5 Questions To Expect At Your Next Job Interview

Businesspeople sitting in row

You can never predict for sure which questions you'll be asked in a job interview. However, some are so commonly asked that you should expect to hear them, and more importantly, spend time preparing your responses to them.

All these questions have the potential to cause a serious flub if you wing them. They're crucial enough that you need to prepare answers ahead of time, rather than leave them to chance.

1. "Why are you leaving your job?" or "Why did you leave your last job?" Interviewers ask this, because sometimes the question produces highly relevant information. They may learn if you were fired for poor performance, if you're leaving because you can't get along with your boss or if you actually left your "current" job five months ago, even though your résumé says you're still there.

Your goal in answering this question is primarily to not throw up any red flags. As long as you present a reasonable explanation for why you're leaving or why you left – one that doesn't badmouth other employers or make you sound like a problem – most interviewers won't care too much about the details. (Keep in mind, of course, that your answer needs to be truthful, and employers may verify your answer during reference checks.)

2. "What salary range are you looking for?" Many candidates are so uncomfortable discussing salary that they don't prepare to answer this question and instead just hope it won't come up. Then they end up having to come up with an answer on the fly when their interviewer does ask. That can lead you to undercut your own negotiating position, so it's essential to prepare an answer for this question ahead of time. That means you'll also need to research the market rate for the types of jobs you're applying for, so you're able to ground your answer in real data and an understanding of what a reasonable range is.

3. "What have you been earning in the past?" While some employers stick to what you're seeking to earn now, others will ask about what you've been earning previously. Employers who ask for your salary history typically claim that knowing what you've earned in the past helps them figure out how much you should be earning now, but it's entirely reasonable to decide that your salary history is no one else's business. If an interviewer asks for your salary history, one option is to respond with your salaryexpectations instead. For example: "I'm looking for a range of $50,000 to $60,000, depending on benefits.

4. "Why would you excel at this job?" Too often, job candidates approach the hiring process as if they only need to demonstrate that they're qualified for the job. That's the wrong approach. Being qualified isn't sufficient to get you a job offer. For most job openings, employers are flooded with tons of qualified candidates. To get an offer, you need to show not just that you're qualified to do the job, but that you'd excel at it. That means you need to come to the interview prepared to talk about "evidence" in your past that demonstrates your success in each of the key qualifications the employer is looking for. Prepare examples of times that you've used skill X or trait Y to drive a project to success, times that you've used skill Z to overcome a work-related challenge and so forth.

Assume that your interviewer will ask you to talk about times in your past when you displayed each of the key qualifications of the job, and prepare your answers ahead of time. For instance, depending on the job, you might prepare for prompts like these:

  • Tell me about a time when you had to take initiative.

  • Tell me about a time when you had to deal with an unhappy customer.

  • Give me an example of a challenge you faced in your current job and how you solved it.

  • Tell me about a time you faced an unrealistic deadline and how you handled it.

5. "What are your weaknesses?" You might not hear the question asked in exactly this way. Some interviewers may be aware that it's a worn-out question and present it in other forms, like "What's an area where you're working to improve?" or "What has your manager urged you to do differently?" But ultimately, this question is about weaknesses, and interviewers ask because they want to make sure your weaknesses – and everyone has them – won't get in the way of you doing the job well.

If you're tempted to answer this question with "I'm a perfectionist" or "I work too hard" or other cliches – don't. You'll sound disingenuous, and savvy interviewers will push for a more sincere answer. Instead, come prepared to honestly discuss your weak spots. What have you struggled with in the past? What have managers encouraged you to do differently? And what are you doing to address it? This type of answer will help you have an honest dialogue with the hiring manager to figure out if this role is the right fit for you, and you'll come across as thoughtful and self-aware.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search and management issues. She's the author of "How to Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager," co-author of "Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results" and the former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management.