Top Interview Questions

We have collated some of the most common interview questions, how these questions might be asked differently and what the interviewer is looking to find out.

If you’ve come across other you think should be in here, please add them in the comments below so we can include them in updates to this page.

Alternative and related questions:

Can you talk me through your CV?

The meaning behind the question:

This is of course an extremely popular question – and is just the kind an interviewer might throw at you at the beginning of an interview so as to get the ball rolling. They are quite simply placing you centre stage and hoping you will open up to them. Alternatively, they’re hopelessly overworked, haven’t yet had time to read your CV – and asking you this question will buy them some breathing space!

Your answer:

This is a very broad question – and you might consequently be at a loss as to the approach you should take to answering it.

They’re not asking for an autobiography. Focus on discussing major selling points that feature on your CV or application form – selling points which are directly relevant to the job for which you are applying. Don’t start telling them your whole life history.

While they do want you to open up to them and paint a picture of yourself, you’re not on the psychiatrist’s couch here! Keep it professional and avoid getting too personal.

Besides talking about your career, make sure you have something to say about your education and qualifications – and even your hobbies and interests.

It’s vital to practise your answer for this in advance – and to try to limit your answer to one minute. If you can’t successfully ‘pitch’ yourself in under a minute then you’re going to risk losing the interviewer’s attention.

How have you described yourself in the ‘Professional Profile’ at the top of your CV? A lot of this material can be recycled to help you draft your answer to this question.

Example:

I’m a highly driven individual with extensive management experience acquired principally in the aviation sector. Following completion of my degree in International Business (which included a couple of years in Germany) I started my career in administration and have worked my way up to become an Export Sales Manager. I believe I combine a high level of commercial awareness with a commitment to customer care – which helps me to achieve profitable growth in a competitive market. I enjoy being part of, as well as managing, motivating, training and developing, a successful and productive team and I thrive in highly pressurised and challenging working environments. I have strong IT skills, I’m fluent in German and I’m also a qualified First Aider. In my spare time I undertake a wide range of activities; I’m particularly keen on squash and I am also currently working towards my Private Pilot Licence.

Alternative and related questions:

Why do you want this vacancy?
What attracted you to this vacancy?
Why do you think you’re suitable for this job?
What is it that you are looking for in a new job?

The meaning behind the question:

The interviewer is probing to see:

  • If you fully understand what the job entails
  • How well you might match their requirements
  • What appeals to you most about the job

Your answer:

This is another very open-ended question where you might be tempted to say too much. By taking the time to think through your answer to this question in advance, you will be able to remain focused on a few key points.

Your emphasis should be on demonstrating to the interviewer precisely how you match their requirements – and, in doing so, to demonstrate that you fully understand what the role entails.

If you’ve done your research properly then you will have a good idea of what it is they are most looking for.

Yes, they have asked you what your motivations are in applying for the vacancy, but try to turn the question round so that the answer you give tells them why you are the right candidate for the vacancy.

Example:

I’ve applied for this vacancy because it’s an excellent match for my skills and experience – and because it represents a challenge which I know I’ll relish. I clearly already have extensive experience as a Senior Quantity Surveyor, including previous experience of rail and station projects – an area I’m particularly interested in. I enjoy managing multiple projects simultaneously. I also enjoy overseeing and coaching junior and assistant quantity surveyors. I’m used to dealing directly with clients; developing productive working relationships with clients is definitely one of my strengths. This role is exactly the sort of role I am currently targeting and I am confident I will be able to make a major contribution.

Alternative and related questions:

Why do you wish to leave your current employer?
What do you plan to say to your current employer in your letter of resignation?

The meaning behind the question:

The interviewer is trying to understand your motivation to change jobs. They clearly want to know why you want to change jobs but they also want to know how serious you are about changing jobs. Are you really committed to moving or are you just wasting their time?

Your answer:

There are a whole multitude of reasons for wanting to leave your job – but they won’t all be positive selling points for you.

Positive reasons include:

  • Wanting a greater challenge
  • Wanting to diversify
  • Seeking greater opportunities
  • Seeking further advancement
  • Taking a step up the career ladder

Negative reasons include:

  • Problems with your boss
  • Problems with a colleague
  • A financially unstable organisation
  • ‘Personal reasons’

If your reason for wanting to leave your job is a positive one then your answer will be easy enough to construct. Explain to the interviewer what your motivations are and how the move to your next job will help you to achieve your goals. You are making a positive move for positive reasons and intend to achieve a positive outcome – simple as that.

If, however, your reason for leaving your job is in my list of negative reasons, then giving the right answer is going to be somewhat trickier. Because each of the situations is so different, I will deal with each of them in turn.

Problems with your boss: Having problems with the boss is the top reason people give (in surveys) for changing jobs. However, you should never say anything negative about either a current or a previous employer. It isn’t professional, it doesn’t portray you as someone who is particularly loyal – and it will reflect badly on you. In almost all cases, I would recommend that you avoid citing this as a reason. Criticising your current employer is considered one of the top mistakes you can make at interview and will most likely cost you the job regardless of whether or not your criticism is justified. Aim to give an answer which focuses on the benefits you will experience in moving to your new job rather than making any reference to your having had problems with your boss.

Problems with a colleague: Maybe you want to leave because of a persistently unpleasant colleague? However, explaining this to the interviewer will most likely open you up to expressing bitterness or recrimination – traits that are not attractive to a potential employer. Again, you should aim to give an answer which focuses on the benefits of moving to your new job rather than drawing attention to your problems.

A financially unstable organisation: You may well have decided to leave your job before your employer finally goes bankrupt, but you don’t want to be labelled as a ‘rat leaving a sinking ship’. It doesn’t say much for your loyalty. Avoid giving this as a reason.

‘Personal reasons’: There are many different personal circumstances which might cause you to wish to leave a job – for example you might simply want a better work-life balance. However, if possible you should avoiding giving ‘personal reasons’ as an answer and instead leave the interviewer to believe you are leaving in order to pursue a more promising opportunity.

As for asking what you would write in a resignation letter, you should remember that, when it comes to resignation letters, it is well worth being as nice as possible about the matter. Harsh words in a letter of resignation could easily come back to haunt you in the future – not least if you ever need a reference out of this employer.

Example:

I would simply tell them that, after careful consideration, I have made the decision to move on to a new challenge. Naturally, I’d thank them for the opportunities with which they presented me during the course of my employment, reassure them that I will of course do my best to help ensure the seamless transfer of my duties and responsibilities before leaving – and wish them all the very best for the future.

Alternative and related questions:

What is it about our organisation that attracts you?

The meaning behind the question:

The interviewer is analysing your motivations and probing your expectations of their organisation. Why do you want to work for them in particular? While this question doesn’t directly ask what you know about their organisation, in order to be able to answer it effectively you are clearly going to have to demonstrate that you have done your homework.

Your answer:

If you have done your research properly you will already be fairly well-informed as to the organisation you are applying to join. However, the key to answering this question is how to communicate that knowledge to the interviewer while tying it in with why you want to work for them.

Your focus should be on what in particular attracts you to their organisation. We’ll cover the closely related but more generalised question, “What do you know about us as an organisation?” in the next chapter.

Example:

I’m particularly attracted by how progressive an organisation you are. I’ve seen how your sales levels have grown the past few years and I’m aware of your plans to expand into the United States. Yours is an organisation which is rapidly developing and evolving – and that’s exactly what I’m looking for. I want to work for an organisation which is forward-thinking and isn’t afraid to tackle new challenges.

Alternative and related questions:

What are you good at?
What do you consider yourself to be good at?

The meaning behind the question:

With this question the interviewer wants to achieve the following:

  • Identify what your key selling points are
  • Establish whether or not these strengths are relevant to the role they are interviewing for
  • Gain some insight into your character – how self-confident (or arrogant!) you are

Your answer:

Everyone has their strengths. The key to answering this question is not to rattle off a long list of what you consider your strengths to be. Instead you should be seeing to highlight a smaller number of specific strengths, discussing each one briefly and, most importantly, identifying how these strengths relate to the requirements of the job you are applying to undertake. You can even elaborate on one of your strengths by mentioning a specific relevant achievement.

Choose your strengths carefully. It can be hard to say anything very interesting, for example, about the fact that you are very meticulous and pay great attention to detail. However, if the recruiter is looking for someone to lead a team then you can mention team leadership as one of your strengths – and cite an appropriate example or achievement.

Example:

I believe my key strength is that I combine experience of traditional film production with extensive experience in the online arena. I’m very aware of current trends in new media and am able to demonstrate excellent creative judgement. I’m also very good at juggling multiple projects simultaneously; in my current role I frequently have as many as half a dozen different projects on the go at any one time – and I’m committed to completing them all on time and on budget. This clearly requires extremely strong project management skills.

Word of warning:

If you don’t give the interviewer at least one specific example to back up your statement then be prepared for them to ask you for one!

Alternative and related questions:

What are you not good at doing?
What do you find difficult to do and why?
In what areas do you feel you need to improve?

The meaning behind the question:

With questions of this kind the interviewer wants to achieve the following:

  • Identify any weakness which might actually be detrimental to your ability to undertake the role
  • See how you react when faced with a somewhat tricky question
  • Assess how self-aware you are and how you define weakness

Your answer:

Some might consider this to qualify as a tough interview question and think it should be in a later chapter (Chapter 4: The top 25 tough questions: taking the heat). But believe me – there are much tougher questions than this! I would only classify this question as ‘tricky’ rather than tough. While it is superficially a somewhat negative question it is in fact full of opportunities for you to turn it round to your advantage and make your answer a positive point.

Don’t be perturbed by the question or let it throw you off balance. Your answer should be right on the tip of your tongue – because we will work on it right now. And can I just get straight that you should only ever discuss a ‘professional’ weakness, unless the interviewer specifically requests otherwise (unlikely).

Your first thought might be that you are tempted to say quite simply, “I don’t really have any particular weaknesses.” But this is definitely not the answer the interviewer is looking for – and is definitely not the answer you should be giving them.

The interviewer wants to know that you are able to look at yourself objectively and to criticise yourself where appropriate. If you honestly don’t think you have any weaknesses then you risk coming across as arrogant if you say so – and nobody wants a perfect candidate anyway.

Clearly you don’t just want to come up with a straightforward list of what you consider your weaknesses to be. You basically have two choices:

  • Talk about a weakness that’s not necessarily a weakness at all.
  • Talk about a weakness that you turned (or can turn) into a strength.

The problem with the first option is that you risk running into serious cliché territory. I’m talking about the kind of people who answer:

I would have to say that my main weakness is that I’m a perfectionist.

I have a reputation for working too hard; I often push myself far too hard in my work.

You risk sounding like you plucked your answer straight out of a 1990s manual on interview technique!

Personally, I prefer the second option: Talking about a weakness that you turned (or are turning) into a strength.

You are answering the interviewer’s question by highlighting a definite weakness but you then go on to reflect positively on this by outlining the active steps you too or are taking to overcome it. You are demonstrating a willingness to learn, adapt and improve and you are demonstrating that you have the initiative required to make changes where changes are due.

Choosing a weakness that has its root in lack of experience and therefore has been (or is being) overcome by further training is ideal – because it is a weakness that is relatively easily resolved.

Example:

When I first started my current job my first few months were an uphill battle dealing with a backlog of work I inherited from my predecessor. I recognised that I have a weakness when it comes to time management.  I have since been on a time management course, read a couple of books on the subject and I believe I’ve made a lot of progress. But it’s something I’m still very vigilant of. I make a concerted effort to apply the principles I’ve learned every day and to put in place procedures which enable me to most effectively prioritise and process my workload.

This is a good and comprehensive answer meeting all of the objectives we’ve outlined above.

Word of warning:

Do be prepared for the interviewer to ask the follow-up question, “OK. That’s one weakness. You must surely have more than one weakness?” We cover this question in the article Tough Interview Questions.

Alternative and related questions:

What are your biggest achievements?
What are you most proud of?
What was your biggest achievement in your current/last job?
What has been the high point of your career so far?

The meaning behind the question:

Unless they qualify the question by specifically mentioning, for example, your last job, it is important to remember that the interviewer isn’t necessarily looking for a work-related achievement. They are looking for evidence of achievement full stop. However, a work-related achievement is normally what they’ll be expecting.

Your answer:

You’ll want to make sure you have thought through this question carefully before the interview and have selected both a key professional achievement as well as a key personal achievement; cover both bases.

Try not to go too far back; try to pick a recent achievement. If you’ve included an ‘Achievements’ section in your CV (which I would recommend you do) then this will be a good starting point for you to generate ideas.

Describe clearly to the interviewer:

  • What it is that you achieved
  • What the background and circumstances were
  • What impact it had on your career/life

What was the benefit? Try to phrase this in such a way for it to be self-evident that this would also be a benefit to any prospective employer.

Example:

My greatest achievement so far in my career would probably be winning the Manager of the Year award last year. I made numerous operational changes at my branch, including a massive reduction in stock levels – which significantly boosted our working capital. I also drove up sales levels, especially by increasing the uptake of after-sales insurance packages. The net effect was that we smashed the previous branch sales record by an impressive 37% – and profits rose in line with this. This directly resulted in my promotion to the management of the flagship Edinburgh branch.

Alternative and related questions:

What makes you the best candidate for this job?

The meaning behind the question:

The interviewer is directly asking you what your ‘unique selling point’ is. They’re looking for at least one significant reason that you should be their No. 1 choice for the job.

Your answer:

Well, what does make you the best candidate for this job?

I’ll level with you – this isn’t necessarily a top 10 question in terms of how likely you are to get asked it. However, it is very much a top 10 question in terms of the importance of your having prepared an answer to it. You need to go into each and every interview with a thorough understanding of what it is that you have to offer. If you don’t know what it is that you’re offering then how can you hope to be able to sell it effectively?

If you do get asked this specific question then don’t be afraid to answer it quite candidly. It’s a bold question and warrants a bold answer. The interviewer is really putting you on the spot to sell yourself. But do be very careful to avoid coming across as arrogant – because that’s the last thing you want to do. It’s a fine line you need to tread.

Feel free to cite an example from your past where you demonstrated that you are someone who is capable of going the extra mile. It’s all very well to say that you’re someone who gives 110% (although it is a bit of a cliché) but if you can actually throw an example at your interviewer then you’re going to be a whole lot more credible.

Example:

Having now been working in this industry for over a decade, I have developed successful relationships with key decision makers in numerous companies, enabling me to achieve a sales conversion rate much higher than average. This is undoubtedly a very challenging role, requiring considerable drive and determination, but I believe my previous sales record is clear evidence that I am more than capable of achieving what it is that you need.

Alternative and related questions:

How long do you plan to stay/would you stay in this job if we offer it to you?
What are your long-term career goals?
How does this job fit into your long-term career plans?
How far do you feel you might rise in our organisation?

The meaning behind the question:

The interviewer is trying to ascertain what your long-term career ambitions are. They want to get a better understanding of your motivations. They will normally be looking for someone who is keen to learn, develop and progress. However, they are recruiting for a specific role and they will want someone who is prepared to commit to that role for a reasonable period of time.

You may think this question is just a cliché and doesn’t really get asked in practice. Trust me – it does – and far more frequently than you might imagine.

Your answer:

Yes, lots of people will think they’re displaying a great sense of humour/ambition/self-confidence to reply, “Doing your job!” I wouldn’t recommend it though – because it will all too easily come across as arrogant and aggressive.

Avoid being too specific. It’s very difficult for most people to know exactly what job they will be undertaking in five years’ time and so it can come across as unrealistic to quote a specific job title you are aiming for. Try to present your answer more in terms of what level you hope you will have reached – what level of responsibility, of autonomy. It’s also a good idea if you can phrase your answer to communicate that you hope you will still be with this same organisation in five year’s time.

Alternative and related questions:

What activities do you enjoy outside of work?
What are you interested in outside of work?

The meaning behind the question:

There are a variety of possible reasons an interviewer might ask this question:

  • They’re trying to get some insight into your personality and character.
  • They’re testing to see how truthful you’ve been on your CV.
  • They’ve run out of other questions and are killing time!

Besides knowing whether you’re capable of actually doing the job, most employers are keen to know what sort of a person you would be like to work alongside. Employers are generally keen to have a diversity of characters within their team and are always on the lookout for someone who can add a new dimension to the team.

While nobody has yet conducted a survey specifically to research this, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of recruiters deciding to call someone in for an interview purely as a result of what they’ve included on their CV under Interests & Activities. I, for one, will admit to having done so when hiring.

Your answer:

This is a very simple question to answer – provided, as always, that you’ve prepared for it in advance. If you have a hobby that makes for an interesting talking point at the interview then it will reflect positively on you as an individual.

You should of course be able to back up anything you’ve listed on your CV. If you mention chess to give your CV some intellectual clout but haven’t actually played since your were at school then you could well come a cropper in your interview if your interviewer turns out to be a chess fan and asks you which openings to the game you favour!

It’s always a good idea if you can subtly slip in mention of any positions of responsibility you hold outside of work. If your passion is, for example, football, and you’re also the Captain of the local team then do say so.

Besides the obvious selling point of football being a team activity (and your hence being a ‘team player’), you’ve immediately communicated your leadership qualities, your ability to take responsibility for others, your ability to commit yourself to a project, etc.

Example:

I’ve always been fascinated by planes. I remember my first flight as a child; it was a thrilling experience. Even though I understand the science behind it, I’m still in awe each and every time I see a plane clear the runway. It’s quite an expensive hobby to pursue but, as soon as I could afford to do so, I started taking flying lessons. I gained my Private Pilot Licence, went on to qualify as an Instructor and I’m now a senior member of my local flying club. While it’s not something I’ve ever wished to pursue as a career, I do enjoy giving the occasional lesson and generally participating in the club community. It’s definitely something about which I’m very passionate.

The Interview Question & Answer Book

The Interview Question & Answer Book

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