23 April 2020

How to answer common – but tricky – interview questions

Whether you have an in-person or telephone interview coming up, you need to be prepared to answer these classic – but difficult – interview questions


Barry Chignell

Barry Chignell

Barry Chignell worked in Ciphr's marketing team from 2012-2020.


Career development


Whether you have an in-person or telephone interview coming up, you need to be prepared to answer these classic – but difficult – interview questions

If you’ve been to a number of job interviews in your career so far, you’ll probably have noticed some common – but tricky – questions that crop up time and time again. That might be because they crop up time and again in internet advice articles like this one (sorry), or because they are tried and tested questions that help interviewers find out more about the person in front of them. Either way, knowing how to answer just a few key interview questions could be your secret to success. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions, and our tips for answering them.


Tell me about yourself.

This is many interviewers’ preferred opening gambit. They aren’t looking for your life history – they’ll have read your CV ahead of time and should know the basics. They might even have dug into your social media profile. Want they want here is to get to know you, the person and personality, behind the qualifications and achievements on your résumé. At the same time, your answer should be professional and avoid getting too personal; the interviewer wants to hear mostly about how you’ll apply what you’ve learned elsewhere to this new role, and how the organisation will benefit from hiring you rather than any of the other candidates they’re speaking with.

Explain where you are in your career currently, your previous experience and the skills and qualifications you’ve picked up along the way. Talk about what energises you at work – and how you think you’ll find those things in this role and company. Finally, explain your aspirations and life goals, but keep them relevant to the role you’re applying for.


What would your manager and colleagues say about you?

This question is an opportunity to present yourself in the best-possible light, and as someone who is integral to a team’s success.

One way to answer this is to quote your previous or current manager’s comments from your last appraisal or performance review. By quoting their comments, you’re not in danger of coming across as overly confident or arrogant, but still able to promote your skills and accomplishments.

If you’ve received any awards or made any notable achievements in previous roles, go ahead and mention them.

If you’re not able to use quotes, then you can simply state “my manager would say,” and then detail your strengths, such as improving sales or driving campaigns and initiatives to a successful conclusion, that you are a strong self-starter and team player, or that you are proactive and deadline-driven.


What is your biggest weakness?

This single question can be the difference between success and failure in an interview and is asked at pretty much every one you’ll ever attend. In asking this question, the interviewer is probing you for the answers to two key points:

  1. How self-aware are you? Do you understand how your skills are perceived by others and impact the work of your colleagues?
  2. Will your weaknesses affect whether you can do this job effectively?

Don’t lie and say you don’t have any weaknesses: everyone has them. If you answer that you don’t have any, then it will demonstrate that you’re not being truthful, that you haven’t adequately prepared for the interview, and that you’re blind to your own flaws.

Similarly, don’t claim to be a perfectionist (especially if you aren’t one); it’s a trite answer and it won’t impress. The trick is to pick a weakness that doesn’t damage your personal brand or chances of getting the job. Having difficulty disconnecting from your job at the end of the day, for instance, or that you used to be a bit disorganised, but have recently found a new way to arrange your schedule, are more suitable answers.


Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

By asking you this question the interviewer is trying to ascertain a number of things about you as an applicant:

  • Your career goals
  • Your motivations
  • What you’re looking for in a job

They’ll be looking for an answer that gives them confidence that you’ll fit both their current and future requirements, and that you’re serious about sticking with the company for the long term.

If your five-year goal is to be in a role completely irrelevant to the one you are interviewing for, then this will ring alarm bells and the interviewer will question your commitment and suitability for the job.

If you don’t have a target role in mind, then talk about how you might want to feel at work – whether that’s managing a team or working as an individual contributor, feeling happy and fulfilled, able to balance work and home life, or be in a challenging, fast-paced role. If you are an external candidate, try not to be too specific about how you might want to progress with the company because you won’t know how their promotion cycles work. It’s also a good idea not to pigeon-hole yourself by being too specific or inflexible with where you want to be; if a different opportunity presents itself, then your prospective employer needs to know that you’re the right person for the job.


What motivates you?

If you’ve done your research (which you should have done) about the company you’re interviewing for, then you’ll be able to align the things that motivate you with its values, initiatives and working practices. Try not to make it too obvious, but subtly mention things that you know are part of the culture.

The interviewer is looking for an answer that reaffirms that the organisation can offer you what you need to be a happy and productive employee, as well as gain an insight into how they – as your potential line manager – can get the most out of the working relationship.


Why should we hire you?

This is your chance to sell yourself to the interviewer and reassure them that you’re the best person for the role. Highlight your experience and achievements and what you’ll bring to the role. Have these details ready in your mind before the interview and ensure that you mention everything that you feel will make you stand out from the other applicants. If you’ve worked on your personal brand, then chances are that the statement given as an answer to this question will be similar to your summary on LinkedIn, for instance.


Why do you want this job?

To answer this question you’ll need to have done your homework – researching not only the organisation but also combing through the details of the vacancy and job description. If there’s an area or areas that the organisation is particularly passionate or proud about, or if it is a market-leader, be sure to mention these points in your answer. You’ll also want to be able to articulate why your previous experiences, skills and knowledge make you a great fit for the vacancy, and the attributes and plus points you’ll be able to bring to that particular team. You might also want to discuss how and why your own personal values align with those of the organisation.


Do you have any questions?

You should always have questions to ask the interviewer – whether you’ve prepared them in advance, or thought of them during the conversation. Having relevant questions to ask shows that you’ve been engaged with the conversation and are taking this discussion seriously. Questions regarding career development, requirements of the role, challenges that might be faced or the road-map for the business will be welcomed and help to demonstrate genuine interest. For more questions to ask interviews, check out our article: Unique ‘killer’ questions to ask at interview – for employers and applicants.


This article was first published in April 2015. It was updated in April 2020 for freshness, clarity and accuracy.