There are only 3 types of interview questions. Here are your answers.

Now that I’ve read, and re-read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I’m more conscious about what I keep and what I throw out. I’m hard-core now. Most birthday cards go in the garbage; we have a lot of birthdays and I saved the cards since when I was five years old, and believe me, I didn’t need to.

But I took a look at this card and I couldn’t throw it out. It’s touching because it is so typical of my husband. He is an ISTP so he’s very detailed about his physical world, he’s accurate and he sees everything. This is a peek inside his brain and it’s so true that it feels intimate.

I put the card in a box to save. And then, because I write about careers, I thought: The qualities of this card are the exact qualities we look for in a job interview. Our goal in an interview is to be so effortlessly true to who we are that the hiring manager can’t help but feel a connection to us.

So I got to thinking that you can divide job interview questions into three types, and each type is a way for you to take control of the conversation and show the interviewer who you are.

1. The Classic Question

Tell me about yourself? or What are you passionate about? or Where do you see yourself in five years? 

Even though each of these questions seems quite different, it’s actually the same question. It means, “Okay. Let’s get started. You first. I want you to do the talking.”

The right answer to all those questions is a story. There is a story of your life that tells people how you got to where you are. There are a million stories within each person’s life. Each story is a true story with a different focus or theme. The focus of the story you tell to answer the question is how everything you did leading up to now has made you a great candidate for this particular job.

Additionally, Herminia Ibarra’s research shows that when we tell stories about ourselves, we look more pulled together -we feel more confident inside and people understand us better. Chip Heath’s research shows that people connect with us best under those conditions. Remember: the point of an interview is to make a personal connection with each person you talk to.

Telling a cohesive story about yourself takes time and talent, and your resume story should match your interview story. (Yes. Every resume tells a story. If you don’t know how to make a cohesive story with your resume, you should get help.)

2. The Brainteaser

How many telephones are in the US? or How heavy is the Statue of Liberty? or What’s a good product for Pepsi to launch next?

Technical candidates often have to take a skills test. Maybe you take something home and write code, or  you write code in the office as a timed test. Finance candidates might create a spreadsheet. There are right answers to those tests. Brainteasers are not asking for a right answer per se.

A brainteaser aims to discover out how you think, or maybe whether you can think in situations where you don’t know everything you need to know to reach a simple answer. But the answer you give is not so important as your approach to getting the answer. Your tactic to finding the answer should match the personality type that will succeed in the particular job you’re applying for. The brainteaser question reveals if you are applying for the type of job that will best leverage your natural gifts. (Not sure about your natural gifts? Take a personality test to find out.)

So, for example, if you are interviewing to be CEO you would probably think in terms of who you’d need to hire to solve the problem.  If you’re interviewing for a statistics position you would want to lay out the exact problem and you might even assign some numbers to variables and start solving.

Neither approach is right or wrong, as long as you are doing the type of thinking in the interview that you want to do in the job. If you are interviewing for a job that is a good match for you, it’s likely that you’ll give an answer that is appropriate for the type of thinking the interviewer needs to see.

Think out loud as you work through the problem. This is the consummate “show your work” moment! Also, approach this question, like all other interview questions, as a conversation. Each question in an interview is a way for the hiring manager to decide if he or she wants to spend eight hours a day with you.

3. The Behavioral Question

Can you tell me about a time you had a fight with a co-worker? or What would happen if you disagreed with your boss’s direction? or What is your weakness?

These questions might sound wildly differently, but they all ask for pretty much the same thing: Tell me a story. And if you have a resume that is written to make you shine, then each bullet on your resume is a tiny story.

Each question in a behavioral interview asks for a description of a moment in time. For example, if you tell someone your weakness is math, that’s not nearly as informative as how your weakness came up in a single situation in the context of work.

Each good story has a beginning, middle, and end, and this is true in a behavioral interview as well. So tell about the situation, and the conflict you faced, and how you overcame it. The story should take about a minute to tell.

Your ending will have a quantified achievement as the kicker (delivered ahead of schedule, increased revenue 10%, etc.) And you’ll have them fresh in your head because on a well-written resume every bullet is a quantified achievement. (Don’t tell me you have a career that does not lend itself to this sort of achievement. Every career can be framed as quantified achievements. You hire me to show you how to do that if you don’t already know.)

This means that every behavioral question is an opportunity for you to tell a good story that will make you stand out.

The only questions are asking what you want (the first questions) how you think (the second question) and how behave (the third). If you have good self-knowledge, the answers to all three of those questions make sense together. And that, really, is what makes you likable.

Now that you realize how few questions there really are in an interview, you can memorize your answers. Make them perfect. It will feel calculated, yes, but people who have great careers got them by being calculating.

Taylor Swift has been accused of being calculating in her interview answers. And in response she said, “You can be accidentally successful for three or four years. Accidents happen. But careers take hard work.”



35 replies
  1. Geoffrey James
    Geoffrey James says:

    The huge mistake that most people make in the “tell a story” situation is to tell a story about yourself. The story that interviewers want to hear isn’t about you. They want to hear how your specific actions helped somebody else (i.e. your company, your team or your boss) become more successful.

    I bring this up because many people think that their challenge in getting hired is explaining themselves or defining themselves, in this case by a story. Nobody cares what you think of yourself except insofar as if might help or hinder your ability to help THEM become more successful.

    For example, a candidate for a marketing position is asked “What is your greatest accomplishment?”

    Wrong answer: “Right after I got out of college, I worked harder than I’d ever worked before to put together a branding campaign for a startup. Even though I had to do most of the work myself and had never done anything like that before, the campaign won a prestigious marketing award. I’m really proud of that.”

    Right answer: “Our marketing group was severely understaffed because we were just about at the end of our first round funding. Our investors were losing interest, so we needed something that would capture their attention. It was a pretty desperate situation, but by working around the clock for two weeks, I cobbled together a branding concept kept our investors in the game. The concept won an award, too, which increased the company’s visibility to our potential customer base.”

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s a great point. The same thing happens on a resume. Sometimes people list the things they are most proud of from each job. But that’s not actually what’s relevant. It’s the stuff that made the most difference to your company and your co-workers.

      It’s a hard distinction to make because that means that so much of what we are most proud of in our careers sort of falls by the wayside. An example that comes to mind is when I launched a product in six countries with six ad agencies. I worked almost round the clock because of time zones, and I approved copy in five languages.

      I can’t ever talk about it, though, because the whole launch was lame and (you guessed it) overpriced. So I just think of it as a fun time that, on my resume, never happened.


  2. Lisa L.
    Lisa L. says:

    I love this writing. It is inspiring.

    Also, I end up interviewing a lot of people and I get really tired of the answers that end with “I was so proud of my achievement.” It would be very refreshing to hear how your work helped the company, specifically.

    Finally, I always ask about a time when you disagreed with your manager. I don’t hire the people who end the story with how stupid their boss was, because I don’t want to work with someone who refuses to receive coaching. So be positive, but know when to cut the rave reviews of yourself and go for authentic instead.

    Such a great article, Penelope!

    • Geoffrey James
      Geoffrey James says:

      The story about the time you disagreed with your boss should sound like this: “My boss had to make strategic decision ‘A’. I strongly believed that we should take direction ‘X’ and provided as many reasons as possible why direction ‘X’ made the most sense. My boss, however, decided to take direction ‘Y’. The moment she made that decision, I stopped thinking about direction ‘X’ and put all my energy and commitment into making ‘Y’ into the best decision by doing [useful thing].

  3. gytgur
    gytgur says:

    Be prepared for your next interview: total weight of the Statue of Liberty is 450,000 pounds or 204.1 metric tonnes.

  4. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    I hate the brainteaser questions, to the point that when I’m asked one in an interview I decline to answer it. A couple companies ago, interviewing for a management position over some software testers, the interviewer handed me a Bic pen and said, “Test this pen.” I handed it back to her and said, “No.” I somehow got the job anyway, but that interviewer, who ended up being one of my peers, never really liked working with me very much.

    • IT
      IT says:

      I used to give similar [dumb] questions back to my interviewers, :-(. It’s a red flag for me that folks that ask these questions can’t interview.

  5. Pirate Jo
    Pirate Jo says:

    I hate the open-ended “tell a story” questions. Half the time people don’t want to hear a story. I wish they’d just ask the question they want answered.

  6. Betty
    Betty says:

    Q. How many telephones are there in the UK?

    A. Let’s say the UK population is X. Young children won’t have a phone, so you could say the number is X minus the number of young children, as almost all adults have a mobile phone. However, some have two (work and personal) and most have a landline too. There will, no doubt, be defunct phones hanging around in a drawer in people’s houses too, but that doesn’t seem to be what the question is getting at. So given that we are looking at multiple phones for some adults and that children get their own phones young these days, I would say that the number of phones in the UK is at least X, X being easily Googleable.

    Can anyone guess my Myers-Briggs from my answer? :P

  7. Jana
    Jana says:

    For crafting stories-I love the book: Brag!: The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn without Blowing It. So great for crafting stories to share your accomplishments in a way that makes other’s want to hear more instead of run away :)

  8. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    I think it’s so funny that everyone is answering the questions. I love Jim’s answer: No.

    I find that given a brainteaser I always go right to: Who would be a good person for me to call/hire/pass this off to?


  9. Sean
    Sean says:

    Wonderful post. Whoever reads this, should read it multiple times. The examples given with two or three variations to the questions are truly relevant. This post has been a wonderful learning experience for future interviews, and for my future writing. Thank you!

  10. MBL
    MBL says:

    I’m intrigued. Would anyone ask such simple questions?

    I understand that the purpose of “The Brainteaser” is to see how the candidate thinks, but if the answer is a simple fact wouldn’t “Siri, what is the weight of the Statue of Liberty?” be the best response. Anything else would be a waste of time with a question that easily answerable. And with the telephone question, I would start with asking for clarification “Do you mean active telephones? The number that have been sold? Telephone numbers? Does VOIP count?” and then “Siri, how many…”

    Would that be “cheating” since it isn’t answering the spirit of the question? Or would anything else just look like you complicate things and waste time and resources?

    Inquiring minds…

    • Craig
      Craig says:

      >I understand that the purpose of “The Brainteaser” is to see how the candidate thinks, but if the answer is a simple fact wouldn’t “Siri, what is the weight of the Statue of Liberty?” be the best response.

      I was confused by that particular question too. I mean, if someone asked me that, I’d either say that I don’t know (because I don’t know that random fact), or I’d just Google it. Is there some “look how clever I am” answer to that question that I’m not seeing?

      • transposition
        transposition says:

        If this is the way that you would approach a hypothetical question, how are you supposed to address a question that may come up at your new workplace?

        Fortunately the answer to this last question is easy — you won’t have to, since you will not have a new job!

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      In most technical interviews one is not allowed to use their cellphone or idevice to answer questions. In entry level mechanical engineering interviews there are often questions thrown in related to thermodynamics or some other complex math that one could easily google the answers to, but one is required to show how they think and what they know in answering such questions.

      Some tech places claim they are supposedly getting rid of those sorts of trick logic questions, but I haven’t heard if they actually have.

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        in a technical environment it is impossible to always look everything up – you need to develop a skill to assess problems with approximate solution. Something like a “back of the envelope” calculation is critical to function. So answering the statue of liberty question by ” i will google it” actually shows that you don’t know how to eyeball a solution. The question is not whether you know the answer, but how you could get to the answer. The path is the question, not the actual number.

    • Jim C.
      Jim C. says:

      I disagree completely with the “Siri tell me” answer. You don’t have to come up with the exactly correct answer, but you should be able to show a competent thought process. Let’s see: We know it’s not all that heavy, because it came over from France in one ship. You can make a pretty good guess at how tall it is and how big around. Guess at the size and spacing of the girders. Any metallurgist or engineer knows the approximate density of steel. Work out the volume and multiply by 8 grams per cubic centimeter. Add in a similar estimate for the weight of the copper cladding. Explain why you can neglect the minor things like electrical wiring, ladders, stairs, etc. You will look competent instead of lazy.

  11. Lupita Ibarra
    Lupita Ibarra says:

    Very interesting and useful post. The advice given to answer the question in an invertview can be really helpful. I will definitely review this post again before my next interview.

  12. Masia Aguas Vivas
    Masia Aguas Vivas says:

    I would also say this anymore. Do not be afraid to ask questions. Asking questions does not mean you will look silly. Conversely, if you make good questions, your interviewer know that you are someone who thinks that you’re not afraid social intercourse; This strategy will be especially good if your work involves dealing with the public, for example, a sales position.

    • tino
      tino says:

      Not only that. It is also getting to know the workplace where you will spend at least 8 hours a day if you get the job. You also need to interview the employer. You do not want to end up in a crap work environment.
      Great article and blog by the way.

  13. Sam
    Sam says:

    What would you answer to the “What is your weakness?” question as an INTJ?

    I’m aware of my weaknesses: I’m impatient, I hate incompetence, and people are mindbogglingly incapable in so many ways that it makes me cry. It takes hours or even weeks to convey simple ideas to people and once you’ve managed to do that there’s still the actual execution of implementing the idea remaining which can take them months.

    While true, the above comments are as likely to land me the job as comment that I eat small children for breakfast would be. We all know employers don’t like children-eaters.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      You have to be honest about your weakness in order to sound consistent and understandable. So your weakness is that you are impatient with other people. That’s okay. As an INTJ you will always have a killer resume because that’s pretty much all INTJs care about — having interesting work. So it will make sense during an interview that you are great at work and put it as a very high priority so you are impatient with people who don’t share that priority.


  14. Richard Yadon
    Richard Yadon says:

    What all job seekers should take from this is that you need to have an interview strategy for each job interview. Knowing that these are the 3 types of questions you will get, implement a simple 3 step strategy…

    1) How can you answer these types of questions in a way that distinguishes you from other people?

    2) What can you say in response, based upon your experience, that is most relevant to the job itself?

    3) Write out your answers and rehearse them before your interview.

    The interview is not just about fact-finding, it is an audition for the job. So know your lines and be prepared.


  15. Rhonda Swan
    Rhonda Swan says:

    Love this post! Great advice on helping people understand what an interviewer is looking for. I am all about story telling. People need to hear your story so that they can connect with you.

    Keep living unstoppable!

  16. Scott
    Scott says:

    For me, all interviewing questions are trying to answer the following 3 questions about a candidate:

    1. Can you do the job?
    2. Will you love the job?
    3. Do I like you?

  17. Cindy
    Cindy says:

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful post. Most time, frustrations of long term job search can affect us negatively that we don’t even know where to place this questions.

  18. Joyce
    Joyce says:

    Thanks for the post. They only asked classic questions at my job interview. I was also lucky because I was the only one who applied in person after they were looking for an associate for months.

  19. Moms on the Sidelines
    Moms on the Sidelines says:

    I can’t tell you how many times a candidate told me their personal story, when asked “Tell me about yourself”. I’m married, i have 2 kids. 7 and 9…. I wish could end the interview right there and coach them instead.

    In addition to the words you speak, your body language is equally important in building a rapport. Maybe more important.

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