Be sure to prepare for these three most commonly asked interview questions. Just in case. [TWEET]

Common job interview questions range from the ultra-conservative and vague (“Tell me about yourself”) to the very casual and downright sarcastic (“You seem like a nice person, why would you want to work here?”). Why would a company ask you why you want to work there if you’re sitting in the candidate seat and you’re obviously interested in the job? According to former recruiter Barbara Saunders, now a small business teacher and coach, these are the three most common job interview questions and the reason for each question.

“Why do you want this job?”

Recruiters use this common job interview question to test the candidate’s understanding of what the job entails. If the candidate answers something like, “It’s an easy commute for me” or “I want to make money so I can pay my bills,” that shows lack of passion and willingness to contribute. The answer to this question can sometimes demonstrate right away that the candidate is not right for the position because he or she shows a lack of understanding of the position and company needs.

What a company wants to hear is that your personal and professional goals align with the culture of the company and the needs of the job. This is not really the time for groveling or trying to please with, “Your company is the only one in the industry worth working for!” That’s too vague and presumptuous; they’re going to ask why. Instead, demonstrate that you’ve done your research: Can you mention a class you’ve taken – or one you want to take – in an area of focus for the company? Did you live in a country where they are expanding their market? Connect your life to their values and plans.

“Where do you see yourself in X years?”

This is one of the most dreaded questions in an interview, and also one of the most common interview quetions. Some answers have ranged from the honest (“Hopefully pregnant”) to the presumptuous (“Sitting in your seat!” or “In your position!”). But hirers ask this question for a specific reason—not to see where a candidate wants to go, but to get a sense of where the candidate is relative to level of experience. A recent graduate might respond, “I just want to learn how the industry works. I’m willing to learn anything.” Which is fine. But if a mid-senior level person is that vague it’s a red flag. A candidate with a lot of experience should offer some specifics in terms of interest and direction. Being “open to anything” is not always good for upper level hiring. This question is really four questions. The first three are about you:

  1. What have you learned from your career until now?

  2. Are you able to take a long view and make plans?

  3. What are your passions?

The fourth has to do with whether you will meet the company’s needs and expectations. The interviewer may be looking for a successor when he/she gets his/her own promotion. Some companies look to hire people who will stay for a long time. In other companies, certain roles are often filled by bright, energetic workers who bring in new blood for a year or two and then move on. For example, a large law firm might hire receptionists who are new graduates contemplating law school. Design firms may bring in a long-term graphic design contractor to work on a specific project for a specific demographic, expecting it last for a few years.

“Why are you looking for a job right now?”

Hirers ask this common job interview question to find out how serious and how available the candidate really is. Are you serious about this particular job or just generally shopping? Hirers will also ask this question to get a feeling about your career status in general. For example, was the candidate laid off? (“I worked for HP and they laid off 10% of the workforce including my entire team function.”) Or was the applicant let go or quit for personal reasons such as “grew out of the job” or “new boss cleaned house and brought in her own team”? A hirer might see the personal reason as something that could affect a candidate’s ability to do the job.

When asking this common job interview question, savvy hirers may be looking for something that’s harder for you to see – your potential. Recruiters and managers who interview dozens of people every year develop a feel for this. Maybe you are leaving your company because there’s not much room for advancement. A hiring manager might interpret that as a positive trait such as inner motivation, ambition, or a strong desire to make a difference. It is no longer taboo to change positions often, especially in some industries like IT and design, which are more project-based. But even for shorter-stay positions, you want to look like a go-getter, moving from opportunity to opportunity, not like a person who can’t fit into a work team or who runs away when faced with a challenge or a difficult patch. Avoid appearing aimless.

If you have been unemployed for a while, the hirer might ask about consulting work. Have you been consulting while looking for full-time employment or are you a consultant who was not successful in getting clients and thus decided to work full time? In either of those cases, don’t miss a chance to highlight the entrepreneurial skills that could benefit the company. For roles that don’t directly require specific business skills like budgeting or editing, a candidate with a freelance background can have an edge: Show the interviewer how your role addresses business purposes like raising revenue, shaving costs, or improving products. The “why are you looking for a job” question in general helps to read a candidate’s attitude. Are the candidate’s responses snarky? Desperate? Bitter?

If there has been a long gap in your resume, paint your experience as something that contributes to your readiness for the job. If you were taking care of a sick parent, you can say that you learned to navigate and juggle complicated systems – financial, legal, and medical. Perhaps you took time off to travel or study; explain to the interviewer how these experiences developed you into a more knowledgeable employee or into a more culturally capable person.

Another job interview tip: research the position and company before you go in for an interview. If you know the names of the people who will be interviewing you, review their LinkedIn profiles. You might find they have a common interest or background. You may also get a clue as to their mindset: Did the interviewer leave investment banking to become a nonprofit program manager, or has he/she been working as a social worker since college graduation? Hirers are looking for experienced hard workers who will benefit the company and be able to speak intelligently and politely about the available position. When responding to common job interview questions, make it clear why you should be the candidate the company hires.

One last thing – interviewers are only human. The recruiter may be as nervous as you are—there might be pressures and stress at the company that you don’t know about. Put the interviewer at ease. Make the interviewer’s day easier, and the interviewer might just make your day!

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