I’ve mentioned a few times on The Simple Dollar that I have conducted a substantial number of job interviews in the past. Although the jobs I usually hire for are technical in nature, most of the truly telling (and thus truly valuable) interview questions were non-technical questions. A great interview question reveals the nature of the person you’re hiring – honesty, reliability, ability to communicate intelligently and quickly, and so on.
Over time, I’ve collected a pretty good pile of questions that I use in almost every interview. Here are twenty five of the most reliable ones, along with a tip or two for each one that illustrates what makes a good answer – and what makes a bad one. Hopefully, the discussion here will provide some insightful questions for interviewers, as well as some things for potential job applicants to think about. If you can easily answer all of these questions, you shouldn’t have much to worry about in the interview. At the end, I give a checklist of “homework” a potential interviewer should do before a big interview.
First, stupid answers to stupid questions.
A lot of questions that are asked at job interviews are really stupid and have obvious answers to them. “What’s your greatest weakness?” That’s not a question that’s ever going to get a truly honest answer, and mostly it’s just going to draw something bogus like “I’m a workaholic!” Interviewers ask these questions because they’re “supposed” to, but they usually don’t give any useful information. “Do you consider yourself successful?” The answer is always yes. “Are you a team player?” The answer is always yes. “How long do you plan on working here?” The answer is always long-term. “What’s more important, the work or the money?” The work is always more important.
It’s easy to identify a nonsense interview question – is it easy for you to give a very generic and canned answer that reveals nothing about you? If it is, then don’t sweat the question and worry about ones that actually matter.
1. Tell me about yourself.
This basically just serves to make the person comfortable and gives me a chance to figure out how they talk. This is a question that every interviewee should be prepared to answer, so you should be able to deliver a steady answer here. Have something clear in mind for this one before you even go in the door. The “best” answer highlights aspects of yourself that make you stand out from Joe Average in a positive fashion. Make a list of four or five of the biggest ones, then work that into a thirty second bit.
2. Tell me what you know about us.
This question simply tries to determine if the person being interviewed has done their homework. An exceptional candidate will be able to deliver a lot of information about the company, but mostly this eliminates people who didn’t even bother to do minimal checking – these are people we don’t want. In other words, before you go to an interview, know what the organization is.
3. What sets you apart from other people that might apply for this job?
The answer is usually already known to the interviewer based on the resume, but this is a chance for you to really sell yourself. Most interviewers will usually sit back and see how well you can sell. On occasion, surprises can be good here, but this can be tricky – if it’s something that should have been on your resume, why was it not on your resume? You’re better off knowing what the cream of the crop of your resume is and just listing it out.
4. Describe to me the position you’re applying for.
This is a “homework” question, too, but it also gives some clues as to the perspective the person brings to the table. The best preparation you can do is to read the job description and repeat it to yourself in your own words so that you can do this smoothly at the interview.
5. Why are you interested this position?
This is actually something of a trick question, because it’s just a way of re-asking the second question (what you know about the company) and the fourth (what you know about the position). It’s asked because it tells whether people give flippant answers to questions (things like “because I’m a people person”) or whether they think about things and give a genuine question. This is a good question to formulate an answer for in advance – basically, just come up with a few things that seem intriguing to you about the company and the position and reasons why they interest you.
6. What aspect of this position makes you the most uncomfortable?
Most people think this is some sort of filter, but it’s rarely used that way. This is actually an honesty question. No one on earth will like every aspect of every potential job – it’s just not in us. Location? Working hours? People? The company’s too big? The company’s too small? Honesty really works here – I’d prefer to hear a genuine reason for discomfort (particularly one that comes from real observation of the company) than a platitude that isn’t really a discomfort at all. A good way to answer is something like “I’ve never worked in a company this large before” or “I’ve heard some strange things about the corporate culture” or “The idea of working for a startup at such an early stage makes me nervous.”
7. What was the biggest success you had at your last job?
8. What was the biggest failure you had at your last job?
It’s usually good to pair these questions, but the important one is the biggest failure. The best applicant is usually someone who will admit that they made a disaster out of something (they’re fairly honest and willing to admit errors) and that they learned from it, an incredibly important trait.
9. Tell me about the best supervisor you’ve ever had.
10. Tell me about the worst supervisor you’ve ever had.
These two questions simply seek to figure out what kind of management style will work best for this person and also how that person is likely to manage people. Let’s say I work in an organization with a very loose-knit management structure that requires a lot of self-starting. If that’s the case, I want to either hear that the “best” boss was very hands-off or that the “worst” boss was a micromanager. On the other hand, if I came from a strict hierarchical organization, I might want to see the exact opposite – a “best” boss that provided strong guidance and a good relationship or a “worst” boss that basically left the applicant to blow in the wind. Your best approach is to answer this as honestly as possible – the interviewer will have a good idea of the corporate culture and, frankly, if you try to slip into a company where you don’t match the culture, you’ll have a very hard time fitting in and succeeding. These questions might be worded as “what kind of management style works for you.”
Another tip: highlight positives in all of the bosses you discuss. Never turn the interview into a bash-fest of anyone. Your worst boss should have a very small number of specific flaws and they should mostly relate to diverging expectations from you, not in bad character traits. Bashing someone during an interview just reflects poorly on you, so don’t jump for the bait.
11. Tell me about the most difficult project you ever faced.
The interviewer could usually care less what the exact project is. The question is mostly looking to see if you have faced serious difficulty and how you overcame it. For most people, this isn’t their biggest success or biggest failure, but something that they turned from a likely failure into some sort of success.
12. What do you see as the important future trends in this area?
This works well for some positions – technical ones and leadership ones – and not well for others. It should be pretty obvious from the type of job you’re applying for whether this question might be asked. If it is, it’s easy to prepare for – just spend a half an hour reading some blogs on the specific areas you’re applying for and you’ll have some food.
13. Have you done anything in the last year to learn new things/improve yourself in relation to the requirements of this job?
This is a great “deer in the headlights look” question, as most people simply don’t have an answer. The best way to handle this question is simply to always spend some time working on your skills in whatever way you can. Write open source code. Participate in Toastmasters. Take a class. If you put effort into improving yourself every year, you’ll not only have a strong resume, but this question will be a non-issue.
14. Tell me about your dream job.
Never say this job. Never say another specific job. Both answers are very bad – the first one sends the warning flags flying and the second one says that the person’s not really interested in sticking around. Instead, stick to specific traits – name aspects of what would be your dream job. Some of them should match what the company has available, but it’s actually best if they don’t all perfectly match.
15. Have you ever had a serious conflict in a previous employment? How was it resolved?
This question mostly looks for honesty and for the realization that most conflicts have two sides to a story. It also opens the door for people with poor character to start bashing their previous employer, something which leaves a bad taste in most interviewers’ mouths. The best way to answer usually involves telling the story, but showing within it that there are two sides to that story and that you’ve learned from the experience to try to see the other person’s perspective.
16. What did you learn from your last position?
Although it’s fine to list a technical skill or two here, particularly if your job is very technical, it’s very important to mention some non-technical things. “I learned how to work in a team environment after mostly working in solo environments” is a good one, for example. There should be no job where you learned nothing, and the interviewer is expecting that you learned at least a few things at your previous employment that will help at your current one.
17. Why did you leave your last position?
Mostly, this is looking for conviction of character. A strong, concrete answer of any reasonable sort is good here. “I wanted to move on” is not a strong answer. Downsizing is a good answer, as is a desire to seek specific new challenges (but be specific on what challenges you want to face). Minimize your actual discussion of your previous position here, as you’ll be very close to a big opportunity to start bashing your previous position.
18. Tell me about a suggestion that you made that was implemented at a previous job.
Since these answers usually are heavily involved with the specifics of the previous position, the specifics aren’t really important. What’s most important is that you actually have been involved in making a suggestion and helping it come to fruition, ideally with some success story behind it. Having done so indicates that you’re willing to do the same at this position, which can do nothing but improve an organization. Not having an answer of some sort here is generally a sizeable negative, but not a “do or die” negative.
19. Have you ever been asked to leave a position? Tell me about the experience.
Obviously, it’s great if you can answer “no,” but it’s usually not a deal breaker if the answer is “yes.” In fact, a “yes” answer can be turned into a positive – it’s a great way to show that you’ve made mistakes and learned valuable lessons from them. Be honest here, no matter what, but don’t spend time bashing the people that let you go. Only discuss them with respect, even if you’re angry about what happened.
20. Have you ever had to fire anyone? Tell me about the experience.
This is a question that is mostly looking to see if you have empathy for others. Take it dead seriously when answering – it should not have been an easy choice or an easy experience, but one that you handled and survived. Do not bash the person you fired, either – be as clinical as possible with the reasons.
21. Are you applying for other jobs?
This is an honesty question. I’m looking for “yes,” but people who are trying too hard to feed me a line of nonsense answer “no.” The best way to answer is to say “Yes, in much the same way that you’re interviewing other people. We’re both trying to find the best fit for what we need and what we want.” If your answer is truly no, then say so – “No, I’m actually happy with my current position, but there were a few compelling aspects of this job that made me want to follow up on it” and list those aspects.
22. What do you feel this position should pay?
Surprising to many, this is often not salary negotiation. In most cases, the person you’re interviewing with has little control over the final salary you’ll get. It’s usually used as a reality check – if you’re hiring a janitor and they expect $80K, you can probably toss the resume right then and there. At the same time, a highly-skilled programmer selling themselves at $30K is also setting off some warning bells. A good answer is usually on target or a bit on the high side, but not really low or insanely high. I’d get an idea of the asking rate for the position before I ever go to the interview, then request about 30% more.
23. Where do you see yourself in your career in five years?
This is something of a “junk” question, but it is useful in some regards as it filters for people with initiative. A person who answers something along the lines of “I’m going to be successful in this position that I’m interviewing for!” is either not incredibly motivated to improve themselves or isn’t being totally honest. I’d rather have an answer that involves either promotion or some level of enterpreneurship – strong organizations thrive on self-starters. The only problem for potential interviewees is that some companies – weak ones, usually – don’t want self-starters and are particularly afraid of people who dream of becoming entrepreneurs. Talking about promotion is thus usually the safest bet if you’re not familiar with the culture, but I personally love it when people interviewing talk about entrepreneurship – that means they’re the type that will be intense about succeeding.
24. What are your long-term goals – say, fifteen years down the road?
This is a great late question because it tells you whether the person is a long-term thinker or not. People that plan for the long term are usually in a good, mature mental state and will often wind up being stronger workers than people without long-term plans.
25. Do you have any questions about this job?
Yes, you do have questions about this job. Not having questions is a sign that you aren’t really that interested in the position. Thus, your job as an interviewee is to have a few questions already in mind when you walk in the door. Most interviewers are happy to answer most anything you ask them – just make sure your questions are intelligent ones, though.
Do Your Homework!
Here are the things you should do in advance of any interview that will help you handle almost all of the questions above.
Work on a very brief description of yourself that you can bust out at any interview. The big trick is to mention things that are unusual or even unique to you, but stick to the things that are either positive or (at worst) neutral – keep the negatives to yourself unless they’re tied to a big positive. A thirty second spiel will do.
Research the company by visiting their web site and finding out exactly what they do. Good things to read include the company’s most recent annual report and their Wikipedia entry (if they’re big) or just by Googling the company’s name and location (if they’re small). If it’s a startup, just try to absorb as much as you can from whatever sources you can get, but if it’s truly a tiny startup, don’t sweat it if you can’t find much information.
Research the position by reading the job posting very carefully and looking up any pieces that you don’t know. You might also want to refresh yourself on what’s cutting edge in the areas covered by the job posting by reading up a bit if you’re not already familiar – blogs and news sites are a good place to start. You should also get a good grip on the regular starting salary for this type of job by searching around for similar jobs near your location.
Know how you match the position by taking the pieces of the company information you found and the job posting and matching them to your skills. Do about five of these, as these are going to be silver bullets during the interview. Also, identify at least one thing that makes you uncomfortable about the company and position and think about why it makes you uncomfortable.
Always work to improve your skills by participating in activities that sharpen the key skills you need for the field you’re in. Are you in public relations? Join a Toastmasters group. Are you an administrative assistant? Do volunteer work for an organization that could use your skills but does things in a different way (the same goes for many tradespeople). Are you a programmer? Contribute to an open source project.
Have a few questions about the position in mind when you walk in the door. This creates a strong impression during the interview that you are actually interested in that specific position, which is a big positive for you. Questions of all kinds are good here, but the best ones usually address corporate culture and technical specifics of the job.
Do not bash your previous job. If there are specific things about your last job that really, really irritate you, spend some time trying to think of positives about it. Know when you go in that your previous job will likely be discussed at least to a degree, and be prepared to discuss it without being negative. Look for positives, and also be able to state the reasons for leaving as clinically as possible.
Be honest, above all else. If you make up things at your interview and you slip at all, the interviewer will toss your application in the trash. Instead, just try to focus on the positives of what you already have. If you’ve made it to the interview, there’s something the organization likes about you. Don’t waste time inventing stuff to say.
Sophie Krier is on a permanent field trip. A designer and educator based for many years in Rotterdam, she is currently at a year-long Cité des Arts residency in Paris in order to develop her ongoing publication called Field Essays. Published by Onomatopee, Field Essays is a unique experiment in bringing practitioners across disciplines into a conversation circulating around design. But the aim of the project is not “interdisciplinarity” as such – it utilises the publishing platform as an autodidactic tool for broad exploration, letting the “what” of learning dictate the “how”, as Krier puts it. In the spirit of a journey without a fixed destination, uncube put on a backpack and started a conversation with her about education, publishing and design without a roadmap.
On the surface your education in textile design doesn’t directly relate to the work you do today. How did it inform your practice?
That question is at the core of what I’m doing at the Cité des Arts residency in Paris this year. I’m here to reflect on the past 15 years and see if there are connecting threads. In my case, those connections may not feel so logical at the time, but afterwards they usually do. For instance, during my design education, I felt I was missing out on learning about the social dimension of design practice. But what I was learning, weaving, a way of working very related to textiles, is about connecting things, making a pattern from nothing, starting with the structure of the weft and weaving through it to build a narrative. During my education I knew that I was interested in narratives, that I liked language, and had good drawing skills – but I had to invent my own role, which is something I’ve always enjoyed doing even though it’s scary at the time.
So in a way your education was successful in that it forced you to take your own position.
I’m sceptical about making judgments on my educational experience, because my perspective is different now from then. While maybe my experience was a bit confined to a practical approach, the whole idea that designers can also be researchers hadn’t really emerged yet. I studied between 1995 and 1999 – and graduated without computers!
After graduating I opened my practice in Amsterdam in 2000, firstly joint with a colleague and from 2001 as my own studio. At the beginning the work was based on my graduation project – a set of fictive props for a film – and I was working on scenographies for exhibitions. Then that shifted to curating events and symposia, and somehow the public space and social element came into it too.
Once I finished my education, I was able to reconnect the skills I’d learned with my actual interests. I don’t know if that connection is really possible within the education context. Maybe I’m super classic in thinking this, but I think Bachelors is for the basics, to really lay down the foundation of a profession, a craftmanship, an attitude or way of working, and then the Masters and PhD allow you to build on that.
So you’re not against the formalised system of moving through various degrees?
No. I think by the time you get to Masters you should really have your own research topic that you try to develop within those two years. Not every Masters programme makes this possible. The Temporary Masters at Sandberg, for instance, is great because it does – students pick a topic and then work on it for two years in a protected research studio, without the financial risk and all the other factors associated with real practice. The beautiful thing about education is that you’re allowed to make mistakes. You have peer review, and time is free; a teacher isn’t going to charge you for speaking with you half an hour longer! But personally, I think I used my practice as a Masters. I had to be my own critic and peer review.
Is that where Field Essays comes in? As a publication it definitely deals with questions of being “in the field” as in learning from the profession, using your career as an ad-hoc Masters programme, and turning the process of learning into a product.
The title Field Essays says it all. It contains the two reasons I’m still in design: the field is the moving outwards, doing fieldwork, being on-site, seeing how things work in reality; the essay refers to Montaigne’s idea of reflection – not necessarily a theoretical reflection, but a personal kind. Essay also has the French word essai in it, which means “attempt”. So I really like the meaning of those two words, the moving out and then the moving in to reflect on what you’re doing. This movement is very important to nurture, and every person has a different rhythm. Some people are more into the reflecting part, and some people are real makers and need other people to reflect on them. I happen to be a person who loves both.
How did you arrive at the idea for Field Essays?
It’s a bit enigmatic, but I can trace it back to 2006 when I joined a research group called the Professorship of Art and Public Space at the Rietveld Academy, which was for teachers, artists, designers – anyone wanting to conduct “fundamental research”, as they called it. They meant that the research should not be project- or commission-related, but rather have its own timeline and weave itself into projects over time. For me joining the group was like “whoa” – for the first time I was asked what I was really interested in and how I wanted to contribute to the world, which is very different from completing a brief or reacting to a specific situation.
In the beginning I focused on collaborations between two or three designers, because when you work with another person your mental process becomes verbal or sketched out – explicit. I realised I was interested in the way that design choices are made, and the consequences of those choices, however miniscule they might be, for ethics. I had planned to make a documentary and to write essays on the topic, but then I realised I needed a format to frame this research. I needed something that would provide evaluation moments, like in education. That turned into the idea of publishing a series of books.
And now you are working on the third issue in the series. How has the process informed each iteration?
So far the process remains incredibly intuitive. I choose the protagonists on instinct. Their work grips me, either because I don’t understand it or find it super strange, and see something in their work that I haven’t seen elsewhere.
The first issue, where I connected the design duo Lucyandbart with the philosopher Marek Popropski, was a kind of classic 1.0 version: you have a designer and you look for the theoretical framework that can inform what’s happening in the design process. But the second issue was much more experimental. I met designer Jonathan Muecke in his studio, where he had an 8-metre-long stick. I asked him what it was and he said, “I don’t know how long it is, but I made it to measure the world with.” That was the the sentence that hooked me.
The connection between him and the photographer Bas Princen was made mainly visually. Jonathan had made this copper stool object, and I remembered an image by Bas of a copper mine. I had the feeling that the two pieces could have been one work. Eventually I managed to bring them together in real life, which didn’t happen in the first issue, and I had been right: there is a kind of chemistry between the two.
The current issue with the designer Brynjar Sigudarson is again very different. I’m reconsidering my own voice in the publication; I will not actually write about him this time. My voice is only present in the editing of the material, and the other choices – we’re producing a vinyl record to go with this one!
It sounds like the publication format originally allowed you to frame and condense your ideas, but is now providing a platform to launch from.
Right. And if I compare it to building a website or something, I really like that the two finished issues of Field Essays are just that: finished. Even if I want to change some words now, I can’t, because they’re printed and circulating in the world for people to react to or not. It’s true that we are adding more, such as the audio dimension, but it’s good to have some things you can’t undo. What I like is that there is no external time pressure; on average it takes two years for an issue.
Until recently it was like a reflection tool on the side of my practice, but the decision to come to Paris for a year was to see if I could put Field Essays at the centre. It might even lead to creating a Masters program around Field Essays.
You’ve worked extensively as an educator – how did it change your ideas about being a student?
I led the DesignLAB department at Rietveld between 2005 and 2009, and had the time of my life – I think the students did as well! The great thing there is that I had a lot of autonomy and could construct my dream education. We started with what I called “Process Sessions”, where teachers would present their interests and then the students would enter into dialogue with them to decide what to work on over the year. That’s different from the usual situation in which the topics are laid out for everyone in advance and at some point might intersect within the framework of the set assignment.
Projects like the Travelling Academy that I worked on there were born from thinking about internationalisation in the school system. Rietveld is known to be very international, but that refers to 60% of international students coming in to the school, not the Rietveld itself travelling. So we imagined the model of the Travelling Academy, based on the notion that your education is like a backpack, which can be very light.
There’s a beautiful quote by Louis Kahn, where he says something like: “education started with a man standing under a tree who did not know he was a teacher, discussing his realisation with a few sitting around him who did not know they were students”. Meaning that in the beginning education was not about all these roles, about the school building or the structure around it: it was about transmission of insights.
So did this teaching experience highlight the importance of the interdisciplinary approach that you’ve worked with in Field Essays?
Yes, it highlighted the importance of it, but I also understood that before going into the “field” you need to prepare your ground first. The danger of interdisciplinarity is when you don’t know where you’re coming from. It’s great if it makes sense with the topic you’re working on, but even then it should never be the first aim in education. It’s like putting the method before the content. I still think that what is being learned comes before how you learn it. The “how” helps the “what,” but the “how” should never go first. The question is what kind of knowledge you produce. Now you should ask me what kind of knowledge I want to produce with Field Essays!
Let me take a guess: if the aim isn’t interdisciplinarity, it’s about following trails of content and seeing where they lead.
Yes. And I’m even coming back to the idea of the textile. Maybe it just took me this long to figure out what I want to do with my education – and what I’m able to do with what I was taught. There’s that incubation time you have to think about when you assess education.
I need to study the practice of others to understand my own practice. That’s what Field Essays has given me: seeing what others do and understanding what choices they make allows me to ask what I would have done.
- Elvia Wilk
Sophie Krier is a designer based in Rotterdam and Paris who explores the peripheries of the design field through field work in the public domain. She has recently been nominated for the Dutch Design Awards for her project “Hunnie” with Henriëtte Waal. www.sophiekrier.com
School’s Out: uncube issue no. 26
An Ecology of Technologies: Interview with Hitoshi Abe
Building both as Verb and Noun: Interview with Yung Ho Chang