How to decode your job interview questions

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Preparing for an interview can be a daunting prospect as you work through all the questions that might get thrown at you. So it’s really useful to think about what the interviewer will actually be trying to get out of you in the first place. When you know this it’s easier to interpret their questions. There are really only 3 core things an employer is usually trying to find out about you:

  • Can this person do the job?
  • Does this person really want to do the job?
  • Will they fit in?

Armed with this knowledge, you can go in to the interview focused on showing that the answer to all three questions is a resounding “Yes”.

Take a look at these common questions and see what the interviewer is really getting at:

"Tell me about yourself.”

A good icebreaker? Well yes and no. Often used at the start of an interview to get things going, this is a question with a wide scope designed to focus on your qualifications, motivation and values. It will help those interviewing you to answer all three of the core questions. Because it is such a common prompt, you need to make absolutely sure you can handle it competently. The interviewer wants to see how you carry yourself and how articulate you are when in the spotlight. It is a way for an employer to get the measure of what you think are the most important facts about yourself and what you see as the highlights of your skill set.

"What is your greatest accomplishment?"

The interviewer is not especially concerned with which single thing you are most proud of. Instead they are trying to learn more about your view of the world and your values. They want to understand what makes you tick and what motivates you. This is a classic ‘values’ question which will help indicate if you would work well in the organisation and share its ethos. It also provides a good opportunity to check that you are up to the job. By talking about the situation you found yourself in, the action you took and the results you achieved, you can demonstrate you have a firm grasp of the qualities they are seeking. Bear in mind that employers will be looking for evidence of a past achievement that drew on the same skills they want, so choose an appropriate example.

“What is your greatest weakness?”

Another interview classic that you are likely to face in some form. Assume this question is coming and be prepared. The interviewer is trying to find out how honest you are and how thoughtful you can be. The question can help reveal how self-aware you are and how you deal with problems. Your answer will help answer all three core questions. Whatever you do, don’t use the clichéd answers “I’m a perfectionist” or “I work too hard”. The interviewer wants to see how you overcome obstacles. Talk about something you find hard and then explain what you do to overcome the problem.

"Why do you want to work for this company?"

This is another question designed to work out if you will fit in. Are you particularly excited about the way the company does business, its products or its research and development? Are you aware of how things are done at the organisation? Do you understand enough about how you would fit in if you got the job? This question is also a way of finding out how much you want the job by highlighting the level of research you have carried out prior to the interview. If you are genuinely keen you should have a thorough understanding of the organisation and the role you are applying for. This is also a good time to demonstrate why your particular attributes would benefit the company. Don’t just tell them what you are good at – show them how it would help.

While you always need to do your homework, remember that the detailed answers you give often don’t matter as much as the way you conduct yourself. If you handle difficult questions with confidence and calm, it will play well. Whatever the question, if you communicate that you can do the job, really want to do the job, and will fit in, there is every chance that you will be offered the position.

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