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Time to Clean Up Those Cliché Interview Questions?

employmentLife is full of clichés — but your interviews shouldn’t fall victim to them. The interview process is constantly evolving, and with it, you too must review your process — and yes, evolve. Don’t forget –  just as you are screening job seekers through an interview, they are also screening you.

Companies expect candidates to continuously advance their skills, be cognizant of industry news, and surpass expectations. It should come as no surprise, then, that candidates expect the same of the companies with which they’re interviewing. When is the last time you thought about the questions you ask candidates in an interview? Or changed them to stay current or reflect the changing attitudes and needs of the job seekers in today’s market? We’ve rounded up some of the most cliché interview questions, courtesy of the experts: job seekers themselves. Underneath each cliché, we’ve added a new twist on the old standard.

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1. Cliché: Tell me about yourself.

Why it’s weak:
With a question this vague, you’re opening yourself up to some potentially uncomfortable answers. And really, this question only serves to make job prospects squirm. Yes, you might hear something of value, but more than not, you’re going to get a rundown of a resume you can read yourself, or a blank stare and uncomfortable pause before a candidate blurts out, “Where should I start?” Why not just get to the point? What do you want to know, anyway? Ask.

New Twist:
Think about what you want candidates to tell you about themselves.  Their volunteering habits? “You mention your affiliation with Habitat for Humanity. Can you tell me more about that experience?” The project written about in their cover letter that generated $500,000 in revenue? “What was one critical component in the creation of ABC project that  you had responsibility in bringing to fruition?” A candidate’s desire to switch from law to health care? “Can you describe the moment or point in time when you knew you wanted to become a hospital administrator?”

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2. Cliché: What is your biggest strength/weakness?

Why it’s weak:
This question begs for fabrication. Often, candidates — and people in general — answer questions about themselves as they’d like to see themselves — not as they are (even if they don’t realize they’re doing it). Sally may say “I have superior attention to detail,” but her real strength may be more specifically attention to detail  in her ability to coordinate team strategy for marketing campaigns — or she may not even be aware of her flair for public speaking. Alternately, asking for a candidate’s biggest strength will likely result in an answer that’s twisted to make it appear as a strength, which doesn’t necessarily help you. Does “I’m a perfectionist” or “I’m sometimes too ambitious for my own good” ring a bell?

New Twist: Ask for a candidate’s strength/weakness, but also ask, “Can you give me an example of a situation in which you’ve displayed this strength/weakness? Biggest strength: How did it help you with this project? / Biggest weakness: What did you learn from this?

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3. Cliché: How would your last boss describe you in five words?

Why it’s weak: Any candidate worth his or her salt is probably not going to pick words like “lazy,” “unmotivated,” or “disappointing,” right? Think Facebook or online dating profile — when someone asks you to describe yourself, or to describe how others see you, the results are likely to be overwhelming positive — and inflated. Why waste a question? Ask a question that will give you a more genuine answer.

New Twist: This is a great question to ask a candidate’s referencesyou’ll be getting the essence of someone’s personality or work habits from an outside perspective. Alternately, ask a candidate a question that gives him or her opportunity to display growth. “If I asked you to describe yourself going into your last job, what would you say? How would that description be different now?”

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4. Cliché: Describe a situation in which you have overcome a challenge or seen a project to its conclusion.

Why it’s weak:
This question gets the internal eye roll from prospective employees.  Again, it’s vague. You ask candidates to be specific in the achievements they describe on their resume, so why don’t you be more specific as well?

New Twist: What piqued your interest from the accomplishments listed on the candidate’s resume? Try rephrasing this question with “What are you most proud of from the X campaign, and why?” You could follow up with a question like, “What would you do differently next time to make the campaign more successful?” or “How did this success spark ideas for your next project?” This frames the question in a more positive light, and enables the candidate to talk in-depth about a project or accomplishment he or she is proud of and passionate about.

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5. Cliché: Where do you see yourself in five years?

Why it’s weak:
Candidates barely know what they’re doing for tonight’s dinner these days, let alone five years. Many people move jobs often, and by pigeonholing them with this question, you could be missing out on a question that will really reveal their aspirations in the near-term future, which may be more valuable.

New Twist: Get a feel for where candidates’ heads are now, while still learning more about what they hope to achieve.  “What is the first thing you want to accomplish with this position?” Or  “What most excites you about this potential job role? How do you see this being different than your previous position?”

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6. Cliché: Why should we hire you?

Why it’s weak:
The tables have turned, and Gen Y candidates in particular want different things from a job than in the past: flexibility, quality of life, and more. Yes, candidates must “sell” themselves and their qualifications for a position to you, but how can you sell yourself to them as well? Despite a tight job market, it’s not fair to assume candidates will take the first job that is offered to them. Rise above your competition and offer them something different.

New Twist: This is an excellent opportunity to tell candidates about you, or reiterate your company’s strengths (even though they’ve likely already researched your company), while giving the candidate a chance to talk about what’s most important to him or her. “We believe our flexible scheduling options, 401(k) matching, Diversity Awareness group, and casual dress code are a few things that set our company apart. What made you most interested in working for our company?” or “What is your ideal company environment?”

 

Cliché away

We know old habits die hard. If you love the “cliché” questions and want to continue using them, consider following up with a “new twist” question so you don’t miss out on any additional insight the interviewee might have to give. (Baby steps, right?)

And while we might have some ideas, you’re the ones in the trenches. What cliché are you willing to throw out — or have you heard that made you cringe? Any new twists on old questions you’ve come up with to reflect the changing job market? We’d love to hear ‘em.

Amy McDonnell

About Amy McDonnell

Originally hailing from Ohio, Amy is the creative services manager on the content services team and has been with both CareerBuilder and the city of Chicago for nearly a decade. She writes on a range of recruitment topics on The Hiring Site, striving to bring a dose of clarity and humor to sometimes complicated issues around employee attraction, engagement and retention. When she's not working, Amy spends as much time as possible reading, pretending to be a chef, writing short stories, eating Nutella out of the jar, waiting for CTA buses and trains, going to see her favorite bands live, and spending time with people who inspire and challenge her.
8 comments
Jeremy Mathias
Jeremy Mathias

There shouldn't ever be the need to ask cliche questions, or even to develop new twists on them. For two reasons. First, when you know the exam questions before taking the exam, you can simply concoct a convincing set of lies, by which even the most experienced interviewer may be takin in. Second, the questions should revolve around, and be specific to, the position for which the candidate is applying.

Why waste time skirting around it, which is all these cliche questions do?

tammy vickers
tammy vickers

We have used some of those questions, we follow a general interview guidelines, but for me they never provided the answers I needed to get to really know the candidates. I like these variations.

tammy vickers
tammy vickers

We have used some of those questions, we follow a general interview guidelines, but for me they never provided the answers I needed to get to really know the candidates. I like these variations.

Capers
Capers

Quite useful! Thanks!

Capers
Capers

Quite useful! Thanks!

Tookie Harto
Tookie Harto

I think “Tell me something about yourself” is a valuable tool for gaining valuable information from a candidate. It shows whether they are prepared, their ability to articulate and organize their thoughts. Also, answers a lot of illegal questions you cannot ask.

The strength and weakness question also reveals important information. People either struggle with the weakness question answer or split out a pat answers they learned from books or the internet. If you are an experienced recruiter you should be able to distinguish the truth from the dung. I follow up on the strength question asking “How did those strengths help make you successful in your previous job. “Give examples.”

Sometimes the answers you seek are not from the questions you are asking. They are on the edges of what is verbally asked.

Tookie Harto
Tookie Harto

I think “Tell me something about yourself” is a valuable tool for gaining valuable information from a candidate. It shows whether they are prepared, their ability to articulate and organize their thoughts. Also, answers a lot of illegal questions you cannot ask.

The strength and weakness question also reveals important information. People either struggle with the weakness question answer or split out a pat answers they learned from books or the internet. If you are an experienced recruiter you should be able to distinguish the truth from the dung. I follow up on the strength question asking “How did those strengths help make you successful in your previous job. “Give examples.”

Sometimes the answers you seek are not from the questions you are asking. They are on the edges of what is verbally asked.

JS
JS

very useful; thank you.

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