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Formulating Answers to Interview Questions

Introduction

Every interview you have is going to be a little bit different, but there are some questions you are likely to hear over and over again. Having answers ready well ahead of time will let you focus on technical review or parts of the interview that are likely to be more specific to that role. In this lesson, we’re going to learn about some of these questions and how to answer them strategically.

Understanding the Purpose of an Interview Question

Frequent interview questions tend to be used widely for a reason. They’re usually either geared towards learning about you as a candidate, or the interviewer is assessing a skill that is important in many roles. One of the most effective strategies for tackling these is to take a step back and make sure you’re answering the question they’re really asking.

Let’s look at a couple of examples so you can see what we mean by this. You will likely be asked both of these questions in your mock interview, so you’ll get the opportunity to practice the answers you come up with!

“Tell me about yourself.”

You’ll hear this one in nearly every interview, and in both the Non-technical Interview and Telling Your Story lessons, we talked about how to answer that question, but let’s take a closer look at it.

This question is one that often trips people up because it sounds like the kind of question you might ask someone you’re trying to make friends with. The impulse might be there to answer accordingly, and before you know it, you’re telling them about your hobbies and your family and where you grew up.

The purpose of an interview is to judge whether you’re a good fit for a role the company is hiring for, and it’s a safe assumption that any question an interviewer asks is tied to that purpose. Knowing about your personal life and special interests isn’t going to help them make that assessment unless you’re interviewing for a role directly related to those things, so what they’re really asking is more along the lines of, “Tell me about yourself as a developer” or “Tell me about the path that led you to being in this room or on this video call with me”.

With that in mind, you can rework your response to follow the steps in the Telling Your Story lesson so you can answer the question they’re really asking.

“Tell me about a time you failed at something.”

This second example is another one that stumps a lot of job seekers. It sounds pretty scary, right? It sounds like what they’re asking is a really daunting prospect. After all, who is going to feel good about dedicating time in a job interview to how bad they are at tasks?

Let’s take a step back once again and figure out what the interviewer is actually trying to learn about you. Remember in the last example we explained that all their questions are intended to assess your fit as a candidate, so it doesn’t make much sense that they’d be asking you to share a sensitive secret or make a case against hiring you. Now, from the last example, once we knew they weren’t just trying to make friends, it was pretty easy to guess what the real question was, but this one might be a little bit tougher, so we’re going to try a different approach and work backwards.

“Tell me about a time you…” questions are usually a part of what is called behavioral interviewing. Behavioral interviewing is the strategy of asking candidates about previous behavior to predict future behavior. It’s typically used to assess soft skills and is always intended to be answered in the STAR format you learned about in the Non-technical Interview lesson. So, now we know the interviewer is looking for:

  • Situation
  • Task
  • Action
  • Result

We know the “result” portion of this answer format is what the outcome was or what we learned, and from there we can pretty easily guess that the failure isn’t the important part. They want to know what you did with that failure, or how you responded to it.

For the purpose of this example, let’s say the failure you were going to describe is that you missed a major work deadline in your first job, which answers the question it sounds like they’re asking. That answer might be something like this.

“In my first job, I took on a project I hadn’t done before because it was a good opportunity to grow in my role and I was excited to learn the technology. Unfortunately, it took longer than I expected to learn how to use that technology, and the project was much bigger than I had realized. This meant that I ended up missing the deadline. Everything got worked out, so it didn’t cause a huge problem for the company, but it felt pretty bad at the time.”

That’s not a very compelling answer if we want this interviewer to hire us. Let’s use that to answer in STAR format so we can answer the question they’re really asking.

Situation: “I was excited about my first job. The company culture really encouraged employees to stretch their legs and take on projects they were interested in, which was great because I wanted to learn absolutely everything I could while I was there.”

Task: “An opportunity came up for a project involving some technology I wasn’t very familiar with, but wanted to be. Since it was a chance to grow a skill set I knew would be valuable to both me and the company, I immediately volunteered.”

Action: “My boss was very encouraging and took the time to walk me through the basics of the program I was using. At first, everything seemed to be going well. It wasn’t going as smoothly as some of the other skills I had picked up, but I was learning. Unfortunately, because I’d never done this project before, I didn’t have a great sense for how far behind I actually was until the deadline was right on top of me. Needless to say, I missed it.

Result: “I felt pretty bad about it at the time, but I learned a lot, and it helped me make sure this would never happen again. I did some troubleshooting and discovered a couple of places where things had gone wrong. The first was that I was really optimistic about my ability to tackle this project independently and the second was that I hadn’t had a completely clear picture about the scope of the project. Since then, I’ve been in the practice of asking a lot of clarifying questions before I commit to new things so I can be sure of my ability to follow through. I’ve also been more proactive about seeking out support and mentorship when I need it instead of waiting for the situation to become an emergency.

As you can see, even though we’re talking about exactly the same scenario, we’ve turned this into a positive story where we have shown that we’re aware and honest about our failures. More importantly, we’ve demonstrated that we’re resilient and determined enough to use our failures as a jumping off point to learn and do better. Those are qualities most employers are actively looking for in an employee, so even though we’re talking about something that went wrong and was probably our fault, we’ve now made a great case for hiring us anyway.

These two questions aren’t isolated examples, though. You can apply this strategy to just about any question in an interview to make sure you’re providing effective answers. If you’re having trouble figuring out what a question is actually trying to assess, searching for articles about how to answer a given question, particularly explanations from recruiters or other authors with relevant experience, can be a great way to learn.

Formulating Answers to Interview Questions

The two questions in this lesson’s previous section aren’t isolated examples, though. You can apply this strategy to just about any question in an interview to make sure you’re providing effective answers. If you’re having trouble figuring out what a question is actually trying to assess, searching for articles about how to answer a given question, particularly explanations from recruiters or other authors with relevant experience, can be a great way to learn.

Unlike the examples we shared, some of these questions are exactly what they sound like, but it’s still a good idea to be strategic in how you respond. This way, you can make sure that you are leaving the interviewer with exactly the impression you meant to.

We can’t provide an exhaustive list, but here are some questions you’re likely to encounter.

  • How did you hear about this position?
  • Why do you want to work for this company?
  • What salary range are you looking for?
  • What kind of culture are you looking for in a company?
  • Do you prefer to work alone or in a team?
  • In a job, what interests you most/least?
  • Describe your best/worst boss
  • What accomplishment are you most proud of?
  • How do you define success?
  • Where do you see yourself in five years?
  • When you’re balancing multiple projects, how do you keep yourself organized?
  • Describe a time when you stepped out of your comfort zone.
  • What have you done over the past year for professional development?
  • How do you stay on top of current knowledge in your field?
  • How do you see yourself fitting into this company?

Most of these questions sound pretty straightforward, but it’s a little bit more complicated than that. For instance, when a company asks about your work preferences, it sounds like it’s just an opinion question, but your answer is going to tell them two important things. One is whether or not your preferences line up with their work structure. The other is whether you did your research beforehand. If they put a lot of stock in teamwork and collaboration, you saying you prefer to work alone is going to be a red flag for them. If you’ve researched the company ahead of time, you will likely know that and be able to provide additional information about how you’re open to changing that or why you feel this wouldn’t negatively impact their work culture.

To effectively answer these questions, your best bet is not just to consider what the answer is and how to say it nicely. You also need to take note of what you’re telling them about yourself in the process. Make sure it lines up with the message you want them to receive.