewers ask, ensure you're making your case for why you're the perfect candidate. Highlight your skills, impact and your knowledge of the company.

And if you don't know an answer, be upfront about it, advises Sethi. Explain that you're willing to learn more. Avoid trying to fool the interviewer with a "BS answer," he says, since savvy hiring managers will see that coming a mile away.

Most importantly, make it clear that you want the job, says Welch. In fact, if you're sincere you should simply tell the hiring manager since it will demonstrate your courage and humility.

"The person hearing it knows it's difficult to say," explains Welch. "They know it takes moxie, and they'll remember that."

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