Common interview questions and how to answer them

Learn what these questions are really asking of you and how to craft memorable responses

Standing out in a job interview takes more than sharing a bit about your education and experience. Interviewers often ask questions to learn how you work with others, how you tackle problems and to unearth subtle details about your potential fit for the role. Answering these questions requires not only a basic understanding of their intent, interview but also human psychology.

To help you prepare for your next job interview, our career development specialists Lawrence Chan and Matthew Geddes have outlined ways to answer common job interview questions tailored to undergraduate and graduate students. Keep reading for tips on responding in a way that puts your best foot forward.

A bird's eye view of an interview taking place at an office desk

How will you tackle these common interview questions?

1) Tell me about yourself

This is typically the first thing that's asked of you, and you want to set the tone by providing a strong introduction of who you are. Matthew and Lawrence both recommend providing a brief summary of what you’re currently doing (or just finished doing), past experiences, significant accomplishments, and even your personal interests and hobbies.

"To help you craft your response, think of three things that you want the interviewer to [remember] about you after your response," says Matthew.

Here’s a possible narrative structure you can use for a response:

  • Where you were born (don't provide any other detail)
  • What led you to decide to go to university/choose your program
  • Highlights of your program (special projects, involvement, awards)

Why you’re here (how did your experiences lead you to apply for this job?)

2) What do you think are your biggest strengths?

This is your chance to highlight why you are a good fit for the position. "I suggest you choose three relevant strengths rather than focusing on one or listing several — this provides an appropriate breadth while allowing you to give enough details to add depth to your response," explains Matthew.

In terms of your response, name the strength, describe what it looks like in practice and explain how this strength helps you to be successful. You may also wish to mention some accomplishments related to the strength briefly. Lawrence adds, "with this response, it's easy to explain your entire resume. Instead, only provide a few sentences for each strength you bring up."

3) Why are you interested in this job?

According to Lawrence, the interviewer wants to see how much you know about them, and you should start with the job posting. Have you properly researched the position and/or the company? What are the responsibilities? Which department(s)/individual(s) will you work with?

You might want to review their website to tell the interviewer why their company stands out to you. Are there any company projects, values or practices that you can relate to on a somewhat personal level? Matthew suggests connecting your interest in the position with your interests, skills and values. If it’s a survival job, avoid giving them that impression and find something that genuinely interests you in the company.

4) What do you think are your biggest weaknesses?

Employers ask these types of questions to assess your level of self-awareness and determine whether or not you possess a growth mindset. Matthew and Lawrence suggest talking about areas that you can improve. Is it your task organization? Public speaking or communication? Be sure to provide context as to why it's a weakness but explain how you’re trying to improve.

Don’t forget to keep it positive! Avoid discussing a weakness that encompasses an essential skill needed for the position and refrain from disguising a strength as a weakness, such as "I’m a perfectionist" or “I care too much”. The interviewer will see through this.

5) What are your salary expectations?

According to Matthew, employers ask this for a couple of reasons. This may help them eliminate candidates whose expectations exceed what they can offer. It also acts as a strategy for saving money in that they may match your stated salary even if it is below the typical starting salary.

This question requires thorough research before the interview. Lawrence and Matthew suggest searching for similar positions in other companies to see if you can find salary information to compare. You can use resources such as ALIS, Glassdoor, and the Government of Canada. Provide a range for your salary expectation and consider other factors such as commission, benefits, vacation time, stock options, profit sharing, etc. Some of these may be just as important to you and can possibly be negotiated.

6) What is your greatest accomplishment?

Lawrence suggests considering all the things you're involved with, such as work, volunteering,  or extracurricular activities, and seeing what stands out. What achievements are you most proud of? Did you complete a major project successfully? Did you receive formal recognition for your work? You can draw from numerous areas, as long as you explain why you're proud of this accomplishment and why it is meaningful.

"Be sure to mention both the external and internal challenges that you overcame in your story. As you tell your story, keep in mind what you want the interviewer to know about you to help you stay focused,” saysMatthew.

7) Where do you see yourself in [x] years?

"The intent of the question is to get a sense of whether you’re applying to this job because you’re interested in it or if you’re applying because you need a job and will likely leave at the first opportunity," explains Matthew.

Lawrence suggests trying to tie in your goals and plans that exemplify forward-thinking. A great way of answering this question is to describe a future role that requires growth but still fits in with a common career trajectory within the company you are interviewing with. "Don't be overly specific. If you plan to move on in a year or two, avoid stating this unless it’s more of a contract position," adds Matthew.

8) Do you have any questions for us?

"This question is more important than most realize!" says Matthew. Asking questions is another way to show interest and engagement in the position. Lawrence recommends reviewing the original job posting. Is there anything unclear or that you want to know more about? What will your training or onboarding look like? What about growth opportunities? What are the people on the team like? Your questions will help you understand the position and organization better to decide if it's the right opportunity and fit for you.