The Most Common Job Interview Questions (and How to Answer Them)

By Lauren McGoodwin

Before I launched my own career site for women, I was a recruiter and spent the majority of my day interviewing candidates. From interns to managers and from phone screens to in-person interviews, I’ve pretty much seen (and heard) it all. Here’s what I know: the root of every poor interview is a lack of preparation — especially when it comes to responding to the interviewer’s questions. Winging it? Big mistake. Your answers are what really give the interview insight into what it would be like to work with you and whether you’ll bring value to the organization.

To help you ace your next interview, here are 10 of the most common questions I’ve used and encountered. There’s a good chance you’ll get asked at least one them in your next phone or in-person interview. I’ve also got two additional treats at the end of this post: more answers to common interview questions and a free interview prep checklist download.


“How did you hear about the position?”

There are two types of interview questions: 1) the questions that tell your interviewer a bit more about you and 2) those that prove to your interviewer that you’re interested in the company (and how much time and effort you’ve put into researching the role). “How did you hear about this position?” is one of the latter.

Obviously, the answer isn’t “Oh, I actually can’t remember.” But “On Career Contessa’s job board” isn’t ideal, either. Try to answer in a way that proves you were looking with intention. You found the job because it was exactly what you were after. Try something like this: “I knew that I wanted to shift from working at a big agency with lots of brands to working for just one company because I find growing with a brand much more fulfilling than bouncing around. I started looking at companies I admired to see what positions they had available, and your company was on that list. Ultimately, I found this position on your jobs page and felt like it would be a great fit.”

*photos by Joe Kathrina for Career Contessa

“Why do you want this job?”

The key here is to answer in a way that touches on the industry and company but also the specific position. What about it most appeals to you? Why did you feel it was unique? More than anything, it’s important for you to clearly address how your experience and skills could contribute to growing the company (whether that’s by improving numbers, organizing and managing more successful teams, upping profit margins…whatever fits).

*photo by Diana Zapata for Career Contessa

“Why should we hire you?”

If you struggle with this question, it’s not a good sign. What makes you unique? What value would you bring to the company that they just can’t do without? You should know this already, but if not, do some soul-searching before agreeing to any interviews.

*photos by Joe Kathrina for Career Contessa

“What’s your dream job?”

This is a bit of a trick question, but it’s great for revealing more than a candidate realizes. We actually used it in recent interviews at CC when hiring a social media coordinator.

Real talk: especially if you’re just starting out, the job you’re applying for may not be your dream (and even if it could be, how can you know before you’ve started it?). Still, it’s essential to prove that if you landed this job, you’re in it for the long haul.

If you’re applying to work at a tech startup as a project manager, and you answer “I want to be a holistic nutritionist,” that doesn’t give the interviewer much confidence about your commitment. A better answer is to explain your dream career (whatever it is), then relate it back to how you believe this company and position would help you advance along on that path—and how you could use those advances in a way that helps the company as much as you.

*photo from Cup of Jo

“Tell us about one time you managed a project or demonstrated your leadership skills.”

Perhaps counterintuitively, this question is the perfect opportunity to highlight your ability to work in teams. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg suggests that the more often you use the term “we,” the better received you are by your interviewer. “I accomplished this” and “I accomplished that,” especially coming from women candidates, is often seen as self-abosrbed or power-hungry. It’s an unfortunate double standard (men don’t receive the same feedback), but as Sandberg points out, for now, it holds true. So use this question to talk about how you organized your team, but also how you ensured that every voice was heard—and how ultimately that mean that “we succeeded.”

*photos by Stephanie Yang for Career Contessa

“What’s this gap in your employment? [Or: There’s nothing on your resume between [x] and [x]. What did you do during that time?]”

Spin, spin, spin. If you took a year off to travel, explain to them that during that time you did some serious soul-searching and came back with an exact idea of the direct you wanted to go. If you lost your job and it took some time to find a new one, be transparent. Explain what happened but also what you learned from losing your job, and how you’ve improved yourself during the resulting job search. If you went full-time freelance for awhile, explain that time away from a traditional office was a great way to learn that, while you’re capable of working independently, you prefer a team environment. Oh, and regardless of the reason for the gap, be sure to highlight any skills you added to your arsenal while on hiatus.

*photo by Cameron Reynolds for Career Contessa

“What would you do in the first three months of this job? [Or: What would be one thing you’d change about the way we work/our company if you were hired?]”

It doesn’t hurt to say something like “I’d spend the first part of my tenure learning from my team and understanding thoroughly how the current workflow functions before making any changes.” Because “slash and burn” is not a good answer.

Again, this is another chance to prove how much you researched the position and company. It’s also OK to call out some things you think aren’t going quite as well as they could be. Just make sure to make these statements carefully, with lots of reference to results you’ve seen in past positions and how you’d work with the team to not step on toes while implementing those changes.

*photo by Diana Zapata for Career Contessa

“What are your salary requirements?”

We’ve covered how to answer this question in detail here, but I’ll also point out another key element: do not lie or avoid the question. In a recent panel we threw, one of Nasty Gal’s recruitment team pointed out that they can’t work with you if they don’t know what you need. Better to be forthcoming and give them a range (we suggest a $5000 range), than not. You’ll certainly have a chance to further this discussion later if you make it to a job offer.

*photo by Kit Warhol for Career Contessa

“Who are our competitors? What companies do you think would make good partners for us on future projects? Who are some clients you think would be perfect for us to target?” (And all other variations)

This is another one of those “How well do you know us?” questions. Prove that you understand the mission of the company by listing other brands or clients that share similar values. If you’re talking about brands to partner with, think in terms of similar audiences too to demonstrate your understanding of the company. And when it comes to competitors, just know them, period.

*photos by Joe Kathrina for Career Contessa

“Do you have any other questions for us?”

Such an obvious one, right? Because the answer should never be “Nope.” Try preparing 3-5 questions in advance of your interview, but also make note of a couple things your interviewer mentions during the conversation. Aim for at least two questions to end your interview. Here’s a bonus tip: if you’re familiar with our site, you know we’re huge advocates for candidates writing thank you notes. In that thank you, throw in another question phrased like this: “Since our interview yesterday, I have had the opportunity to think more about our discussion on [x] and wanted to ask a follow up question/wanted to clarify my response.” Trust us, that’s candidate gold.

Alright. Now that you’ve got a head start on answering the big 10, here’s a link to our downloadable job interview checklist.

Want a few more questions to add to your arsenal? One of our Career Contessa interns, Abby Roskind, also wrote her own round of 10 common interview questions, which you can read right here.

*photo by Diana Zapata for Career Contessa