What are job interviewers really asking?

Interviewers are usually trying to find out 2 things. They want to know if you are able to do the job, and if you will be good to work with.

They will try and discover if you have both of these attributes by talking with you.

The person who gets the job is often the person who does best at the interview. You need to project enthusiasm about the work, thoughtfulness, willingness to take on responsibilities and a pleasant personality. Look energetic, act calm and don't forget to smile and turn on the charm!

What Interviewers Mean When They Ask...

"Tell me about yourself"

They are really asking if you are qualified for the position. Do you have the skills? Are you really interested in this job? The answer you give should have to do with your ability to do the job, and offer some information about your personality.

For example:

For a computer programming job, you might start by saying something like "I have always had a strong interest in technology and when the opportunity came to study electrical engineering, I jumped at it!" Or, "At my last position, I really enjoyed using my problem solving skills to move my projects forward."

You could use the same answer for these questions:

  • Why should we hire you?
  • What can you contribute to our company?

"Why do you want to work for us?"

Interviewers understand that you are probably interested in working for them because they have a position to offer and you need a job. However, you should use this opportunity to let them know that you have put in time and effort to research the company and that you know something about them and the work they do, and that you have thought about how your skills can be useful.

For example:

If you are applying for a receptionist job at a community college, you might say that you are aware that their students come from all over the world, and you feel that your multilingual abilities might be useful to them.

You could use the same answer for these questions:

  • What do you know about us?

"Describe a time when you worked as part of a team. What role did you play?"

The interviewers are trying to find out how well you get along with other workers. They wonder if they will like you and if you are really hard working. You can reassure them by telling a story about a project you worked on and how useful you were to the team. When you use a real story from your past, your contributions and abilities become more clear and believable.

For example:

"When I worked as part of the sales team at a sporting goods store, my coworkers always gave me the customers who wanted to return merchandise. My coworkers would often end up in arguments with the customers, but I managed to keep the customers happy even when I had to refuse their requests. I have always been able to deliver bad news courteously, and with sympathy. You just have to put yourself in their shoes and understand that they want to be listened to. We were able to retain customers when I dealt with them."

You could use the same answer for these questions:

  • How would your coworkers describe you?
  • How do you deal with difficult situations?
  • What can you bring to this job?

"What are some of your biggest challenges?"

Interviewers are asking for your weaknesses. They want to know that you are aware of how you can improve yourself, and that you are taking steps to do so. Be sure not to give them more than one or two weaknesses, and the weak areas you describe should be corrected easily.

You should not say you don't have any weaknesses. This is not believable and may just be irritating to the interviewers. When you offer a weakness, it should not be a weakness that would make you undesirable at work, such as being chronically late or in a bad mood in the morning.

For example:

"I have had a problem with setting priorities at work. I tended to do whatever was in front of me and consequently didn't always meet long-term project deadlines. I have learned to use a monthly planner that reminds me of deadlines and breaks up projects into specific daily tasks. Now I start work every morning with a review of what has to get done each day."

For example:

I know that I speak English with an accent and sometimes customers have difficulty understanding me. I have learned to ask if they have understood me and if needed, will repeat myself, sometimes using different words. I am enrolled in a course in pronunciation and feel I am improving. Did you understand me?

You could use the same answer for these questions:

  • What are your weaknesses?
  • How do you think you can improve yourself?

"Do you have any questions for us?"

This is not the time to ask about salary. Questions about salary and logistics can be addressed once you have actually been offered the job.

If you say no and turn down this opportunity to ask a question, the interviewer will think you don't have much initiative or interest in the position. The interview is your opportunity to show your personality. Ask a question that demonstrates your seriousness about the position and your career. Ask a real question that has come up for you in the interview, or ask a question you have thought about before the interview that has not been fully answered.

For example:

You can ask questions like:

  • Could you describe the reporting structure?
  • Will there be any opportunity for professional development?

Contributed by Susan Qadeer, a personal and career counsellor with decades of experience. Susan currently works with college students.

For More Information

  • Preparing for a Job Interview - Information on how to prepare for a job interview, including questions your interviewer may ask. By the Government of Canada.
  • Planning to Work in Canada? An Essential Workbook for Newcomers - This workbook is for people who are considering moving to Canada or who have recently arrived. It will help you gather information about living and working in Canada.
  • 9 Soft Skills No Immigrant Should be Without - A practical guide for newcomers entering the Canadian labour market, including interview preparation tips. Written by Nick Noorani.
  • JVS Career Voice - This blog for job seekers has information about career choices, finding a job, marketing yourself and more. You can submit questions. The blog posts are written by experts in employment.
Last updated: November 9, 2015 4001079