Interview Questions: What to Ask and What to Answer


Interview questions can be stressful for both the interviewer and the candidate. Here are the most common types of questions that are asked in a job interview. As an interviewer you’ll want to know what to ask and when, and as a candidate you’ll want to know how to answer:

Technical Interview Questions

“Write a program to determine whether one tree is a subtree of another.”

A part of any interview is to evaluate a candidate’s ability to do the job. To fill programming or systems positions, for example, companies need to evaluate the candidates’ coding and language expertise. Many companies will require candidates to provide a coding sample and explain it line by line. Some companies will give candidates a coding challenge to be analyzed and coded during the interview (although there has been considerable criticism of timed coding challenges for being artificial and not representative of actual coding environments).  For both candidates and interviewers there are good online resources (with answers!) for general coding questions and coding challenges.

Behavioral Interview Questions

“Tell me about a time when you were on a project that failed to meet a deadline.”

Behavioral interviews are considered to be one of the best evaluators of a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses because they reveal how a person actually acted in a certain situation. Interviewers should use them freely. If you as a candidate are asked a behavioral question, don’t respond with a general answer like “It’s important to let the project manager know about problems as soon as possible.” Your answer has to be personal and begin with “I” as in “I let the project manager know that without additional resources we would miss the deadline.” Here’s a link to some sample questions.

Informational Interview Questions

“Why do you think you are qualified for this job?”

Informational interview questions are good when the interviewer wants a specific answer to a specific question. As a candidate, take a moment to think, and give a short answer summarizing your points. Then ask, “Would you like me to expand on that?” and let the interviewer pursue any points of interest. Don’t drone on for 10 minutes.

Critical Thinking Interview Questions

“How many golf balls would fit inside of a 747?”

These questions used to be a favorite of the programmers and management consultant interviewers, but recent research from Google has discredited them. Some companies may still ask critical thinking questions to see how candidates work through ill-defined questions under stress. If you are asked a question like this (or my favorite ‘Would you rather be attacked by a horse-sized duck or 50 duck-sized horses?’), the wrong thing to do is try to silently ponder the problem. The interviewer wants to hear you think out loud. How would you approach the problem? What additional information would you need? What assumptions will you make? Try to relax and make sure to talk through the problem.

‘The Trap’ Interview Question

“What’s your biggest fault?”

Interviewers will ask questions like this to see how self-aware and honest a candidate is. If someone answers “I’m a perfectionist”, they are trying to substitute a possible asset for a fault. If you are asked this question or its companion ‘What is the one thing you’d change about yourself?’ you don’t want to be too honest, like “My biggest fault is that I’m an inherently lazy person”.  Find some minor fault that you are able to overcome and go with that.  Something like “I tend to be compulsive about what I’m working on, so I have to actively stop and ask myself if I have lost sight of the big picture.”

Good interviewers will mix up the styles (at least of the first three) and see how candidates respond to each.  50 Tough Interview Questions is a good list of questions of varying types for interviewers, along with guidelines for preparing answers for candidates.

About The Author

Doug KalishDoug Kalish is an educator, consultant and serial entrepreneur who has founded or been an early executive in four companies. In the summer of 2011, he began “dougsguides” to help college students make the transition from academia to the business world. He now devotes most of his time touring college campuses spreading the dougsguides message.

You can like dougsguides on Facebook, follow @dougsguides on Twitter and connect with Doug Kalish on LinkedIn.

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