How to Answer “Tell Me About Yourself”

So, the first question you’re probably going to get in an interview is, “Tell me about yourself.” Now, this is not an invitation to recite your entire life story or even to go bullet by bullet through your resume. Instead, it’s probably your first and best chance to pitch the hiring manager on why you’re the right one for the job.

A formula I really like to use is called the Present-Past-Future formula. So, first you start with the present—where you are right now. Then, segue into the past—a little bit about the experiences you’ve had and the skills you gained at the previous position. Finally, finish with the future—why you are really excited for this particular opportunity.

Let me give you an example:

If someone asked, “tell me about yourself,” you could say:

“Well, I’m currently an account executive at Smith, where I handle our top performing client. Before that, I worked at an agency where I was on three different major national healthcare brands. And while I really enjoyed the work that I did, I’d love the chance to dig in much deeper with one specific healthcare company, which is why I’m so excited about this opportunity with Metro Health Center.”

Remember throughout your answer to focus on the experiences and skills that are going to be most relevant for the hiring manager when they’re thinking about this particular position and this company. And ultimately, don’t be afraid to relax a little bit, tell stories and anecdotes—the hiring manager already has your resume, so they also want to know a little more about you.

I know what you’re thinking. Nobody messes this interview question up, right? I mean, it’s the easiest one you’ll ever have to answer during your job hunt. Ever. When I was recruiting, I approached it with the mindset of, “I’m going to ask the candidate to tell me how he found the gig just to break the ice.” Or, I’m going to bring this up to know which of my many methods actually led to a qualified candidate sitting in front of me. Never was it ever a trick question.

But I quickly learned that in a lot of ways, this one trips people up sometimes. And because I’ve seen some of the worst examples, here’s how you can avoid making the most common mistakes when talking about how you found the job.

1. You Feel Uneasy About Sharing That a Friend Referred You

I get it. Nepotism, right? Yuck. Nobody wants to feel like he got his foot in the door just because he knows someone at the company. What’s worse than getting a little help from a friend? Dancing around the answer, hoping that you won’t have to fess up to the fact that not only is your future on the line, your friend currently has a referral fee on the table for getting you an interview.

What to Do Instead

I hate to sound so crass, but if you’re fortunate enough to know someone at a company you want to work for, just buckle up and tell everyone who asks you exactly how you found out about the job. A simple response like, “I was excited to find out about the job from my friend who works in [department]” is a perfectly OK response. In fact, it’s the only response you should be giving if this is the case.

2. You Turn it Into a Monologue About Why This Is the Only Job You Want

Here’s a perfect example of an interview question that only requires a short answer. All you need to do is tell the hiring manager where you found the darn job. But, all too often, candidates get so caught up in the moment that they end up turning it into a long-winded explanation of not only where they found the listing, but also why they couldn’t imagine working anywhere else. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with being excited about an opportunity, but when you’re going on and on about how you simple found the gig, it can be a huge turn-off for a recruiter.

What to Do Instead

If you want to fold in a little tidbit about why you’re so excited about the job, that’s not a terrible idea. But, keep it short. Add your unique spin to a response along the lines of, “I found it on [wherever you found the job], and since I’ve been hoping to work for the company for a long time, I was excited to see the opening had become available.” That’s all you need. Seriously.

Any candidate can read and regurgitate the company’s “About” page. So, when interviewers ask this, they aren’t necessarily trying to gauge whether you understand the mission—they want to know whether you care about it. Start with one line that shows you understand the company’s goals, using a couple key words and phrases from the website, but then go on to make it personal. Say, “I’m personally drawn to this mission because…” or “I really believe in this approach because…” and share a personal example or two.

Like the dreaded “Tell me about yourself,” the question, “Why are you interested in this position?” is sure to come up in an interview.

And, even if it doesn’t, if you want the job you should get this sentiment across regardless. So, really, there’s no way around figuring out how to string together a coherent thought about why this being in this position makes sense for you (and for the company).

Luckily, there’s actually a pretty simple way to go about answering this question effectively without having to go through every big moment or transition in your life and career that’s brought you to this interview. Here’s a smart framework for how you should structure your answer.



Step 1: Express Enthusiasm for the Company

First things first, this is an excellent opportunity for you to show off what you know about the company. You can talk all day about how excited you are about joining the team, but nothing will trump actually knowing a thing or two about the place you’re interviewing with. So, to prepare, spend some time honing in on what you know about the company and select a few key factors to incorporate into your pitch for why you’re a good fit.

Say you’re interviewing for a small quantitative asset management company. The start of your answer might sound something like this:

The first thing that caught my eye when I saw the position posted was definitely that it was at EFG Advisers. I know that you build a lot of your tools in-house, the team is small, and you run a variety of long- and short-term strategies in the U.S. equities markets using a quantitative approach.


Especially with smaller companies, it’s always impressive when a candidate knows a thing or two about what goes on at the company. And the best thing about this is you rarely have to go beyond reviewing the company website or having a quick conversation with a current or past employee to learn enough to sound like you’ve been following the company for a while.


Step 2: Align Your Skills and Experiences With the Role

Next, you want to sell why, exactly, you’re right for the role. There are two ways you can do this: You can either focus more on your experiences (what you’ve done before that brings you to this point) or your skills (especially helpful if you’re pivoting positions or industries).

Try to pinpoint what the main part of the role entails, plus a couple of the “desired skills” in the job description, and make sure you speak to that. Follow up your introduction to how excited you are about the company with why you’re a good fit:

But the part that really spoke to me about this position was the chance to combine both the programming skills I gained from being a senior software engineer and my knack for quantitative analysis in a position that actively lets me engage with my growing interest in investing and portfolio management.


Keep it short—you’ll have plenty of opportunities to talk about how you got your skills or relevant stories throughout the interview—and just focus on highlighting a couple key relevant abilities or experiences for the position.

Step 3: Connect to Your Career Trajectory

Finally, you want to show that the position makes sense for where you’re going in your career. Ideally, you won’t give the impression that you’re just using the position as a stepping stone. Show that you’ll be around for the long haul, and your interviewer will feel more comfortable investing in you:

I’ve been interested in switching to finance for a while now and have been actively managing my own personal portfolio for a few years. Joining a quant shop makes sense to me because I think it’s one of the few places where I’ll still be able to use my technical skills and spend my day thinking about finance. I’m really excited to learn more and see how I’ll be able to contribute the firm.


Of course, you don’t have to state specifically that you see yourself in the position for a long time. Just show that you’ve given some thought to how the job makes sense for you now and that it continues to make sense for the foreseeable future.

String these three components together, and you have a response that will impress on three fronts: your knowledge and enthusiasm for the company, your relevant skills, and your general fit with the position. Plus, this framework has the added benefit of not stopping the flow of the conversation the way going through your entire life story would.

I don’t even like asking this question in a mock interview, so I don’t know how hiring managers stomach it in a real one. But, apparently, they do—in fact, turns out it’s pretty common.

The good news is, despite how demanding and weirdly petulant the question is, it’s actually a really great opportunity to sum up why you’re a good fit for the position. It allows you to talk about your skills, your fit with the culture, and everything in between. What more could you ask for in an interview?

So, how exactly do you cover your bases for such an open question? Here are three strategies.

1. The Intersection

One way to attack this question is to intersect what’s in it for the hiring manager and what’s in it for you. Basically, you want to get across that he or she will get a enthusiastic employee who has the exact right skill set for the position and that you’ll get to—and therefore look forward to and be motivated to—do something meaningful, build your skills, and work toward the next step of your career.

The key here is to not forget that second part: talking about yourself. Too many people make the mistake of only listing the benefits for the employer. Going into what’s in it for you will give insight into why you’ll stay driven—a trait all interviewers are looking for.

2. The Company Expert

Some interviewers will spell it out and others won’t, but you should know that the full question is always, “Why should I hire you over everyone else?” If you feel you’ve already spelled out your skills and experience multiple times, perhaps a better approach for you is to show what you have to offer that others don’t. Assuming you’re competing against other similarly qualified candidates, a good thing to highlight at this point is your dedication to the role.

To do that, show deep knowledge of the business and an understanding for how you might fit in. This, of course, requires a good bit of company research (here’s a great guide to get you started), so you can talk about the uniqueness, the history, the future, and your own personal investment. Diving into your knowledge of the company serves a few purposes. You show your excitement for the position, you come off as an insider who might be easier to train than other candidates, and you demonstrate how you handle something you’re invested in.

3. The Problem Solver

Frequently, hiring managers post positions because they have a problem that needs to be solved. Get straight to the point with your response and outline, ideally in detail, how you can offer immediate relief for the company’s pain point.

Like in a “Pain Letter,” don’t spend all your time talking about the past—focus your efforts on the future, and explain how you can make the interviewer’s life easier by addressing his most imminent issue. This shows you’re forward-thinking, already a team player, and ready to hit the ground running.

Next time you’re faced with this question, try one of these strategies to stand out above your competition. If nothing else, you’ll be memorable for how polished and unruffled you were. That alone might make you special.

When answering this question, interview coach Pamela Skillings recommends being accurate (share your true strengths, not those you think the interviewer wants to hear); relevant (choose your strengths that are most targeted to this particular position); and specific (for example, instead of “people skills,” choose “persuasive communication” or “relationship building”). Then, follow up with an example of how you’ve demonstrated these traits in a professional setting.

You’ve told me about your strengths—now, can you share what you consider to be your biggest weakness?”

It’s the question that nobody likes. Well, except for hiring managers—who ask it pretty frequently—which means that you should be prepared with a well thought out answer.

To help you out, we’ve put one of our favorite tips into a short, minute-long video. Watch as our CEO Kathryn Minshew gives a formula for answering this question from our career expert Lily Zhang, then try it out yourself.

How to Answer “What Are Your Weaknesses?”

The questions, “What’s your greatest weakness?” or “What do you know you need to work on?” trip a lot of people up, because who wants to talk about the less impressive parts of your skill set or personality?

But here’s the thing: It can be really tough, but it’s important not to lie or to gloss over your weaknesses. Ultimately, most employers want to hire someone who’s reflective about their skill sets and knows what they’re not as good and need to work on.

So here’s one way that I think about answering this question. First, think about something that isn’t your strong suit, whether it’s delegating to others or attention to detail, but think about it back in the past. Show how you’ve taken steps to overcome it, or worked hard on getting better, and mention that you’re still working and working at becoming even better at this skill set.

So for example, if someone said, “What’s your biggest weakness?” you could answer:

“Well, I used to be pretty horrible at public speaking. When I started college, it was a massive problem, and I was just terrified of doing it, and I didn’t do a very good job. So first I took the small step of promising myself that I would speak up in front of really small groups, for example in class. Then, I worked up to taking a public speaking class, which made a big difference. Now, even though I get nervous, I feel like its something that doesn’t completely hold me back, and, in fact, recently I gave a speech at a conference to over 100 people. My hands were shaking the whole time, but I got really good feedback at the end.”

See, that wasn’t so bad. Now just make sure you don’t say something like, “I’m too perfect,” or “I struggle with perfectionism,” because nobody really believes that is your biggest weakness.

Accordion ConNothing says “hire me” better than a track record of achieving amazing results in past jobs, so don’t be shy when answering this interview question! A great way to do so is by using the S-T-A-R method: Set up the situation and the task that you were required to complete to provide the interviewer with background context (e.g., “In my last job as a junior analyst, it was my role to manage the invoicing process”), but spend the bulk of your time describing what you actually did (the action) and what you achieved (the result). For example, “In one month, I streamlined the process, which saved my group 10 man-hours each month and reduced errors on invoices by 25%.tent

You’ve reviewed your resume, practiced your elevator pitch, and reviewed a few stories you can share during the interview. All is well, and you’re feeling confident. And when the interviewer says, “Tell me about a time you disagreed with your supervisor,” you are ready to go and launch straight into a story about that one time you bravely confronted the director of marketing at your previous company about a new campaign you had a bad feeling about.

Okay, so maybe that doesn’t sound like you—yet. Let’s take a step back and talk about how you can get there.

Pick the Right Story

All these “Tell me about a time when…” questions require stories. As a hiring manager, it’s incredibly unsatisfying to interview someone who has no stories to share. After all, how can someone know what you can do if you can’t talk about what you’ve done? Don’t be that job candidate.

So, how do you find the right stories to share? Go through the job description and highlight all the soft skills that are featured. You’ll likely find things like “ability to work on a team and independently,” “comfort with multitasking,” or “strong communication skills.” Then, come up with an example of a time you demonstrated each of these traits—though keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need a different example for each. In fact, it’s better to come up with stories that are flexible, since you’ll likely have to adapt them to the exact questions anyway.

There are, of course, a few things that interviewers frequently like to ask about that will not be on the job descriptions. Be prepared for “negative” questions, like “Tell me about a time you had to deal with a conflict on your team” or “Tell me about a time you failed.” It’s not that interviewers are out to get you—how you handle conflict and failure are good things to know—it’s just not the best idea to put “must deal with frequent team conflict” in a job description.

Finally, brainstorm a few more questions that could potentially come up based on the position you’re applying for and your particular situation. For example, if you have a big gap on your resume, you’ll want to be prepared to talk about why you’re no longer at your previous job (more on that here), or if you’re coming into a newly merged department, you should be prepared to discuss a time you’ve been part of a big change.

Make a Statement

Once you have your stories, it’s time to think a little deeper about why these questions are asked in the first place. What does the interviewer actually want to know?

Take a few seconds to think about this before you start answering the question—even if you have the perfect story prepared—so that you can make an appropriate introductory statement about essentially what the moral of your story is going to be. The reason for this is that even though the interviewer is specifically asking you to tell a story, the idea is that he or she will learn something about the way you do things. The problem with this is that what the interviewer gleans from your story could be very different from what you were hoping to share.

For example, say you tell that story about standing up to the director of marketing when asked to talk about conflict with a previous supervisor. You eloquently move through the story about how you shared your hesitation about the new marketing campaign to no avail, but once the initial numbers came in, it was clear that you were right. You triumphantly showed the performance to the director, and she agreed to scrap the campaign. While this story is definitely suitable, there are actually a few different ways it could be taken the wrong way. The interviewer could hone in on the fact that you really didn’t do anything until it was too late or that you were unpersuasive or a poor communicator the first time you raised concerns about the campaign.

To make sure your stories are as effective as possible, make a statement before you start telling the story. In this particular example, it might be something like this, “I learned early on in my professional career that it’s fine to disagree if you can back up your hunches with data.” Now, when you tell your story, it’s not about the various ways you could have approached the situation better, but about how you learned from that experience and how you use it to inform future disagreements.

Finish Strong

So, when it comes to these behavioral questions, have some stories prepared and then practice framing them based on the question you’re asked. Practice, practice, practice, and you’ll sound like a natural in no time. The final piece of the puzzle is wrapping up your answers well. You don’t want to ruin your perfect frame and story by ending your response with, “And… yeah.”

Instead, try connecting the story back to the company or position. Quickly explaining how your experience would be useful in the position you’re interviewing for is always a strong way to wrap up. Another way to finish up a response is to give the “in short” version of the answer. For example, “In short, it’s not that I’m an amazing multitasker—I just set and review my priorities frequently.” Wrapping up an interview answer (see more in-depth tips here) is such a commonly neglected area of preparation, but it can really help you nail the “strong communicator” impression, so don’t disregard it when you’re practicing.

The thing people assume about these questions is that they’re all about the story. And, yes, that is a critical component. But even if your story isn’t exactly what the interview question asked for, if it’s framed well and you go the extra mile to tell the interviewer what he or she should take away from it, you’ll actually end up making a stronger impression.

So, don’t stress too much about having the perfect stories lined up or the exact relevant experience. Instead, focus on the messages you’re trying to communicate to the hiring manager, and back them up with the stories that you have.

“Where do you see yourself in five years?”

When a hiring manager asks you this, there may be a few things running through your brain. “Moving (way) up the ranks,” “running this place,” “working for myself,” or “in your job,” for example.

None of which are necessarily things you should say out loud in an interview.

So, how do you answer the question? Watch this quick video, where Muse CEO Kathryn Minshew shares a formula developed by our career expert Lily Zhang. It’ll help you share your goals and ambitions the right way—and not give your interviewer anything to worry about.

How to Answer “Where Do You See Yourself in 5 Years?”

So, how do you answer, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

This can feel like a bit of a trick question, because sometimes the answer is, “not in this job,” or, “in your job,” or something like, “at a bigger better opportunity elsewhere.” But none of those are things you actually want to say to a hiring manager.

The good news is you can be honest while still telling them what they really want to know. Do you have realistic expectations for your career? Are you ambitious? And does this particular position align with your growth and goals overall?

For example, one way I like to think about it is: Think about where this position could realistically take you, and think about how that aligns with some of your broader professional goals.

So, for example, you might say, “Well I’m really excited by this position at Midnight Consulting because in five years, I’d like to be seen as someone with deep expertise in the energy sector, and I know that’s something that I’ll have an opportunity to do here. I’m also really excited to take on more managerial responsibilities in the next few years and potentially even take the lead on some projects. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some amazing managers, and so developing into a great manager myself is something I’m really excited about.”

So, what if this position is not a one-way ticket to your professional aspirations? It’s okay to say you don’t really know what the future holds, but you see how this experience could really help in making that decision.

It’s important to be able to articulate your dream job. Not just for personal reasons, but also for when you’re asked about it in interviews. But, how can you even begin to describe your ideal job, especially to someone who’s clearly going to be judging your response? Just picking a place to start is a head-scratcher.

Here’s a hint. Career counselors like to think about good jobs as the intersection of your skills, interests, and values. That’s a good way for you to approach it as well. Talking about your skills will give you an opportunity to sell them a bit—after all, it is an interview. Your interests will show your investment, and your values can help illustrate your fit with the company.

Break it down into three parts, like this.

1. What Skills Do You Want to Use?

First, let’s talk about what you’re good at doing. It’s likely you’ve already had the chance to talk about this topic a bit during the interview, so it makes for a nice transition. Highlight the skills that you enjoy using most, not just the ones you’re a superstar at. This is about your dream job, so don’t shy away from mentioning any that you want to grow as well.

Here are a couple of ways you can begin your response:

  • I’ve mentioned my experience with __. My dream job would definitely have to relate to that. I’d also love to grow my skills in __.
  • I’ve thought about this before, and I know I would want to keep honing my skills in __ as well as learn more about __.

2. What Interests You?

Next, it’s time to talk about what interests you. Think big picture for this. What drew you to your industry? What’s something you did as a kid that’s actually found its way into your work? What is it about your career that keeps you engaged? Weave that in.

Build on your answer like this:

  • I’ve been interested in the __ industry ever since I first discovered __. That combined with my interest in __ and __ means I’ve been hooked ever since.
  • In terms of job content, I’m interested in work that involves __ and __. I’ve been curious about things like this ever since __, so I would definitely want that to be part of my dream job.

3. What Are Your Values?

Giving a sense of what your career values are will give the interviewer an idea about what motivates you; it’s a good way to bring the focus back to the company you’re interviewing for (assuming, of course, that your values align with the company culture). It also adds some extra complexity to your answer. You’re not just saying, “I want an interesting job that I’m good at.” I mean, that’s nice, but this is your dream job we’re talking about!

Wrap up your response with something like this:

  • Based on my skills and interests, in my dream job, I would want to __ as related to __, ideally in a company where I could __ and __. These are both really important to me, and I’m excited to see that they seem to be equally important to this company.
  • Basically, my dream job would be to __ for __ in a position that would allow me to __ and __. I value this last point in particular—it’s the reason I’m so excited to be interviewing for this position.

Notice how none of this included an actual job title? It’s not necessary. Don’t pigeonhole yourself with anything that official. Instead, give the hiring manager a more nuanced response by covering your skills, interests, and values. He or she will get the chance to learn more about you—and you have more flexibility to line up your career goals and the position you’re applying for. That’s a win-win.

This question always throws people for a loop. Why are they asking, and how much do they actually need to know?

Well, hiring managers are curious about what other companies you’re interviewing with for a few reasons. They might want to scope out the competition, see how serious you are about the industry, or even gauge their likelihood of landing such a star candidate.

Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way—the answer is not, “This is the only company I’m interviewing with.” No need to give the interviewer more power than he or she already has.

So, how do you respond to this in a way that doesn’t make you sound desperate or unattainable? Here are some ideas, depending on your particular situation.

If You’re Interviewing for Competitors

Say you have a couple of interviews set up at other companies within the industry. That’s a great position to be in. Your best bet would be to explain how you’re actively exploring options within your field and that you currently have some other interviews lined up—but are most excited about this position.

For example:

I do have a couple of interviews coming up soon with Digital Ventures and Renley and Co. for senior marketing positions. But I can tell you that, based on what I know, this position has exactly the kinds of challenges I’m looking for in my next role.


If You’re Interviewing in Other Industries

A trickier situation is if you’re interviewing for positions in a variety of industries. You don’t want to come off as uncommitted to the type of role you’re applying for, so this requires a bit more finesse than the previous situation. To make this work, try finding the connection between all the positions you’re targeting. Once you have this common thread, let it guide your response.

It might sound like this:

I’m interviewing with a few companies for a range of positions, but they all come down to delivering an excellent customer experience. I wanted to keep an open mind about how to best achieve that goal, but so far it seems that this role will really allow me to focus all of my energy on customer experience and retention, which I find very appealing.


If You’re Not Interviewing Anywhere Else

You know not to say this directly, but how do you get around it? The trick is to simply choose to answer a different question. Instead of responding with your lack of other interviews, let your interviewer know what types of positions and companies you’ve been applying to.

Here’s how it could go:

I’m still pretty early in my job search. I’ve applied to a number of opportunities that will allow me to use my skills in data visualization to help educate clients, but this position is most exciting to me. In fact, I think this position is a particularly good fit for my skill set because I can leverage my significant experience working with complicated data sets.


In short, you want to answer the interviewer in a satisfactory manner, but you also want to get across that you’re especially invested in the position you’re currently interviewing for. As with all interview questions, you and the interviewer both have agendas. Answering well requires accomplishing both.

Dear Pat,

I took my current job right out of college and have moved laterally and been promoted a number of times. A while back, a new director was brought in to finally give my department the stability it’s been lacking for many years.

Since then, I’ve seen this company make some very suspect business decisions, including laying off good workers, hiring lazy workers, and targeting to eventually fire people who have been the backbone of this company. People who have given this company their all are either no longer working here or fear for their jobs daily, which makes the work environment almost unbearable . To top it all off, the new director has replaced everyone who is now gone with someone from her team at her previous employer. It’s like they’re staging a coup!

I decided months ago that it was time to start looking for a new job, but never got serious until my mentor was fired . Since then, I’ve been sending resumes left and right but a nagging question keeps coming back to me. If and when I finally get that interview and they ask me why I’m looking, what can I say? I know better than to trash my current employer, and my old standby has been, “I really can’t see myself growing professionally there,” but will that get me by? Do employers see right through that canned response?

Please help,

Tough questions

Hello Tough,

Your question is a good one, and how you answer it is very important in the process of your job search. New employers are quite attentive on all of your responses, but this one is “interview critical.” Often, executives come to me at a time when they are considering making a move, and their rationale needs to be sound when explaining a career transition.

First, you should never, ever be negative about your current or past employers. You have nothing to gain by being negative, and it only detracts from your presentation. Just as they say, “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder,” this too exists between companies and employees. Your cultural needs and expectations can be quite different from others within any given organization. In this case, I recommend you focus your response on seeking a company with cultural dynamics that better suit you , versus blaming the company for the lack of fit.

For example, instead of saying a company “laid off good people” and “hires lazy workers,” you might say, “I believe I am better suited to work in an organization that has a strong commitment to mentoring and developing executives, where there is a strong sense of loyalty on both sides and a culture that fosters career development and growth.” You could further say, “I realize that there are some companies that are in highly intense growth mode, or have over-arching financial or business pressures and problems that can’t possibly foster this type of culture. While this is all well and good for some, I don’t want to work for the latter. It just does not feel like a good fit for me.”

This approach allows you to be honest without being negative, trashing the current company or any one person in particular. The unbiased approach on your situation is that your company has gone through a lot of organizational changes, has hired new management, and has an evolving corporate culture and strategy, and the company is no longer a good fit for you. The more you can adopt this unbiased view, the better for you.

And yes, try and really believe it. If you don’t make a meaningful attitude shift, your approach and presentation will lack sincerity, and you’re right: Most perceptive hiring companies will see right through it.

Hope this helps!



Remember that time (four months ago) that you got called into your dictatorial punk of a boss’ office (who, you could swear, had it out for you since day one)—and were asked to kindly pack up your cubicle, log out of the office laptop, and return your cell phone, immediately?

Yeah, that pretty much sucked.

Fortunately, after six weeks of moping around in your rumpled hoodie and yoga pants, followed by two months of informational interviews, job applications, and research, you’ve landed an interview. And the company is amazing.

This is your shot.

But hold the phone. What are you going to do when that dreaded question comes up (as it surely will): “ Why, exactly, did you leave your last job ?”

You’re going to explain what when down, share what you learned, and then knock their socks off with all of the amazing things you can deliver, that’s what you’re going to do.

I know, I make it sound easy. And it’s not ever simple, especially if you’re still feeling hot emotions over the termination or struggling with diminished “I’m the loser who got canned” self-esteem. But if you truly want the job, here’s what you’ve got to do when asked the dreaded question at the interview.

1. Come to Terms With Your Emotions Before You Set Foot in the Interview

This must be your first step before you start pursuing new opportunities or booking interviews. If you can’t walk into that meeting with a cool head and the ability to speak calmly about your qualifications and your past job experience, spend whatever time it takes on the front end to process what happened and find your peace. No one hires a hothead. Well, except maybe clubs in search of super-intimidating bouncers or media outlets that pride themselves on being annoyingly polarizing. All other employers will be expecting a level-headed professional to walk through their doors. Be that person.

2. Without Hesitating, Explain Succinctly What Happened

Less is almost always more in this instance. If you rattle on and on about what happened and why and over-explain the whole deal, you look sketchy; like you’re trying to cover something up. Genuine, honest, and succinct dialogue, à la, “Unfortunately, I was let go,” is going to get you much farther. Remember, you’re talking to a human. All of us humans goof up sometimes; some of us have even been fired from jobs ourselves. Remember that as you speak.

3. Discuss What You Learned, Then Get Back on Topic

Our most significant growth as humans often comes following a major face plant. So, once you’ve outlined what happened, you absolutely must share with the interviewer what you learned from the experience. Share how you’ve grown and how you approach your job and life now as a result—and then get back to the business of showcasing your strengths as a candidate for that position. If you can position the learning experience as an advantage for this next job, even better.

Here’s an example:

After we lost the huge client account, in no small part due to my error, I spent a lot of time reflecting on the customer experience and how to ensure I keep the customer top-of-mind in everything I do. I believe this will be a tremendous asset in my next role.”

4. Never, Ever Bad Mouth Your Boss or Company

No matter how tempted you may be, and no matter how strongly you feel that you were wronged, don’t go there. You’ll just look like sour grapes, and no one wants to work with sour grapes.

5. Recap What You Have to Offer, Making Your Interest Clear

To help ensure that the meeting ends on a positive note, take time to recap the top things you feel you can deliver to that organization, to that interviewer, before you leave the meeting. Make it very clear that you can walk through those doors and deliver what the team needs—and that you are very interested in doing so.

And then walk out of there with your head held high, and fire off an incredible thank you note the moment you get back to your computer. You’ve got this.

Whenever you get asked this question during an interview, it’s impossible to not feel like it’s a trap. What other answers can you possibly give for, “What are you looking for in a new position?” other than, “Everything this one offers?”

Well, it depends on the humor of the hiring manager, but in general, that’s probably not your best option. To play it a little safer and to be thorough, follow these four steps. Remember, you want to be honest, but diplomatic.

1. Start With Your Skills

The question is about you, but you need to think about it from the hiring manager’s perspective. Sure, you’d love for your new position to pay extremely well, have an effortless commute, and ensure access to nap rooms during all work hours, but that’s not going to impress anyone. Instead, dive into your skills—an area the hiring manager is sure to care about—and talk about how you’re looking for a place where you can use them.

I’ve been honing my data analysis skills for a few years now and, first and foremost, I’m looking for a position where I can continue to exercise those skills.


2. Explain Your Motivation

Most hiring managers hope that the person he or she hires will be motivated by more than just a paycheck. Assuage this concern by addressing it openly. Describe what motivates you and how you can see that playing out in this position or company.

Another thing that’s important to me is that the position allows me to not only play with data, but also present my findings and suggestions directly to clients. That would be really refreshing! I’m always very motivated by being able to see the impact of my work on other people.


3. Connect With Your Long-Term Goals

Hiring people means investing in them, and no one likes to see his or her investment walk out the door. If it works with the flow of your answer, it might be good to mention how you see growing or building your career at a company that’s the right fit. Anything that signals you’re in it for the long haul is a good thing (unless, of course, you’re specifically applying to a short-term position).

And, I’m definitely looking for a position where I can grow—professional development is something that’s really important to me since I hope to take on managerial responsibilities in the future.


4. Wrap Up With Something About the Company

Bring the focus back to the company as you’re wrapping up your response. Depending on how long your answer is, it may make sense to sum up everything you’ve talked about, and then end on how excited you are about the company and why.

To sum it up, I’d love a position where I can use my skills to make an impact that I can see with my own eyes. Of course, the position is only part of the equation. Being at a company where I can grow and work toward something I care about matters, too. DNF’s goal of being the intersection between data and education inspires me, and I’m really excited about this opportunity.


Your answer will change depending on the position. You might emphasize more than one skill or skip over the part where you talk about your long-term goals, but the overall structure will probably remain the same. The key thing to remember with this question is to, of course, answer honestly, but with the hiring manager’s perspective in mind.

Hint: Ideally one that’s similar to the environment of the company you’re applying to. Be specific.

If you’re interviewing for a position that requires supervising others, any sensible hiring manager will ask you, “What’s your management style?”

And for some reason, this question always seems a little awkward to answer. How can you respond in a way that shows you can be an effective leader who’s right for the team while not sounding too grandiose (and at the same time not being too humble)?

While there are plenty of ways to make an impression that strikes that balance, here’s one way that I think works particularly well.

Define “Good Management”

The secret to getting this question right is setting the parameters for how good management should be judged. To do this, you want to explain what you believe makes a strong manager, so that the scope of all the things a manager could possible be is narrowed down a bit. This ensures that you and the interviewer are on the same page on how to evaluate the story you’re about to share.

Management style is so hard to put your finger on, but I think in general a good manager gives clear directions and actually stays pretty hands-off, but is ready and available to jump in to offer guidance, expertise, and help when needed. I try my best to make that my management style.


Add Your Spin

Now that you’ve defined what a good manager is and stated that’s your model, one up yourself and offer something extra that you do in addition to what’s already been established. Making the point to set the parameters early in your response will allow you to introduce an additional leadership trait that makes you exceptional.

In terms of what makes me unique, I also go out of my way to make sure I know when my team needs help. I don’t hang around and wait to be called upon by my direct reports—I go to them. That means plenty of informal check-ins, both on the work they’re doing and on their general job satisfaction and mental well-being.


Give an Example

Of course, all of this only works if you can back up what you’ve said. Give some evidence of your management prowess by offering a brief story of how you demonstrated the traits you’ve described. Since management can be such a lofty topic, you’ll have to be mindful of using a story that isn’t too long—you don’t want your interviewer to lose interest, after all.

I remember one project in particular at my most recent position where I supervised seven staff that involved everyone working on a separate aspect of the product. This meant a lot of independent work for my team, but rather than bog everyone down with repetitive meetings to update me and everyone else on progress made, I created a project wiki that allowed us to communicate new information when necessary without disrupting another team member’s work. I then made it my job to make sure no one was ever stuck on a problem too long without a sounding board.

Ultimately, despite the disparate project responsibilities, we ended up with a very cohesive product and, more importantly, a team that wasn’t burnt out.


That’s it! Now that you have the basic structure down, just make sure you don’t flub the ending. Try connecting your response back to the position or switching it up and asking a question of your own. Practice, practice, practice, and you’re set.

Depending on what’s more important for the role, you’ll want to choose an example that showcases your project management skills (spearheading a project from end to end, juggling multiple moving parts) or one that shows your ability to confidently and effectively rally a team. And remember: “The best stories include enough detail to be believable and memorable,” says Skillings. “Show how you were a leader in this situation and how it represents your overall leadership experience and potential.

Everyone disagrees with the boss from time to time, but in asking this interview question, hiring managers to want to know that you can do so in a productive, professional way. “You don’t want to tell the story about the time when you disagreed but your boss was being a jerk and you just gave in to keep the peace. And you don’t want to tell the one where you realized you were wrong,” says Peggy McKee of Career Confidential. “Tell the one where your actions made a positive difference in the outcome of the situation, whether it was a work-related outcome or a more effective and productive working relationship.”

Saying nice things about yourself tends to be a lot harder than saying nice stuff about others. For most people, it can be really awkward to talk about their own accomplishments—which is why interviewing is so uncomfortable for many.

Thankfully, there is one question that can (kind of) bridge this gap. When an interviewer asks you, “How would your boss or colleagues describe you?” this is your chance to use the words of others to talk about your own positive traits. Here are a few ideas about how you can take advantage of this opportunity.


1. Quoting an Official Performance Review

The easiest way to answer this question is to paraphrase a recent positive performance review. Referencing specifically where you’re getting your information from makes it easier to describe yourself as “trustworthy, dedicated, and creative” without cringing. You’ll also want to give some big picture context about your role and responsibilities to fill in the gaps around your answer. Altogether, it’ll sound something like this:

Actually, in my most recent performance review in April, my direct supervisor described me as someone who takes initiative and doesn’t shy away from hard problems. My role involves a lot of on-site implementation, and when things go wrong, it’s usually up to me to fix it. Rather than punting the problem back to the team, I always try to do what I can first. I know she appreciates that about me.


2. Start With the Story and Share the Takeaways

Another way to do this is to start off with the story and conclude it with how your boss or co-workers would describe you. Since the question is pretty open-ended, this is a great opportunity for you to share something you really wanted to mention in the interview but haven’t had the chance to yet.

Or, it could be the other way around. There might be some trait or skill you know the hiring manager is looking for, and the opportunity to talk about it hasn’t come up yet. This is your chance.

One thing I’ve noticed is that I’m always the one people turn to for recommendations on how to handle a new event or program—the latest fundraiser that I just told you about would be one. I have a lot of institutional knowledge, which helps, but I think the reason people come to me is that I work through what a new program might look like very methodically. If you were to ask my colleagues, I’m confident they’d describe me as logical, organized, and meticulous.


3. Naming Three Positive Traits With Short Examples for Each

Coming up with stories can be tricky when asked on the spot (which is why you should have a few prepared), so if you just can’t think of anything, here’s another approach. Try to think of three positive traits you bring to your work or workplace. Then, have a short example after each. It might go something like this:

I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but I’m pretty confident my colleagues would describe me as thoughtful—I’m the one in the office who remembers everyone’s birthdays—and hard-working, since I never leave my office until it’s been dark out for a couple of hours. My boss, in particular, would say I’m very knowledgeable about audience development—it’s why I kept taking on more and more responsibilities in that domain.


Next time you get this question, you should be smiling because of what a great opportunity it presents to talk about pretty much anything you want to frame in a way that makes it easier for you to talk about. That’s what you call a win-win.

It’s probably the most awkward, squirm-inducing question you can be asked in a job interview. “Explain your employment gaps to me. What were you doing that time?” the interviewer inquires. Your heart starts racing. You stammer. You stutter. Your palms get clammy. The question is the equivalent of a date asking you, “When was your last relationship?”—when you haven’t had a boyfriend in three years.

Don’t worry, though—it doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker. You just have to be prepared. Here are a few tips for explaining bouts of unemployment, no matter how long, with aplomb.


Be Honest

Ryan Healy, co-founder of Brazen Careerist, says, “Anyone you are talking with will sniff out a phony excuse.” So definitely don’t exaggerate that your three-day-a-week unpaid internship was really a full-time job. Instead, be direct and to the point about what you’ve been up to (and hopefully, that’s a litany of impressive volunteer and other mind-enriching activities—more on that later).

If you’re worried about this, here’s some good news: Healy says recruiters and hiring managers are sympathetic. “[They] understand that finding employment in today’s economy isn’t easy for anyone, and it’s especially hard for recent college grads .”


But Don’t Blab On and On

That said, “Don’t offer a long, drawn out explanation about why you left your last position,” says Michelle Goodman, author of The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube. Less is more here—just say you left your job whenever you did. At this point, there is no need to use terms like “laid off,” “fired,” or “downsized,” unless someone asks you point blank why you left—then, of course, honesty is the best policy.

Along those same lines, no matter what the terms of your departure, make sure not to badmouth your former boss or company. This can only make you look bitter and resentful—and sure, you might be, but those qualities are a big turn-off and will have the interviewer questioning your integrity and judgment. It’s a much savvier move to be gracious and say, “I learned a lot at my former job. I’m grateful for the experience and opportunities they gave me.” Get out all your negativity and griping to a friend before the interview.


Keep Focused on the Future

As soon as you can, you’ll want to steer the conversation toward how you will do the job and contribute to the organization, says Cali Williams Yost, work flexibility expert and author of TWEAK IT: Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day. Rather than dwelling on or apologizing for the break, you want to let the interviewer know that you are excited and ready to work.

If you took a break on your own terms, try the party line Yost suggests: “I decided to take a break at the time, but today I’m ready to contribute to this organization in the following ways.” If you were laid off, say something like, “I was obviously disappointed to be let go, but I’m so excited to put my marketing and social media skills back to work. Let me tell you about the last project I worked on.”


Stay Active

Now, the #1 way to nail this question is to make sure you’re doing something productive while you are unemployed, which will make interviewing for jobs so much less cringe-inducing. Healy says it doesn’t really matter what you do— “volunteer, blog, freelance, or take online educational courses,” he suggests. (Another good idea: Learn a language that would make you an even more attractive hire in your industry.)

That way, Healy says, your answers can communicate that you weren’t just sitting on your couch eating potato chips (or watching cat videos) for the past six months. “You were actually being productive and pursuing something that has improved your skill set in one way or another.”

More importantly, come prepared with a story that emphasizes the skills you used or learned. Even something like helping at your child’s school or volunteering for a nonprofit can seem relevant if you can say, “I raised X amount of money for three events” or, “I grew the number of sponsors from 10 to 15 in one year.” Get creative, Yost says. Hiring managers will love your productivity and initiative.

Bottom line: Answering this question in an interview is just like gliding through any other unpleasant situation in life. With that right finesse and preparation, you’ll hardly wince.

I recently counseled a yoga teacher turned real estate advisor turned HR person—who’d just come to the conclusion that, without question, she didn’t want to be an HR person anymore.

Don’t anybody freak.

This type of epiphany is completely common and totally OK. There’s absolutely no law that says you have to stick to the same gig forever. In fact, sometimes our best career moves come only after these big “aha” moments that make a new path, a fork in the road, or even a U-turn absolutely imperative.

The challenge, however, for this woman and for any other professional who has a winding career path, lies in making your value proposition (or, as I call it, your “so what?”) clear to hiring managers and interviewers. Further, you’ve got to figure out how to present this divergent background in a way that affirms to decision makers that you are not, in fact, going to leave them in a bind by changing your mind again.

So, how, exactly, do you do this? Here’s the advice I offered to the yoga teacher turned real estate advisor turned HR person.


1. Have a Target Audience, and Speak Directly to It

This is super important for any job seeker. It’s especially critical for those whose career histories involve several jobs or industry sectors. You’re not going to be able to just list out your job history (which spans sales, marketing, and business development) and expect a financial services hiring manager to instantly deduce what you have to offer. Instead, you will need to angle all of your messaging in a way that makes it obvious what you’re trying to achieve, and why you’re heading in that direction. To do this:


2. Find the Common Threads

Look for a theme that runs through several of the jobs you’ve held, and present your choices in a way that shows common threads running through each of your career decisions. For instance, in the case of my client, much of what she has done has involved advising, guiding, and helping people. This works out nicely, considering she wants to become a college advisor. And so, on her resume, we showcased several career instances in which she successfully helped, guided, and coached others.


3. Showcase Performance

People hire performers, so no matter how jumpy, windy, or unusual your career path, present yourself as a high performer. You can easily do this on a resume or in an interview by using phrases like, “Invited to…” or “Recognized for…” or “Promoted to…”  or  “Known for…” And, certainly, showcase your key wins and accomplishments at every position, especially the ones that you think will be enticing to your future employers.


4. Remember Your Best Defense is a Good Offense

A good rule of thumb is that, if you’re worried how a certain position or experience is going to be perceived on your resume, there’s a good chance that someone is going to make the exact conclusion you don’t want them to make. That said, you should plan to go on the offense and manage the message.

For instance, say the moves you’ve made along the way make you look, at least on paper, like a bit of a job hopper. It’s best to add a quick statement in each section of your resume that briefly explains the jump. I often use phrases like, “Following a family relocation to Dallas…” (makes the job switch obvious) or “After a significant corporate restructure…” (makes it clear that your job was axed ). If you’re simply pursuing a new career path, you can state that in your cover letter, briefly describing your reasons for the change.


5. Don’t Over-Explain

I can spot someone who’s nervous about how her career path reads a mile away. Often, that’s because she’s talking quickly and nervously and way over explaining whatever it is she thinks reads like a liability. Do not do this. Think through how you’re going to present your choices and career path to a potential employer, present them briefly and confidently, and then refocus the discussion on your commitment to this role and what you can walk through that company’s doors and deliver.

On that note, there’s one final point, which is the same point I made to my client:

Go easy on yourself.

There are very few people out there who have a pristine, straight-line-toward-the-sky career chronology. You are competing with people who, in all likelihood, have at least one or two twists and turns on their own resumes. And they’re probably feeling a little vulnerable, much like you.

So rather than panicking or avoiding opportunities that seem amazing, use your energy to strategize and position yourself as your future employer’s solution.

Choose an answer that shows that you can meet a stressful situation head-on in a productive, positive manner and let nothing stop you from accomplishing your goals,” says McKee. A great approach is to talk through your go-to stress-reduction tactics (making the world’s greatest to-do list, stopping to take 10 deep breaths), and then share an example of a stressful situation you navigated with ease.

Start by explaining what you’d need to do to get ramped up. What information would you need? What parts of the company would you need to familiarize yourself with? What other employees would you want to sit down with? Next, choose a couple of areas where you think you can make meaningful contributions right away. (e.g., “I think a great starter project would be diving into your email marketing campaigns and setting up a tracking system for them.”) Sure, if you get the job, you (or your new employer) might decide there’s a better starting place, but having an answer prepared will show the interviewer where you can add immediate impact—and that you’re excited to get started.

Dear Victoria,

When a job application asks for my salary requirements , what should I tell them—and will this impact my ability to negotiate if I get offered the job?

I don’t want to put something too high in case I put myself out of their target salary range, but I don’t want to go too low and cheat myself out of what I’m worth.

Can I leave it blank? What is your advice in this situation?

The short answer to your question is that you should include in your job application as high a salary requirement as you can reasonably justify. I’ll explain the “why” in a minute—but first, let’s talk about the “how.”

Do your research to get your number—learn as much as possible about the position and comparable salaries from local and industry sources and job sites such . See if you can get any insider information, too. Try looking for salary information on the company’s website or doing an informational interview with the position’s recruiter.

You’ll likely come up with a range, and you should put the highest number in that range that applies, based on your experience, education, and skills. And yes, that’s a little aggressive—but bear with me.

Next, I recommend writing “(flexible)” or “(negotiable)” next to your number. If you have room to do so—for example, in your cover letter—stress again that your salary requirement is flexible or negotiable and that there are so many working parts to compensation —benefits, job title, opportunities for advancement—that you’re certain you can find a way to satisfy both of you if you’re a good fit for the position.

Now, I realize that making an aggressive initial offer can be a scary proposition. So let me explain the reasoning.

First, when the value of an item is uncertain—as your services to a prospective employer are—the first number you put on the table acts as a strong “anchor” that will pull the negotiation in its direction throughout the entire bargaining process .

Professor Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University has explained the anchoring phenomenon this way:

Items being negotiated have both positive and negative qualities—qualities that suggest a higher price and qualities that suggest a lower price. High anchors selectively direct our attention toward an item’s positive attributes while low anchors direct our attention to its flaws.

By stating a salary requirement that is lower than your prospective employer might be willing to pay, you not only cheat yourself out of more money, but you might come across to the employer as unsophisticated or unprepared. By stating a salary higher than they might be willing to pay, you risk little harm, so long as you indicate that your salary requirements are flexible. And at the same time, you are communicating that you already know your skills are valuable.

Just as important as anchoring high, the second benefit of giving a number at the high end of your range is that you give yourself enough room to negotiate if you are offered the job.

Research has proven that people are happier with the outcome of a negotiation if their bargaining partner starts at point A, but reluctantly concedes her first couple of requirements before saying “yes.” So, by stating an initial salary that leaves room for negotiation (I recommend room for at least three concessions, or back-and-forth conversations), you’re more likely to get what you actually want.

By far the best advice on making an aggressive opening offer is that contained in Galinsky’s short article, ” Should You Make the First Offer? ” The three major takeaways are these:

Don’t be afraid to be aggressive: Galinksy’s research shows that people typically tend to exaggerate the likelihood of their bargaining partner walking away in response to an aggressive offer, and that most negotiators make first offers that aren’t aggressive enough.

Focus on your target price: Determine your best-case-scenario outcome, and focus on that. Negotiators who focus on their target price make more aggressive first offers and ultimately reach more profitable agreements than those who focus on the minimum amount they’d be satisfied with.

Be flexible : Always be willing to concede your first offer. In doing so, you’ll still likely get a profitable deal, and the other side will be pleased with the outcome.

Remember, there’s little to risk if you put the highest number you can justify, but there’s a lot to lose if you don’t.

Interviewers ask personal questions in an interview to “see if candidates will fit in with the culture [and] give them the opportunity to open up and display their personality, too,” says longtime hiring manager Mitch Fortner. “In other words, if someone asks about your hobbies outside of work, it’s totally OK to open up and share what really makes you tick. (Do keep it semi-professional, though: Saying you like to have a few beers at the local hot spot on Saturday night is fine. Telling them that Monday is usually a rough day for you because you’re always hungover is not.)”

Seemingly random personality-test type questions like these come up in interviews generally because hiring managers want to see how you can think on your feet. There’s no wrong answer here, but you’ll immediately gain bonus points if your answer helps you share your strengths or personality or connect with the hiring manager. Pro tip: Come up with a stalling tactic to buy yourself some thinking time, such as saying, “Now, that is a great question. I think I would have to say… ”

“How much does a school bus weigh?”

“How many people are currently online in Germany?”

“How many windows are there in New York City?”

And, most importantly: “How the heck do you answer these crazy questions?”

If you’re interviewing for a tech job, chances are you’ll get thrown one of these brain teaser questions at some point during the selection process. And when you do, you don’t want to stammer, “Um, I have no idea.”

So to make sure that you’re ready to handle just about anything, let me share nine steps that helped me earn offers at Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, LinkedIn, and VC-backed startups.

1. Understand What the Interviewer Wants

It’s easy to get flustered if you assume that this is the same kind of question you might find on a multiple-choice test (i.e., there’s one right answer and lots of wrong ones).

Instead, think about it from the interviewer’s perspective. She needs to find someone who can succeed in this job—not someone who’s great at counting windows. So what she really wants to know is whether you can handle the rigors of a crazy tech job, which include:

  • Dealing with uncertainty
  • Thinking analytically
  • Communicating clearly

So, your first step is to take a deep breath and remember your goal is to demonstrate your curiosity, logical analysis, and clear communication—not come up with the exact, perfect calculations.


2. Clarify the Question

To demonstrate your curiosity, start by asking some clarifying questions. For instance, if you’ve been asked how many windows are in New York (here’s a list I’ve collected of other common tech brain teasers), you might respond by asking:

“When you say windows, do you only mean building windows or are you also thinking of subways, computers, and exhibits at the Bronx Zoo?”

This not only shows off your curiosity; it can also save you tons of agony. Because if it turns out that your interviewer only cares about building windows, this question just became a whole lot simpler.


3. Ask for Time

Now, as tempting as it might be to dive right into calculations, resist that temptation. There are few people in the world who can write an essay and read it aloud simultaneously. But that’s exactly what you end up doing when you try to answer the question immediately.

So instead, ask for a few minutes to gather your thoughts and then jot down a quick outline like this one:



  • Only building windows
  • Three main categories
  • NYC: 10 million people
  • Apartments: three windows/person


  • Residential
  • Retail
  • Office


  • Residential: 10M x three windows/person
  • Retail
  • Office
  • Total

That way, you get both the time to think analytically and the organization to communicate clearly. And no, interviewers aren’t going to mark you down for taking a timeout. Because, again, they need someone who can do the job—and very few tech jobs involve answering brain teasers with answers, on a stage!

You’re sitting in the interview for your dream job, and it’s going great. You’ve knocked the hard questions out of the park, and you and the interviewer are really hitting it off. Then, out of the blue, she asks, “Are you planning on having kids?”

Yep, that’s illegal. And so is any question related to your family, nationality, gender, race, religion, and more. But unfortunately, these questions get asked more often than you’d think, and before you get to the interview, it’s good to know how to respond if you’re faced with one.

I’ve found that the best approach is to determine why the interviewer is asking the question and whether she has a legitimate concern she’s trying to address. Then, tailor your answer to speak to that concern, gracefully avoid the illegal part of the question, and turn the conversation back to your job-related strengths. Here are a few of the most common examples, and how to face them.


1. Gender

Discriminatory questions about gender are wide and far-reaching. I’ve seen interviewees get questions from the overt (“Do you think a woman can do this job effectively?”) to something more subtle (“As a single mom, what child-care arrangements have you made?”).

But the fact is, nothing related to gender should be asked in the interview process—at all. If it comes up, the best approach is to answer the question, but without referencing gender. For example, if you’re asked, “How would you handle managing a team of all men?”, drop the last part of the question and focus on your leadership skills, instead. Try: “I’m very comfortable in a management role. In fact, in my last position, the department I led exceeded its annual sales goals for three years straight.”


2. Marital or Family Status

In the movie Picture Perfect, Jennifer Aniston’s character hires an acquaintance to pretend to be her fiancé. The reason? Her boss won’t promote her because she’s single—his rationale being that if she doesn’t have any roots or permanence, there’s nothing to keep her from wandering away. Enter the fake fiancé, and she gets the promotion.

The chances that you’ll be faced with something so direct are slim. But, you may be asked when you’re planning on getting married, or if you’ll continue to work after having children. Any questions related to your family status are technically illegal, but employers often ask them to get a read on your future commitment to the job and company.

An appropriate answer to these types of questions would be “You know, I’m not quite there yet. But I am very interested in the career paths at your company. Can you tell me more about that?” This assures the interviewer that you’re committed to your professional growth, but doesn’t promise them anything in terms of your future—and lets you steer the conversation back to a job-related topic.


3. Citizenship, Nationality, or Language

U.S. employers can get in big trouble for hiring people not legally allowed to work in the country, which has lead to companies taking stronger measures to find out about their applicants even before they’re hired. But the only way they can do that legally to ask the question directly: “Are you legally authorized to work in the U.S.?” Any other way of phrasing it, such as “Where are you from?” or “Where were you born?” is illegal.

That said, these types of questions often slip out as conversation starters, so you can take a couple of different approaches to answering them. If you think it’s a friendly mistake, just smile and say, “California. What about you?” But if this makes you uncomfortable, you can gracefully dodge it with something like, “I’ve actually lived a lot of places. But I am legally allowed to work in the U.S. if that’s what you’re asking.”


4. Age

We’ve all heard of age discrimination— younger candidates getting passed up for more experienced ones, and older workers being pushed aside in favor of junior employees who might cost less in terms of salary. Though some states have laws that prohibit age discrimination against younger employees, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act actually only protects workers who are over 40 years old. This means that a potential employer might tread into territory that’s discriminatory to a younger person, but not necessarily illegal. For example, “We’ve generally hired older, more experienced people for this type of position.” Unfair? Yes. Illegal? No.

This situation should rightly concern you, but be prepared to address what the interviewer is trying to get at: Do you have the required experience for the position? A good answer would be to turn back to your job-related skills: highlighting specific accomplishments and how your experience can benefit the company.


5. Religion

An employer may be curious about your religious practices in order to plan their weekend or holiday schedules—and ask questions such as “What religious holidays do you observe?” or “Do you go to church on Sunday mornings?” While asking about your schedule (e.g. “can you work on Sunday mornings?”), is appropriate, employers should never tie it to religion. If someone probes into this part of your personal life, try answering back with a question: “What is the schedule like for the position?” Or, you assure them of your availability by saying something like “I’m certain that I’ll able to work the schedule you need for this position.”

Keep in mind that many times, illegal questions aren’t asked with ill intent. An inexperienced interviewer may say something like, “That’s a beautiful accent. Where are you from?” as a way to spark conversation. She might not realize the question is illegal, or may not know how to frame the question in a legal way.

But if you feel that a question is inappropriate, you can definitely ask the interviewer to clarify how it relates to the job. You are also within your rights to tell the interviewer that you’re not willing to answer a question that makes you uncomfortable. And if a question is truly offensive and discriminatory, you have the option of filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

When faced with an illegal question, you have to take into consideration a variety of factors in deciding how to respond—the intent of the question, how much you want the job, and how your response might hurt your prospects for getting it. Ultimately, you’ll have to decide the best course of action for the situation—but it’s good for you to know where the law stands.

Interviewing for any position is a two-way street: The interviewer is trying to figure out if you’re right for the job, and you’re trying to figure out if you want to spend 40+ hours each week working for the company.

This is true for an interview, but it’s extra important when meeting with a start-up. Your interviewer wants to know how much you can contribute in two days, two months, and two years. He or she also wants to know how you’re going to fit in with a small staff and whether the current team members are going to want to sit next to you every day.

On your end, you need to figure out whether you’re going to enjoy working there enough to want to put in long hours for a likely under-market salary. You also need to gauge how likely you think the company is to succeed. Will your options be worth millions in five years, or will you be job hunting in five months?

It’s quite the balancing act, but there are four steps you can take that will help you simultaneously present yourself as the right candidate and make sure you actually want the job.


1. Use the Product

No matter what role you’re interviewing for—engineering, sales, marketing—you should always use the product before your first interview (and ideally, a few times). If hired, your goal will be to create value for the people who use that product, and being a user yourself is the first step. Doing this will also help you determine whether you can be passionate about the company and product as well as convey that passion to your interviewer.

Not in the target demographic? Just because you’re a childless 25-year-old interviewing at a site designed for parents doesn’t mean you can’t play the part. AtInstaEDU, our target customers are students, but some of our best candidates have grabbed homework questions off the internet and pretended to be back in college.

If you really can’t use the product (e.g., it’s built for large corporations or costs several hundred dollars), you can make up for that by doing your research. Go through any available materials on the website, read news articles and reviews, and talk to anyone you know who has used it. And definitely, understand who the company’s competitors are and why its product is superior.


2. Bring Your Ideas

Now that you’re familiar with the product, be ready with ideas for how you’d like to improve it in your role. What new features would you be most excited to build? How would you engage users (or re-engage existing ones)? How could the company increase conversions? How could customer service be improved?

You don’t need to have the company’s four-year strategy figured out, but you can share your thoughts, and more importantly, show how your interests and expertise would lend themselves to the job. Knowing what you’ve done in previous positions is helpful, but remember that the interviewer is trying to determine what you will do and how your skills will apply to his or her company. Start-ups are looking for people who can dive right in.

On your end, this will help you gut check that the day-to-day activities involved with the role interest you. You may love social media marketing, but find in your exercise that the company would benefit most from direct sales—and that’s definitely something to consider.


3. Be Ready to Interview Back

Most interviewers will save time at the end of your meeting to let you ask questions . And by all means, do! If you’re interviewing with a founder, ask about his or her vision for the company, how the company defines success, and how it plans to get there. Don’t be afraid to ask about the company’s business plan, funding situation, and potential roadblocks as well. If you’re talking with someone who will be your peer, ask about his or her favorite parts of the company, the biggest challenges he or she has faced, and what it’s like working with the team.

These conversations will not only give you helpful information to consider if you get an offer, they’ll show the interviewer that you’re seriously evaluating the company yourself (and not just trying to get the first start-up job that lands on your plate).


4. Follow Up

This advice is as old as the interview process itself, but many candidates still fail to follow it, especially in the casual world of tech start-ups: Send a thank-you note. Sending an email later that day shows that you’re polite, that you follow through on things, and that you’re actually interested in the job.

It also opens up an opportunity to strengthen an interview area that you felt was weak. Ever been stumped in an interview then realized what you should have said the moment you left? Or thought of a great marketing strategy on the drive home from the interview? Feel free to add a quick paragraph mentioning your new ideas.

When you’re interviewing with a start-up, your goal is to ensure that the job is a great fit for you and to convey that to your interviewer as well. When you do, you’ll be in a better position to negotiate your offer and get started once you accept it—full of ideas on ways to hit the ground running.

You probably already know that an interview isn’t just a chance for a hiring manager to grill you—it’s your opportunity to sniff out whether a job is a right fit for you. What do you want to know about the position? The company? The department? The team?

You’ll cover a lot of this in the actual interview, so have a few less-common questions ready to go. We especially like questions targeted to the interviewer (“What’s your favorite part about working here?”) or the company’s growth (“What can you tell me about your new products or plans for growth?”).

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  • How to answer Interview questions I – 101 Tough Interview Questions and Answers
  • How to answer Interview questions II – 101 Additional Tough Interview Questions and Answers
  • Job Interview: Get the Job by Asking TWO Critical Questions
  • How to Ace Your Phone Interview

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