The Most Common Interview Questions—and What to Ask Instead
September 18, 2018
Lists of the most common interview questions—10, 20, 50, even 150 questions—are all over the Internet. Many of these lists are intended for conscientious job-seekers who want to ace their interviews. Unfortunately, that also means that answers to these questions are endlessly rehearsed by candidates.
On top of that, answers to many of these questions don’t give you, the interviewer, the insight you need to make a good hiring decision. That’s why we’ve put together a list of the eight most commonly asked interview questions and what you might ask instead to really get to know a candidate.
1. “What is your biggest weakness?”
Though there are many contenders, this is by general agreement the worst interview question out there. For starters, it encourages candidates to lie. No one will answer it honestly—nor should they.
Ellen Jovin, a principal at Syntaxis, hates this question. “Their biggest weakness may well be really embarrassing,” she says. “Maybe they eat with their toes or compulsively steal beef jerky from gas station convenience stores or have 53 cats.”
What you should ask instead: What skill do you feel like you’re still missing?
Chad MacRae, founder of Recruiting Social, suggests asking this question. You want to find someone who embraces continuous learning, who is innately curious, and who is self-aware enough to understand that there are still valuable things she doesn’t know how to do. You probably want to avoid a Master of the Universe who merely needs to learn to be less of a perfectionist.
2. “Tell me a little about yourself.”
This harmless-sounding request is the No. 1 way to kick off interviews. The question, however, is so open-ended that a candidate may have no idea where to start. And given that a job-seeker has shared a resume, LinkedIn profile, cover letter, and possibly work samples, the request shows a lack of interest or preparation from the interviewer.
What you should ask instead: Which values of your current or previous employer most align with your own values?
This is a much better way to find out more about the person you are speaking with. Look for candidates who are excited about their values and love to go deep on them. Watch out for people who struggle to identify their own values let alone those of their company.
3. “Why should I hire you?”
This question is both thoughtless and unfair. No candidate can possibly know who else you’re talking to and what their experience and qualifications are. Ask this question and there’s a danger your candidate may start to think, “Why should I work for you?”
What you should ask instead: Tell me something about your experience, education, or personality that can help us.
This gives candidates a non-hypothetical question that allows them to show their understanding of what your role is and to demonstrate their relevant background or experience.
4. “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
In most cases, the question is completely off-topic. It is also somewhat pointless given how few people stay with a company for five years.
What you should ask instead: What business would you love to start?
This alternative comes from speaker and Inc. magazine contributing editor Jeff Haden. “The business a candidate would love to start tells you about her hopes and dream,” Haden says, “her interests and passions, the work she likes to do, the people she likes to work with. So just sit back and listen.”
5. “What would your last boss say about you?”
For starters, this asks the candidate to speculate needlessly. The hiring manager should find this out when she does reference checks. This line of questioning also seems to rise from a belief that bosses always have superior knowledge. In truth, a candidate’s previous manager may have been given the axe for incompetence, misconduct, or asking lame questions.
What you should ask instead: What was the best working relationship you’ve had with a manager and why did it work so well?
A thoughtful answer to this question could reveal a lot about a candidate’s values and what kind of company culture she would thrive in. And, if you were to hire the candidate, it would give you a leg up on successfully managing her.
6. “What would you bring to our department?”
This open-ended beauty seems like a call for a lot of boastful chest-thumping. It penalizes both the modest and the introverted.
What you should ask instead: What was the biggest achievement you had at your last job and what was your role in it?
Now you can see what your candidates value and how willing they are to share credit. Listen to hear if they mention how their accomplishment helped the company—or is it all about them?
7. “What is your desired salary?”
This one reveals some misunderstanding about the roles in the hiring process. The company should set the salary, making it commensurate with what other people at the company are getting paid for similar responsibilities. Not doing that is one of the things that leads to pay gaps between men and women, between whites and people of color.
What you should ask instead: This job pays between X and Y. Will that work for you?
This approach indicates that your company has compensation standards and is trying to apply them fairly. If the range proves too low, you’ve surfaced that fact before a job offer has been made.
8. "How many ping-pong balls can you fit in a 747?"
Okay, this exact question isn’t one of the most frequently asked, but brainteaser questions became a stock-in-trade, particularly in the tech sector, after Microsoft and Google became famous for using them. But candidates hated them, the answers became readily available (22,870,000 ping-pong balls, if you must know), and the curveball questions were even less helpful than traditional ones.
What you should ask instead: Tell me about a big challenge you’ve faced at an earlier job, how you approached solving it, and what your results were.
This will give you an example that typically looks more like the problems and approaches you use at your company. It may show where your candidate had to use some soft skills—say, leadership, collaboration, adaptability, or time management.
Final thoughts: A chance to reinvent the interview
Though most companies (74%) still use structured interviews, they are intent on finding ways to better surface soft skills and weaknesses in the hiring process as they also look to reduce interviewer bias. LinkedIn’s Global Recruiting Trends 2018 says the embrace of new interviewing tools—online assessments of soft skills, job auditions, and meetings in casual settings—is one of the trends driving today’s talent acquisition.
Let’s add to that list the swapping out of overworked, underperforming interview questions with fresh ones that will give you the insights you need to hire the best candidates and build a better candidate experience.
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