interviewAdvice for job interviews is everywhere, and a lot of it tends to cover the same basic range of information: look polished, be confident but humble, be on time, have questions to ask about the company or position, and so forth. But the truth is, most of these little tips are things that a well-prepared, strong candidate is likely to do anyway.
More in-depth advice, such as our previous post about body language during an interview, can still be helpful, even to the most prepared and polished candidates.

So in this article, I’m going to address not just how to prepare for interview questions in general, but a few of the most common types of questions and how to answer them impressively. Here are some to be ready for.

“Tell me a something about yourself.”

OK, so the first item on the list isn’t technically a question, but it’s still the most common thing to hear in a job interview, regardless of the industry or position. It’s also an important one to get right, because often it serves as the first impression! The two most common mistakes people make when addressing this question (for lack of a better term) are to start listing bullet points from their resumes, and to start providing personal biographies. Try to remember: your resume is already in their hands, and they don’t need it repeated to them. They’re also not looking for your life story. This is a question designed partly to put you on the spot (let’s be honest), and partly to get a sense of how you view yourself in the context of your application, fit for the job, and career goals.

So how exactly should you go about addressing the question? An editor at The Daily Muse had a wonderful suggestion as part of a feature about answering popular interview questions and called it the “Present-Past-Future” formula. Specifically, the idea is to discuss what you’re doing at the time of the interview, then provide some background by explaining a pursuit from your recent past, and transition into talking about what you’d like to do more of. This type of response provides a great blend of personal insight and professional context, and can make for an ideal start to an interview.

“Why do you want to work for our company?”

This is another question that you’re almost certain to be asked, even if the wording might be somewhat different depending on the situation. And frankly, it doesn’t initially appear to be the most complex problem on lists of popular interview questions. After all, if you applied, you should know a few reasons why you applied, and thus why you want to work for the company. But there are still two very important things to remember when it comes time to address this question: avoid talking only about your personal ambition, and don’t mistake the company for the position in general. They want to know why you want to work for their company specifically.

The best way to form a strong answer to this question is to demonstrate specific knowledge of the company itself. This question came up in an interview advice article by Arnie Fertig in U.S. News & World Report, and five examples of suitable answers were provided. The answers varied greatly, but the one thing they all had in common is that each one made it clear that the candidate had researched the company. He or she was also aware of its reputation with employees and in communities, its work environment, its marketing and social media presence, etc. Showing a knowledge of the company’s reach in this way displays that you have genuine interest.

“Can you tell me how you dealt with a personal mistake?”

This is another question that is often phrased differently but seems to always be included in most job interviews. And it’s one of the toughest questions in the whole process to answer appropriately. The temptation that many of us have is to essentially skirt around the question by explaining something that was almost a mistake, and trying to impress by showing how it was avoided. Others go the disastrous route often paraphrased as “my greatest weakness is also my greatest strength,” which can include articulating that you care too much, or work too hard, etc.

An effective strategy for answering this sort of question was described in detail in a post about writing about failures and weaknesses by Alice van Harten of Menlo Coaching. The post was specifically meant for graduate school applicants, but the advice therein is equally appropriate for those heading into job interviews, and the basic idea is simple: instead of avoiding the topic, try to discuss a “genuine failure or setback” with openness and honesty. Then, convey that you were able to reflect and learn from the incident in a way that either helped you down the line or has you positioned to handle a similar challenge in the future more effectively.

These are just a few of the most common, and most important, questions you’ll likely come across in job interviews. Other questions you can expect tend to deal with more specific issues about you, your resume, the company itself, etc. However, questions like these give you a chance to show genuine self-reflection and who you really are as a candidate. Being prepared for questions like these can position you for a great interview.