Interview and Question Types


The interview is the most important element in the job search process. When an employer invites you to an interview, he or she generally already thinks you may be qualified to do the job. Now you both need to exchange enough information to allow you both to determine whether you and the organization are a good "fit" for each other. Therefore, think of an interview as a highly focused professional conversation. Use the limited amount of time you have to learn about the employer's needs and discuss the ways you can contribute to meeting them. In many cases you will interview at least twice before being hired for a position, once in a briefer screening interview and at least once again in a visit in which you speak with many of the people you will be working with.

HOW TO PREPARE

Preparation is vital. While you cannot anticipate every question, you can prepare yourself to make the most of whatever you are asked. It is critical to know as much as you can both about the organization/position and industry but also do lots of self-analysis so that you can best articulate your skills and experiences.


HOW TO ANSWER QUESTIONS

General Tips

  • Provide a great first and last impression � firm handshake, good posture, smile. Maintain eye contact as you speak, have good posture, and avoid "um," "like," and "uhh", etc.
  • Listen to the questions. While the interviewer controls the flow of the interview, you can control the content. If the employer is looking for specific facts, provide them. If a question is general, refocus it to your advantage.
  • Be honest. Let an employer get to know you. Avoid dissembling or comparing yourself to others. You want to be sure that you and the employer know what you are getting if you are hired.
  • Be positive. Never say anything negative about past experiences, employers, or courses and professors. Employers, like anyone, tend to generalize: if you didn't like "x", you are a negative person and won't like me either. Figure out what was positive about an experience and talk about that.
  • Be enthusiastic and demonstrate interest. If you are genuinely interested in the job, let the interviewer know that. This can be achieved by doing research on the organization prior to the interview. It can also come across by asking questions during the interview about the job, the organization and its services and products. When asking questions, be sure that the answers will give you information that you don't already have (or should have) and that the questions are genuinely of interest to you.
  • Silence is OK � taking a moment to consider your answer is certainly appropriate. It can be a sign of thoughtfulness and intelligence, in addition to giving you time to collect your thoughts.
  • Convey professionalism, maturity, and poise in all interactions with the organization. In a sense, the interview process extends well beyond your actual interview to include all interactions with the organization, employer presentations, night-before events, and correspondence.
  • Use examples to stress your points. For example, if asked, "What three words best describe you?" list three traits and give examples that show how you have demonstrated each.
  • Do not ask about salary or benefits. Wait until you have an offer to negotiate. There are many places to research salary trends in the meantime (www.bls.gov, Career Services surveys, etc.).

When you are at a loss for words

What if an interviewer poses a question that catches you so completely off guard that you cannot come up with an answer at all? Ideally, you can use some of the following suggestions to buy time and come up with a response:

  • Stall for time � ask to have the question repeated, repeat it yourself
  • Ask for a few moments to think over the question
  • Ask for clarification
  • Try to redirect your thought process and find an answer
  • Read this blog for more ideas

And if all else fails � In a gracious and polite way, say something like "May we return to this question later on? I seem to be at a loss at the moment." (Then think of something to say as the interview proceeds!)

� and if they interviewer returns to the question and you still don't have an answer �

"This is a question that has really stumped me for some reason. May I have your card so that I can follow up later on today with an email?" (This is a last resort, of course, but if you go this route � make sure you follow up as promised!)

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ADVICE FROM RECRUITERS

Employers tell us that when interviews go wrong, they go wrong (typically) for these reasons:

  • The student didn't really know why s/he applied for the position and how it fits into her/his career path. Think through this beforehand and be able to articulate it.
  • The student is confused about what the organization does. Be sure to take the time to learn what they do and be able to discuss it.
  • The student is not enthusiastic. It's OK to smile and be excited! You set the tone for the interview, so demonstrate your enthusiasm!

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QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR INTERVIEWER(S)

Almost always, your interview will end by your interviewer asking if you have any questions for them and these questions are also being evaluated. Be responsive to what has gone on in the interview. If you have listened well, you should be able to come up with thoughtful questions which impress the interviewer. You may want to prepare a few questions in advance, but an insightful comment based on your conversation can make an even stronger statement.

  • What areas need the immediate attention of the person you hire?
  • What are the major responsibilities of this position?
  • How long have you been with the company?
  • What attracted you to this company? 
  • What qualities and skills are most valued at this firm? 
  • What characteristics must one have to thrive at this organization?
  • What are the company's growth projections?
  • Whom do you identify as your major competitors?
  • What are your plans for new products or services?
  • How would you describe a typical patient/client/customer in this organization/facility?
  • How would you define your management philosophy?
  • What are you looking for in the person who will fill this job?
  • Describe a typical day.
  • Describe the ideal candidate for this position.
  • What kind of training would I receive?
  • What activities could I engage in now that might help me on the job if I'm hired?
  • How centralized is the organizational structure?
  • What do you like most about your job and the company?
  • Whom could I speak with who has the position now or who has been promoted from the position recently?
  • What are the avenues for advancement?
  • What is the turnover rate?
  • Who would be my supervisor and what is that person's supervisory style?
  • What do you see as the key issues/challenges facing the person in this job?
  • How has this organization/facility been affected by all the changes in the xxxx industry?
  • What is the time line for filling this position? (Will there be additional interviews? When can I expect to hear back?)

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ACADEMIC INTERVIEWS AND QUESTION TYPES

Interviews for academic jobs often follow the same structure for non-academic jobs, but there are certainly some unique aspects to the interviewing process. It is important to remember that different types of academic institutions will do things slightly differently. Liberal arts schools, community colleges, research-focused institutions will each be looking for different types of candidates, and the interviews will are designed to evaluate potential candidates on the key elements they are looking for (e.g., research potential, grant writing abilities, teaching competencies). The other important point to note is that applications for most academic jobs are part of a cycle. Applications are usually submitted up to a year ahead of time so that a decision can be made in time for the candidate to start at the beginning of the next academic year. Even if applications are submitted in the autumn, interviews may not begin until the spring semester.

Screening/1st round interviews:

There are commonly large numbers of applications for tenure-track jobs (it is not uncommon to see more than 200 applications for one assistant professor position in certain fields), and so a screening round of interviews is often used by some institutions. These can be by phone, Skype, or even at academic conferences (also see this article about annual convention interviews). These interviews will be conducted by members of the search committee (or a subset of the search committee), and are usually fairly brief (30-60 minutes). It is usual for there to be multiple interviewers in a group setting for these interactions. Many of the questions will focus on whether the candidate can connect their academic experiences and knowledge to the unique aspects of the department or university where they would like to work. See the list of academic questions for some of the questions that might be asked at these 1st round interviews. The search committee will be trying to reduce a list of 10-20 candidates down to a shortlist of about 3 possibilities.

Campus interviews/2nd round:

Not every institution conducts screening interviews, and sometimes the campus visit is the first-round interview for candidates. While the on-site, campus interviews for small institutions might only last less than a day, larger institutions can hold two or even three-day interviews for some candidates. The search committee will invite their shortlisted candidates to visit the campus where they will get to meet with members of the search committee one-on-one (and in a group), as well as with senior administrators (e.g., deans, provosts), in a variety of different settings. There are many different components to a campus interview; not all of them will be part of every interview experience a candidate might have, but it is a good idea to be familiar with the format and purpose of these different components:

Pre-interview social gathering

This usually occurs the evening before the scheduled interview, and often involves members of the search committee in a more social setting (dinner, drinks, etc.). This is very much part of the interview process.

Meeting members of the search committee

It is common to meet with the department chair first, and then be taken to the offices of other members of the search committee for one-on-one meetings.

Job talk

At research institutions, there will usually be an hour set aside for candidates to give a presentation on their research (the past, present, and future of the research). The audience will usually contain members of the search committee, other faculty who are interested in your topic, faculty from other departments, and students. Giving a strong, confident job talk can make all the difference in how the search committee views a candidate's application

Sample class teaching

At institutions where teaching is valued, it is also likely that candidates will teach a sample class. This can be on a subject of the candidate's choosing, or a topic chosen by the search committee (one that each shortlisted candidate will have to teach). The audience might actually be a class of students, or just the search committee (who should be treated as students for the purpose of the exercise).

Group interview

At some point in the day, candidates will meet with the whole search committee at one time.

Meeting with students

It is common for candidates to be given the opportunity to meet with students, often over lunch. This is an opportunity for the students to share their perspective on each candidate, and for the candidates to get a different perspective about the culture of the university and the students' thoughts about the department.

Meeting with administrators

Candidates will have the opportunity to talk with deans, provosts, and HR personnel at some point during the campus interview. These meetings can often be much less structured than other parts of the interview process, and can often seem like informal discussions. They are still part of the interview.

Social events

Lunch, dinner, and receptions that occur during a campus interview are important and unstructured parts of the interview process, and are often used to assess a candidate's "fit" in terms of how they might fit in with department and the faculty. These events should be treated as part of the interview.

Chalk talk

A chalk talk is normally given by scientists or engineers during the course of a campus visit and is less formal than a "job talk." It is usually held on the second day of the interview or during a follow-up interview. The chalk talk doesn't involve slides and is an opportunity for candidates to demonstrate that they can think on their feet as they discuss the research they would do while working on their first grant. The talk is informal, and candidates may be interrupted by questions from members of the search committee and others present.

Final round interviews/follow-up campus visit:

In some cases, candidates are invited back to the campus for a final round of interviews. In this second campus interview, candidates commonly give a "chalk talk" (in the sciences), or further expand upon their job talk and future research plans and goals. Candidates may meet with some of the same people they interviewed with during the first campus visit, but there may also be other faculty or administrators present.

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PRE-PROFESSIONAL/GRADUATE SCHOOL

Many programs require an interview as the final step in the admissions process. If you are asked for an interview, it usually means that you have met the initial criteria for admissions: GPA, standardized test scores, letters of recommendation and the essay. The personal interview can be the final and determining factor in acceptance.

As in a job interview, preparation is critical. Be able to articulate the development of your academic or professional pursuits, your research interests (especially for Ph.D. programs), your relevant work experience and your future goals, and your specific interest in their department or program. Beyond your social skills and your ability to express commitment to the profession or academic field of study, both faculty and admissions staff are looking for potential graduate students they think will best match the goals and philosophy of their program.

Don't expect to be reimbursed by graduate and professional schools for travel expenses. (There may be some exceptions, particularly for graduate school.) It is always advisable to interview in person. However, if you do not have the financial resources to visit the program, you can request a telephone interview. Some professional and master's programs have regional admissions staff who may be available to arrange an interview closer to you.

Try to stay with a student in the program the night before the interview. This will give you a chance to find out about student life issues such as housing, funding, and cost of living. Take time to visit the library, labs and computer facilities. A more personal experience with the environment might stimulate more questions to ask at the interview and make you feel more confident and relaxed.

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ALWAYS ASKED/STANDARD

All interviewers are ultimately trying to see if a candidate is the right fit for their organization or program. This means that in any interview you have you will always be asked both about your interest in the position/organization as well as what skills/experiences you bring that will be an asset to you in the role. These questions include:

  • Why are you interested in this position/opportunity/program?
  • Why are you interested in this organization?
  • What skills and experience make you a good fit for this role?

Candidates who have prepared responses for these questions will start the interview off on a positive note. Here are some other questions that are very commonly asked:

  • Tell me about yourself.
  • When did you know you wanted to be an xyz?
  • Describe yourself in 3 adjectives.
  • How would your friends describe you?
  • What makes you tick or what motivates you?
  • Why should I hire you?
  • Why did you decide to go to Penn?
  • Why did you choose your major?
  • How did you learn about our organization?
  • What do you know about our organization?
  • Where do you see yourself in five years?
  • What was the worst thing that happened to you on a summer job?
  • What contributions could you make to our organization?
  • What do you expect from a job with us?
  • What is your greatest asset?
  • If you were an interviewer, what do you think the three most important criteria would be for hiring someone for this position?
  • On what grounds would you dismiss someone?
  • Do you like working with people? Is this an important factor?
  • How would you handle an irate client if the complaint were against the organization's policy?
  • Describe a situation when you had to learn a large amount of material quickly. How did you do it?
  • Why are you interested in this field of work?
  • Do you have any questions?
  • What was your best subject in school?
  • Why do you want to work for us?
  • Why did you take a leave of absence?
  • Would you consider relocating?
  • Could you travel three days a week?
  • How do you relieve stress?
  • Do you plan to go to graduate school?
  • If we hired you, what is the top position you see yourself holding?
  • Is there anything which could potentially interfere with your performance?
  • Tell me about your experience on a part-time job.
  • Of what accomplishment are you most proud?
  • What was the best part of your college experience?
  • What do you think is the most important/difficult ethical dilemma facing our industry today?
  • How do you get people to do things they don't like to do?
  • Are you more interested in program development or implementation?
  • If you could be one person in the world, who would it be?
  • What do you like to do for fun?

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BEHAVIORAL

More and more interviewers are asking behavioral questions, in which the employer asks you to recount a specific example of a past experience which s/he can use as a predictor for your future behavior. "Tell me about a time you demonstrated initiative. Give me an example of your leadership ability. Describe your most recent group effort and how you contributed to the team." In answering these questions, be certain to describe a SPECIFIC example (don't describe your leadership style in general, but rather recount a specific time you were in a leadership role). After setting the context, describe your role, contribution to, or influence on that situation. Finally, always provide a statement describing the outcome of your efforts (e.g., the grade you received, the percentage increase in sales volume due to your efforts, etc.) so they can evaluate your effectiveness.


A common way to approach answering behavioral questions is to use the STAR method:

  1. S = Situation: Describe what you were facing
  2. T = Target: Describe what you wanted to achieve
  3. A = Action: Describe what you did
  4. R = Results: Describe what happened, how things turned out, what you learned, and perhaps what you'd do differently if presented the same circumstances

For an extended list of behavioral-based questions divided up by skill or topic, click here

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CASE

Case questions focus on business issues and problems. Most commonly used in consulting interviews, they test your analytical skills and business acumen. A case can be very broad (e.g., "What makes ABC Company so successful?) or extremely specific (e.g., a discussion of detailed financial statements) in nature. There are several extremely useful guides to interviews available in the Career Services library. You can also access Career Services' online Vault and WetFeet career guides from the Career Services library webpage. (Click on the online subscriptions link.)

Additional case interview practice and advice can be found at CaseInterview.com - some of which requires registering for a free subscription.  Two examples of what you can find:

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ILLEGAL

An employer cannot discriminate against you because of your race, sex, religion, ethnic origin, disability or, in some states or cities, your sexual orientation. As such, employers should not ask any interview questions in regards to these topics.

Illegal interview questions include but are not limited to:

  • Are you married? or, How is your spouse going to handle your schedule in this position?
  • Are you planning on having children? How will you handle child care?
  • How old are you? Who was the first president you voted for?
  • Are you a U.S. Citizen? (However, employers can ask "Are you legally authorized to work in the U.S.?)
  • As a woman, how would you handle working in a male dominated environment?
  • What religious holidays do you observe?

Some employers may end up asking questions that they don't realize are illegal as a conversation starter or as a way to get at certain environmental or schedule-related issues in the job. In these cases, usually the intent is innocent as the interviewee, your choice is to refuse to answer or dodge the question, or answer the question behind the question. You can find some more information on these approaches here.

Resources:

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GROUP/TEAM

In some instances, an interview might involve a group or team component. This could mean one of two things�either you will be interviewed by a group of people at once, or that you are simultaneously interviewing with other candidates for the same position.

In former case, this will mean that you will need to be sure to try to answer to the group. Start your response for a question by looking at the person who asked you the question but be sure to also make eye contact with the other interviewers during your answer before returning to the person who asked the question at the conclusion of your answer.

For the latter, usually you are given a scenario to work through as a team. When this happens, the interviews are evaluate how well you work as a team player so it will be important to show your listening skills as well as your ability to take initiative.

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CHALLENGING

Some employers will ask questions that are deliberately challenge. This is done to see how you think on your feet, how you handle stress, and, in some cases, how creative you are. Here are some examples:

  • I see you received a very low grade in XXXX. Why?
  • What was your worst subject in school?
  • Let's pretend that the first 25 minutes of the interview have passed. What were you planning to tell me in the last 5 minutes?
  • Why do you, an xyz major, want to go into business?
  • With your educational background in xyz, why didn't you apply for law school?
  • You don't seem to have done as well academically in college as you did in high school. Why?
  • How do you feel about working with numbers? What is 12% of 69? How did you figure that out?
  • Where do you think employment with this company will take you five years from now?
  • You strike me as graduate school material. Why are you applying for jobs?
  • What do you think of our organizational structure?
  • How do you feel you work without direct supervision? Are you prepared right now to work without supervision?
  • Would you prefer to work independently or as part of a team? Why?
  • How much traveling would be ideal in a job?
  • What is your greatest liability?
  • What is one of your weaknesses? Now, I know you had one prepared, so give me another one?
  • What major problem have you encountered and how did you deal with it?
  • What have you learned from your mistakes?
  • Of what activity are you least proud?
  • What was the worst part of your college experience?
  • Why should we hire you rather than one of the 200 other applicants?
  • How much do you expect to earn?
  • What question do you wish we had asked?
  • Highlight the one thing on your resume that separates you from everyone else on Penn's campus.
  • What don't you do well?
  • Tell me about a time when you failed at something.
  • Tell me about a time when you made a mistake and what you learned from it.
  • Describe a group work situation where you and your partner were having trouble getting along with each other. How did you resolve the problem?
  • Describe a situation when you were faced with a deadline that you couldn't meet. How did you handle it?
  • You are very qualified. Why would you want to work at a small company like ours, when you could work at a larger company?
  • How would someone who dislikes you describe you?
  • Tell me everything you know about___xyz____in three minutes (or tell me everything you know about our organization in three minutes?)
  • Why didn't you get a permanent offer from your last summer employer?
  • Who else are you interviewing with? What do you think of those organizations?
  • What characteristics/traits do you most dislike in a person?
  • If you could be a fruit, what type of fruit would you be?
  • You work in a library, and a book has been misshelved. How do you find it?
  • What is the one question you don't want us to ask you?
  • What is the biggest risk you ever took?
  • If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?
  • Give me an example of how you are a risk taker.
  • What is your grade point average?
  • Why are tennis balls fuzzy?
  • What is the lowest salary you would consider?
  • Tell me something that is not on your resume.
  • How much do you think you will be earning in ten years?
  • Give me an example of a time your ethics were tested and how you responded and reacted.
  • Could you make a commitment now?

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