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Job interview questions: What to ask and how to answer

Job interviews are often the toughest part of getting a job. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can do to prepare and succeed.
Two people shaking hands at a job interview. Credit: Pixabay

Job interviews are often the toughest part of getting a job. When you put together a CV or cover letter, the ball is in your court – you’re the person deciding what to write and there are lots of opportunities to double check or ask a second opinion.

In an interview though, the situation is entirely different. Someone else is in charge of the questions, you have to answer immediately, and you don’t know what you’re going to be asked in advance. All in all, it can add up to a pretty stressful situation. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can do to prepare and give you the best chance of walking out with the job.

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How to prepare for a job interview

The first thing to remember, is that you actually need to prepare for a job interview in the first place. It might sound simple, but when you’ve already put together a lengthy job application, it can be tempting to think the hard work has already been done. 

Do your research on the company

In general, you should aim to spend the same amount of time preparing for an interview as you would putting together your initial application. All in all, that’s probably about an evening’s work. You’ll want to reread your initial application, the job description, and try to come with some more examples of how you’d fit the description – as well as proactively try to identify any weaknesses.

It also pays to do some research into the company itself too – take a look at their social media accounts, the news section of the company website, and a couple of industry publications. This will all help to give you a broader sense of the big issues for the company – and it’s always easy for interviewers to spot who has (and hasn’t) done their research.

Get into the right mental space

At the same time, it’s important to pair your research and prep with the right mental attitude. “Remember, what you’re really trying to do is help an interviewer visualise you doing the job,” says John Lees, a career coach and author of Knockout Interview. “You don’t have to totally defeat your nerves to achieve this, just distract them temporarily while you reveal your employable self.”

“Being prepared turns fear into focus. The usual interview advice is ‘just to be yourself’. Keeping things conversational does help, but what you really have to do in an interview is put in a performance. No need to fake it, but a performance that reveals the best version of you – you on a good day. Prepare to be a slightly more outgoing, positive, more energised version of your everyday self.”

Questions to ask in an interview

However, even with all the research in the world and a great mental attitude, it’s still impossible to know exactly what you’ll be asked at a job interview. However, the process is probably more predictable than you think. 

Most interviews questions can be predicted

John recommends taking a long look at the job description, reaching out to people who know the organisation “and you will see that at least eight out of 10 questions are easily predictable.” For example, if a job is looking for someone with good communication skills, it’s highly likely they’re going to ask for an example of a time you’ve shown them.

Crucially, you should always make sure to prepare for the questions you don’t want to answer. “Think what you’d least like to be asked, and prepare an answer to it,” says career coach Joanne Mallon. “This will help you approach the interview with more confidence, even if the question you dread never comes up.

In general, though, you should always make sure to prepare answers to questions such as:

  • Where would you see the role taking you, or what you’d like to achieve in future?
  • Tell us more about yourself?
  • Why do you want this job?
  • Tell us about a time you’ve faced a challenge in your work, and how you overcame it?
  • What do you think are the biggest issues facing this sector at the moment?
  • What would you bring to the role others wouldn’t?
  • Why are you leaving your current job?

It’s especially important to prepare for some of the most open-ended questions, says John, even though they might seem like some of the most simple. These questions are often “deliberately broad to see what you come up with”. “These are moments for a lifeboat statement,” he explains. “In other words, a short, well-prepared phrase capable of getting you out of choppy waters. Package answers in short, snappy lines.”

What questions should you ask in an interview?

If there’s one question that’s guaranteed to come up at an interview – it’s where an interviewer throws the question back to you. “Always have one or two questions prepared that you’d like to ask the interviewer,” says Joanne. Not only is this your chance to find out more about the company, but it’s a chance to show a genuine interest in the role, and is probably the last thing the interviewer will remember.

While it might be tempting to use this time to talk about transactional questions such as salary, holidays, or other benefits, you’re likely to make a more positive impression by asking further details about the intricacies of the role.

Focus on questions about the future

“You could ask about future career prospects – where did the last person who did the job move onto? Or you could ask what a typical day in the job would look like,” suggests Joanne.

“Ask about the future of the job, how it’s going to grow and change, and how quickly you will be able to get into your stride,” agrees John. “Ask about important organisational decisions in the pipeline which will affect your job – revealing your extensive homework as well as your strong interest in the role.”

You might also want to consider bringing an idea to the table, if you haven’t been asked to share any during the course of an interview. Take care not to suggest something that’s been done already, but if you’re able to suggest a good, relevant idea to the company it can really help you stand out.

Tips for video interviews

Finally, it’s worth thinking about how your interview will take place. While previously, the majority of interviews will have taken place at employers’ offices, the coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we work. Previously, just five percent of people worked from home in the UK. Now, the number is more than a third. It’s increasingly likely that in 2021 and beyond, you’ll be having your job interview by video call.

While all of the above pointers still stand, there are a couple of extra things you’ll want to think about if you’re dialing in rather than dropping in.

Prepare your tech in advance

Perhaps most importantly, you’ll want to prepare your tech set up in advance. “Install all the necessary programmes and software in good time,” says Karen Young, a director at Hays, “and [make sure] that you also know what to do if it goes wrong. Test your connection and video software plenty of times beforehand by making some practice calls to check sound and picture quality.”

On a more basic level, you’ll also want to find a good place to take the interview. Ideally, you want to be in a private room where you can shut the door. Distractions and noises aren’t just an issue for you – it’s also hard work for an interviewer if there are people walking behind you all the time. Tell the rest of the people in your house that you’ve got an interview to minimise chances of disruption, and if you’re unable to find a totally private space, some video programmes will allow you to blur your background. Headphones with an inbuilt microphone can also help to focus the audio.

Get comfortable over video

Technology hiccups aside, our biggest piece of job interview advice is to try and be as comfortable as you can with the format. “It’s important that you’re comfortable looking into a camera and speaking into a microphone,” says Karen. If it’s not something you’ve done before, it’s worth having a couple of practice runs with friends or family.

“Avoid the temptation of looking at your own image on the screen, and instead look into the camera to make eye contact with the interviewers. Don’t forget to smile too – it goes a long way to building rapport,” adds Karen. 

Ultimately though, whatever the medium of your interview, remember that employers aren’t there to trip you up or embarrass you. An interview is primarily a chance to get to know you, hear more about your skills and experiences, and give you the chance to ask questions. While meeting new people can be nerve wracking, with the right preparation and mindset, the experience becomes much less daunting. 

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