How to Ace the Most Common Interview Questions

January 30, 2019 The Washington Center

How to Ace the Most Common Interview Questions

There are common interview questions at every level of employment, including for internships.

These same questions keep getting used because, as a species, homo sapiens have yet to find a better way to ask them and get to the fact that the importance of the answer doesn’t lie in its exact wording. There are underlying reasons for the question that, if you can master, will give you an advantage when you are in the hot seat. May the odds ever be in your favor!

Tell me about yourself?

What are they really asking? Often the first question you’ll hear in an interview, the asker wants to know who you are and why you would want to work with the organization. They are also basically trying to find out enough about you to determine if they want you to be in the same room for eight hours a day, throughout the work week. Aside from that, they also want to know why you are here, at this organization, seeking this position.

What should I say? Focus primarily on what you are passionate about in relation to this organization or position, but be truthful. Don’t write checks your on-the-job behavior won’t cash. If you tell the interviewer you’re passionate about animal rights, you’d better back that up day after day. Be genuine about what motivates you to pursue or explore this career path. People love to know your “why” and that should be the focus of this response.

What should I not say? For millennia, human beings believed the sun revolved around us. Don’t be that egocentric. This is not the time for your complete autobiography. They do not need to hear about where you grew up and what your best friend’s dog brought into the house when you were eight.

What is an area of weakness?

What are they really asking? They are looking to determine whether or not you possess any self-awareness. The weakness isn’t so much looking for a fault, but rather looking for the ability to recognize a shortcoming and the wherewithal to devise a plan to address it.

What should I say? Look within yourself and genuinely evaluate areas where you are strong and areas where you could do better or add a valuable skill. Got one? Good. Is it an area this particular organization is positioned to help you address? Even better. Plot and share a strategy for how you could reasonably build up that weak area through your internship experience to eliminate or minimize its effect on your aspirations.


What should I not say? Anything you got from Michael Scott and ‘The Office.’ Don’t say you care too much or that you work too hard or anything like that. It’s a turnoff. Don’t identify something trivial that has no application to the professional you hope to be.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

What are they really asking? This comes down to seeing if you’ve put more than a passing thought into where you hope to go in life. From the employer’s side, it is reassuring to find out that the person they are interviewing sees this position as worthy of investing time and effort so that it pays off in the future.

What should I say? It isn’t necessary to have each and every step planned out at this point, but it is necessary to have some general goals or ambitions that you can present. Maybe you don’t know what the job title five years hence will be (let’s be honest, the job title may not exist at the moment). That isn’t the important thing.

Prior to the interview, assemble a shortlist of scenarios that address a few of those points to help you get into a conversational back-and-forth with your interviewer.

What should I not say? “I don’t know” and “I haven’t really put much thought into it” are both non-starters. Even if you are a go-with-your-gut type, that won’t do you any favors here, even for an internship that lasts 10 or 15 weeks. No one is hiring an aimless person.

Tell me about a time when [you did something]?

What are they really asking? At this point in your life, it isn’t crazy to think you’ve managed some type of accomplishment. What that accomplishment is, is mostly irrelevant. They want to know how you looked at a situation, thought out how to handle it, executed your plan and reflected to see how successful it was.

What should I say? Start with something that represents a skill that will prove beneficial to the organization or in a general work sense. Typical skills to highlight may include leadership, problem solving, teamwork, other traits you like to see in people. There’s also a system called STAR (Situation-Task-Action-Result) that may help in preparing and presenting the scenario you wish to highlight.

What should I not say? You get a lot done as a college student. But let’s be honest, not all of it is laudatory and should be mentioned to a potential employer. Mixing an energy drink with black coffee to stay up all night studying does not count as “innovation” and others copying you do that does not make you an “influencer.”

What makes you unique?

What are they really asking? It’s a trick question of a trick question because it’s exactly what it says on the tin. No tricks, no hidden agenda. What makes you unique? “Unique” is thrown around a lot, but remember the intended meaning of being without a like or equal, a one-of-a-kind.

What should I say? Interviewers are interested in hiring people, not resumes. This is an opportunity to show the interviewer some of your personality. Namely, that you even have a personality. Be specific, be passionate and, most importantly, be positive.

What should I not say? There is plenty of time in the workforce for boring answers, this is not one of them. Don’t trot out an answer that would apply to any and every other student looking to be hired. There are lots of things that make you unique, the worst thing you can do is let them go unsaid.

Why are you the best candidate?

What are they really asking? They are looking to be impressed - by your preparation, self-reflection, plans - with what you bring to the table. Additionally, they want to know if you know about them. If you can draw connections between your abilities and their needs, you are doing it right. In most any other instance, we are told that people don’t like braggarts and not to toot our own horn. This is not most any other instance.

What should I say? Toot-toot. But, you know, in a professional way. Describe your unique skills, experience and passions that do, in fact, make you the best candidate. Bring up something that you have identified, whether through the course of the interview or from your research, and relate it to what you bring to the position to demonstrate that you know what you’re talking about on this.

What should I not say? A couple of things. Just in case you were unsure up until now, don’t lie. What makes you the best candidate is legitimately what you have to offer, not what you think they want to hear. Second, this isn’t the time for self-doubt or to be bashful when extolling what you will be able to offer.

We can’t cover every question you may face during your intern interview in this space. The questions here represent those we have learned are asked with the greatest frequency. They also represent an approach you can take and apply to any other question you may encounter as you research or work to prepare for your interviews.

Consider what may be the underlying reason for the question, come up with an idea of what would be best way to structure an answer. You’ll be a step ahead of many of your peers and come across as more impressive to your interviewers. They may even compete with each other to make sure you pick them!

About the Author

The Washington Center

The Washington Center is the largest and most established student internship program in Washington, D.C. Since our founding, we've helped more than 60,000 individuals from across the U.S. and around the globe expand their academic pursuits into rewarding jobs and careers. We use our scale and expertise to deliver solutions that open career pathways for learners, solve recruitment challenges for employers, while helping create greater access, equity, advancement and representation.

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