Understanding the objectives behind some common questions


Anyone who has been on more than a few job interviews has likely noticed that they tend to include variations on many of the same questions. That’s not because interviewers are lazy. It’s because those questions have proved useful in yielding information about why the organisation should, or shouldn’t, hire a candidate.

Interviewers learn just as much from poorly considered answers as they do from compelling ones. By understanding what the interviewer hopes to learn from each question, you can provide answers that put you in good position to land the role you seek.
Here’s a peek at the motivations behind ten common interview questions:

1. Can you tell me a little about yourself?

Objective: To understand what you can offer the company

This open-ended prompt can send some candidates off on vague discourses about how they see themselves. It’s fine to briefly talk about your personal interests, but don’t stray too far from the professional.
Before your interview, practice a concise summary of your work history that conveys how your experience has prepared you for the position at hand. Armed with this information, the interviewer should have no trouble matching your qualifications with the demands of the job.

2. Why do you want to work here?

Objective: To find out if you are genuinely interested in the company

Employers know that job candidates who have a real affinity for the company and the product of service they provide are likely to have longer, more productive tenures than those who are simply seeking a salary. This question often draws canned responses that merely echo the firm’s marketing materials. A more specific answer will suggest authentic enthusiasm for the opportunity.
Before your interview, research the company online and ask members of your professional network about it. Has it launched an initiative that interests you? What challenges is it facing? What sets it apart from its competitors? And why do these factors appeal to you?

3. What are your strengths?

Objective: To learn how you’ve benefited previous employers

Many people find it uncomfortable to talk about their own best qualities. You may worry that you’ll come across as boastful, or that your strengths sound clichéd.
One way around both concerns is to present your capabilities in the context of specific ways those assets have benefited the companies you’ve worked for. Think of a complex project you managed that was key to helping your firm improve efficiencies, for example, or a client relationship you nurtured that led to new business for the organisation.

4. What are your weaknesses?

Objective: To measure your self-awareness and willingness to address shortcomings

Skip the well-worn tactic of trying to disguise a strength as a weakness. Your interviewer has likely heard ‘I work too hard’ or ‘I’m too hard on myself’ countless times.
To provide a more convincing answer, use a specific example from your work history and explain how it affected the employer. For example, perhaps you failed to call attention to a potential problem, thereby creating a bigger problem. In the aftermath of that experience, how did you adjust your behaviour? You might also cite training that helped you improve a skill that doesn’t come naturally to you.
Just be careful not to cite a weakness that relates too closely to the requirements of the open job. You want to illustrate how you’ve overcome a weakness, not cause the employer to doubt your competency in a critical area.

5. What type of work environment do you thrive in?

Objective: To determine how well you’ll fit in at the company

Every organisation has a distinct culture, and every Boss has a unique managerial style. It may be tempting to claim you thrive in every environment, or to tailor your answer to perfectly match what you perceive to be the employer’s culture. Avoid those approaches. In the best-case scenario, you’ll come across as dishonest or even desperate. In the worst, you’ll land a position that makes you miserable.
Instead, give an honest account of the settings in which you’ve been most successful. For example, do you shine in high-pressure, unpredictable situations but quickly grow bored in predictable, steady ones?

6. Can you tell me about a conflict you’ve had at work and how you resolved it?

Objective: To gauge your interpersonal skills

Even if you can’t recall any cataclysmic workplace battles, it’s important to provide a real disagreement here. Presenting yourself as someone who never clashes with anyone is bound to seem unconvincing.
The conflict doesn’t have to be a dramatic one. Describe it in a way that accounts for your part as well as the other person’s. How did you address the problem? And, most importantly, what did you learn from the experience?

7. Where do you see yourself in five years?

Objective: To get a sense of how career-oriented you are

Employers want administrative professionals who strive to keep their careers moving forward yet are realistic about their futures. Ideally, your answer will convey the career path you have in mind while acknowledging that things are unlikely to unfold in a perfectly predictable way – and that you’re flexible enough to take on unexpected changes and challenges.
To illustrate that point, you might describe how you would have answered the same question five years ago and how your career has grown since then.

8. Can you describe your work relationship with your most recent Boss?

Objective: To learn about your interpersonal skills – and your discretion.

Where the opportunity centres around assisting just one person, the interviewer will be keen to hear about how you’ve interacted with a recent Supervisor. No relationship is perfect, so your response should include both successes and difficulties you worked to overcome.
Note, however, that this question may also be a test of your discretion. It is one case in which providing particulars can work against you. Don’t disparage a former Supervisor if you had problems with them, and be careful not to disclose any details that a former Boss might prefer that you not share.

9. What’s one thing you’d change about your most recent position?

Objective: To see how you handle situations that aren’t to your liking
Learning about something that has bothered you helps the interviewer get a sense of how well you might fit in, as well as how you respond when things don’t meet your expectations.
Present the difficulty as a matter of your personal preference, not something that’s self-evidently wrong or inadequate. Explain why you handled the situation the way you did, even if that meant simply accepting a problem that was outside of your control.

10. Do you have any questions for me?

Objective: To test your interest in the position

Many interviewers conclude the interview by soliciting questions. Declining to ask one may cause you to come across as disinterested or timid. Also keep in mind that the interview is your opportunity to gauge how well the position aligns with your career goals and professional preferences. Asking targeted questions can help you make this determination. And questions about the employer that demonstrate your familiarity with its business can yield useful insights while confirming your enthusiasm for the opportunity.

Even if you’re not asked all of these questions, taking the time to consider them – and the motivations behind them – will help you paint a more vivid picture of what you can bring to the employer. If your interview doesn’t result in an offer, you’ll know that you presented yourself in the best possible light. And you’ll have already sketched the outlines of your next interview.

Robert Hosking is executive director of the administrative and customer support practice at Robert Half, where he leads operations for nearly 300 practice locations worldwide. With close to 30 years of experience in the staffing industry, he has extensive ... (Read More)

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