Five Common Interview Questions -- and How to Answer Them Effectively

By Robert Half International

Every hiring manager has a different set of go-to interview questions. In a recent survey by our company, we asked more than 650 managers in the United States and Canada to name the single question they ask that provides the most insight about a job applicant. Responses ranged from classic queries ("Where do you see yourself in five years?") to less-traditional ones ("How would you describe yourself in five words?").

While there's not always one right way to answer an interview question, some approaches are better than others. Here are some questions from the survey that you may face in your next interview, along with tips on how -- and how not -- to answer them:

1. "Can you tell me a little about yourself?"

Do: Prepare for this popular question -- which is often the first one asked -- by developing an incisive summary of your career. Your sound bite should be succinct but include enough detail about your pertinent skills, work experience, accomplishments and goals that the hiring manager can quickly see what you bring to the table.

Don't: Give your life story, discuss leisure pursuits or describe aspects of your professional background that aren't relative to the position you're interviewing for.

2. "Why do you want to join our company?"

Do: Walk into the interview with beyond-the-basics knowledge of the firm. Read the company's website, marketing materials and relevant news stories to gain a good grasp of its mission, history, reputation and corporate culture. The more information you collect, the more specific you can be about why you're an excellent fit.

Don't: Answer in the context of your financial needs. Saying "I hear you provide good pay and benefits" or "Frankly, I need a job" won't score you any points.

3. "What's your biggest weakness?"

Do: View this as an opportunity to demonstrate your self-awareness, sincerity and problem-solving prowess. Mention an area where you could improve and spotlight the steps you've taken to do so.

Here's an example: "In the past, I sometimes overextended myself. Reading time-management books has helped me, though. Now, I make prioritized to-do lists, I've learned it's OK to delegate and I volunteer for extra projects only when I'm caught up on core responsibilities."

Don't: Offer a transparently fake flaw ("I care too much about my work!") or pretend to be perfect ("Weaknesses? None come to mind."). And, of course, don't be your own worst critic by citing countless shortcomings.

4. "Where do you see yourself in five years?"

Do: Position yourself as an ambitious but flexible realist. One way to do this is to speak of your desire to continually take on broader responsibilities and grow professionally no matter what role you're in. You also might emphasize your commitment to lifelong learning by mentioning your interest in attaining advanced industry certifications.

Don't: Focus on an overly lofty objective. For instance, boldly proclaiming you intend to be the firm's next CFO when you're an entry-level accounting candidate certainly shows drive, but it's not a practical five-year objective. In addition, steer clear of fanciful daydreaming ("I'll be counting my lottery winnings on a Hawaiian beach").

5. "Why are you looking to leave your current employer?"

Do: The interviewer is trying to figure out if you truly want the position, or if you're looking for any way out of a bad job. As such, reiterate what you like about the role you're seeking rather than gripe about the one you hope to vacate. Make it clear you're chasing a great opportunity, not running away from an unpleasant situation.

Don't: Speak ill of your current employer. Regardless of how unhappy you are with your job or company, never act bitter or resentful in an interview. Hiring managers seek candidates who are loyal, positive-minded and team-oriented. They aren't inclined to hire people they perceive to be potential headaches.

Finally, despite your best efforts, you can't anticipate every question you'll be asked.

"How would you define your personality in one word?" or "How will you behave if you get blamed for something you didn't do?" were just two of the unique questions that popped up in our survey of hiring managers.

If an interviewer throws you a curveball, maintain eye contact, take a deep breath and pause to consider your response. Many of your competitors will fluster easily. Set yourself apart by keeping your cool in the hot seat.

Next: 'Star Wars' or 'Star Trek'? Questions You Just Might Hear in the Interview

Don't Miss: Top 10 Companies Hiring Now

Robert Half International is the world's first and largest specialized staffing firm with a global network of more than 350 offices worldwide. For more information about our professional services, please visit For additional career advice, follow us on Twitter at @RobertHalf.

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Ruchi Mahna

Very very impressive write up esply for the fresher to middle level job seekers.
I run a Group on interview skills too .. sharing tips on interviews and interviewing is my interest. Would like to invite you to share you thoughts on the group too , it would be great.

March 23 2013 at 5:27 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Renee McDonald

This is a response to WatergirlHawaii 's statement. " (dont make the mistake in thinking that your boss is supposed to treat you like you are supposed to treat the customers)."
Those are exactly the type of employers that every good worker should be looking for!!! How dare you tell a person to lower their expectations and in effect keep working at what is OBVIOUSLY A DEAD END MENTALLY ABUSIVE JOB. Your manager should ALWAYS treat you as if you are a customer and lead by example.

August 20 2011 at 12:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Eric B

Oy, these lame questions are in every book FOR employers in the "questions to avoid" chapter. I never ask them.

August 07 2011 at 8:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Another great one: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

What is the weather going to be like in 5 years? Nobody really knows so why bother asking?

July 23 2011 at 8:19 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

These "guidelines" are found nowhere in Scripture.

July 23 2011 at 2:46 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Hiring mangers hope they can trip up the interviewee. They get off on it!

July 23 2011 at 2:16 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Mrs T...thank you very much. Your input is very helpful to me. I cannot sleep because i am worrying about this. You see, we can be terminated for failing compliances and that in part is why i am worried. We know that if you are not one of the manager's "favorites", then it is only a matter of time.
This is a very large corporation that i am employed at. I can easliy be replaced. I am just shocked over how he treated me today. Thank you again.

July 23 2011 at 1:58 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to carradk's comment

Please don't take this wrong...
Your problem was that you created "a Mountain out of a mole hill," and you accompanied it with way, way TOO MUCH HIGH DRAMA... over nothing but a busy/broken phone line!

Instead of worrying/ obsessing about you/yours, and all your 'justifications", just get your job done! You should have SIMPLY: 1# notified tech services (or your supervisor, or whoever) about the phone problem 2# let your manager know you reported it 3# document your remedial actions (report filed when, to who, about), and note your customers reaction #4 Get back to work ASAP (without causing any more disruption)!
Understand that corporate managers are not there to coddling the employees; (dont make the mistake in thinking that your boss is supposed to treat you like you are supposed to treat the customers). I f you need that knid of attention and reassurance (and shoulders to cry on) you are probably in the wrong business environment for your personality type. Good luck.

July 24 2011 at 10:29 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mrs T

It sounds like you had a bad day. That's too bad that your manager acted like a d----bag! You didn't miss anything. You sound like a sincere person who wants to do a good job. You just wanted to clear your good name when a client was less than steller to deal with and acted stupidly!
If you haven't been with the company long, I would start looking for a new job, even within the same company, if that's possible.
Just go into your boss the next time that is possible and apologize profusely. Tell him/her that you didn't want to cause a problem, you were just concerned about compliance and wanted to clear your good name. "I just want to be the best xyz customer service rep I can be and only went to Mr. Big Deal to make sure I cleared up any misunderstandings, but it appears I did the wrong thing and I should have waited to speak to you. Again, very very sorry. i learned my lesson and it will never happen again. Then, don't worry about it!!!!! The Super. and the Mgr. will forget about it and you'll still be mulling it over. Not worth it! A waste of your time and energy. Do the best that you can do and then, let it go. Dealing with the public is hard enough. You shouldn't have to do battle with your management team who is being paid to make sure you can be as successful as possible. They'll get theirs! Karma is a fun thing to watch. Truly, what goes around, comes around!

July 23 2011 at 1:05 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Someone please at work, i failed a compliance. I disagree with it because i clearly put in my notes that the "member disconnected the call on me at that point" (she hung up on me). So that means I could not provide any other info to her that the failed compliance says I should have given her after i advised her that i was unable to transfer her call after several attempts (it was the work phone system causing the error). Again, "member disconnected the call on me at that point" is what i wrote.
My supervisor was off work today, but i had emailed her my concern for failing it asking her to rebutle it for me. I knew I would not hear anything from her until next week. Well, later in the aftternooon (during my break), i decided to ask my manager about it because i had accessed the account and saw that he was in that member's account today regarding my failed compliance with it. I started out by knocking on his cubicle. I then stated to him that i had failed a compliance today and was concern about it. His comment to me was "you should be". I thought to myself "wow, thank you for the words of encouragement". He acted like he knew nothing about it after that, but then proceeded to tell me why i failed it after pretending to look up the information. Basically, i recieved no help from him and the whole conversation lasted aprox. 2 minutes. BUT, I did take the time to thank him for talking to me.
Now 1 hour later, my supervisor emails me from her home - YES - HER HOME...and stated "(manager's name) called to tell me that you came to his office concerning this? Please allow me time to review these with you prior to that. He communicated to you what you missed from what i understand. I am not scheduled to work most Fridays as I cover Sunday night. Thank you"
WOW, I thought my supervisor is off today, I thought I could ask the manager a question about it that lasted aprox 2 minutes because i knew he was already in the account and knew about it. He then calls my supervisor AT HOME (on her day off) to to complain because i bothered him? Excuse me....did he just call my supervisor, at home on her day off to BOTHER her
because I asked him about my failed compliance? Umm- YES he did.
Someone please help...what am i missing? I know there is the chain of command thing but really now! His boss is always willing to speak with me and answer questions or concerns with no problem! I feel like that "open door policy" was shut in my face and then he kicked me in the butt after I walked away....
Im I reading into this wrong?

July 22 2011 at 11:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to carradk's comment

i think you need to write on the compliance that the phone system wasnt working properly and you culdnt do what you needed to do .
something like that happened to me at work and when i went to sign ,i wrote"due to the system malfunction,i was unable to do my job properly.i sign this under duress and hope the company deals with the failure of __i am sure i was not the only employee this happend to."
good luck.

July 23 2011 at 8:01 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to virginmrq's comment

Thank you for you input. I actually ended my notes by stating this " mbr wanted to make cc payment. I tried to warm transfer to the cc line 3 times at 8:59 AM and advised the mbr that all 3 attempts (recording kept stating they were closed) would not go through...mbr disconnected the call at that point. mbr not satisfied." There was a lot more, but this was the only part of the compliance that made me fail it all together. How could I provide all of the info to that mbr (when the credit card transfer would not go through). She hung up on me when I told her I tried transfering her, but the call would not go through. She said a few ugly words to me before hanging up, but we are to keep it professional and are prohibited from putting it in the notes.
The company actually new there was a known problem with transfering to the credit card line that morning too.
I just absolutely am taken back at how the manager treated me and what he did, by calling my supervisor at home. What is unfortunate for me is that it is a very large company and if i tried to get another job within, he has a lot of the say.......therefore, i feel doomed now.
It is well known in there, that if you are not on his "favorite" list.....your time is coming. I have never done anything to him and have been a steller employee. I also never miss work but, it is clear that you can easily be replaced in there.

July 23 2011 at 10:02 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down
Bob & Pat

Since the last job I interviewed for required doing physical as well technical tasks, when I mentioned being a volunteer at an active railway museum, working on track projects, overhead line work and streetcar maintenance, I scored points with supervisors who were tired of technicians who expected to sit at a test bench all day and would try to "weasel out" of heavy installation work. They were also please to find that I loved overtime and didn't mind out-of-town work. Since the company was an electric utility, and I have been fascinated by power systems since boyhood, I didn't need to do any homework about the business.

July 22 2011 at 11:21 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

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