The Interview: Be Prepared to Answer and Ask These Questions
14 minute read
Updated: 8 July 2020
First impressions are often lasting impressions, and the interview is usually the first opportunity to make a positive impression on a potential employer. Make sure you’re prepared for interviews by practicing your responses to some of the most commonly asked interview questions. At the same time, don’t forget that you are, in a way, interviewing the employer as well to learn more about the position and organization. The interview should flow as a conversation, where both parties are trying to learn if the other is a good fit.
And, as in any good conversation, you should make an effort to be concise. We’ve all been in a group where one person keeps talking and talking and talking. You don’t want to be that person. Similarly, in the workplace, you need to demonstrate clear, concise communication. Fortunately, you can rely on the STAR method, a widely-used means of forming succinct responses to interview questions. STAR is an acronym that stands for:
Situation: Describe the situation that you were in or the task that you needed to accomplish. You must describe a specific event or situation, not a generalized description of what you have done in the past. Be sure to give enough detail for the interviewer to understand. This situation can be from a previous job, from a volunteer experience, or any relevant event.
Task: What goal were you working toward? What was the specific thing you were trying to accomplish?
Action: Describe the actions you took to address the situation with an appropriate amount of detail and keep the focus on YOU. What specific steps did you take and what was your particular contribution? Be careful that you don’t describe what the team or group did when talking about a project, but what you actually did. Use the word “I,” not “we” when describing actions.
Result: Describe the outcome of your actions and don’t be shy about taking credit for your behavior. What happened? How did the event end? What did you accomplish? What did you learn? Make sure your answer contains multiple positive results. Also, use specific numbers if possible (e.g., my actions led to 10% growth in sales for the second quarter).
Most professional resources state that the STAR method is used primarily in “behavioral” interview questions. As the name suggests, these questions ask how you would behave in a particular work situation. For example, an interviewer might say, “tell me about a difficult decision you’ve made,” to which you would respond by discussing a specific situation, task, action, and result relating to a difficult decision.
Questions you will hear during an interview may not at first seem behavioral. How could “tell me about your strengths” possibly relate to a behavior? In fact, many questions can be answered with the STAR method because your answers should be supported with examples of how you have behaved in professional situations. So you might answer the “strengths” question by saying something like, “I consider my greatest professional strength to be my adaptability. For example, I was once in a situation where…” You get the idea!
The STAR method might seem like a lot of effort at first. However, all it takes is a bit of practice, and then you’ll be checking off the letters in your head as you form succinct responses to questions during an interview. Below, we’re going to present several common interview questions. Some allow you to consider how you might incorporate the STAR method. We’re going to call attention to these opportunities with a STAR method opportunity alert! Where you see this, take a moment and consider how you would respond by discussing a specific situation, task, action, and result relating to the question.
Finally, at the end of any interview, you’ll have a chance to ask questions of your own. What you ask in this portion of the interview is arguably as important as your earlier responses. Good news: we’ll have some advice on this following the sample questions. Let’s begin!
Sample Questions to Answer:
1. Tell me about yourself. The employer is looking for a brief summary about you and is more interested in hearing about your educational and professional background than your hobbies and favorite foods. See if you can sum up your educational and professional background in about 60 seconds and ensure that you make connections between your background and the position for which you are interviewing.
2. Why do you want to intern/train here? Focus on a few of the key responsibilities that are especially interesting to you or highlight aspects of the company that you find appealing or beneficial to your professional development. Be sure to include what you hope to learn from the position, but also explain what you would like to contribute to the organization as well. Absolutely avoid mentioning you want the position solely because of its location or because it is a requirement for your degree.
3. What do you know about this industry? You may not have a lot of experience in the field yet, but make sure you have researched and are ready to discuss current trends – particularly what’s happening in the U.S. and in your home country. It’s also extremely important to refer to specifics from internships or work experience you’ve had in the past or topics you’ve recently studied in school.
4. What do you know about our company? A potential employer wants to know that you have researched their company. You don’t need to know everything about the company, but you should be able to discuss the basics. Find out what the company’s mission statement is, who the biggest clients are, etc. Research recent news articles about them. The company’s website, blog, and social media is also a great place to start.
5. What is your biggest weakness? This is one of the most challenging questions to answer. You obviously don’t want to say something negative about yourself to a potential employer, so the trick here is to turn a negative into a positive.
STAR method opportunity alert! You might say, for example:
- Situation: “Staying organized used to be a challenge.”
- Task: “In 2019, my former supervisor asked me to take on an additional project, Project B, in addition to my current workload, Project A. I realized that I needed to develop my organizational skills in order to succeed.”
- Action: “I developed a time management system that works for me and that has really helped keep me organized: I started breaking down tasks into hour-by-hour chunks.”
- Result: “As a result, both projects were successful. Projects A and B represented, respectively, 15% and 10 % growth compared to the same projects previous year.
6. Tell me about your strengths. Many people are inclined to recite a list of traits such as “dependable” or “creative”, but it’s especially effective to discuss experience or skills that are directly related to the internship/training program to which you’re applying. For example, if you’re applying to intern/train in Sales but have no previous sales experience; highlighting your presentation skills might really impress an employer. Or you may want to provide an example of how you were able to persuade someone to do something since that is the foundation of the sales industry. Again, provide actual examples rather than a list of attributes.
STAR method opportunity alert!
7. What specific skills do you have that would relate to this position? Make sure you’ve thoroughly read the requirements for the position and confirm that you meet them. Refer to specific responsibilities of the position and tie them to your educational and/or professional experience. If you aren’t applying to a specific internship/training opening and are proposing the program to the employer, be sure to explain that you have a strong foundation for training in this industry. They will understand that they will need to teach and train you, but they will also want to know you have sufficient preparation to be successful.
STAR method opportunity alert!
8. What makes you a good candidate for the position? Discuss your qualifications, including your educational background (include specific coursework or projects), internships and professional work experience. You may also want to include some personal characteristics (e.g. motivated, hardworking, get along with many different types of people, etc.), but do not simply list positive attributes. The interviewer is more interested in how you demonstrate these skills or attributes.
For example, instead of saying you are motivated, provide an example of how you proactively identified a need at a previous company and subsequently led a project to meet that need. This will prove that you are motivated without you just saying, “I’m highly motivated.” If an employer ever asks you to “tell me about a time…” this is the type of response they are seeking. They don’t want to hear that you are good at time management—they want you to provide actual examples of your time management skills.
STAR method opportunity alert!
9. Why should I hire you for the position? Give specific examples of your accomplishments and why you are the best person for the position. Talk about the responsibilities of the position and the skills you possess to fulfill them. Be sure to restate your interest in the position!
10. What are your goals for the future? An employer wants to know that the position relates to what you hope to do in the future because it’s a sign that you will be motivated to learn and work hard in the position. Talk about your goals and explain how the position would help you achieve those goals.
Sample Questions to Ask:
Let’s be real. Of course an interview should be a two-way conversation. And of course you want to learn more about the organization. But, at the end of the interview, when you’re asked if you have any questions, this is yet another opportunity for you to impress - or fail to impress - your interviewer. Asking certain questions will make a good impression.
Conversely, asking some questions will make you seem foolish. Your school teachers may have taught you that there are no stupid questions. Well, that’s not the case here. We want you to succeed, so learn to ask the right questions. ;)
1. What is the overall structure of the company and how does your department fit within that structure? This is a good way to get a sense of how the company operates and what each department does so that you can see how your role as an intern/trainee would fit into this organization.
Bonus points: Ask the question in a way that shows the interviewer that you’ve already done some research about how the different departments relate to each other. For example, consider the following question: “I saw online that there are three departments reporting to the Director of Programs. Do these departments interact on any projects?” Such a question shows that you’re aware of some basic company hierarchy already: you know the role of the Director of Programs and that this person supervises a certain number of programs. Asking this kind of question makes you sound informed, and your interviewer will note that you’ve done some research. Where might you have done this research? Most organizations’ websites have an “About Us,” “Our Work,” or “Our Programs” page.
2. What will be my day-to-day responsibilities? Can you give me an example of a project on which I would be working? You should ideally know the major responsibilities of the position before interviewing, but this question will help you get a better sense of the more specific types of tasks you would be doing and the anticipated level of your involvement within the organization.
Bonus points: Ask about a project that’s currently ongoing within this department. You might be able to find a calendar of events on the company’s website, or a list of projects on the page of the program to which you’re applying. You could say, for example, “I saw that the annual spring fundraiser is coming up; how would I support that in this position?”
3. Can you describe the work environment/office culture? Is it casual? More corporate/formal? You will want to know the office dynamic before accepting an internship position with the company. Can you see yourself training in a similar environment? How does this office compare to offices in your home country or previous positions you’ve held?
4. What do you like about working here? Be curious and inquisitive! Show that you are interested in the interviewer’s background and experience at the company. You will learn about the advantages of having an internship with them and get some firsthand insight. Note that both this question and the preceding one, about the work environment, are both commonly used by prospective employees. It’s good to memorize these as backup questions for the interviewer. But if your intention is to impress in the question phase of the interview, ideally you’ll go with one of the other inquiries.
5. Why are you interested in hiring an intern? This is a great way to gauge the employer’s motivation for having an intern in the first place. You can better understand what they might have you working on and what type of role they envision you having.
6. What is the typical career path for interns or employees in this department? You can relate this question to your long-term career aspirations by mentioning where you see yourself in a few years and how this position ties into those future professional goals. Maybe the employer will mention a previous intern. Do you share a similar background with that intern? This is a great way to learn about what a typical or potential career track might be. However, be cautious not to imply that you only see the position as a stepping stone to another role. Your employer will want to have faith that you’ll focus on the tasks your position entails.
7. What would you consider to be the most important aspects of this internship role? You can use this question to really emphasize your strengths and draw on your education and/or previous experience. The better you are at understanding the expectations for the position, the better you can show them how you will meet those expectations and be an exceptional intern/trainee.
Bonus points: Use the responses given by the interviewer to sell yourself. For example, after hearing the interviewer’s response, you may say something like “I’m pleased to hear that; I helped a previous employer in that area.” Then, of course, give a succinct explanation. Remember that all stages of the interview are opportunities to demonstrate your ability to excel.
8. What do you think is the most challenging aspect of this position? This interview is an opportunity to really learn about your employer’s expectations for the position. You can also turn this into a conversation about challenges you’ve faced in your previous positions and how you have overcome them. (Hopefully very well!)
9. Does the company participate in any team-building activities, traditions or events? The purpose of the Career Training USA program is cultural exchange. The program is a really great way to learn more about U.S. culture and to share your culture with Americans. This question allows you to learn about opportunities or activities for you to get involved in with the company.
10. What are the next steps in the interview process? You don’t want to be pushy about when you will find out if they have offered you the internship, so this is a good way of asking what happens next.
What NOT to ask:
1. What does this company do? Show that you have done your homework! The interviewer will think you are wasting their time if you ask questions that you can easily find the answer to yourself, such as on their website.
2. Can I change my schedule? What salary, vacation time and benefits do I get? Wait until you are offered the internship before negotiating things like salary and vacation time (if applicable). You certainly want to have these things agreed upon before accepting an offer, however you don’t want to give them the impression that you only care about the perks of position instead of the position itself.
3. Did I get the position? Be patient! You can follow up with them via email after the interview, perhaps a few days later, to inquire about next steps. When you do follow up, don’t directly ask whether you got the position. We get it: it’s normal to be anxious and want to know. However, pointedly asking whether you got it can sound pushy and off-putting.
Instead, follow up with a simple thank-you email. This is your last chance to make an impression and it’s also another way to reiterate your strong interest in the position. Did you think of another question you didn’t get a chance to ask? Put it in the email. Better yet, you can include more examples of your work discussed in the interview. Maybe your interviewer made a casual reference to an article you wrote for a student newspaper. Include it as an attachment. Show them that not only did you pay keen attention when speaking with them, but you also took the initiative to follow up.
Bonus points: Send your followup email to every person who interviewed you. You might have to do a little digging. Sometimes, you find employee email addresses on an organization’s website. Perhaps that website has a staff directory you can search. Searching Google for an employee’s name, along with their organization, will sometimes result in links that provide their email address. However you find them, send your thank-you email to the original person you spoke to, and CC the others.
Interviewing is a skill. Like any other skill, it gets better with practice. This article gave you a bit of practice, but you shouldn’t stop here! If you really want the internship, there are thousands of online resources. To narrow them down, we recommend some practice with the STAR method, followed by forming responses to a list of 100 common interview questions.
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