If there’s any phase in the job search process where candidates slip up the most, it’s the interview phase, said Kathy Northamer, a district president at the Robert Half staffing agency in Minneapolis.

“That’s why it’s crucial to prepare answers to potential questions before you enter the hiring manager’s office,” she said.

To figure out how to answer tough questions, it helps to understand why they’re asked in the first place. Bottom line: Interviewers need to quickly determine whether a candidate has the following three qualities:

• Technical expertise to do the job.

• Interpersonal skills to get along with co-workers.

• A desire to join the company.

“To ensure a candidate has the right temperament for the work environment, managers must go beyond the first quality. To find out how they may fit (the second two qualities), they will ask general questions, behavioral questions and the occasional curveball,” Northamer said.

What do recruiters and interviewers want to hear when asking common interview questions? Let’s analyze here:

1. “Tell me about yourself.”

What typically happens: The candidate can’t decide whether they should talk about themselves personally or professionally, and doesn’t provide a response without asking additional questions, or the candidate provides a summary of their resume that takes 10 minutes to explain.

What the interviewer is looking for: “I’m looking to see if the candidate can succinctly summarize their resume and respond to a basic open-ended question properly,” said Alisha Santoorjian Thunstrom, director of support services for Eagan-based TempWorks Software.

This isn’t the time to focus on your personal interests and hobbies — so keep it professional — and short.

2. “Tell me about a time (insert situation here)?”

Typically, the candidate will provide a generic response or a hypothetical answer to how they would respond if the situation were to present itself.

That’s not what the interviewer wants.

“I’m looking for a work example the candidate has experienced that can be applied to the situation I have presented,” Santoorjian Thunstrom said. “The intention of the question is to understand how a candidate has responded in different situations to see how they would fit the open position, team dynamics and company culture.”

3. “What are your biggest strengths and weaknesses?”

When it comes to tough interview questions, this question tends to trip up candidates more than most because it requires such a nuanced response, Northamer said.

“Listing positives is easy — you’re great with numbers, excel in several highly technical platforms, have a stellar work ethic and so on,” she said. “But talking about your Achilles heel is a different story.”

Many interviewees waver by trying to make a positive trait seem like a negative one. “I’m a perfectionist” or “I care too much about work” are two typical examples.

“The problem is that these canned responses are insincere, and employers can see right through them,” Northamer said. A savvier approach is to provide a real weakness that isn’t a deal-breaker — maybe you’re a bit shy, don’t take criticism well or would rather do things yourself than delegate.”

Then, immediately follow up with details about the steps that you’ve taken — or are taking — to overcome the weakness. For example, if you have subpar networking skills, tell interviewers you plan to talk to more people during the next conference you attend.

4. “Tell me about a time where you failed, and what you did about it.”

At some point, everyone has a project that goes bad, a sale that fell through, or a situation that could have been handled differently. Recruiters know this, so be prepared to show how you handled the situation and/or learned from it, said Jake Wyant, director of staffing and capacity planning in the Minneapolis office of Avaap USA, a provider of IT services and solutions.

“I’m looking for stories,” Wyant said. “Success stories — or stories of how a candidate failed and what they learned from it. Did they stick it out and learn from it, or did they bail?”

5. “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

Job seekers dread this question. But, there is a reason this is asked, said Janelle Bieler, vice president at Adecco USA. One reason is to see whether the person is truly interested in the company — and thus likely to fit in with the company culture.

“Sometimes candidates are quick to discuss a future job title they’re aiming for, but this can be a red flag,” Bieler said. “Interviewers want to hear about professional goals that show a candidate is eager to contribute to the company and be a team player, not simply climb the ladder.”

6. “Why are you looking to leave your current employer?”

Do not bad-mouth any employer, said Sean Gill, managing partner of Conexus Talent Acquisition Solutions, who provides this example response on how to best answer this question:

“ ‘First of all, I’d like to point out that working for XYZ Company has been a great experience and I’ve learned a lot about A, B, and C (you could discuss systems, the industry, technical matters, anything relevant here). That said, I feel like my learning curve has plateaued (or we’re being sold, we’re downsizing/moving, mention a plausible reason for change) and I’m ready to move to the next step in my career and take on new challenges.’ ”

Keep it short and to the point.

7. “Describe a stressful situation at work and how you handled it.”

This is an example of a “behavioral-based” interview question. Behavioral-based interviewing draws on research that says past behavior is the best predictor of future results.

Tim Mayer, director of talent acquisition at Kraus-Anderson Construction, said job seekers should research common behavioral-based interview questions and give some thought to a specific time where they successfully showed leadership, managed a conflict, dealt with ambiguity, exhibited integrity, solved a complex problem, navigated a difficult relationship, juggled competing priorities or helped a team succeed.

“Candidates tend to talk about how they would handle something, or speak in generalities, and none of these approaches tell us what we want to hear,” Mayer said.


Matt Krumrie is a Twin Cities-based career columnist and resume writer. He wrote the Star Tribune’s Ask Matt career advice column for 14 years and now helps job seekers create resumes that get results (resumesbymatt.com).