The Applicant Manager Blog

Do Popular Interview Questions Actually Work?

Posted by The Applicant Manager on Jun 21, 2016 10:50:18 AM

panel interviewThroughout the years, several popular interview questions have surfaced as the “most common”, many of which are regularly used by companies and businesses to assess whether or not a candidate is right for the job. It’s easy to default to these popular questions we’ve always used because they’ve been around for years, and they’re what everyone expects and prepares for. But are those questions really effective? Let’s unpack that question by taking a closer look at a few common interview questions:

  • What are your strengths? – Hopefully, most of us have several strengths. Here, the candidate is going to be focusing on telling you what you want to hear, not on their actual strengths. If their actual strengths include number crunching and in-depth analysis of data, but the role is for a Customer Service Manager (and they’re intent on landing the job), you’re going to hear about their “strengths” as they relate to customer relations. This isn’t getting at the heart of who they are and where their skills could best be utilized.
  • How would you handle an angry customer? – This is a hypothetical question. Asking hypothetical interview questions aren’t going to tell us anything about a candidate’s ability to actually handle angry customers. They will only tell us how he or she “thinks” they would handle an angry customer.
  • What was the last book you’ve read for fun? – This question is probably subjective at best. Firstly, it assumes that the candidate reads for fun. (If they don’t, does that honestly make them a bad fit?) Secondly, the answer is only “good” or “bad” depending on the taste and opinion of the interviewer. This answer might hint at whether or not the interviewee would have something marginally in common with the interviewer, but it doesn’t tell us if someone would likely perform well in a position.

questionsWhen taking a closer look, some of the most common interview questions appear to be flawed. They may give us a hint of an idea of what someone might be like, but nothing concrete. They do not predict whether or not someone possesses the experience, skills, and abilities to be a strong match for a position. So, what interview questions will?

The types of interview questions that dig deeper, and get at the experience and skills of a candidate are behavioral based interview questions. These questions are developed based upon the premise that the most accurate predictor of future behavior is past behavior. This suggests that when developing and asking interview questions, rather than asking what someone thinks they would do in certain situations, we should be asking what they have actually done in a similar situation. What we should be looking for are the examples or stories of what candidates have gone through, how they handled them, what the results were, and what they learned or took away from those experiences. These are predictions of how you could expect them to perform similarly in the position they’re interviewing for with you.

Let’s take a look at one of the questions from the above list. In the case of handling an angry customer, rather than asking what they “would” do, consider wording the question this way: “Please give me a specific example of a time when you’ve had to handle an angry customer. What did you do, and what were the results? What did you learn from that experience? What feedback, if any, did your Manager provide to you about the way that you responded to the customer?”

cat interviewAs you develop interview questions, categorize them based upon the competencies you’re looking to focus on for the skills and requirements for the position. Specifically, interview questions should help you determine if the candidate meets the minimum qualifications for the job (as listed on the job description and posting for the position). For example, when interviewing a candidate for a position wherein they’ll be responsible for leading or managing people, you’ll want to develop a fair amount of questions surrounding leadership.

Here are some examples of behavior based interview questions developed specifically for the competency they’re targeting:

Communication Skills

  • Tell me about a time when you had to explain an idea or proposal to a group of people. How did you do it, and did you achieve the results you were looking for?
  • Tell me about a time when you had to work on a project or task with a colleague or team member in another time zone or country. What strategies worked well and would you do anything differently?

Decision Making and Problem Solving

  • Tell me about the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last 12 months. What made it difficult? Looking back, do you feel like you made the right decision?
  • Give me an example of a time when you had to make a decision quickly. What was the situation, and do you think that you ultimately made the right decision?

Interpersonal Skills

  • Tell me about the types of things you do at work to foster a team environment.
  • Tell me about the circumstances in which you prefer to work alone, rather than with others.

Planning and Organizing

  • Give me an example of a time when your already full schedule needed to be changed at the last minute due to an unforeseen interruption. What did you do? Knowing you couldn’t accomplish them all, how did you decide which items or tasks would be given the highest priority?


  • Tell me about a time when you have had to convince a person or a group of people to go along with your idea or plan.
  • Tell me about a time when you have had to motivate a team of people during a particularly stressful time.

When assessing potential talent to determine which candidates may be a fit for open positions within your organization, it’s important to remember that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Don’t be afraid to get specific, ask for examples, and be sure that your questions are truly targeting the competencies that make sense for the work the position requires. Remember, it’s not just about whether the applicants can tell you the right answer, it’s also about backing it up with the right action.

If you’d like to learn more about how The Applicant Manager can improve your candidate experience and help ask the right prescreening questions, contact us.
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