Types of interview questions

Warm up questions

These types of questions usually occur at the beginning of the interview and are usually about you or subjects that are familiar and easy for you to answer, such as ‘tell me about yourself’ or ‘why did you choose to study this course?’ The key to remember is start with a positive impact and make a good first impression, so be communicate clearly and concisely. If you’re not sure how long to speak for you could give a brief summary and check with the interview if they would like you to expand on particular areas.

Motivation questions

These questions will assess your enthusiasm and research into the job role, offer and company, such as ‘why do you want to work for us’ and ‘why are you interested in this role’. You can demonstrate your research about the role and company to show you have made informed decisions.

You may be asked ‘where do you see yourself in 5 years?’ This looks at your commitment to your career and is a chance for you to demonstrate your knowledge about the career routes available with the employer you have applied to. Key things to discuss would be around the development opportunities available, opportunities to experience new areas within the organisation (e.g. secondments) or working abroad if the organisation is international.

Competency based questions

Competency based interviews give employers an indicator of how you could potentially perform in the workplace, by asking questions about how you have reacted to and dealt with previous academic, work or social situations.

The competencies that employers focus on are related to the job, so you should be able to anticipate the types of questions you may face, using the job description.

If there isn’t a job description, the Prospects website includes job profiles that will help you find out typical skills and activities in many different types of jobs.

Examples of competency based questions include:

  • Tell me about a time when you were faced with a difficult challenge?
  • Can you describe a time when you had to persuade others around to your way of thinking?
  • Give me an example of a time when you had to deal with conflict in a team?
  • Can you give me an example of when you have effectively led others?

Technique for answering competency questions

Practice structuring your answer using the STARR model (situation, task, action, result, reflection). This may also be referred to as CAR (context, action, result). You will provide most detail in the ‘Action’ part.

  • Situation: What was the situation? Keep it brief, but specific.
  • Task: What was the specific task you needed to achieve?
  • Action: What did YOU do? What was your role? What actions did you take? Use active language.
  • Result: What was the outcome? What did you achieve? What was improved? Qualify and quantify.
  • Reflection: What did you learn from the experience? Would you do anything differently next time?

Ensure you choose examples that are as relevant to the role as possible, that were challenging and really show off your skills. Avoid saying ‘we’ to describe actions taken in a team, as the employer is not recruiting the team but needs to be clear what ‘you’ specifically contributed. Be prepared to be questioned about what you learnt from the experience and how you might do it differently in future.

Strength based interviews

Strength based interviews concentrate on what you are good at and what you enjoy doing rather than, as with competency based interviews, focusing on what you can do and have done in the past. Strength interviewing has its foundations in positive psychology; everyone has innate strengths that engage and energise them. By recognising these strengths and matching them to a role, not only will you perform better in your role but enjoy it more too.

Employers are opting to use this strength based approach as they feel candidates can be over rehearsed in competency interviews and often give pre-prepared ‘perfect’ answers. Strength based interviews are difficult to prepare for, other than by taking the time out to reflect on your own strengths beforehand. Questions are generally asked at a quick pace and, combined with your body language and tone of voice, are used to sense your energy and engagement and therefore your strengths.

You may want to ask yourself the following questions in preparation:

  • What are you good at?
  • What comes easily to you?
  • When are you at your best?
  • What motivates you?
  • When did you achieve something you were really proud of?
  • What things do you always put off until the last minute? These are probably weaknesses and things you dislike doing!

These questions are not necessarily straightforward. It’s not always easy to realise your true strengths, values and motivations. It may help to work through the online assessment ‘Profiling for Success’ to help find out more about your personality type and learning style:

Examples of the type of questions that might be asked include:

  • What do you do when you find a task boring?
  • How do you make sure you always do your best?
  • What have you contributed to a team to help their success?
  • Have you ever done something differently the second time around?
  • Do you keep your promises?
  • If you had a couple of hours free at work, what would you do?
  • How do you handle working with someone you don’t like?
  • Do you get more enjoyment from working on your own or in a team? Which comes more naturally to you, working in a team or working on your own?
  • What work-related activities energise you and which ones do you find draining?

Addressing your weaknesses

Many candidates fear the question, ‘What are your weaknesses?’ You don’t want to say something that could prove detrimental to your chances of success such as ‘I miss deadlines frequently’, but equally employers are wary of candidates saying ‘I tend to be a perfectionist’ or ‘I have no weaknesses’. This question isn’t trying to catch you out, really it is assessing your self-awareness and how you manage your personal development.

Focus on a real weakness and talk around how you overcame it. For example, if you used to dislike public speaking, perhaps taking on a role such as student representative or joining a debating society has helped you deal with this fear. You are therefore showing the interviewer that you have areas for development but you can take steps to turn them into a strength.

The interviewer might ask you questions around negative experiences you have faced, e.g. you may have failed the first year of your degree or had poor A-levels. As with the weakness question, be positive and focus on what you have learned from that situation.

Commercial awareness questions

Many employers tell us that this is where candidates fall short. Developing commercial awareness requires time and research, and at interview you need to prove to the employer that you understand and are interested in the industry and their company. To help you prepare, think about the following:

  • Know and understand the range of products or services the company provides.
  • Who are their competitors? What are the risks associated with the work they do?
  • Who are their clients and what are their needs?
  • What legislation might be relevant or have an impact on the company / sector?
  • What current events, news or trends might be important?

Technical / Specialist

Here the interviewer wants to find out if you meet the required standard of knowledge for the job or are able to adapt your current knowledge to new situations. The specialist areas and the possible questions that could be asked are endless.

The more specialised the job, the more detailed questions you can expect. For very practical skill based jobs, it is possible that you will be given a practical test e.g. debug a computer program, identify the key compounds in a chemical solution by normal chemical laboratory methods.

Case study interviews

Employers use this type of exercise to assess your commercial awareness and logical thinking. These are typically encountered in business, consulting and finance roles.

Situational questions

Here you will be given a scenario, perhaps read a short paragraph of a situation at work and you will be asked how you respond if this happened to you. This tests your understanding of the role and how you behave in certain circumstances. Here the interviewer is focusing on your ability to think logically, make reasoned analyses and judgements. Take a moment to evaluate the situation, consider the possible actions you could take and what the consequences would be. Talk your reasoning through with the interviewer.

Reasoning and creative questions

These include questions such as ‘how many lightbulbs are there in the UK’ for which the interviewer doesn’t necessarily expect you to get the right answer, but does expect you to share you logic and process for coming up with a sensible estimate.

More creative questions can be found in sectors such as advertising, for example ‘if you were a biscuit what biscuit would you be and why?’ There is no right or wrong answer, you need to back up your answer and prepare to be challenged. Normally these questions are testing your ability to remain calm under pressure, so think carefully how you will structure your answer.

Do you have any questions for us?

It is normal for an interviewer to ask you if you have any questions at the end of an interview. Preparing some questions to ask the employer is a good way to show you are keen and enthusiastic about working for the company. If you don’t ask any questions some recruiters may interpret this as disinterest.

Often there will be things you genuinely need to know, but it is also a really good opportunity for a more informal conversation. You need to think about the people on the panel, their roles and what questions are appropriate though.

Some ideas for questions to ask:

  • What do you enjoy about working here, and what are the key challenges in your role?
  • Where do you see the company in 5 years’ time?
  • What is the typical career path for someone in this role?
  • Can you tell me what a typical day would look like in this role?
  • Is there anything else I can provide to help you make your decision?

Asking questions around salary is normally to be avoided at interview. However, if it hasn’t been mentioned in the advert or during the interview, it is only reasonable at the end of the interview to ask. A better turn of phrase would be to ask about the ‘employment package’ with regards to salary and for instance, pension or healthcare. For some jobs where a fixed salary is not given in the job description, you may be asked at interview what your salary expectations are.