6 Top Interview Questions and How to Answer Them – Part 2

Jun 18, 2020

By Jonathan Cantarero 

In Part 1 of my series on interviews, I talked about three of the most common questions asked during interviews: 

  1. Why should we hire you? 
  2. What’s your greatest strength? 
  3. Tell me a little about yourself?  

I also added sample answers that simulate real-world experiences.  In this article, I share three more questions you should be prepared to answer for any interview setting. 

4. Why Do You Want This Job?

Ideally, this should be an easy question to answer.  Most of us know exactly why we’ve applied somewhere and can articulate that reason on the spot.  However, interviewers often ask this question to gauge whether you took the time to research the organization and learn why you’d be a good fit.  That being that case, do some homework and learn about the mission, history and culture of the employer, as well as how the job position fits their overall vision.  Once you have that in your back pocket, try to provide an answer that touches on those aspects of the organization that appeal to you and fit best with your career goals.  Here’s an example from a politics major interviewing for a community engagement fellowship at a government agency. 

  • Question: So, I noticed that you’ve worked and volunteered at a few non-profits around the state.  Why the switch to government?  And why our agency specifically? 
  • Answer:  Well, most of my work experience involves collaborating with government officials from the outside, but I’d really like to see how government works from within.  Your fellowship program gives me that opportunity. I’m particularly interested in the know-your-rights campaign and youth intervention initiative.  Personally, I think the workplace and housing discrimination workshops are a huge benefit to the community.  Working on topics like those would be an amazing opportunity before I head to law school next semester.

A well-rounded answer like this gives the employer a lot of information in a little bit of time.  Here, the student conveyed a general interest in government and supplemented that with prior work experience with government officials.   At the same time, he mentioned specific programs that were a potential part of the fellowship, which shows the employer where he would best fit in.  Finally, he tied his interest in the position to his long-term goal of becoming an attorney.  

Notably, your own answer to these questions can and should change depending on where you are in your educational or professional career.  For example, “what you hope to get from this experience” depends a lot on whether you’re in school, applying for another degree, or fully focused on your career.  Beyond all else, remember emphasizing those parts of the job and organization that show why you’re a perfect fit.   

5. Can You Tell Me About a Problem/Dilemma You’ve Handled?

You’ll probably get this question if the job calls for any kind of leadership experience, critical-thinking skill, or group collaboration.  What the employer really wants to know is how you’ll respond under pressure when faced with a difficult decision.  You should walk through a specific example that shows smart leadership. While a work-place scenario is usually best, experiences from school, community life, or even family interactions can work just as well.   Have you faced an ethical dilemma in the workplace?  Were you tasked with confronting a co-worker about misconduct?  Did you show leadership in a contentious student-group meeting?  Are you the unifying force in your family?  Because your specific story may carry a lot of details, this is a great question to rehearse ahead of time to make it as succinct as possible.  Take the following example from a community organizer applying for a social justice fellowship.

  • Question: As you can imagine, this job requires a lot of leadership as well as collaboration with others.  Can you talk about a recent problem or difficulty you’ve faced that speaks to those specific character traits? 
  • Answer As a community organizer, I work with people who are passionate about what they do.  One of the hardest things I’ve had to do was decide who got laid off when we were hit with budget cuts and confront those individuals with the news. I decided to first seek input from our executive leadership and then go through each employee myself so that I was making the most informed decision on who stayed.  For those I did let go, I met with them individually and did my best to explain the reasons for our decision.  It was a hard thing to do over and over again, but I felt like I owed it to our organization to make intelligent choices while at the same time showing those whom we let go that their work was appreciated.  

 Using an example like this sets you for success because it immediately communicates that you’ve held a leadership position before and that you’ve been tasked to make tough decisions.  All that’s left to do is explain how you handled the situation.  If you don’t have this kind of leadership experience, try to think of the last time you’ve made a tough decision that impacted others.  Maybe you acted as a mediator between conflicted groups, provided the final say on a particular project, or faced a personal dilemma that you handled with grace.  All of these scenarios can make for an excellent response so long as they convey leadership, decision-making skills, and sound judgment. 

6. What is your greatest weakness?

This question really gets at three things.  First, it’s a test in humility and honesty.  The questioner is basically asking you to admit to an area where you need work.  Are you afraid of public speaking?  Do you struggle to meet deadlines? Do you not work well in groups?  Whatever your response, be sincere as well as realistic.  In other words, don’t give answers like, “I don’t have any weaknesses,” “I care too much” and “I work too hard.”  Even if all that’s true, it’s probably best to keep those opinions to yourself.  Second, the questioner is looking for initiative.  Don’t just state your weakness, show how you’ve tried to correct it. Have you led meetings to get over your fear of public speaking? Do you use a planner to help manage multiple projects?  Adding this to your answer shows you’re a problem solver who can be self-critical and correct deficiencies.  Finally, they’re looking for any red flags.  If you lack a key skill that might be needed for the job, it’s best to mention that from the get go, saving both yourself and your employer from frustration down the line.  

One great response you can tailor to your specific situation begins with, “I need experience in [blank area].”  For example, a law student might say, “I need more work in legal writing.”  A journalism student might admit, “I need experience with investigative research.”  A psychology student might quip, “I need to practice with one-on-one sessions.”  Whatever the case, the goal is to articulate a skill that applies to the position while at the same time pointing out that you’ve made some headway in addressing that problem.  For our final example, let’s use a psychology student applying for a graduate internship in mental health counseling. 

  • Question: Can you identify your greatest weakness?
  • Answer Well, I think one big weakness has been my lack of confidence in one-on-one counseling sessions.  I have experience in substance abuse group counseling, but I haven’t done any one-on-one sessions yet. However, I’m currently taking a methods course where we do lots of simulations and practice scenarios, and I do think some of my group-counseling skills are transferable to one-on-one situations as well.  I actually applied here because I know one-on-one counseling is the main focus of your practice, and I hope to get some practice in that area.

Using the opening, “I need experience in …” opens the door to a better application in so many ways.  First, it gives you control in managing the employer’s expectations.  You’re letting them know from the get-go that you need help in a certain area and that they shouldn’t expect master proficiency.  Second, it tells the employer how they can help you be the best employee.  Giving them a heads-up that you need work in a certain skill, e.g., one-on-one counseling, will almost definitely mean that you will be given that opportunity somewhere down the line.  Finally, it gives you the power to show initiative by saying what you’ve done to address that perceived defect ahead of time.  On that note, you should feel safe knowing that a total lack of experience will not automatically disqualify you.  After all, you probably wouldn’t be applying for an internship, fellowship, or entry-level position unless you needed experience in some area, right?  Employers know this, so remember to stay calm, collected, and confident.   

The questions we’ve covered in this two-part series really hit just the tip of the iceberg of what you might be asked by a prospective employer.  But thinking through the best responses to these scenarios and others will undoubtedly give you a leg up on the competition and set you up for a stellar performance.  I’m rooting for you! 

Read Part 1 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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