nervous-looking woman being interviewed for a job

Despite changing modes/means of application (social media, online forms) and unique company approaches to the onboarding process, the final step to securing any professional role remains constant: the oft-dreaded interview.

With competition at all an all-time high and just two percent of applicants advancing to the interview stage (according to 2017 research from Glassdoor), this intergral face-to-face is clearly not something to be taken lightly.

Still, while some employers stick to tried-and-true methods, more companies are embracing novel, off-the-wall, and even downright outlandish questions aimed at catching you off guard and/or forcing you to step out of your comfort zone. Hiring managers assert this format best demonstrates how a potential team member thinks on their feet and approaches problem-solving.

That means some interviewers will intentionally work to get your guard down and/or get you flustered, just to see how well you maintain composure. Becoming familiar with the odd and seemingly absurd questions and concepts in hiring managers’ arsenal will help you always keep your cool… and ultimately land the job.

Standard Interview Questions

There’s a chance that you’ll luck out and be asked only standard, run-of-the-mill questions. That doesn’t mean you must provide stodgy, cookie-cutter answers. Here are the most basic questions interviewers ask, and how to wow them with your response:

Tell me about yourself

Interviewers aren’t interested in your life story here. Instead, offer a brief ‘elevator speech’ highlighting your core skills and accomplishments. Think of it as a 30-second commercial pitching the product (your professional expertise) to a potential customer (the employer).

What’s your greatest strength/weakness?

variants:

What are your best qualities?

What skills would you like to improve upon?

Resist the urge to joke about being perfect. Instead, highlight your best qualities and approach areas for improvement by explaining how you’re addressing the issue(s) (learning a new language, taking online courses). Potential employers want to know that you’re interested in personal and professional development, not just seeking a paycheck.

Why are you interested in this role/position?

variation: 

What are you looking for in a new job?

This is an opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge of the company/position, and how your unique skills and experience would benefit the organization. Here’s where you can highlight your core skills and other proficiency.

Resume-Based Interview Questions

Even in the era of digital applications, a hard-copy resume remains essential. Regardless of whether you wrote your own resume or paid a document-creation service to prepare one for you, you must be thoroughly familiar with every word printed.

Your resume is the first impression potential employers get of you. Simply being called in for an interview means a company representative has reviewed your resume and has questions based on what they saw. Here are some of the most popular resume-based interview questions:

Walk me through your resume

As mentioned, you should know your resume by heart — even if you didn’t personally create it. Here’s where you can give your elevator speech, followed by a brief explanation of recent roles. Make sure to keep the focus on how your unique skills and abilities can improve and enhance company operations.

Tell me about your awards and recognition

alternate:

Tell me about your past leadership roles

This is a tailor-made opportunity to ‘toot your own horn’ and expand on past accomplishments and projects that led to awards and recognition. It’s unlikely that interviewers will bring this up if you haven’t listed such details on your resume. However, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen (see ‘Uncomfortable Questions’).

Describe two improvements you made in your last role

Always include actionable results in your resume. These can be simple bullet points that you later expand on in the interview. This shows you care about professional accomplishments rather than simply drawing a salary.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Never (even in jest) suggest that you plan to be the boss or in the position of the interviewer. Instead, emphasize your long-term commitment to the company/work team and your focus on continual and consistent personal and professional growth.

Behavioral Interview Questions

Employers want to know how you’ll react in stressful and chaotic situations. Rather than a means to get you flustered, behavioral questions help interviewers gauge your ability to remain cool under pressure. Stand out from the crowd by mastering these common behavioral interview questions:

How do you work best?

variants:

What’s your ideal supervisor/co-worker like?

Describe your ideal working environment

What do/did you like most and least about your current/last job?

What are the pros and cons of your current/most recent working environment?

Employers want to be sure you’re a good fit. Resist the urge to joke about solitary or remote work. Instead, pull from your research and demonstrate how your work style and personality match well with the existing company structure, culture, and team dynamics.

How do you take initiative?

variation:

How do you set priorities at work?

Here, the interviewer is trying to determine what kind of employee you would be if hired. Will you sit around and wait to be assigned duties, or will you notice tasks that should be completed and make the effort to get them done? Do you depend on supervisors to set a daily to-do list, or are you able to effectively manage your schedule to ensure project deadlines are always being met?

Make it clear that while you’re a team player and can take direction and guidance, you’re also a skilled professional capable of taking charge and working independently when necessary.

What do you do when you know you’re going to miss a deadline?

Everyone misses a deadline at least once in their career. For most, it’s a learning opportunity and only makes them better and more attentive employees. Even if deadlines were missed due to someone else’s negligence, you can still glean insight and action to prevent a similar scenario from occurring in the future.

Rather than proudly professing that you’ve “never missed a deadline,” this is a chance to demonstrate how doing so helped you better prioritize tasks, take a ‘total picture’ approach to projects, and be more in tune with co-worker habits and work styles.

Situational Interview Questions

Hiring and onboarding new employees is time, cost, and labor intensive. No employer wants to invest resources in a candidate only to have them soon quit or under perform. Situational interview questions are designed to help potential employers better understand who you are as a professional and individual. Here are some of the most common:

Describe a typical day on your last/current job

Here’s another scenario where the elevator speech answer works best. Rather than listing every detail, provide an overview of your daily tasks and how you successfully collaborated with co-workers to meet your daily professional goals.

What kind of policies and procedures were you expected to follow at past jobs?

related:

Share an experience in which you had to deal with a change in procedure

The interviewer doesn’t expect you to read from the employee’s manual. Instead, they’re trying to ensure that you’re a mature professional who can adhere to rules. Resist the urge to disparage any policy — regardless of your personal feelings. Instead, answer questions about change by making clear your consistent flexibility and adherence to oft-updated company policies, rules, and regulations.

Tell me/us about a challenge you faced and how you approached it

variants:

Provide an example of when you set a goal and how you achieved it

How do you make decisions?

What is your biggest challenge?

There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers to these questions. They’re aimed solely at discovering how you approach work and life situations. This is the time to boast about how your efforts resulted in positive outcomes for past employers, or how you were able to achieve a personal goal (weight loss, educational credentials).

Describe a stressful situation where you demonstrated coping skills

variation:

Tell me about a time when you had to be assertive

Here, the interviewer wants to know how you handle stress. Offer a story where you were able to overcome difficulties/hesitations and get the job done.

Tell me/us about a time when you disagreed with someone and how you handled the situation

variation:

Give an example of a time you successfully confronted a negative attitude

No one works in a vacuum. Everyone must interact with customers and co-workers at some point. Even remote workers check in for meetings and status updates. Employers want to ensure you’re a team player. Don’t dodge the question. Accurately describe a past conflict — removing emotion and hearsay.

Stick to the facts, but make sure you end on a positive note, detailing how the situation was resolved to the satisfaction of all parties involved. Sometimes, interviewers will ask variation of the same question, such as:

Describe your experience working on a team/with colleagues

Share a time when your positive attitude caused others to become motivated

In this case, avoid mentioning conflict altogether. Instead, highlight positive outcomes created through your involvement on team projects. Don’t boast, but rather show that you’re a true team player whose input and expertise enhances every project in which you’re involved.

Offbeat Interview Questions

Some interview questions make you want to laugh out loud. Rather than a joking matter, many interviewers seek to discover how you think and approach problem solving situations. While your answers should always be truthful, this is where you can let your creativity and innovation shine. Here is a brief sampling of some truly offbeat interview questions:

You list proficiency in another language on your resume. Let’s do the rest of the interview in that language.

While the interviewer is testing your professed ability, this is a great opportunity to build rapport on both a personal and professional level. Sending a post-interview thank you note written in the same language will help you stand out from the crowd.

Would you rather fight one horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses? Explain your answer.

There are many variations of this question. While the idea sounds silly, the interviewer is most interested in learning your thought process and approach to problem-solving. This is also an opportunity to showcase your unique personality and demonstrate your ability to have fun.

When asked this question in a recent interview, I provided the following answer:

“Were I to find myself in the unfortunate predicament of an impending rumble with a mutant animal (or animals), there would be several factors to reflect upon before laying down the law.

“For instance, facing one opponent allows the aquatic bird-hating individual to focus their full attention on the immediate threat (in this case, a comedically-oversized duck), rather than being subject to equestrian fury from every angle.

“On the other hand, unique combat difficulties arise when proportion is taken into consideration — most notably the freakish fowl’s advantage of using its bill and feet to their fullest potential. This is to say nothing of what would surely be a deafening quack.

“In this case, it may be best to first place a call to Animal Control, if only to make them aware of the dire situation, and perhaps glean some much-needed street-fighting advice in the process.”

Uncomfortable Interview Questions

In the same vein as behavioral and offbeat queries, interviewers will often present blunt and “in your face” questions geared at determining how you approach and handle awkward and outlandish situations. Here are some examples of uncomfortable interview questions:

Why do you want to leave your current job?

variation:

Why did you leave your last job?

Potential employers ask this question primarily to observe your body language when answering. That’s why you must focus on remaining calm and relaxed. If employed, mention a desire for career advancement that’s nonexistent at your current workplace. If unemployed, provide an honest reason (downsizing, restructuring) for your departure. In either case, always keep responses brief and positive.

Why don’t you have any awards, recognition, and/or past leadership roles listed on your resume?

The best way to answer this question is to not allow it to be asked in the first place! In any industry, there are a wealth of opportunities for continuing education and professional involvement and development, including online courses, volunteer programs, and more.

What have you learned from your past mistakes?

Life is about constant learning. Rather than bare your soul about personal matters, keep your response to this question focused on a professional barrier you were able to overcome through initial failure and adversity. Don’t suggest — even as a joke — that you’ve never made a professional error. This is off-putting, and comes across as an arrogant remark.

I noticed you have short tenures at previous employers. Why is that?

alternate:

You seem to have many gaps in your work history. Why?

There are many reasons why people switch jobs. Rather than being confrontational, potential employers are simply seeking logical and reasonable explanations for your professional timeline. While it’s true many interviewers are wary of “job hoppers,” offering an honest and accurate account of your work history (including gaps) provides insight and peace of mind.

Don’t disparage past co-workers, supervisors, or companies. In scenarios of layoffs, downsizing, and outright termination, you can always put a positive spin on the outcome while still addressing the question.

Illegal Interview Questions

Many interviewers will purposely try to make you squirm just to see how you’ll react in a stressful situation. Offbeat and “on the spot” questions aside, it’s important to realize that some queries are simply off limits. You are protected by law from having to provide certain information.

Resist the urge to inform the interviewer they’ve asked an illegal question. This casts a negative/uncomfortable tone on the interview and puts your candidacy in jeopardy. Some interviewers (particularly those new to the process) are genuinely unaware they’re getting too personal. Instead, avoid providing any details surrounding your:

  • age
  • gender
  • race and ethnicity
  • birthplace and residences
  • citizenship, nationality, or native language
  • political affiliation
  • sexual orientation
  • religion
  • personal beliefs and convictions
  • disability or health information
  • marital status and family life (including children and pregnancy)

Asking about hobbies is not illegal, but be mindful of your responses. While it’s wise to mention volunteer activities and affiliation with professional groups that align with the company’s values and mission, don’t offer embarrassing or potentially-damaging information that could hurt your chances of landing the job.

Questions You Should Ask the Interviewer(s)

Once you’ve demonstrated knowledge of the company — and even if your queries and concerns have already been addressed during the interview process — you should always have questions.

Interviews are a two-way street. In the era of team dynamics, you must prove that if hired you’d be a great fit. Questions also show you’re interested in the company, the position, and the interviewer(s). That stated, ensure your questions are brief and non-invasive. Strive for no more than three total questions. Sample questions for the interviewer(s) include:

Role-Specific Questions

  • Is this a new position? What prompted the need/desire for this new position?
  • What is an “average” day for this role?
  • What are the most important qualities necessary for someone to succeed in this role?
  • Based on our discussion, do you have any concerns about my ability to effectively perform in this role?

Company-Related Questions

  • Could you describe the company’s collaborative process?
  • Is it possible to meet with other workers?
  • How does the company continue to grow and maintain an advantage over the competition?

Personal Questions

  • Why did you choose this company and what compels you to stay?
  • What is your favorite part of working here?

Before you leave, request a business card/contact data for every person with whom you interviewed. You’ll need this information to send thank you notes (which are essential). Make sure you understand the next steps in the hiring process and when a final decision will be reached. Good luck! ■