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Interview Question Translations

By Bonnie Johnson,  


What kind of responses are employers REALLY looking for when they ask interview questions?!  Some questions may stump you, or leave you scratching your head, wondering “what does this have to do with the job?” 


We hope to provide some translations and suggestions so you can eloquently answer those common and sometimes tricky questions.


Tell me a little about yourself.


Many interviews begin with this question as an ice-breaker and your answer can set the tone for the rest of the interview.  “Employers use this information to gain an understanding of what you are passionate about – what makes you tick and drives you,” said Sarah Rachels, Human Resources Director, Carolina Farm Credit.  “Feel confident in sharing a story that will help us remember you over the others we are interviewing for the position,” added Rachels. 


Be wary of turning this into a 20-minute speech on your full history; keep it to a quick two-minute overview as it relates to the job. “Take anything too personal out of the answer – it can make everyone at the interview very uncomfortable,” shared Laurie Lemanski, Human Resources Generalist, Univar. “I don’t need to know that you have a sick dog, or you love dirt biking; win this job because of the skills and abilities you bring to the table, not your circumstances or hobbies,” added Lemanski. 


Debbie Tabor, Manager of Recruitment & Retention, MacDon Industries, encourages interviewees to “Focus on your skills, experience and training and how they relate to the job you are interviewing for.” 


“Articulate your story in a concise manner that is relevant to the job,” said Jessica Johnson, Talent Acquisition Manager, Lansing Trade Group.


What is your biggest weakness?


Interviews are a time to shine and highlight your strengths, so should you really admit your weaknesses?  Yes, as it is important to be honest and show a little humility.  Of course you don’t want to bring up weaknesses on your own, but if you are asked, be ready with an example.  “I like it when candidates can tell me a weakness, as it shows they are self-aware,” shared Johnson.


“Continue your answer by sharing a specific time when you intentionally worked to improve a weakness,” added Rachels. 


Tell me about a time when you made a mistake.


Let’s face it, we’ve all made mistakes.  Employers agree that it’s essential to learn from your mistakes to positively impact future behavior on-the-job.  “Many employers promote a learning culture and are understanding when an employee makes a mistake, as long as they take responsibility and learn from it,” said Rachels. 


“Prepare an answer with details on what lead up to the mistake, how you discovered it, who was involved, how you fixed it and what the result was,” shared Lemanski. Use a specific example that demonstrates to the interviewer that you can apply what you’ve learned from past mistakes to be a better employee. “Answers to this question can tell me about your character and what you’ve learned,” added Tabor. Admitting your mistakes in an interview also illustrates that you’ll be willing to admit your mistakes on the job.


Where do you see yourself in five years?


This can be a loaded question.  Are you aiming for the interviewer’s job? It’s probably not a good time to say “I want your job!”  Likewise, a standard bad example is “in management” – can you follow that up with the reasons why? 


“I ask this question to see if you’ve spent time preparing an answer and if there is ambition to move forward,” said Lemanski. Be honest with your ambitions, even if you don’t want to become a VP or manager, as “stable, reliable employees are the bases that weather the storms,” added Lemanski. 


Do research on the company and know the career path.  Johnson demonstrated a response that shows the candidate did their research - “I want to complete the MIT program and become a successful merchandiser, contributing to the organization as a whole.”  “Understand that you need to have time to learn your new job well and learn the business, before moving up,” added Lemanski.


You will be tempted to say what you think the employer wants to hear but realize effective organizations are comprised of a variety of employees with differing motivations and goals.  It is important to be realistic and honest with the interviewer.  If your goals and the organization’s goals don’t match, it might not be a good fit for either.  “Turnover is very expensive to employers, and they want an idea of whether or not they can depend on you to utilize the countless hours of time invested in your training and development,” shared Rachels. 


Why do you want to work for our company?


This question also takes some research on the company to answer effectively.  Has the company been in the news, or have you seen evidence of their philanthropic efforts?  “I like the fact that your organization has continued to be successful even when the market is down,” was an example given by Johnson. 


“Research the organization’s culture, values, products, structure. Take the details you find compelling and relate this to why you want to work for the organization,” said Lemanski. “Show how your goals line up with the organization’s mission statement,” added Tabor. You want this to be a memorable answer!


Do you know other happy employees at the organization?  If so, share that with the interviewer as one of your reasons for applying.   


Read the position description carefully to find similarities in what you are looking for and what the organization is looking for in an employee.  “Paint a picture that helps the employer visualize you on the team.  It’s okay to share why working for the company would benefit you; however, primarily focus on how you could benefit the company,” added Rachels. 


What are you most proud of?


Okay, now it is your time to gloat a bit!  Your answer to this question gives you the opportunity to show a sense of accomplishment.  “Oftentimes having a degree is a requirement for a position, so answering with ‘getting my degree’ probably isn’t enough,” said Johnson.  Did you pay for college by yourself, or with a scholarship?  Did you receive a grant for research? 


Even if your example was a team project, describe your efforts and the end results.  Share your accomplishments, including goals hit or exceeded.  For students, achievements can involve class projects or volunteer activities that can be meaningful in a work situation.  Try to explain how these accomplishments relate to the organization, or to the position for which you are interviewing. 


When answering this question make sure to put it into context, “Talk about how many people were involved, your role, why it was important to you, factors like how much money or time saved, donations received, process you created and if that process is still in use today,” shared Lemanski. 




What is your favorite Taylor Swift song, and why? “We’ll ask students this question to break the ice,” said Tabor. 


Brainteasers, like “Would you rather be a zebra or a lion, and why?” really test your ability to think outside the box. If one of these questions is posed to you, show your sense of humor, note the novelty of the question, add a smile, and do your best to relate it to the position. Keep in mind your answer to a brainteaser is probably not a make or break component of your interview!


“Overall though, our goal is to make people as comfortable as possible in the interview by asking straight-forward questions so we can assess the fit, for both the individual and the organization,” shared Tabor. 


It’s in the details


Find out all you can about the organization prior to sitting down at the interview. “I cannot stress enough the importance of researching a company before the interview,” added Rachels.  Explore the company website to find their mission statement, goals, and company history.  Look for news online and visit their social media networks.  Find out even more by talking to your contacts that work at, or have experience with, the organization.  The more research you do about the company, the more confident you’ll be in the interview.  You’ll also have an easier time connecting your answers to the organization’s goals.


No matter what the question, you should take the interviewer through specific, detailed examples if you want to be a successful candidate. As a college student or recent grad, you may think you don’t have experience. However, your examples can be from school, part-time jobs, internships, hobbies, or volunteer experiences.


“An interview should be a two-way conversation,” added Johnson.  Walk through your answers to common interview questions, but also be prepared with your own questions for the interviewer.  Asking your questions will help determine if the position is the right fit for you too.


Remember you are selling your “story” in the interview, and you are the author and expert!


This article was initially featured in the 2016-2017 Career Guides.  For more career advice, check out the Career Guide articles.