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The Three Cardinal Interview Questions

Preparing for an upcoming job interview can be paralyzing and there is simply no way to prepare for every possible question, test or scenario; and that’s the idea, since interviewers want to see real time responses
A job seeker awaits an interview (Pexels)
A job seeker awaits an interview (Pexels)

Preparing for an upcoming job interview can be paralyzing. There is simply no way to prepare for every possible question, test or scenario; and that’s the idea, since the interviewer wants to see how you respond in real time, and not what you have rehearsed and prepared.

Even so, there are some interview questions you can and should prepare for, and they are the three questions that you will almost certainly be asked in any job interview, regardless of your professional field.

Question One: Tell me about yourself.   

This is almost always the first question you will be asked, and often it is the most open ended question as well. It’s a shame to waste this opportunity to make a lasting first impression by squandering it sharing information that your interviewer either already knows or can access independently.

Most people respond to this question by sharing a succinct (or not so succinct) overview of their personal and professional biography. Some even start with “my name is…”, moving on to where they hail from, what they studied in college, and where they have worked.

Any interviewer worth his salt will at least have glanced at your CV, and will hopefully have looked at your LinkedIn profile and other social media outlets. So don’t waste this opportunity telling them what they already know.

Instead, formulate a statement about yourself that begins, “I’m the kind of person who…”, and follow it up with an example. This kind of answer gets right to heart of what your interviewer wants to know, and what you want to communicate.

Let’s say you are applying for a job as a content writer for an NGO. Instead of saying, “Well, I got my degree in PR and Journalism from Yale, and I began working in content writing five years ago”, you might say something like, “I’m the kind of person who really enjoys the challenge of gathering and organizing information, and I love using my writing skills to make information accessible. For example, at my last job I had to prepare the annual report for our donors, which meant reading through information from all the departments and interviewing all the project managers, and then using all that information to present our year’s accomplishments in a clear, engaging and organized document. I loved the process, and the result was very well received – we retained existing donors and brought new ones on board thanks, in part, to that report.”

In the first response, you have at best given some relevant though dry information; at worst, you have wasted the interviewer’s time telling her things she already knew. In the second response, you have communicated your enthusiasm for the central tasks of the job, and proven your skill through a relevant example.

Question 2: What is your greatest weakness?

This question is almost always asked in some form, sometimes directly and sometimes in a more sophisticated form, such as “What areas would you would like to improve in your professional performance?” or “If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?”

Some people try to evade this question by presenting a strength as a weakness, such as saying they are a workaholic, or a perfectionist. Others try to be brutally honest and end up shooting themselves in the foot by presenting a weakness that is sure to raise a red flag.

So what to do? In this case, you need to honestly think about and define your weaknesses (most of us have more than one). Then, narrow them down to fixable weaknesses – ones that can be worked on. Then, choose a weakness that is not going to lose you this job, talk about it, using examples, and share how you have worked on improving in this area and the successes you have had.

For example, you might say, “When I was in college, my greatest weakness was time management – I used to study all night before the exam because I hadn’t organized my time well in advance, and I paid for it with lower grades. Around my senior year I realized that this was a challenge for me, and I did some work with a coach on time management, which made a real difference in my results. I’d say that today, I’m very aware of the issue, and although it doesn’t come as naturally to me as it does to some other people, I have acquired some great time management tools. In fact in my most recent job I lead a team in a time sensitive project, and we got everything in early, which really gave me a boost.”

Question Three: Do you have any questions for us?

This question usually comes at the end of the interview. The assumption is that you have responded to their questions all the way through, and now they are giving you the opportunity to ask questions of your own. If this indeed has been the pattern of your interview, you will probably have a hard time selecting your questions, since you haven’t asked anything yet, and you probably want to know a lot of things about the job.

So the first way to handle this question is to preempt it, by asking questions of your own throughout the interview. For example, after they have asked you about your weaknesses and you have responded, you might say “I’d be curious to hear what you consider the key strengths that are needed for this job.” At the end of each of your responses, ask a question of your own. This serves the dual purpose of making the interview more of a conversation and less of an interrogation, while giving you ample opportunity to ask things that you really want to know, before the end of the interview.

Most importantly, you can now use that last opportunity to your advantage. Use it to ask something that will encourage your interviewer to share something personal with you. This kind of sharing will generally have a positive impact on how the interviewer feels about you. If the first question creates a powerful first impression, the last question gives you the opportunity to leave a memorable impression after you have left. Some good options would be “What do you find most rewarding about working here?” or “Can you tell me something about the company culture?” or “What is the most challenging / interesting thing for you about working here?”

It’s close to impossible to prepare yourself for every interview question. And generally speaking, that’s a good thing, because an interview should not be a rehearsed event. However if you handle these three questions wisely, you can consider yourself ahead of the game.

About the Author
Gila Weinberg, CEO of Mikum Consulting, is a recruiter and a career coach. She helps organizations and companies find great employees, and helps great people figure out their next career move. Gila is also the author of Not So Grimm: Jewish Fairy Tales, a comparison between tales from the Talmud and classic fairy tales.
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