Top 10 Most Common Personal Interview Questions

Two hiring managers interviewing a young woman in a modern office

If we’re being honest, nobody enjoys interviews. Whether it’s the forced formality of the occasion, the general ignominy of being judged or if you simply have a hard time controlling your nerves, interviews can be a difficult and unenjoyable process.

Unfortunately, if you’re not a fan of talking about yourself, then personal questions can make you feel even more uncomfortable. For recruiters, though, they are invaluable; they are a window into your personality, and your answers provide an indication of what makes you tick. And in an era where it’s important to align with your employer’s company culture, these questions are key.

To ease the burden, we’ve compiled a list of the top 10 most common personal interview questions, as well as some tips on how to answer them.

So, breathe, don’t panic and relax. This is what you should expect.

1. ‘Tell me about yourself.’

This is a broad question and, often, how you interpret its meaning can be just as important as your actual answer. Generally, though, it’s an opportunity to give your interviewers a general overview of your professional background, as well as why you’re there.

However, don’t just recite the personal statement on your CV. The beauty of this question is that recruiters get an insight into not just who you are but also how you perceive yourself. There is a big difference between the two, and that difference can reveal a lot about your ambition, your sense of self-awareness and what you consider to be the most important aspect about yourself.

2. ‘What can you offer us that nobody else can?’

This is another popular question because it is a difficult one to answer but, essentially, your interviewer is interested in finding out what makes you unique. It’s tricky because you are being asked to directly compare yourself with the competition. And while it’s easy to throw out hyperbole and make claims that you’re more talented or hard-working than anybody else, the simple fact is that you can’t measure or prove any of that.

Therefore, it’s better to instead focus on yourself. Acknowledge that you’re aware of how stiff the competition is, but passionately reel off the traits, qualities and abilities that you believe make you the perfect fit for the role.

3. ‘How would you describe yourself?’

This is a different question to ‘tell me about yourself’. You’re not talking here about your experience, achievement or motivations, but rather – as the question suggests – describing what kind of person you think you are.

While you want to extoll all your best virtues (‘I’m a team player’ or ‘I enjoy challenges’), try and add a little bit of flavour to your answer, as well. Don’t just reel off what you think your interviewer wants to hear; if you are honest about how you see yourself, you will be more memorable and more authentic.

4. ‘Describe your work style.’

The biggest difference between this question and the last is that you are being asked here to describe how you like to work. For example, some people prefer to get their head down and finish a task, while others prefer a more collaborative approach; some people like to work from a full brief, while others prefer the freedom to experiment.

Ultimately, when answering this question, you need to consider what you’ve learnt about the company during your research, as well as what the job ad suggests. If the company is looking for an ‘independent, experienced graphic designer who can work unsupervised’, then you should probably keep quiet about how much you love team meetings. Likewise, if the company operates under strict guidelines, don’t talk about your tendencies for workplace improvisation.

5. ‘What are your strengths?’

Depending on your opinion of yourself, you might find it easier to discuss your weaknesses rather than your strengths; nevertheless, you need to know what you’re good at and you need to sell it. Never be afraid to talk about what you’re good at, because your competitors won’t be.

When talking about your strengths, consider how they tie into the job specifications (you may well have a great singing voice, but it’s not really a requirement in corporate accounting). You should also be able to prove your claims, too – for example, if you’re purporting to be the finest salesperson in the region, then you need to produce figures and statistics that back that up.

6. ‘What are your weaknesses?’

Conversely, it’s also important to talk about your weaknesses. This is a useful question for interviewers because it explains not just where your need for improvement lies, but it also indicates how self-aware you are.

Therefore, you should be honest about your shortcomings – although you, of course, don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot.

Be tactful. Rather than blurting out that you have ‘zero time management skills’, for instance, explain how your commitment to your work sometimes means that you lose track of time. Acknowledge that you have weaknesses – because, ultimately, everybody does – but coat them in a positive spin.

7. ‘What do you do in your spare time?’

While to many people this question is simply an interviewer making conversation, or an attempt to ascertain that you have a personality and a life outside of work, the truth is that employers can gauge more than you think from your answer.

How you choose to spend your time when you’re not on the clock says a lot about you as a person. If you spend every night in the gym, for example, it suggests that you’re driven; if you enjoy working on your car, it suggests you’re a problem solver; if you do nothing and just watch TV, it suggests that you lack passion.

These are all subtle clues into your make-up that recruiters take into account, so think carefully about what your answers say about you and your suitability for the prospective role.

8. ‘What motivates you?’

Every candidate is motivated by something different, but it’s important to communicate to your interviewer that your motivations align with the company’s – even if they don’t. For instance, you (as many people are) might be motivated purely by money, but that’s not an answer that is likely to impress anyone; instead, you have to show that there’s something more to you.

In an ideal world, your motivations will genuinely match up – and it will be a lot easier to answer this question if they do. If you’re driven by helping people, for instance, then a company that prides itself on strong customer service will like you. Likewise, if you want to make a difference in the world, then that ambitious renewables startup is going to snap you up. As before, it all comes down to selling yourself as a perfect fit for the organisation.

9. ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’

Quite possibly the most common interview question in any industry, ever, there’s a reason why this is such a popular standard. It assesses your levels of ambition, loyalty and expectation, which are all key things to know for any potential employer.

In terms of an answer, you want to strike a balance between realism and aspiration. A good answer, for instance, is that you will have accomplished your short-term goals at the company and will be transitioning into management. Then outline what those goals are.

Whatever you do, don’t just say ‘still working here’ (show some ambition, for crying out loud), but don’t imply that you’re going to be ‘somewhere else’, either. Companies know when they are a steppingstone to something else, but it’s not something you should explicitly broadcast before you’ve even landed the job in the first place.

10. ‘How do you define success?’

This is another question that can reveal how your mind works; after all, there are many definitions of success.

Some people judge it in a traditional, quantifiable sense like targets met, clients wooed and boxes ticked; others may perceive it in a more material way like the size of your TV screen or the exclusivity of your postcode.

Others, still, see success as simply a healthy work-life balance and a stable salary, which illustrates the point of the question: recruiters want to ascertain what drives you and, more importantly, what your values are. Yet again, it all comes back to whether your principles and worldview align with the company’s.

Either way, retain some sense of ambition in your answer. Employers don’t want staff who set the bar low, so, whatever it is, make sure your definition of success is an acceptable one.

Answering personal interview questions can be an excruciating process, especially if you hate opening up about yourself, but they are a key part of the interview process.

As mentioned, companies now place a lot of emphasis on whether candidates are the right ‘fit’ for them, so by honing your answers to these questions, you’re putting yourself in a strong position in future interviews.

What personal questions have you been asked in interviews, and how did you handle them? Let us know in the comments below!