Hey all! I didn't intend to write another interviewing article, after I wrote the one about being under leveled a few weeks ago. However, due to the layoffs these last couple weeks, interviewing is on the mind of many readers and social media acquaintances. I had this article in draft mode for a while. When I've done interview training with people, they sometimes remind me of some bad answers I've gotten over the years.
If you're personally interviewing, follow this link to my collection of interviewing articles, where I cover technical interviews, behavioral interviews, more mistakes people have made, how to do a writing sample, and more.
In this article, I walk through common questions asked in interviews, and the answers which have a high likelihood of leading to rejection. It's not always about having the best answer. Sometimes it's about not having the worst answers.
I know that some people will read an answer and say, "Hey, that's totally wrong. I interview people and I love that answer." I understand. However, I've been through over a thousand interview debriefs, which translates into hearing the opinions of many thousands of interviewers. I list the below poor answers because I think the majority of those thousands of interviewers would not like those answers.
My goal here is to ensure that you, the reader, have the best shot of getting an offer from your next interview.
What was your most impactful / interesting project?
"I can't think of one."
"Hmm... I'm trying to think.. hmm."
"Well, I haven't done anything interesting, but.."
Seriously, I've gotten this repeatedly. I don't imagine it's often a sign that you haven't created an impact. It's more likely a sign that you didn't prepare enough for your interview.
I remember asking one candidate about the most fun project he'd worked on. It was an icebreaker at the beginning of the interview. An easy question to get him started. He said he couldn't think of one. I told him that there was no rush, just think through his work history and come up with something which he found fun. He thought for a while, "Nope. I really don't like working. It's not fun." I understand the general philosophical argument that we'd all rather be relaxing on a beach. However, as an interview answer, it's bad.
"This one time, I helped get our organization to donate $50 to the Red Cross."
"I created a pizza birthday celebration tradition."
For questions like this, it's not uncommon for people to mention charitable or social things they did at work. That's great. As a human, I'm glad you did good things.
However, here's the problem. This type of open-ended question ("What's your favorite / best / ...") is a huge opportunity for you. It allows you to mention the very best thing you've ever done. Most questions will be specific, so this is your one time to reach into your entire work history and pull out the shining example of why they should hire you.
I understand that you liked some social event, or charitable event you did. I totally understand. However, what you really want to do is get a job. And unless you have a reason to believe that they are hiring someone for a reason apart from job skills, I'd strongly suggest you explain a situation where you used your amazing and impressive job skills to accomplish something.
Great answer - "I had this great idea, blah blah, and then I saved $15 billion all by myself! I loved it!"
Use this question to explain that you're driven, super valuable, and love doing good things for your team.
Why do you have this gap in your work experience?
I hope this question isn't asked, but it's not unheard of for people to ask. I think not having a job is a pretty great thing, but unfortunately, people look at it suspiciously occasionally.
"I hated my boss and so I quit."
I don't care if it's true or fair. You should never insult anyone because they'll imagine you'll talk about them this way next time. I can't think of a single situation where you should ever insult or complain about a co-worker.
Your horrible boss will never know that you said you had a great relationship. Your useless peer will never know that you said you had a great team. You must be a positive person, and you liked everyone you worked with. "Of course there have been challenging situations, but my team was great!"
"I got burned out, and needed to meditate in the desert for 6-months."
Never admit to burnout. Fair or not, it suggests a fragility which could impact your ability to do your work. There's no advantage to explaining the situation as burnout. You can easily phrase it instead as wanting more time with your family, more time for personal projects, or time to relax and think about what you want to do next. All of those suggest positive reasons to take time off.
I had a candidate once explain that she loves taking multi-month leaves of absences as often as possible. In fact, in a few months, she might take a long leave because she has some extra money saved up. She explained this during an interview. When I didn't even ask about it. She volunteered the information. I don't understand how she imagined this was a good idea.
"I couldn't find a job."
"They fired me."
Again, there's no reason to say this type of thing. You're a powerful, valuable individual this company would be lucky to have working for them. That's the message you need to send.
Great answer - "I planned ahead, and took some time off to spend more time with my kids, and test out a startup idea I had. While the startup didn't pan out, I loved the time I spent with my kids!"
People usually love to hear about how you care about your family, and that you have an independent drive to do cool stuff for work. If you can work both into an answer, that's great.
Why do you want to work here?
"I applied everywhere."
"I don't necessarily care, I just need a job."
That translates to, "I don't care about this company or team and will leave as soon as something else comes up." People on a team want to be told that their team is awesome. Because they have pride in their team. Because they want to have their own presence on the team validated.
Your answer should suggest that there is something intrinsic about that company that makes you want to join. I remember a college hire explaining that he applied to 6 companies, and this was number 5 on his priority list. If the previous 4 didn't give him an offer, he'd take ours. Yeah, that's not exactly selling me.
"You pay the best."
Mercenary messaging. You are certainly happy to make money, but no one says, "I want to hire this person because they want to make a lot of money." If your answer doesn't convince people to hire you, it's a waste of breath. When necessary, you can explain that you want to be paid what you're worth, but your main focus is on improving your skills, being a great team member, and delivering results.
Great answer - "This is the company I want to work for more than any other company. In particular, this team! As you can see from my work history, I worked with satellites, and blah blah, and this team is doing exactly what I've dreamed about doing."
You want them to be convinced that you think they're awesome, and you would love to work with them. Passion is a strong sales tool.