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Answering interview questions

Answering interview questions

The next phase of the interview consists of the interviewer asking you questions to try to determine whether you would be successful in the position. Having knowledge of possible questions helps you to prepare points to include in your answers. Think about why a question is being asked. What does the employer really want to know?

Behaviour-based and situational/hypothetical questions are very common as they are considered to be more valid predictors of on-the-job performance.

Prefer to learn in person? Sign up for the Interviews: Preparing for Questions workshop or the Interviews: Proving Your Skills workshop to help improve your performance during a job interview.


Behaviour-based questions are the most popular type of interview question and usually begin with “Tell me about a time when...”, “Give me an example of...” or “Describe a situation in which...”. They’re designed to elicit information about how you have performed in the past because many interviewers believe that past behaviours are good indicators of how applicants will function in the future. Interviewers develop their questions around the traits and skills they consider necessary for succeeding in a position or organization. Common behaviour-based interview themes include the following:

  • Working effectively under pressure
  • Handling a difficult situation with a co-worker or a client
  • Completing a project on time
  • Anticipating potential problems and developing preventative measures
  • Making a quick decision during the absence of a supervisor
  • Adapting to a difficult situation

The “STAR Approach” is a useful technique for answering behaviour-based questions:

Situation: Provide background and context

  • Who, What, Where, When...
  • Be brief: you are just providing the context here

Task: Describe what you needed to do

  • What goals did you need to reach?
  • Include challenges and expectations

Action: Explain what you actually did and how you did it

  • Include tools you used
  • Focus on one skill
  • The action is the main area to focus on and should be the longest part of your response

Result: Describe the outcome of your actions

  • What did you accomplish?
  • Include any positive feedback/recognition received
  • What did you learn?

There are a few things to note with this approach:

  • Be specific: general examples don’t prove you have the skill. Convince them you have it and can benefit their organization with details from a specific situation.
  • Source: Your example can be from a paid or unpaid work experience, academic experience, or extracurricular activity: choose based on relevance to the job sought or simply on the strength of the example in proving your skill.
  • Prepare in advance: determine which skills the employer will likely be interested in, select your ‘best’ example situations, then write brief bullet points that capture the main ideas you want to convey. Don’t completely script it and memorize it because you will likely sound unnatural. Then, practice!
  • Use visuals: Choose words that will help the employer visualize your role in it. This will help them to remember you and your story—particularly if they are interviewing many candidates on the same day.
  • Outcome: Remember to state what the successful outcome was and include any positive feedback or recognition received. This is a very important component and will further support your claim that you were successful.
  • Benefit to employer: Try to outline benefits transferable to the interviewer’s organization. Be specific here as well: general statements such as “all organizations need employees with x” should be avoided.
  • Ninety seconds

    Aim to deliver your response in approximately 90 seconds: that’s a typical attention span for interviewers. Don’t worry too much if it’s 80 seconds or 100 seconds, but practice for the 90. If it’s much less than 90, you’re probably not giving enough detail to convince them. If you’re going on longer than that, you’re probably giving too much detail.

An interviewer will use situational/hypothetical questions to establish how you would react to and handle real-life situations on the job. For situational/hypothetical questions, candidates must have a good understanding of the job and its requirements. Here are some examples of this type of question:

  • If you had met your project deadlines and your direct supervisor was unavailable, describe how you would remain busy
  • You are the manager of a small software testing team, and one individual is continually late for work and taking extended breaks. How would you approach the issue?
  • During construction, a contractor unexpectedly finds a very large object in one of the trenches where he is about to dig. He requests that you tell him how to proceed. How would you deal with this situation?
  • You plan a workshop to teach newcomers to Canada how to use word-processing software. Unfortunately, only four people have registered and you are required to have a class of ten. You really feel that the training is important but are worried about the financial consequences. It is five days before the class is scheduled to begin. What do you do?
  • You have a conflict with someone who is senior to you and is not your supervisor. Describe how you would handle it

Potential employers often require proof that you have the practical skills and savvy to successfully do the job. Skill-testing questions can be hands-on (e.g., programming on a computer, solving a complex math problem, etc.) and are more common in technical, scientific, and industrial/manufacturing fields. The following are examples of skill-testing questions:

  • What is the difference between server-side and client-side scripting?
  • Provide a brief description of a diode
  • Explain the theory of elasticity
  • What is a comma splice?

If you know the answer, great! If not, don’t fake it. Instead, indicate your interest and desire to learn. If possible, indicate something else that may compensate for this lack of knowledge (e.g., “I’m not familiar with that programming language but I do have experience with...”)

When answering problem-solving questions, demonstrate your ability to process information quickly, think logically, and solve problems creatively. Employers place emphasis on the thought process rather than on the conclusion. Examples of problem-solving questions include the following:

  • Why is a manhole cover round?
  • How many automobiles are there in Toronto?
  • Estimate the size of the DVD rental market in Tokyo, Japan
  • How would you project the future rate of PC game purchases in Canada?
  • Describe how you would extract caffeine from coffee beans

The key is not to worry about getting the “right” answer but, rather, to demonstrate your logical thought process in solving the problem. The following five-step process is appropriate for handling most problem-solving questions:

  1. Listen carefully to what is being asked
  2. Ask clarifying questions to determine exactly what the interviewer is looking for
  3. Respond by first explaining how you’d gather the data necessary to make an informed decision
  4. Discuss how you’d use that data to generate options
  5. Based on the data you’ve gathered, the available options, and your understanding of the position, explain how you’d make an appropriate decision or recommendation

Keep in mind, there is no right answer, only your answer.

Case interviews are used primarily by consulting firms and investment banking companies as part of their interview process to determine if a candidate has the qualifications to succeed. Case interviews are most similar to problem-solving questions as described in the previous section except you will be given many types of case interview questions. There are many online resources available to help you understand and practice the “case interview” approach.

In addition to asking the other types of questions mentioned, many employers rely on a series of standard questions, and you should prepare for them:

  • Tell me about yourself
  • What are your short-term goals? What about in two and five years? How are you preparing to achieve them?
  • What is your vision/mission statement?
  • Why do you feel you will be successful in this work?
  • What other types of work are you looking for in addition to this role?
  • What supervisory or leadership roles have you had?
  • For you, what are some advantages and disadvantages of working in a team environment?
  • What have been your most satisfying/disappointing experiences?
  • What did you like/dislike about your last job?
  • What motivates you to do a good job?
  • What are your strengths/weaknesses?
  • What kinds of problems do you handle best?
  • How do you reduce stress and try to achieve balance in your life?
  • How did you handle a request to do something contrary to your moral code or business ethics?
  • What was the result the last time you tried to sell your idea to others?
  • Why did you apply to our organization and what do you know about us?
  • What do you think are advantages/disadvantages of joining our organization?
  • What is the most important thing you are looking for in an employer?
  • What were some of the common characteristics of your past supervisors?
  • What characteristics do you think a person needs to work effectively in our company/department?
  • What courses did you like best/least? Why?
  • What did you learn or gain from your part-time/summer/co-op/internship experiences?
  • What are your plans for further studies?
  • Why are your grades low?
  • How do you spend your spare time?
  • If I asked your friends to describe you, what would they say?
  • What frustrates you the most?
  • When did you last have a disagreement with someone at work, and what was the outcome?
  • What could you do to increase your effectiveness?
  • What was the toughest decision you have had to make in the last year? Why was it difficult?
  • Why haven’t you found a job yet?
  • How will you be successful in the job, given your lack of experience in ______ (e.g., sales, fundraising, bookkeeping)?
  • Why should I hire you?

While responding to questions, use to your advantage information that the employer volunteers about the position and organization. Listen for verbal cues and hints (e.g., what is said, how it is said) and customize your responses accordingly, but be honest. For example, if you are excellent at multi-tasking and skilled at meeting tight deadlines, share this information if the interviewer just stated that the work environment is very fast paced. Furthermore, listen carefully to the question and how it is phrased. If it can be interpreted in more than one way, and if you are unsure what the interviewer really wants to discuss, ask for clarification.

This popular question may come up early in employment and professional school interviews and is a great opportunity to help the interviewer connect their organization or program's needs with what you have to offer. Preparing for this question can also be useful when having networking conversations.

When an interviewer asks this question, they are typically looking for those aspects of your life that are relevant to the job or field. As with any interview response, it's generally best to limit your answer to approximately 90-100 seconds. Depending on your story, this answer may be a bit longer than most other interview answers.

Consider: Where are you now? What experiences and skills have you had/used in the past? What are you excited about for the future?

You might begin with how you became interested in this profession/industry/role: when did you become interested? What contributed to that interest?

Starting from your relevant interests can help you articulate your main values early on in the interview and help the interviewer understand who you are.

What have you done to develop your skills (technical and/or transferable), knowledge and experience?

  • Focus on 3 - 5 highlights that are most relevant to this job/field.
  • Draw on any and all sources, such as paid/unpaid work, academic (coursework, research and projects) and extracurricular activities.

Connect these highlights to the job or field: state how this background is a great fit, both in terms of your abilities and interests. If you have time remaining, perhaps use it to highlight something that may not be related to the job/field but is unique or impressive about you.

Check out this diagram as a possible structure to help you develop an effective response:

University of Waterloo

Centre for Career Development