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Common Job Interview Questions and How to Answer Them with the Confidence of a Mediocre White Dude

Ah, the ubiquitous job interview. A necessary if painful step toward acquiring a job—any job! Just as nobody actually loves Rod Stewart as a musician or liver and onions as an entrée, nobody actually loves interviewing for jobs. Literally nobody.

And yet being good at job interviews is an invaluable skill. Especially if you’d like to become employed at some point in your life. And barring any hyper-intelligent dolphins or useless heirs to a corporate empire reading this article, that’s all of you.

We’ve already talked about what to do when you get asked about your salary during a job interview (a question that is as unethical as it is manipulative). But how about some of those other common, annoying interview questions? The ones you can count on getting, and that you dread like a combination root canal and pap smear?

I scoured the Internet for literally dozens of minutes to find brilliant answers to some of those awful job interview questions. And what I found filled me with hope!

I’m going to break down some of the most annoying and tricky job interview questions and how to answer them with at least the confidence and poise of the mediocre white man more likely to be hired than you.

“Can you tell me a little about yourself?”

The dreaded open-ended opener. Lots of interviews start off with this kind of vague prompt.

You’re probably thinking you know how to answer this and you’re ready to skip to the harder questions—but I guarantee you’ll regret it. It’s important for several reasons.

  • It’s often the first question you’re asked. So it’s your chance to make a first impression.
  • In many ways, this answer is like a miniature test. It’s an opportunity to impart some of your personality and let your communication style shine.
  • It’s a softball question. If you wander confusedly through such an easy question, how much confidence can you inspire in your interviewer?
  • It’s open-ended. If the interview is a duel to the death, your enemy is graciously inviting you to choose your ground. Don’t waste this chance to face your opponent east, toward the coming dawn!

Kitty and I are notoriously horrible at answering this question when meeting industry folks. “So what is Bitches Get Riches? Tell me about what you do!”

Our answer is usually to (1) glance at one another, hoping the other person will leap in with a miraculously perfect elevator pitch that appears out of nowhere like Lemonade. When that doesn’t work we (2) concede to a quick telepathic game of rock-paper-scissors to see who has to (3) stumble through a bad explanation-cum-deflection. Unless (4) one of our guardian angels is there to interrupt our incoherent response to give a much better one.¹²³

Don’t be like us on the internet! Be like us in real life, where we have savagely precise answers!

The right answer

Before you go in to the interview, you should have a map in your mind of where you want to go, and where you don’t want to go. You must go into the interview believing you have some skill, or past experience, or unique attitude that makes you ideal for this role. That’s your Ithaca, you must try to get there at all costs! You should also have an idea of why your interviewer may have misgivings. Craft your initial response to steer the conversation away from whatever your Scylla and Charybdis are.

Above all, keep the answer targeted, natural, and short. Give them neither your life story nor an obviously rehearsed and robotic statement devoid of your personality. And for god’s sake, don’t answer like a contestant on a dating show. They don’t need to know your age, your marital status, or that you’re the joyful parent of four pomapoos. Keep it strictly profesh. There’s a time and place for personal chit-chat, and it ain’t your opener.

A good general format to follow is…

I’m (name.) I’m currently a (job title) over at (old company). My main expertise is in (whatever). In my current role, I’ve been helping the company (meet this goal). I’m passionate about (industry topics). I’m interested in finding a role that allows me to (do something that conveniently aligns with the job in question). Which is why I’m very curious to hear more about what you’re looking for at (new company).

If Kitty and I used that format at events, it would sound like…

I’m Piggy, and I’m the cocreator of Bitches Get Riches. In my day job I’m a recognized industry expert in the field of book publishing. As one of the Head Bitches in Charge™ at BGR, I’ve been leading all aspects of crafting our content and voice. I spent too many years of my life in the dark about how finances work. Now I’m proud to run a site that helps people realize they too can become “good with money” and take that expertise back into their communities. I want to create more confident money experts among historically underserved demographics, and I want to be funny and charming while I do it, because life is too short to be bored and scared and confused. That’s why I’m here tonight—how about you?

Hey! That’s a hell of an improvement over my standard answer of sighing and giving please-take-this eyes at Kitty while she’s doing the exact same thing to me!

“Where do you see yourself in five years?”

Dear readers, I’ll be honest: I bombed this question in my first ever interview for a job in the publishing industry. Just utterly, spectacularly crashed and burned.

Instead of giving a practiced, polished answer, I made a joke. Not even a funny joke. Just an “I clearly didn’t prepare for this question so I’m going to say something ridiculous in the hopes you’ll find me humorous and charming” answer.

This was… not the right call.

The right answer

While I have long since achieved career success in the publishing industry, I do wish I’d had Rich and Marcus over at Paychecks & Balances to coach me on that answer back in the day. These paragons of millennial financial savvy preach that there is really only one right answer to this inane question: “growing with the company.”

As Marcus explains,

Specifically, I like to do a variation of a great quote a mentor told me once, “Use your 20s to learn, your 30s to apply, and your 40s to teach, mentor, and pay it forward.” I adjust the timeframes as needed, so in this instance, I might say something to the effect of the following:

“I’d use my first year to learn and master the expectations of the company. I would use years two through four to develop, grow, and hone my skills. Finally, I would hope I am in a position in the company to continue to develop myself and my peers, whether as a mentor or as a direct supervisor.”

I have found this is an acceptable response that demonstrates my plans for growth with the company. It also shows that I’ve thought about the future, and in that future, I plan to be a long-term candidate with the company.

Heckin’ exactly. Marcus’s response gets at the heart of the interviewer’s intent with this question: they want to know that if they hire you, you’re still going to be with them in five years.

And it really doesn’t matter if that actually turns out to be true!

“What is your greatest weakness?”

Conventional wisdom dictates that you turn this question around and answer it with a strength. This is sometimes known as “reframing” (we’ll come back to that).

“My greatest weakness is that I work too hard!” “I’m too organized!” “I care too much about my company’s reputation and profit margins, almost as if my life depended on it, and the brownies I bake every Friday are known to be so deliciously addictive past coworkers have developed type 2 diabetes!”

Back the fuck off, Sheryl, you’re leaning in too far.

The problem is, the advice to turn your weakness into a strength for the purposes of answering this question has become so common that your interviewer is expecting it. And if you give the expected, I’m-too-sexy-for-my-cubicle answer, it’s just going to sound disingenuous.

Your disingenuous answer might make them write you off as a candidate. Or the interviewer might keep asking the question in different ways (“What are you working to improve?” “If we call your last boss, what would they say you’ve struggled with?”) until they get a real fucking answer. Because they want the truth: they don’t want to give the job to someone who’s going to suck at its fundamental requirements.

The right answer

For this classic dumpster fire of an interview question, we turn to the sparkling singularity of career wisdom that is Ask A Manager. If she were an ice cream cone, I’d lick her. But she’s not, so instead I’ll just share her example for how to properly answer this question:

“When I first started in the work world, I found that I wasn’t as naturally organized as I wanted to be. Without a system to keep track of everything I was juggling, I had trouble keeping all the balls in the air. So now I make lists religiously and check them every morning and every afternoon to make sure that nothing is slipping through the cracks and all my priorities are correct. I’ll never give up my lists, because I know that without them, my natural state is a less organized one.”

It’s a classic two-parter: first you identify your weakness, then you explain how you’re working on it. In this way you’re both giving them an honest answer and giving them the information that you are a creative problem-solver blessed with the kind of self-awareness and proactive nature that would make any employer proud to have you.

Here’s some of our other advice on applying for jobs:

“Why is there a big gap in your resume?”

Resume gaps, like thigh gaps, are a fake problem.

People take a break from the workforce for any number of legitimate reasons. This is evidenced by the fact that we get asked about the problem of resume gaps all. the. tiiiiime.

Sometimes you get sick or injured and need to leave work for a while to recover your health (and yes, mental health absolutely counts). Or sometimes you become a parent and need to leave work to raise your adorable offspring. Sometimes you need to focus full-time on your education in order to advance your career. Or sometimes there’s a tragedy in your family and you need to leave work to take care of the people who rely on you. Sometimes you want to travel the world to learn and grow as a person. Sometimes you start a business!

And sometimes you just lose your job and you can’t find another one right away and it sucks.

The right answer

All of the above are legitimate explanations for a resume gap. But for how to answer the actual question, we turned to our sister-from-another-sister-because-this-is-a-matriarchy-and-it’s-sisters-all-the-way-down, Tori Dunlap of Her First $100K. Tori has this—and literally all the shitty interview questions—on lock thanks to The Interview Overview: The Ultimate Guide to Job Interviews, which you can buy on her site. She says,

If you get asked about gaps in your resume, focus on what you learned, not what went wrong. Reframe quitting a job as looking for a better-suited new opportunity, or talk about the lessons and growth you experienced if you were fired. If you took time off to raise kids or take care of family, you’re not legally required to tell them this—but if you feel comfortable, talk about what you learned, and how important your family is to you (and how that makes you a more emotionally intelligent, caring employee). Showcase why the gap was necessary and makes you a better, more well-rounded employee.

Reframing is one of the most important weapons you can add to your job search arsenal. It’s a way to take control of your own narrative and guide your audience to the information you want them to know.

They may see a resume gap at first, but by reframing, you can gently lead them to admire you for your nine-month period of professional development during which you learned about cooperative problem-solving by living on a wombat sanctuary in Bali.

It’s worth noting that everyone I talked to in researching this article wanted to talk about the salary question. Without exception, they all found it to be the most dicey, most annoying, most difficult to answer, and most important.

It also happens to be illegal in several states.

Which begs the question: why do some employers still insist on asking job candidates for their “preferred salary,” or “salary requirements,” or even (worst of all), their “previous salary”?

The job interview is a fundamentally imbalanced power struggle. That’s just the nature of asking for things: you need the thing more than they need to give it to you in most cases. Which is why it’s important to learn the intent behind job interview questions and practice your answers. Gain yourself a little power in the job interview scenario!

What’s your least favorite interview question? And how the hell do you recommend answering it? Share with the whole class in a comment below!

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14 thoughts to “Common Job Interview Questions and How to Answer Them with the Confidence of a Mediocre White Dude”

  1. I just got a new job and negotiated a new salary, and have helped several friends negotiate salaries for new jobs in the last 2 months, and the thing I keep coming back to with them when they feel afraid to ask for more is: Your employer is not *giving* you a damn thing. They’re *buying* your time, talent, and skill from you, and they’re bargain shoppers. They want to get all that for as little as possible, but they’re probably willing to pay more than you think they are for it, so don’t undersell.

  2. I’m still trying to figure out how to word my resume gap that I took for health. I ended up in the hospital and had to quit my job as a teacher due to the kids making me too sick. So far I’m 6-months no work. I’m changing industries and have a gap so I’m trying to figure out exactly how to address it when it comes up during interviews. Especially since this is from chronic autoimmune disease so I have no assurance that my newfound health will last. This was hospital stay number #15 since 2012 so I have a history with this issue. I know that my former employers can’t tell the new ones about my health issues, but I worry they’ll talk around it to make sure that they know. Gosh. Job searching is nonsense. Any blessings or tricks for this lady to pull out of the bag?

    1. Big mood. I’ve been out of work for nearly a year (quit a toxic workplace, working through depression, job apps are soul-draining, etc). When the question comes up for me, I usually say “I’ve been off work for health reasons, but now I’m back and ready to take on [challenge of job]!” Covers my bases and they can’t legally ask for more info after that, but it still seems a bit of a pat answer though. Maybe add in what you ‘learned’ about yourself? Learning to expand your stamina (fighting depression), or learning what’s most important to you in a workplace (no sick kids)? For you, since you’re switching industries, don’t forget that sweet ~transferable experience~ you can re-word. Herding kids = management experience, parent-teacher conferences = working with colleagues on problem resolution, etc.

      As to talking to your previous jobs, I’d personally be surprised if a past job–even one that didn’t especially like me–basically bad-mouthed me to a prospective job? Def not saying it’s impossible, but it’s a blatantly shitty move I’d hope most people would have the self-respect to avoid.

  3. “Resume gaps, like thigh gaps, are a fake problem.”

    You need to warn me when you’re going to make me laugh like that.

    I’m loving the work-focused content on the blog and podcast, friends. I have always struggled writing things that, I don’t know, actually help people? So I’m continually impressed when people can do it while still being funny AF.

    Love the closing, too: the job interview is tilted so, so far in favor of the employer. Great to see it a little more even.

  4. So much good stuff here!

    I do want to share something I’ve been using as an answer to the dreaded 5-year question. I have NO ambitions toward management! I want to make money until I pay off my debt, then save up a nest egg and quit to pursue my vocation full time instead of on the side. But you can’t say that, obviously.

    So, I say something like, “oh man, this question! Classic. Look, I know everybody has a pat answer about promotions and moving up the ladder, but I am not looking to move up to management. I love being a [job title]. In five years, I want to still be a [job title], making awesome [things]. I want to have won more industry awards for my work. Maybe to have “Senior” added before [job title]. I don’t want to manage. It is not my forte. But I can rock [job title]. I already have won awards for my work – twice. And I’m interested in rocking [job title] here at [biz] because [reason].”

  5. The question I dread the most is the “who are yóu?” In the middle of the interview when you are already past the “tell me something about yourself” where you have told them a short history of yourself and your qualities like you described. What more is there to know? Purely personal? Another recap?

  6. Well… I am a mediocre old white dude due to accident of birth.

    This status has never helped me in my entire life time. Especially not now in this zinc-plated, #metoo world.

    best of luck

  7. WHAT – I LOOVE going on job interviews. (I can’t stand everything up to that point, though. Fuck resumes. So stupid. I need a bitches post on that).

    Love

    –most-definitely mediocre white dude

    1. PETE. You are literally the only person I’ve ever met who actually loves job interviews. I’m concerned for you. Please seek help.

      P.S. You are anything but mediocre. <3

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