Congratulations, you got a job interview!
Getting that call back is probably the most exciting moment a job seeker can experience short of actually negotiating an offer. One of the best ways to lock down that offer is deceptively simple: Ask a great question.
Yes, the answers you give in an interview matter, but anyone can memorize a talking point and spit it out at the right moment. A good question, asked at the right moment, can demonstrate insight and depth. It shows that you've paid attention to the conversation and the job.
A good answer talks about you. A good question talks about them. For your next interview, here are some questions to help you start focusing on the most important person in the room (hint: it's not you).
1. "Talk to me about a time you failed."
Show that you take this job seriously.
Every job worth doing has consequences. It has stakes and meaning to the work. Asking this question shows you understand that.
How you phrase this question can change based on the circumstances, but ask what happened when your interviewer made a mistake. You want to demonstrate that you understand the scope of this position and reality of failure, and that you will take this perspective into the job.
If the subject of failure sends a chill over the conversation, that's very good to know too. You don't want to work someplace where any mistake could be a career killer.
2. "Talk to me about a time you succeeded."
Don't just focus on the negative. Success in your future mission is a big deal, and now is the time to learn what that means around here.
First, ask this question and take it seriously to show that you'll approach success with appropriate gravity. You don't want to come across as the guy pouring margaritas after closing a deal. At the same time, asking this question will tell you how this employer approaches success. Do they promote? Do employees get a share of the firm's success?
What will you have to look forward to?
3. "What would success look like in my position?"
Now learn about your goals.
Success isn't limited to the job description. That just tells you the bare basics that you need to show up and take the position. True success is a function of how you grow into this job and work with your colleagues. It's about all of the details and intangibles that a job description can't capture.
So take some time to talk about it, and to show that you're thinking about it.
4. "What's your favorite part of your job?"
Whether you're an executive applying for his dream job or a high school student doing service work for the summer, there's something at least a little bit exciting here. Explore that.
This question will get two things done for you. It will show that you approach this job with an excitement and a positive attitude, and it will help you understand what you can look forward to in your day. You want to know that the best part of your day is going to be something you actually want to anticipate.
5. "What opportunities will I have for professional development?"
Plenty of articles suggest that you ask "Will there be opportunities for professional development?" Don't. Focus on the details. What are those opportunities? How often will they come up? Who gets them? What are some recent examples? Is there a dedicated budget?
Professional development is one of those areas where lots of employers give the easy answer. Don't settle for bland assurances. Get details.
6. "Talk about specific tasks you'd like me to do on day one."
Many employers describe a job position aspirationally. Sometimes it's because that's how they envision the role. Other times it's because they want to capture the most talent they can.
Either way, there's a risk that you could step into an exciting job description and get something far less engaging. What starts as a few "I know it's not your job, but could you take care of…" emails suddenly turns into your 9-5.
The last thing you want is to take a strategic development position and find yourself spending all day scheduling someone else's meetings. It's hard to screen for this, but getting a description of specific tasks you would be assigned on day one can help.
7. "What is my best and worst qualification for this role?"
The interviewer is thinking it, so ask it. What about your resume caught their eye? What do they have reservations about?
Many applicants shy away from that second issue specifically. They don't want to put their weaknesses on the table. That's dumb. Your interviewer knows what she thinks your weaknesses are. She's going to talk about them with the interview committee after you've gone.
Don't run from it, get all that on the table. Talk about what they think of you and get yourself a chance to respond.
8. "What is your corporate and office culture?"
Corporate values have become an essential part of modern business. Asking about them will tell you more about how this company operates. What do they value in an employee? What will they look for out of you, and what can you expect from your boss?
The same goes for office culture. While you might not get useful information, you might get lucky. Your interviewer might drop a line like "Go the extra mile," "Give 110%" or "Only some Saturdays" that tells you to run for the hills.
Unless of course they're willing to go above and beyond, showing a personal and not just a professional commitment, when it comes to your salary. If they're in this for love of paying you, not just to collect some labor, by all means stick around after the words "evenings and weekends" come up.
9. "What differentiates good from great?"
You don't just want to keep this job, you want to excel at it. You want to blow the doors off this place.
So talk about that. Don't be afraid to let your enthusiasm show. If you're not enthusiastic about the job, show your enthusiasm for yourself. Talk about what it takes for someone to really be great in this position because you do want to be great. It will show this employer your excitement, and it will also tell you a lot about them.
You want to learn what this place considers excellence. Is it about technical proficiency or personal skills? Is it about attention to detail? Or is it about responding to emails within 15 minutes and not using all your vacation time? All of this is information you want to know.
10. "Who held this job last?"
Did your predecessor get promoted or fired? Did they storm off in a fit of rage or quietly lateral to another office? Were they a computer wonk or an office flirt?
Learning (hopefully) about your predecessor can tell you a lot about the position you're about to fill. If they succeeded, it can help give you insight into what success looks like at this firm. If they failed, find out more about why and what went wrong.
The nature of their success will inform your decision too. Were their big accomplishments something you could get excited about? Or does that killer report they wrote turn you off?
If your interviewer struggles to come up with any accomplishments, that might tell you something too. Maybe this last person was a dud, but maybe there's not much room to really excel in this position. No matter how it cuts, this is all good information to have.
Three Rules for Job Interviews
There are rules you can apply when it comes to asking a good question. These are just three of them, but if you follow these rules you'll find that your questions get sharper and the answers get better.
1. Ask Open Questions
Don't ask yes-or-no questions. Instead, ask questions that invite the longest answers possible.
Lawyers call a "leading question" one that suggests its own answer, typically phrased in a yes-or-no format. They elicit little information and are generally used to pin down hostile witnesses. Do you really want this interview to take the form of a cross examination?
We didn't think so.
Instead of asking yes or no questions, ask broad questions that invite a thoughtful response. Don't say "do you work collaboratively," ask "what kind of projects would I collaborate on?" Don't ask, "do you enjoy working here," ask "what do you love most about working here?" It sparks a much broader conversation and gives you jumping off points for follow up questions.
2. Ask About Topics From the Discussion
A good question shows that you've paid attention. You're listening and see this as a learning opportunity, not just the chance to show off some memorized talking points.
To do this, make sure you ask questions about specific subjects the interviewer has raised. The questions they've asked and the points they hit show what's important to them. Learn more about those topics, whether it's a sophisticated discussion of expertise or as simple as punctuality.
Then, don't be afraid to follow up. If you want to know more about something, ask. If they didn't really answer a question earlier, definitely push the issue. This is your chance to learn. Take it.
3. Finally, DO NOT Ask About Pay and Benefits
Don't fear a strong discussion around your salary and vacation time. You have value and it's perfectly acceptable to bargain hard for that.
Just don't do it now.
It's an unfortunate fiction, but interviewers want to pretend that you're there purely for love of the job. You're both pretending that you just want to do this work for its own sake, that you'd practically show up for free if necessary. (Illegal, but common.) Just for the moment play along.
There'll be plenty of time to talk money once you get the offer. After that it's time to bargain and bargain hard. For now, though, don't bring it up. You'll just appear mercenary, and nobody wants that.