Smartest Answers to Nine Common Interview Questions

By Julia Dunn on February 22, 2018

You arrive at another job interview, spiffed up in a pencil skirt, perfectly-tailored blazer, and one of those collared shirts from Express that blends cuteness with professional attire just perfectly. The front desk receptionist welcomes your arrival and asks you to sit in the lobby while your interviewer prepares to bring you into their office.

You anxiously alternate between putting on another coat of chapstick, rifling through one of the Food Network magazines on the nearby coffee table, checking notifications on your phone and racking your brain for everything you’re hoping to remember in your interview: why did I apply? What are my skills? How can I remember the best answers to all those scenario questions I’ve rehearsed for the past 2 weeks? Which experiences have been most pivotal to my choosing this career path? How can I make myself stand out as an entry-level applicant?

You begin to freak out just slightly as the receptionist cheerfully gestures for you to stand up and walk over to the interviewer, who holds a copy of your cover letter and resume and ushers you into the conference room. All of the answers you had ready to go in your head have become jumbled together, forming a mass of information you don’t have time to parse out in the time between walking through the door and sitting down to introduce yourself.

But there’s good news: job interviews don’t have to be this frantic! In fact, extensive preparation does pay off if you master the smartest answers to common interview questions. This doesn’t mean using a stock answer you took from someone else, but rather, framing your own experiences in the smartest ways and having a strategy for the tougher questions. Here is your guide to answering common interview questions as well as possible.

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Question: “What can you bring to our company that nobody else can?”

This question encompasses the equally common question of “why should I hire you?” You’ll want to think hard prior to interview day about what exactly differentiates you from other candidates. Of course, everybody is different (and everyone knows this), but for this question, you’ll want to be specific: when you envision yourself in the role, what are your strengths? What assets have you already developed elsewhere that you can apply in this position to improve the company at large?

If you communicate to an employer that you can solve a problem for them (and not create more problems for them), you’ll stand out. The smartest answer for this common interview question is the answer that best displays your uniqueness and expertise, perfectly aligning you with the position you are seeking.

Question: “Where do you see yourself in 2 years? 5 years? How can this job help you get there?”

This is an overwhelming question for most of us, and it can leave you stumped in the interview room. You may also encounter it this way: “How do you see this position advancing your career?”

Best way to answer it? Break it down, and think small before you scale your plans larger and larger.

What do you want to have accomplished professionally, academically, personally in 6 months? One year? Would you like to learn Adobe InDesign to strengthen your graphic design portfolio? Do you want to have landed a paid internship at a nonprofit? These are great shorter-term goals that can figure into a more long-term plan that suffices as an answer to this common interview question. Perhaps your 5-year plan includes more networking, launching a website, and building connections to fuel your career.

A question like this can throw you off only if you’ve never considered your professional life in a greater context, and if you have any interest in the job for which you are interviewing, you should be able to explain how it fits into your greater goals pretty easily. If you can’t easily see how this job will advance your career, perhaps it isn’t quite the right job for you.

infographic, interview questions, jobs

Infographic by Julia Dunn

Question: “What motivates you?”

This is an opportunity to get a bit personal or vulnerable. You might even bring up a more personal story of struggling through a tough time; for many, motivation comes from a desire to help support one’s family, avoid poverty, and so on. Of course, you don’t want to divulge too much personal material if it isn’t appropriate, but you can usually connect motivation to any experience you’ve had that was pivotal to you gaining clarity about your career path.

Perhaps you’re interviewing to become a preschool teacher; you can instantly contextualize “motivation” if you consider it relative to your career aspirations. What motivates you to serve as an excellent role model for young kids? What keeps you going when things go awry? How did you gain clarity to know you wanted to work with toddlers?

It’s hard to think about motivation when it’s nebulous and de-contextualized, so if you’re stuck during an interview, re-frame the question in your mind: “what motivates you [to succeed in marketing? to be a great speech-language pathologist? to work with marginalized communities?]” You’ll be able to answer the question more quickly.

Question: “What would you need from me to be successful in this role?”

This is one question not to take lightly—here, you are granted the perfect time to establish your own expectations for your employer. Remember that interviews are not unidirectional; while being interviewed yourself, you are also interviewing the employer to see if they’re a solid match for you. The best answer to this question is the honest answer—as someone who values efficiency, communication, and timeliness in the workplace, I would say something like “to be successful, I would hope that my employer isn’t afraid to give me both positive and constructive feedback, delivers assignments to me clearly and quickly, and communicates with me regularly.” Tell your employer what they can do to help you—it’s not a trick question!

Many of the happiest employees in any workforce are those who have conscious, receptive employers and supervisors who truly invest energy in supporting employee needs. If, when asked this question, you don’t disclose exactly what you need from an employer, you risk running into a situation you could’ve prevented had you been transparent about your values.

Question: “Do you prefer teamwork or individual work? Tell me about a time when you successfully navigated either type of work.”

The smart way to answer this common interview question is not to choose just one or the other. The best answer, in my opinion, is something like the following: “I enjoy both types of work, but at different times. Sometimes a certain task, like filing, calls more for individual work and another, such as brainstorming ideas for a new company project, may benefit from a team of people. You have to have awareness about when to do a task alone versus when to collaborate, because if you use teamwork on a task that’s more suited for work alone, you risk lowering efficiency and wasting time.”

Question: “How do you manage teamwork? Are you a leader or follower?”

This question might follow the previous one, or be combined with the above question.

Teamwork is often a necessity in the workplace for most jobs. If you aren’t working with a large team, you may be interfacing with at least one or two other colleagues at work.

To answer this question, reflect on moments in your professional life where teamwork was successful or unsuccessful, and explain why. At the same time, convey the role you assumed as part of a team: do you usually take initiative to lead the group and delegate tasks? Or, do you prefer to “follow” and wait for someone else to take charge before you? Understanding your own working style is crucial to successfully answer this common interview question.

Tip: Before your interview, make yourself a flowchart or document that aggregates your most useful past experiences. On the side of each memory description, indicate what each experience demonstrates about you (communication skills, organizational skills, exceptional teamwork, conflict resolution?) It really helps to have a list of stories in mind so you can jog your memory before coming into the interview.

Question: “Describe how you would handle a high-pressure situation at work.”

Employers are always interested in knowing how a potential employer handles stressful situations. How do you manage tight deadlines? A store full of customers in a frenzy for the next semi-annual sale? 3 tables of frustrated restaurant guests whose orders have been mixed up?

Draw upon your own memories if you can; most of us can recall a work situation that went substantially wrong. How would you de-escalate an argument in the office? You get major bonus points as an applicant if you demonstrate masterful conflict resolution skills.

handshake, interviewer, interviewee

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Question: “Can you explain to me your understanding of what our company does? What is our mission statement and how do you see your role playing into this mission statement?”

This is a common interview question that employers use to weed out the applicants who don’t truly understand the position, haven’t researched the company enough, or can’t situate themselves within the scope of work. You can best answer this question by taking plenty of time to read through the company’s website and other materials to acquire a strong understanding of the company before applying. “Study” as much as you can.

Employers will take notice if you demonstrate a high level of understanding with respect to the company goals. This question is also an opportunity to explain why this mission statement resonates with you personally—why you share the organization’s values. You have a greater chance of getting the job if you make a strong argument for why you belong with the team (do well, and the interviewer might even feel like you’ve been on staff already for months!) Being knowledgeable and thorough in your company knowledge is crucial to interview success.

Question: “Do you have any questions?”

Yes. Always have questions! Saying “no” is the fast track to not being offered the job. Most thoughtful job applicants will have questions because they’ve analyzed the position details in-depth and engaged with the employer. Some great questions to ask if you’re stumped:

  • “How long have you been with (company name)? What do you enjoy most about your job?”
  • “What is this company’s largest challenge and how can I help overcome it?”
  • “In what direction is this company/agency/organization moving? How has it changed in the last few years?”

It’s best not to only ask about logistical matters, but to ask at least one clearly thoughtful question. Don’t just ask “how many hours can I expect to work each week?” Or “which holidays do we have off?”

Asking a more macroscopic question about the company will both impress your interviewer and heighten your understanding of the organization. You’ve probably heard people say that job interviews go both ways: you are interviewing the employer just as much as they’re interviewing you. As an applicant, you are also responsible for deciding whether you’re a good fit for the job. Thus, you’ll want to do as much information-gathering as you can, and seek out opportunities to learn.

Let’s try it again:

You arrive at another job interview, spiffed up in a pencil skirt, perfectly-tailored blazer, and one of those collared shirts from Express that blends cuteness with professional attire just perfectly. The front desk receptionist welcomes your arrival and asks you to sit in the lobby while your interviewer prepares to bring you into their office.

You sit eagerly in a chair by the tall indoor plant and flip through your notebook, briefly glancing at your “experiences flowchart” to refresh your memory of all you have accomplished and learned. You smile at yourself and recite affirmations in your head: I am prepared. I know what I’m doing. I’m qualified and ready to prove it. I have the experience I need. I am excited and capable of doing great work.

The receptionist cheerfully gestures for you to stand up and walk over to the interviewer, who holds a copy of your cover letter and resume and ushers you into the conference room. You enter with confidence, grace, and all the knowledge you need to conquer your interview, no matter how funky those questions get.

By Julia Dunn

Uloop Writer
I am a graduate student in the Creative Writing MFA program at San Jose State University. I specialize in creative nonfiction writing and poetry, as well as composition studies.

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