Answering Interview Questions Effectively

In order to fully present your qualifications to an employer, you need to be able to effectively answer their questions. For all styles of interview questions, you should use the best practices listed below. Tips on answering specific styles of questions are provided in the expandable sections below.

  • Listen carefully to questions and try to analyze what skill, knowledge, or character trait the interviewer is trying to evaluate. For example, if you are asked to describe a time when someone wasn’t happy with your work, the interviewer likely wants to hear that you embrace constructive criticism and use it for improvement or that you work through confrontation in a positive manner.  They are not interested in hearing a long explanation of the work and what was wrong with it. Ask the interviewer for clarification if needed.
  • Answer questions as truthfully as possible while highlighting the skills and other pieces of information that you want the interviewer to know about you.
  • Do not be overly modest; be comfortable sharing your personal contributions and accomplishments.
  • Give a variety of examples to show that you apply professional skills in all aspects of your life.  Your most important projects and work experiences can be used as answers for multiple questions, but try not to answer all questions with one particular job or project.
  • Use “we” to show that you are a team player and to share credit when appropriate, but use “I” more because the interviewer is specifically interested in your efforts and contributions.
  • Don’t just make vague proclamations of your skills (e.g., “I’m a very strong communicator”). Anyone can state that they are a strong communicator. Instead, it is important to include specific examples of times when you successfully used those particular skills. Actions and behaviors are more important than unsubstantiated claims of success.
  • Keep your answers positive and focused on making the case that you are a well-qualified candidate for the position being discussed.  If a question requires you to talk about a negative experience, end on a positive note, such as the things you learned from the experience that will make you better able to handle a similar situation in the future.

Traditional Questions

The best way to prepare for traditional interview questions is by reviewing your resume and being ready to discuss any experiences or skills in further detail with the interviewer. For example, if you listed VBA as a skill, be prepared to talk about any specific training or courses you’ve received, or any class /work projects during which you used VBA.

You should also reflect on your preferences/interests and understand how they align with the position and/or company. For example, if working for a ‘green’ company is important to you and during your research you find that the company is working to cut greenhouse gas emissions and releasing fewer pollutants into the environment, this would be a good point to discuss. If the company culture or industry really appeals to you, be prepared to mention this.  See Step 2 of this online guide for a more detailed approach to determining your preferences and skillset.

Examples of traditional questions:

  • Why are you interested in working for our company?
  • Why did you apply to this specific position?
  • Can you tell us more about your involvement in __________?
  • Do you have any experience with ____________?
  • Do you prefer to work independently or with a group?
  • Why should we hire you?

If the interviewer asks about a particular skill (e.g., What do you think is most important when providing customer service?), we recommend following the advice provided in the next section: Behavioral-Based Questions.

Behavorial-Based Questions

As discussed previously, interviewers use behavioral-based questions to learn about how you handled certain situations in the past because this provides insight about your skills and how you are likely to handle similar situations in the future. The first step in providing an effective answer is understanding what skill or character trait the interviewer is trying to assess.  Sometimes it might not be completely obvious.  For example, if an interviewer asks you to describe a particularly challenging problem that you solved, he or she isn’t looking for a detailed explanation of the problem.  Instead, he or she is interested in your problem-solving skills and wants to hear about the process you went through to solve the problem.

Once you understand what the interviewer is interested in hearing about, you need to fairly quickly think of a specific example to use.  Therefore, it is  important to prepare for an interview by 1) anticipating the skills and character traits that you are likely to be asked about, and 2) thinking about the specific situations you can use to show that you have experience in the areas of interest.  The particular situations are not as important as your ability to use them to highlight your capabilities and strengths.  To help ensure that answers to behavioral-based questions contain the right information and right amount of detail, it is highly recommended that you practice and use the STAR method of formulating answers.

Examples of behavioral-based questions:

  • Describe a time when you had to make a difficult decision and explain the process you used to arrive at the decision.
  • Can you tell us about a time when you and a team member disagreed about something and how you handled the disagreement?
  • Can you describe a time when you had to pay close attention to detail?
  • When was a time that you provided great customer service?

Technical Questions

Many companies recruit at Iowa State University because they know the curriculum, projects, and labs prepare you for the technical world of engineering.  This is one of the reasons that GPA can be important; it allows employers to compare your performance to that of other students.  By analyzing your GPA, class level (i.e. level of coursework), and engineering projects on your resume, employers can get an idea of how much technical knowledge you have. Therefore, the interviewer may not need to spend much time asking you questions about technical topics.

However, companies may have certain technical skills or processes that they find very important.  If a company is looking for candidates with understanding and/or experiences in these areas, then they will ask technical questions during an interview to evaluate your level of expertise.  Occasionally companies will also ask about technical steps taken in your class/work projects, or about how a particular technical skill was used to solve a problem. If a company is planning to ask detailed technical questions, they will typically let you know beforehand so that you can prepare.

If you are asked a question about a technical skill that you do not have much or any experience with, avoid simply saying “I don’t know”. Instead, you could respond with “I remember learning about that during my ______ course and am confident I could quickly pick it up again”, or, “That’s not something that I’m currently familiar with, but I love to learn new programs and am a very quick learner”. You could also compare the skill they asked about to a similar experience/program that you have knowledge of.

Abstract Questions

Abstract questions are very rare, so you do not need to spend much time preparing for them. With these questions, interviewers may be trying to see if you can quickly process and answer a question or deal with a stressful or unknown situation. There is not necessarily a right or wrong answer for these questions. For example, if you are asked, “If you could be any color what would it be?”, you shouldn’t sit and try to think of the ‘right’ answer for a long time. You also don’t want to just give a one word answer like “Red”. Instead, you should try to explain the reasoning behind your answer (e.g., “Cardinal Red because it reminds me of growing up an Iowa State fan and of all the wonderful experiences I’ve had so far as an ISU student.”).

An interviewer may also try to assess your procedural and/or analytical knowledge by asking questions such as, “How do you make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?” or “How many tennis balls do you think would fit in this room?”. Again, they are likely not looking for an exact answer. Instead, they want to know how you would explain the procedure or go about solving the problem.

Additional Information on Answering Challenging Questions

Many interviewees find the following questions to be particularly challenging. Take some time to review the list, along with tips on how to answer each of the questions.

  • Tell me a little bit about yourself.
    • This is often used as an opening warm-up question, giving you the opportunity to talk about something you’re comfortable with.  It also indicates to them what’s important to you and what defines you.
    • Don’t give your complete employment or personal history. Instead give an extended elevator pitch – one that’s concise and compelling and shows why you’re the right fit for the job.
      • Because this is a job-specific extended elevator pitch, finish off with the 2-3 specific accomplishments, experiences, or facts about you that connect you to the company or job description (e.g., the company is in small town/you grew up in a small town).
  • What do you consider to be your weaknesses?
    • Sometimes the interviewer(s) are trying to see how honest you are, whether you are focused on continuous improvement, or if you can quickly assess and answer a question.
    • Turn it into a strength – Think of something you struggle with but are working to improve.
      • I have very high quality standards and try to hold others to those standards when I maybe shouldn’t…
      • I sometimes take on too many tasks, but I’m working on setting priorities…
      • I haven’t had a lot of experience speaking in front of large crowds so I get a little nervous, but I’m volunteering to lead meetings for more experience…
  • What do you know about our company?
    • They want to know that their company is high on your target list and that you’ve taken the time to research/learn about them and the position.  If you have any previous connections with the company (e.g., student org, networking event, relatives at company, friend interned in the past), this is a good time to mention them.
    • If you care about the core products/mission, start with a line that shows you understand the company’s goals/products by using a few key words from the website. Then make it personal: “I’m personally drawn to the mission because…” or “I really believe in this approach because….”.
  • What attracted you to apply for this position?
    • The employer is looking to see whether your interests align with the qualifications of the position and company culture/goals.
    • Review the job description and qualifications closely, and identify skills and knowledge that align with your career interests and background. If you’ve came across positives about the company during your research, this would be a good time to share them (e.g., positive intern reviews, products and projects, positive business news).
  • Why should I hire you? or What are your greatest strengths?
    • The company is looking to analyze your ability to market and connect your background to their position and needs.
    • Illustrate why you are a highly qualified candidate. Be accurate and relevant (choose skills that you are actually good at and that are most targeted to the position) then follow up with an example of how you demonstrated the traits.
  • Describe a time when your team dealt with stressful timelines and communication conflicts.    
    • The employer is looking to see how you handle conflict, work with others, and take responsibility for advancing the team’s objectives/goals. They want to see how well you de-stress yourself, compose yourself, organize, prioritize, and positively push through to completion.
    • Choose an example that shows you can meet stressful situations head-on in a productive, positive manner and still let nothing stop you from accomplishing your goals. You could talk through your stress reduction tactics (e.g., making a to-do list, stopping to take 10 deep breaths) and then share an example of a stressful situation in which you used them.
  • Where do you see yourself in five years?
    • Employers are looking to see if you’re really interested in staying with the company (i.e., will be a good long-term employee) and if you have realistic expectations of job advancement.
    • Be honest and specific about your future goals but try to show the following: 1. That you have realistic expectations; 2. That you have ambition (i.e., have thought about this question before); and 3. That the position aligns with your goals.
  • What other companies have you applied to or are you interviewing with?
    • Employers want to know their competition or whether you’re serious about the industry. They also want to understand what your timeline is to start working or accept an offer.
    • You don’t have to disclose other company names or details of the interviewing process, but if you are interviewing, you can mention that you are exploring a number of other similar options in the company’s industry. If you have received a competitive offer, it’s OK to let them know you have received an offer that you’re considering.
  • What if an interviewer asks an illegal question (regarding your ethnic background, age, marital status, sex, religion, etc.)?
    • If you are comfortable answering the question, it is okay to do so.
    • If it is something you do not wish to answer, try one of the following methods:
      • Try to rephrase the question. For example, if asked ‘What is your native tongue?’ you can respond with, ‘I fluently speak both English and Spanish.’
      • If you are not comfortable answering at all or if you think answering will hurt your chances of getting the position, respond with something such as ‘I have never been asked this question before. Why do you ask?’
    • Please inform Engineering Career Services about the incident so corrective actions can be taken.  In some cases, an uninformed or insensitive interviewer may simply need coaching, but when illegal intent is indicated, the employer’s recruiting privileges at ISU will be suspended.  ECS will protect the identity of any individual expressing a concern, and ensure that actions taken do not negatively affect hiring decisions whenever possible and appropriate.