Classic Interview Questions: About You.

How you behave in your current role, what your interests are and your ambitions are are all key to a interviewer deciding if you are the right fit for their vacancy.

Questions about you, your work history and your methods will form the greatest part of your interview and if there are a series of interviews then the first will undoubtedly focus on these aspects more than subsequent rounds which may be more task/role-based.

Take some time to consider the image you want to portray and ensure that there is consistency in how you answer the following questions:

Alternative and related questions:

What do you think your references will say about you?
What kind of person are you to work with?

The meaning behind the question:

The interviewer wants to assess how you perceive yourself. Whether they ask how you would describe yourself or how others would describe you, their question is all about your perception of yourself – seeing yourself as others see you.

Your answer:

This is a very popular question and could conceivably have made my top 10. It’s vital to be prepared for it.

You will want to make sure you have a few well-chosen adjectives up your sleeve ready to answer this question, e.g. loyal, dedicated, ambitious, determined, independent, highly motivated, understanding, etc. Tell the interviewer what they want to hear! But don’t be too bigheaded; a little modesty can go a long way.

It’s a difficult balance to strike but I hope the following example will show you how to achieve this.

Example:

I would describe myself as a very determined and highly motivated person. I do take my job seriously but I’m able to see things in perspective and believe I’m quite easy-going to work with. I’m an optimist rather than a pessimist – but I’m also a realist and I cope well when the going gets tough; I’m very good at finding solutions to problems. Above all, I would say I’m a positive and enthusiastic person – and I relish a challenge.

Word of warning:

There’s no need to back up this answer with examples – such as outlining a time when you were particularly understanding with a colleague. It would be going too far.

Alternative and related questions:

Do you prefer working on your own or as part of a team?
How would you define teamwork?
Can you tell me about a team you worked in and the role you played within that team?
What do you think makes a perfect team?

The meaning behind the question:

Teamwork is essential in almost any work environment. Questioning your ability to work in a team is therefore one of an interviewer’s favourites. They’ll be looking for evidence of a number of core abilities:

  • The ability to communicate effectively with others
  • The ability to recognise and understand the viewpoints of others
  • The ability to appreciate the contribution you are expected to make

Your answer:

This is a very important and very popular question which could be phrased in many different ways. As well as pre-preparing your answer to, “In what ways are you a team player”, you should also draft answers to all the alternative questions I’ve listed above. There will be common ground between your answers but each will have a slightly different slant to it.

You could answer the question in the context of your current job but you’d be better off approaching it from the angle of the job for which you are applying. They’re asking you in what ways you are a team player but you need to be asking yourself in what ways will they want you to be a team player. Are they looking for a leader? Are they looking for someone who brings out the best in others? Are they looking for the person who generates the ideas or the person who is a dab hand at putting new ideas into practice?

Establish in your own mind what sort of a team player they want you to be and then deliver an answer which caters to that image.

Example:

I certainly very much enjoy working with others; I’m outgoing, I enjoy the team spirit and I’m understanding of the needs of others. I’m good at helping the team to see the bigger picture – to see the wood from the trees – helping them to focus on what really matters rather than getting bogged down in irrelevant detail. I’m also good at helping the team to spot flaws in our approach – and potential problems and pitfalls. I believe I have strong communication skills and, while I don’t yet have experience in a leadership role, I do have a talent for liaising between different team members and resolving any disputes which may arise. Conflict between different team members is rarely very productive and is normally best avoided.

Alternative and related questions:

Are you able to manage your own workload?

The meaning behind the question:

Given the choice between someone who can be left to get on with a job and someone who needs constant supervision, who would you hire?

Employees who work well on their own initiative are highly prized.

With this question, the interviewer is purely seeking evidence that you are such an employee.

Your answer:

Of course you work well on your own initiative. But how can you prove that to the interviewer? This is a ‘closed’ question but it certainly requires more than a one word answer. It’s a great chance for you to roll out a pre-prepared example which ticks all the interviewer’s boxes and shows you in a positive light.

If the interviewer is asking you this question, the chances are that in the role you’re applying for you will be expected to be able to work on your own initiative. If you’ve carefully studied the job description you should be able to identify under what circumstances this will be required. Choosing an example from a past (or present) job which closely matches these circumstances is naturally going to have a much stronger impact.

Example:

I enjoy working with others but I’m equally able to work on my own initiative. I’m not afraid to ask for guidance if necessary but I’m quick to learn and, once I’ve understood what’s required of me, I am more than capable of getting on with the job under my own steam. In my current role I work as part of a close-knit team but that’s not to say that there aren’t certain tasks and projects I have to handle on my own. For example, I have sole responsibility for reconciling credits and debits on our bank statements to our sales and purchase ledgers. It’s not a task that can be shared with anyone; it’s not a two-man job. I set aside one day a week to concentrate on this – because it does require a lot of concentration – reconciling entries which match and taking steps to resolve any discrepancies.

Word of warning:

Even if you do prefer to work on your own, it’s best not to mention this. You don’t want to risk being labelled ‘not a team player’. This question doesn’t ask whether you prefer to work on your own; it simply asks how capable you are of doing so.

Alternative and related questions:

What do you need to retain your motivation?

The meaning behind the question:

What the interviewer is really asking is, “What would we have to do to motivate you?” and, “Would you be sufficiently motivated to undertake this job effectively?” They’re unlikely to ask this directly though. By asking you the more open-ended, “What motivates you?” they’re likely to extract a lot more useful information out of you – if you are careless enough to let them have it! Interviewers want to hire highly motivated people – not people who are just going to go through the motions until it’s time to go home.

Your answer:

There are lots of different things which could motivate you. You’ve got to be careful to pick factors:

  • Which will reflect positively on you as an individual
  • Which are not inconsistent with the job for which you are applying
  • Which are equally of benefit to your prospective employer
  • Which will not impose any kind of a burden on the employer

I’m not going to hide the fact that money is of course a major motivator. It’s the primary reason most people go to work each day! However, unless you are in sales or some other highly money-driven and largely commission-based role then you should steer clear of mentioning money as a motivating factor. It’s too selfish an answer. It’s a factor which is purely in your own interests and not your prospective employer’s.

I would recommend that, depending on the nature of your role, you cite factors such as challenges, results and recognition – and elaborate on these so as to demonstrate their value to your employer.

Example:

I’m very results-driven. Doing a good job and achieving the desired end result is my primary motivation. While I enjoy working on a project on my own, I’m particularly motivated by the buzz of working in a team. It’s very rewarding working closely with others who share the same common goal. I like to take on a challenge; I like to rise to that challenge as part of a concerted team effort – and I naturally appreciate it when my boss compliments me for a job well done.

Alternative and related questions:

How good are you at taking the initiative?

The meaning behind the question:

Being proactive means making an effort to anticipate a situation and acting in advance either to prepare for it or to prevent it. It’s not exactly the same as taking the initiative but the two are certainly closely related.

In asking you this question the interviewer wants to establish what your definition of proactive is and whether or not you are indeed proactive yourself – because it is a highly desirable characteristic.

Your answer:

This is a prime example of a question requiring you to deliver a specific example – whether or not the interviewer actually asks you for one. If you fail to illustrate your answer with an example then it’s going to be fairly meaningless. Anyone can claim to be proactive but can you actually prove it?

Choose your example carefully in advance, describe the circumstances to the interviewer and, most importantly, explain what the benefits of your actions were.

Example:

Yes, I would consider myself to be proactive. I believe it’s very important to be as proactive as possible. As the saying goes, a stitch in time saves nine! When my team is working on a project I always do my best to identify possible problems in advance and to make sure that we address them. Recently, a major project of ours was severely affected by a key member of staff leaving the company overnight (for personal reasons). I anticipated that, as a result of this, we wouldn’t be able to deliver the solution to the client on time. I took the decision to contact the client, explain the situation, apologise for the delay but make the point that the quality of the finished solution was of greater importance than delivering it on schedule. The client appreciated my honesty, was very understanding and was pleased to hear that we’d never compromise on quality just to be seen to meet a deadline.

Alternative and related questions:

In what ways would you say you are creative?
Are you innovative/inventive?

The meaning behind the question:

There’s no hidden meaning here. It’s a very direct question; every walk of life requires at least some degree of creativity – and creativity is often seen as an indicator of intelligence. My core question, “Are you creative?” is clearly a closed question but answering it with a straight, “Yes” isn’t going to get you anywhere. Regardless of precisely how the interviewer phrases their question you need to aim to tell them precisely in what ways you are creative, how this applies to your line of work – and to back this up with at least one example.

Your answer:

Some lines of work are clearly more creative than others and the way you phrase your answer will naturally depend on exactly what it is that you do for a living. If you work in a creative field then clearly you will need to give a much more comprehensive answer. But even if you work in a field that isn’t generally seen as particularly demanding in terms of creativity you should be able to come up with an example of where you have displayed lateral or ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking or invented a new and better way of handling something.

Example:

Yes, I believe I’m a creative individual. I’m certainly able to think laterally and to be inventive in terms of finding solutions to problems. Quantity surveying isn’t generally seen as a particularly creative profession but I have nevertheless used my creative abilities on numerous occasions, for example converting old manual systems of reporting to highly automated – and much more accurate – spreadsheet based systems. This saved myself and my team a considerable amount of time in the long-term as well as meaning we were less exposed to the professional embarrassment of errors in our calculations.

Alternative and related questions:

How do you feel about taking risks?
Do you have a problem with taking risks?

The meaning behind the question:

“Are you a risk-taker?” is a very direct question. What the interviewer is really looking for is to assess what your attitude is to taking risks. In some lines of work someone who takes risks is definitely going to be a liability. However, in many lines of work the ability to weigh up risks – and to take calculated risks – is an important skill.

Your answer:

Your answer will inevitably depend on exactly what the job is that you are applying for. If your line of work is one in which taking risks – or cutting corners – is likely to be frowned upon then you’re going to need to formulate your answer so as to make it clear that you are not someone who believes in risks. You may even want to emphasise that you see it as part of your job to identify potential risks and pre-empt them.

If assessing risks – and taking appropriate risks – is going to be a feature of your new job then your answer will naturally be very different. You certainly want to avoid the impression of being in any way reckless though. Your emphasis should be on the steps you take to identify and gauge risks, only taking risks where you have calculated the potential outcomes and deemed that your actions are going to be worth the risk. You should also make some mention of your decision-making capabilities, because being prepared to take calculated risks is, ultimately, a form of decision-making.

Example:

It depends on how you define risk. I am certainly not somebody who takes unnecessary risks, nor risks that would in any way compromise anyone’s personal safety. However, I fully appreciate that commercial success is dependent on taking risks – calculated risks. If, having given a matter careful consideration and weighed up the possible ramifications, I determine that a risk is – in the best interests of the business – worth taking, then I am not afraid to take it. You can’t always be right – but careful planning and analysis should tip the odds in your favour and ensure that, overall, your decisions pay off. Experience is, of course, essential – and the experience I have gained over the course of my career is invaluable in informing my decisions.

Alternative and related questions:

Can you tell me about a time when you were under significant pressure and how you handled that?
Do you thrive under pressure?
How do you cope with the numerous conflicting demands on your time?
What causes you stress at work and why?

The meaning behind the question:

The ability to cope with pressure and stress is essential in almost all walks of life, whether you’re working checkout at the supermarket or heading up a major corporation. Pressure and stress are unavoidable aspects of the world we live in. The interviewer will be looking to identify:

  • That you recognise that pressure and stress are facts of life
  • That you understand the effect pressure and stress has on you
  • That you are sufficiently robust to be able to take them in your stride

Your answer:

Because of the variety of ways in which an interviewer can question you on this topic, it’s important that you fully understand what the difference is between pressure and stress – because many people use the two terms interchangeably.

Being under pressure is a matter of having significant demands made of you – being challenged to achieve something which is either difficult to achieve in and of itself or difficult to achieve within the timeframe that has been set. Pressure is largely a positive force and a motivating factor for many people.

Stress, on the other hand, is not so positive. Stress occurs when the pressure you are under exceeds your ability to effectively meet the demands being made of you. Stress is essentially what an individual experiences when exposed to excessive pressure – and long-term stress can cause all sorts of problems.

I am sure that everyone reading this book will, at some stage in their lives, have experienced pressure and stress and know exactly what it’s like.

The key to formulating your answer to this question is to seize this as an opportunity to talk about a situation or an occasion where you were under pressure – and you how rose to the challenge. Try to avoid talking about an occasion when you were totally stressed out – but do acknowledge that you understand stress and are able to deal with it appropriately.

Avoid conveying the impression that the fact you were under pressure was in any way your own fault – or due to your own personal failings. Place the ‘blame’ firmly on external factors outside of your control.

Different lines of work are of course subject to different levels of pressure and stress and this will have a bearing on how precisely you phrase your answer.

Example:

Working for a small start-up company the past few years has naturally been quite a high pressure experience on occasion. I’ve had to deal with numerous conflicting demands on my time – and often very limited resources. With careful planning and organisation you can normally reduce the pressure you are under – but there will always be factors at play which are outside of your control. Personally, while it makes a nice break to have a few pressure-free days, I generally thrive under pressure. I use it to help channel my energies into accomplishing as much as possible. Naturally, there are sometimes occasions when the pressure I’m put under is excessive and this can be stressful. However, I’m sufficiently experienced to appreciate that there is only so much you can reasonably be expected to be capable of and the solution is not to panic but to remain focused on delivering your very best.

Alternative and related questions:

How did you locate your last job?

The meaning behind the question:

This is a surprisingly popular question among interviewers. The reason is that, while seemingly a very simple little question, your answer can give the interviewer insight into numerous different areas. It can help them to assess how much initiative you have, how determined and tenacious you are, how driven you are and how much you plan and control your own career.

Your answer:

You need to realise that there are two different ways of interpreting this question – and you need to make sure you cover both bases. First of all is the question of how you actually managed to locate your last job (recruitment agency, network contact, speculative application, head-hunted, etc.) Then there is the question of how you went about securing the job – how you convinced the employer that you were the right person for the job. You need to aim to portray an image of somebody in control of their own destiny – not someone who just goes with the flow.

Example:

It was actually quite complicated. I was keen for a new challenge and had already started looking around when I saw in the local newspaper that they were opening a new branch in the area. I sent in a speculative application to the HR department at their head office and they wrote back to say that they would only be recruiting through their preferred recruitment agency. So I called them up immediately and, having run through a few key points on my CV, managed to persuade them to at least interview me. They also interviewed a spread of candidates from the recruitment agency but, after a second interview and then a third interview with the Marketing Director herself, I was ultimately offered the job.

Alternative and related questions:

Can you describe an average day in your job?

The meaning behind the question:

They’ve read your CV; they know what your job involves. Now they want to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. There’s nothing more to their question than that – but giving the best answer is a little more complicated…

Your answer:

As I say, the interviewer has read your CV (or application form) so they know more or less what your job entails. It would definitely be a mistake to answer this question by simply reeling off in detail everything you’ve already stated on your CV. The last thing you want to do is bore the interviewer.

While the description you give on your CV will (and rightly so) be comprehensive, when it comes to answering this question you’d do better to skip a lot of the detail and focus on what’s really important – what your job is really about. In particular, you want to focus on areas of your current job which most closely match the job for which you are now applying.

Rather than phrasing your work in terms of duties, try to portray what you do in terms of responsibilities.

Example:

My most important responsibility is to achieve sales. I spend most of my day on the shop floor, talking directly to potential customers and trying to establish their needs. I have a very thorough knowledge of our product range so, if they’re unsure of their decision, I can give them appropriate advice. I can also steer them towards other – perhaps more expensive – product lines that they haven’t already considered. By building rapport with the customer – and addressing any concerns they may have – I have a good chance of closing the sale. I also aim to up-sell on the till where possible, so as to maximise the value of each new customer. Among other responsibilities I help to control stock levels and liaise with head office accordingly so as to make sure we are neither over-stocked nor under-stocked. I am also involved in the financial management of the branch, working alongside the Branch Manager to put together monthly reports, etc. Given my level of experience, I am also tasked with helping to bring on board new members of staff, training them in our systems and helping them to maximise their sales potential.

Alternative and related questions:

What did you do during this gap in your employment?
Can you tell me more about this break in your career history?

The meaning behind the question:

There are two elements here:

  • The interviewer will be interested in the reasons for there being a gap in your CV – why you experienced a period of unemployment.
  • They will also be interested in what you did during that period of unemployment.

Your answer:

Most people have a gap or two in their career history. It’s very common and not normally anything to worry about. There is, however, only one explanation that an employer is really going to view favourably:

  • Further training/education

Other common – and conceivably constructive – reasons include:

  • Raising a child
  • Caring for another dependant
  • Travel

But there are also reasons which will definitely be viewed negatively:

  • Inability to find a suitable position
  • Ill health

If the reason for the gap in your career history isn’t obviously negative then there shouldn’t be a gap in your CV – you should have included a brief entry explaining the situation. This will prevent an interviewer from asking you, “Why is there a gap in your CV” and will instead prompt them to ask the more positive question, “Can you tell me more about this break in your career history?”

Further training/education: This is very simple and should already be covered within your CV – but maybe the interviewer has missed it. You need simply politely draw their attention to the further training/education you undertook and use this as an opportunity to talk about why you chose this option and how it adds value to your application.

Raising a child/Caring for another dependant: If you took time out of your career in order to care for a family member or close friend then it is very much your own private affair – but one that an interviewer should hopefully view favourably. You should have included a brief entry in your CV explaining the circumstances and the interviewer should refrain from probing too deeply into the matter. The same applies for time out to raise your own family.

Travel: Taking a sabbatical to go travelling is often seen by an employer as a positive thing. Many will believe that the cultural awareness and sense of independence you will have gained as a result of the experience will prove to be of value to them. Also, if you’ve already taken time out to travel then it means you’re less likely to suddenly disappear to travel the world just as they’ve got you settled in. This is a common worry among employers, particularly when it comes to younger employees. If you’re questioned on this then it is important to emphasise that it was something you “needed to do” and now you’ve “got it out of your system”. You may also be able to make reference to any temporary and part-time work you undertook in other countries if that could be an additional selling point for you.

Unfortunately, general unemployment and ill health are unlikely – at least initially – to be viewed favourably by an interviewer.

Inability to find a suitable position: This is definitely the most common cause for there being a gap in a CV. The problem you face is that if you tell an interviewer you were struggling to find work then that’s inevitably going to worry them. You need to deal with this by explaining carefully that the right job isn’t always available at the right time. For further advice on how to handle this then please take a look at Question 13, “You’ve been out of work for a while. Has it been difficult finding a job?” in the next chapter, Chapter 4: The top 25 tough questions: taking the heat.

Ill health: If you have been absent from work as a result of a significant illness or a major accident then the interviewer should appreciate that these things do happen.

Alternative and related questions:

Do you play any sports?

The meaning behind the question:

It’s hard to say what the interviewer’s precise motivations are in asking you this question. There are a number of possibilities; it depends on the interviewer. All interviewers will be looking for evidence that you are a fit and physically active individual. Some will also be looking to gauge whether or not you are a ‘team player’ – or even a team leader. And others will be trying to identify a competitive streak. However, there’s actually no evidence that individuals who play sports are any more competitive or any more likely to work well in a team than those who never go near a pair of trainers!

Your answer:

If you are involved in any sports then it should already say so on your CV – and the interviewer should therefore know this. In asking you this question, they’re consequently expecting you to elaborate on what you’ve stated on your CV.

If you’re fortunate enough to be Captain of the local football team then, besides the obvious selling point of football being a team activity (and your hence being a ‘team player’), you’ve immediately got an opportunity to communicate your leadership qualities, your ability to take responsibility for others, your ability to commit yourself to a project, etc.

However, if, like many of us, you rarely find time to engage in any sporting activity, then there’s no need to fear. This question is unlikely to be a deciding factor in whether or not you get the job. Stick to the truth and try to mention at least one physical activity, even if it’s just walking in the park at the weekend!

Example:

There’s currently little routine to my life. Business needs are such that I travel very frequently and consequently work irregular hours. This leaves little room for me to participate in any sporting activities. However, I do like to keep myself fit and healthy and, if at all possible, I take the opportunity to go for a walk in the morning before I start work. This helps to wake me up, get some oxygen into my brain and I also use the time to think through the day ahead of me and what it is that I need to achieve. I’m aware that there’s a lot less travel involved in this job so this means I may have more opportunity in the future to play tennis again.

Alternative and related questions:

How much are you currently earning?

The meaning behind the question:

Very simple. The interviewer wants to establish what level of remuneration you currently enjoy and see how that compares to the package their organisation is planning to offer (which may or not have been previously disclosed).

Your answer:

Your answer is also very simple. I would strongly recommend against any answer other than the absolute truth. They’re not asking what salary package you are now looking for (that’s the next question in this chapter). They’re asking what you currently receive and that’s what you need to tell them, although it’s always a good idea to emphasise that money is not your only motivator. When it comes to talking money, you never want to come across as mercenary. (The only exception to this would be for those working in sales and other money-driven and largely commission-based roles).

Example:

-I currently have a basic salary of £32,200 with a Ford Mondeo company car. I also receive an annual bonus; this year it was £2,500. While my remuneration is clearly important, it’s most certainly not the only deciding factor in my choice of a new job and a new employer. Continuing my professional development within a suitably challenging role is also very important to me.

Alternative and related questions:

What notice period does your current contract stipulate?

The meaning behind the question:

Sorry, this doesn’t necessarily indicate that you’ve won the job! The interviewer is generally just planning ahead and trying to identify when, if they were to offer you the job, you would be able to start work. It’s a simple, factual question.

Your answer:

Your answer is going to be relatively straightforward. Stick to the facts. Tell the interviewer what your current notice period is and how many leave days you remain entitled to – since these could reduce your notice period. You should also have decided in advance whether you wish to take advantage of the break between jobs to have a week or two’s holiday.

Bear in mind that if the interviewer urgently needs to fill the vacancy then the timeframe within which you are able to start may be a deciding factor.

However, most employers are generally very understanding of notice periods and will be prepared to wait if it means they secure the best candidate for the job.

In some circumstances you may even wish to give your current employer more time to replace you than is stipulated in your contract. While this might be inconvenient for your next employer, they may well be impressed by your loyalty and dedication. This should be negotiable anyway and, if it does pose a major problem for your prospective employer, they will simply tell you.

Example:

My current contract stipulates a notice period of four weeks but I fortunately have 10 days’ leave available to me which effectively reduces my notice period to just two weeks. On receipt of a firm job offer I would intend to resign immediately from my current position and conceivably start my new role just two weeks later.

As well as these questions, you may also be interested in our section: Tough Interview Questions & Answers.

Think you’re well prepared? use our simple Interview Question Tool to see if you have got an answer to some random questions that it will fire at you. Good Luck!

The Interview Question & Answer Book

The Interview Question & Answer Book

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The job market is fierce, competition has never been greater and it’s important that you can grab every opportunity for competitive advantage and stay one step ahead. Written by James Innes, one of the world’s leading careers experts and bestselling author of The Interview Book, this definitive guide to questions and answers encourages every job-hunter to think on your feet and express your individuality while supplying ideal responses to interview questions so that you’re seen as the ideal candidate for the job.

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