Behavioral interviews can be hard, especially if you aren’t used to them. Open ended questions are nothing like college exams, and it usually feels like a trap to be vocally self-critical.
If your answer to the question, “What is your biggest weakness?” is “I’m a perfectionist” or “I’m too humble,” then you are likely answering that question poorly.
This article aims to serve as a guide to re-conceptualize open-ended questions from the perspective of the interviewer. For what are they looking in your answers, and how can you best answer them?
Tell me about yourself.
There is probably not a wrong answer to this question. As an interviewer, I spend the first 10 minutes of an interview with very easy questions to get a broad picture of the candidate. The questions are meant to be easy and subjective as a way to ease the candidate’s anxiety before the real interview begins. The questions are intended to relax you because, with the exception of huge red flags, they can’t be wrong. Just talk about yourself, your best traits, your hobbies. Whatever you enjoy nerding out about. This is likely a precursor to real interview questions, so discussing your hobby projects should calm you down, not tense you up. Use this opportunity to sell your best qualities that you want to ensure come up during the interview.
Why are you looking for a new job?
The correct answer is never to blame your previous workplace for being terrible. Discuss areas where you are not being challenged enough and your desire to grow as a person and on the job. Check out the Amazon Leadership Principles and other soft skills. Identify where you are not able to grow at your company, and discuss a desire to grow into that role. Maybe you want to take on new responsibility, mentor others, or learn new talents. My reason for changing my last job was that I felt like I had plateaued in my capabilities. I wasn’t being challenged to invent new solutions, and I didn’t feel like I was learning new things. I was just repeating the motions, and I was not okay with stagnation.
Do not mention pay.
What are you currently working on?
Throw in more buzzwords. Research the company and role beforehand. What tools are they using or developing? Discus projects you are currently working on that use those tools or are related to the same problems they are trying to solve. As an open ended question, it is likely more to get a broad picture of you and relax you; it is less likely to have a wrong answer.
Tell us about a time when you had a conflict with someone else.
Use the STAR method. What was the situation? What did you need to do? What did you do? What was the result?
If you are not conflicting with coworkers, you are lying. There is always some sort of conflict. It is normal. If you haven’t had a conflict, it’s a red flag that you bottle up your emotions, don’t voice your opinion, don’t communicate, or have little to no experience on the job.
The most important part of discussing a conflict is the action and resolution. How did you handle it, and what was the result? If the result was bad, can you show self-reflection and hindsight to discuss what you learned from the situation and what you would have done differently? Where possible, I’d suggest a positive result; but a negative result taken as a learning opportunity and learning from your mistakes is better than no example at all.
Example: I received feedback through management that I was underperforming. My biggest motivation in life is to be better each day than the previous — see also: my reason for leaving my last company. I had a one-on-one conversation with each member of my team and the teams with which I worked, gaining feedback on various relevant areas. How easy were they able to integrate my code with their projects? How difficult was the onboarding into my projects? How clear was my communication? Did I ever leave them feeling unready to contribute (under-mentored or overcomplicated solutions)? What areas of my interpersonal communication could be improved?
From the feedback, I addressed any area that was not satisfactory, e.g. setting up better communication channels or iterating on the cross-team workflow. From that, I not only corrected my mistakes at that time but learned the value of periodic retrospectives. Whenever I feel even the slightest bit of friction to a new idea, onboarding process, etc., I like to go back after the fact to dive deep into the experience. Were they simply opposed to change? Did the process grow on them? Was the process wrong? Now that they have a deeper understanding of the new system, what constructive criticism can they provide to improve it going forward? This creates processes that grow and self-correct over time.
A question that starts with addressing your negative qualities should end with how you grew from them and have something to offer the company going forward.
You are not perfect. No candidate is. Leave your ego at the door. If you can’t admit you make mistakes, you can’t grow from them, and that is a red flag to the interviewer.
What are you currently making? What compensation are you looking for?
Do not tell them what you are making. Answer the second question without addressing the first. They probably won’t backtrack and ask what you are making again. Answer at least 10% above Glassdoor’s listing for the role for which you are interviewing in your area. You may want to take the company itself into consideration when doing the Glassdoor calculator, depending on if they pay drastically higher or lower than average in the area. When the variability of the role’s pay is great, you can aim for more than 10%. They won’t reject you if you interviewed well; they will counter-offer what they can afford. If you lowball yourself, they won’t counter-offer a higher amount!
You will need to do the research for pay in that area yourself. Feel free to state your justification. “My research has found that the average salary in this area for this role is $X, so I am targeting that.” I have made this exact statement before, with an inflated $X, and received the response, “I shouldn’t tell you this, but we actually pay $Y (where Y < X) on average to our employees in this role.” That’s fine. I’ll take it.
Similarly, if you are highly paid now and the role has high variability in pay, “My research has found that the average salary in this area for this role is $X, but I am currently compensated at a higher rate than that, so I’d be aiming for around $Z to consider the career shift.” I’ve had luck with this in the past as well, but it’s a harder sell, as you are going above market price, and likely won’t work for a junior position.
Do you have any questions?
Yes! Always have questions. Ask about the company, role, or culture. It’s a two-way interview. Do not ask about pay or vacation time. Ask what tools they use, what problems they are solving, what they love most about their job, if you can bring your dog to work, what the team is like, if the team ever hangs out outside of work, etc. I especially love this part of the interviewer, because you can use it to self-improve! “What tools are you using?” is a great question. If you don’t get hired, you are still better off for having interviewed. You know what is in demand at other companies. You know what tools to learn, or what problems need solving. You can go home, learn them, and interview somewhere else or even the same place at a later date. “Yeah, I use [tool].” Great! You have so much relevant experience! You can get a lot of insider information on what is in demand or what problems commonly need solving that you never considered. What frameworks are in demand? Should you bother learning Angular if 90% of your interviewers say they are using React? Should you learn CI/CD tooling when it seems that every interviewer is using it? Looks like a lot of them are using “the cloud”: better research that!
I wrote a bit about the end-of-interview questions in this article. Specifically, follow up your questions with a closing statement. You can read about the closing statement in the article. They will not ask you for a closing statement, but providing one is one of the two best pieces of interview advice I have ever received. The other being “Treat the interview like it’s your first day on the job.” It really helps relax you and treat the interviewer(s) like coworkers, improving your interaction and communication — because that’s how they are thinking of you.
If you have any questions or great suggestions, please leave them in the comments below.