6 Top Interview Questions and How to Answer Them – Part 1

Jun 17, 2020

By Jonathan Cantarero 

If you’re reading this, chances are you have an interview coming up.  You’re probably wondering what types of questions to expect and what you can do to prepare.  Well, you’ll be happy to know that employers tend to recycle the same questions regardless of the field or area of interest.  In this article, I’ll walk you through the most common questions along with some sample answers.  So, let’s dive in!

1.   Why Should We Hire You?

Without a doubt, the top question to expect will be some form of: “Why should we hire you?”  Of course, most interviewers won’t be so blunt.  They may ask: “What makes you the best candidate?” or “Is there anything you think separates you as an applicant?”  Whatever form the question may take, rest assured that they are all designed to address one thing: why you should be picked instead of someone else.   

Like any good pitch, your answer should do more than just show that you’re qualified—you need to stand out.  Don’t just repeat what’s on your resume—go beyond it.  One helpful tip is to focus on the strongest aspects of your application (e.g. leadership roles, relevant internships, prior research) and connect them to concrete skills that the job calls for (e.g. research methods, problem solving techniques, initiative and drive).  Another great option is to discuss a personal connection to the employer’s mission (e.g. pursuing a criminal justice fellowship because of childhood experiences in a low-income, crime-ridden area).  Consider the following answer from an undergraduate student applying for an environmental fellowship focused on natural land conservation. 

  • Question: So, as you probably know, we’ve received quite a number of applications for this position.  Your resume is certainly on par with what we’ve seen.  Is there anything in particular that you think makes you an ideal candidate?
  • AnswerI would say it’s my passion for researching strategies for national park conservation.  I grew up around national parks and have always wanted to help to preserve them.  For example, my school has a great program in environmental science, and my research there has focused on soil contamination and wetland preservation. My thesis project, for instance, discusses emerging methods in sustainable land management.  I think this background fits perfectly with your program’s focus on forest and river conservation.  Ultimately, my dream is to continue this type of research in a permanent position.  

Taking the emotional route by expressing passion for the work is a common but effective way to make yourself a memorable candidate.  It’s even better when you can connect that passion to academic success in a way that shows you’re capable of working at a high level. Here, the student did both by conveying an authentic passion for natural land conservation and showcasing specific research in that area at a top program.  Better still, she mentioned her long-term interest in this type of work, which tells her audience that she’s committed to the organization’s mission.  As you can see, generating a narrative like this will make you a much more attractive candidate. 

2. What’s Your Greatest Strength?

At first glance, the question, “What’s your greatest strength” seems identical to, “Why should we hire you.”  Yet I’ve personally been asked both questions in the same interview enough times to know they merit separate discussion.  To begin, unlike Question #1, the prompt, “What’s your greatest strength” forces many people to narrow their answer by focusing on a single strength.  While this is fine for those with a particularly strong credential, most of us would benefit from providing an answer that mentions several strengths under the guise of a single skill.  

To do this, I suggest answering in a way that showcases your time management skills and/or work ethic.  I love these types of answers because they address the question with one strength while at the same time allowing you to list several accomplishments to prove your point.  After all, saying you have time-management skills or a strong work ethic implies that you juggle multiple things at once, and do so at a high level. Take this example from a law student applying for a fellowship during his final year of law school:

  • Question: What would you consider your greatest strength to be?
  • Answer: My time-management skills.  Working as a research assistant to Professor Stephen Meyers and serving as an editor for our Law Journal are huge time commitments because of the hour requirements and short deadlines.  I think juggling those responsibilities with a full course load and still managing to keep a high GPA speaks to my ability to work under pressure and handle several things at once.

A few things to say here.  First, mentioning that you’re able to do multiple things at once works only if it hasn’t negatively affected your studies. So, if you have a high GPA, made the Dean’s List, or achieved some other measure of academic success, mention that in your answer.  Second, don’t fall into the trap of simply listing all of the things you’re involved in—explain why they require time management.  Here, the student didn’t just say that something was a time commitment, he explained that there were hourly requirements and deadlines to meet.  Finally, tailor your response to the position you’ve applied for by highlighting the most relevant activities and weaving them into a narrative.  Remember, they already have your resume and application materials, so don’t feel like you have to list everything you’ve ever done. 

3.   Tell Me a Little About Yourself

Personally, this is one of my favorite questions.  It’s usually asked at the beginning of interviews and gives you complete control to tell your story and dictate the tone of the conversation.  At the same time, many students dislike these types of opened-ended questions because they don’t know what the interviewer wants to hear.  Do they want my life story?  How much info is too much?  What are they trying to get?  These are all valid concerns.  In my experience, however, this type of question is designed as nothing more than an ice breaker that gives your interviewer a starting point for further questioning.  

With that in mind, your response to this question is really just an opportunity to introduce yourself and make a good first impression.  How you do this obviously varies from case to case, but most answers should: (1) mention where you are in your college or graduate career; (2) describe how you found out about the position; and (3) explain what interests you about the job.  A more thorough response might add: (4) background on why you are pursuing a particular degree; (5) specific projects you want to get involved in; and (6) what you hope to get out of the experience.  Here, we’ll use a graduate student in religious studies applying for a fellowship at a research institute:

  • Question: Thanks for coming in.  So, as you know we’re looking for a fellow to join one of our research teams.  I have your resume with me, but why don’t we start by you just telling me a little about yourself? 
  • Answer: Sure, thanks for having me.  So, my main interest is in your program on religion and government policy. I grew up in a multi-faith family and have always been drawn to interfaith dialogue as well as politics in general.  I followed those interests in undergrad where I got a BA in Government and now grad school where I’m pursuing an MA in religious studies.   My professor for research methods in religion actually told me about this opportunity, and I was really drawn to your work on religious diversity in the workplace.  My goal is to gain some real-world experience before applying to PhD programs.

Going through a short timeline of what led you to apply for a position tells your audience a lot about your personality, perspective, and purpose in applying.  Here, the student has a deep-seated interest in the intersection of religion and politics, and drew that out by starting with his upbringing and ending with his current degree program.  He also gave a concise reason for seeking this particular program: he wanted real-world experience before pursuing a terminal degree.  While you may not be able to hit all the right notes in responding to this question, that’s okay! Remember, this is just an icebreaker, so use it to your advantage.  

I encourage you to use this article as a starting point for thinking through how you would answer specific questions if they came up in an interview. There are countless other ways these pretend students could have answered their questions, and they probably would have been just as good as the answers given here. Think about what your audience wants to hear, as well as what they don’t.  Remember, every question is an opportunity to showcase why you should get the job.  Use them to your advantage! 

Read Part 2 of Jonathan’s series on interviews here!

Jonathan Cantarero is an attorney based in New York City.  He is a former Graduate Fellow at the City University of New York School of Law (2013-16) and Schulte, Roth, and Zabel Fellow for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (2014-15).  Whenever he is not reading legal briefs or posting on ProFellow, Jonathan, who is also a seminary student, enjoys writing on the intersection of law and religion. 

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