No matter what you read elsewhere, I believe that there are only fifteen interview questions you need to worry about. Sure, there are hundreds of interview questions you might be asked, but every interview question out there is just a variation on one of fifteen themes.
When reed.co.uk surveyed thousands of interviewers and asked which question they're most likely to ask at interview, the same few themes kept emerging. Out of the hundreds of questions we received, we found that just fifteen were truly unique.
I call these the 'Fateful 15', because each one of these questions has the potential to change the direction of your life, for better or worse. If you get good at these key questions, then all the other questions will take care of themselves. Here are the first five:
1. Tell me about yourself
• The real question: Who do you think you are? And will you know what to leave in and what to leave out?
• How to approach it: Break it down. Rehearse it. Breeze it.
This question is worth spending a lot of time on, as no other can pull the rug from under you so fast.
As with all open-ended questions, there's no obvious answer to Tell me about yourself. This means that it's all on you to choose what to say and when to stop saying it. For this reason, this question is a very reliable measure of a candidate's self-confidence and their degree of preparation.
So, how not to get caught out? The key is in the preparation.
Tell me about yourself is a rehearser, for sure. Come up with your own structure, practice it and - crucially - impose it during the interview, as if it's the most natural thing in the world.
2. Why are you applying?
• The real question: What can you do that we need you to do? Do you know what we need you to do?
• How to approach it: Try to reflect the job spec in every line of your answer. Talk about their needs before you mention your own.
The good thing about this question is that it lets you give the interviewer any number of reasons why you're right for the job. As such, you should welcome it - but many candidates don't. That's because the question is also wide-open and anyone who makes up an answer on the spot is likely to get lost.
Happily, this seemingly daunting question happens to have a straightforward answer. The only thing the interviewer really wants to hear is this:
I'm applying because my skills, experience and motivation are the best fit for the job.
...and if the art of winning a job can be expressed in a single sentence, it would be that one.
The key is to reflect upon what you really want from your job and what it is you have to offer - if you do this you'll be able to improvise your way through this question and almost any other.
3. What are your greatest strengths?
• The real question: Do you really know yourself - and do you know what our 'problem' is here? (Remember, a job to an employer is a problem they need to fix.)
• How to approach it: Answer with the job description uppermost in mind. Go easy on the adjectives and heavy on hard data.
This isn't the moment to wheel out the dusty old list of personal strengths that many of us carry in our heads. This list is usually a mixture of facts and wishes that for most of us, has hardly changed over time.
What's really needed here is a much newer list of strengths - one where you've thought hard about this particular job's key requirements and mapped them against your best achievements to date. That list is the only one that's going to win them over.
4. What are your greatest weaknesses?
• The real question: Am I right in thinking X about you? (And are you going to give me the same old evasive answer that everybody else did, or are you going to level with me?)
• How to approach it: If you've been invited to an interview, chances are that the interviewer is seeking affirmation of predicted weaknesses, not information about new ones.
There's no quicker way to break the rapport between you and your interviewer than to give a clichéd answer to this question, or to pretend, as many do, that your weaknesses are trivial and irrelevant.
Many people dodge this question in interview; it's very frustrating for interviewers when it happens. Some interviewers will show their frustration, some won't, but all will feel it.
So when your interviewer asks what you think your weaknesses are, it's best to level with them.
5. What will your skills and ideas bring to this company?
• The real question: What will we get from you?
• How to approach it: You can appear generous or miserly - and no-one wants a miser.
In answering this question, you may well feel that you're running the risk that the interviewer will steal your ideas without hiring you.
It happens. Some companies, many of them large enough to know better, do indeed pick up ideas for free wherever they can get them, including circumstances in which the originator might expect to be paid. There are many words to describe this practice, including 'despicable' and 'cheap'.
However, in this situation, it's a danger that's difficult to avoid. To have an idea is to risk losing it to the crowd, and there's little anyone can do about it.
Above all, it stands to reason that someone with an idea worth stealing is, on the face of it, someone worth employing. So, when they ask this question, take the plunge and show them what you're made of.
The key to mastering each of these 'Fateful 15' questions is preparation - as the saying goes: "Fail to prepare, prepare to fail." While there's no way that you can prepare for every possible question that might come up at interview, you can go a long way - though not all the way - by preparing an answer to these fifteen questions alone.
I'll be sharing the best way to approach five more classic interview questions in my next post, The Fateful 15 Pt.2. You can find more advice on how to answer these questions and many others in my best-selling book Why You? 101 Interview Questions You'll Never Fear Again.