Every time you head into a job interview, you know you’ll be hit with them: those cliché, tricky-to-answer questions hiring managers seem to love to ask. (Does “What is your greatest weakness?” ring a bell?)
Instead of getting stuck squirming in your chair while trying to think of an answer, be ready with smart replies that reveal your strengths and why you’re the best applicant for the gig. Here’s how to craft fresh, personalized answers to the most painfully tedious questions—and propel yourself one step closer to a callback.
1. Tell me about yourself.
This open-ended ice-breaker is your way of introducing yourself. But rehashing your resume aloud isn’t what the hiring manager wants to hear, says Ilene Siscovick, a partner at New York HR consulting firm Mercer.
Your Answer: This is your chance to highlight your most relevant professional wins while showcasing your passion and personality. Start by explaining why you love what you do—in other words, what makes you get out of bed energized to work every morning. Then, segue into why your skills and accomplishments make you the ideal hire. Don’t rattle on; three to five minutes is enough, says Stefanie Wichansky, CEO of Professional Resource Partners.
2. Why have you had so many jobs in a short period of time?
If you’ve moved around a lot, you can expect to get this question because employers want reassurance that new hires will stay with the company for the long haul—at least two years, Siscovick says. A 2014 CareerBuilder survey found that 43% of employers wouldn’t consider a candidate who’s had short tenures with several employers.
Your Answer: Give your job-hopper history a positive spin, suggests Wichansky. For example, “I wanted to gain a diverse set of skills, and changing jobs has enabled me to do that.” Then, reinforce your commitment to the company by explaining how you’ll apply these skills in your new role. Add in how having several jobs under your belt has made you very adaptable, and you can dive into new challenges and pick up new skills fast.
3. How would you describe your work style?
Do you prefer to work solo or on a team? Burn the midnight oil or be out the door by 5 p.m.? Do you like hanging with coworkers after hours or keeping your social life separate? Your answer can indicate how you’ll fit into the company’s culture—which includes not just the office environment but the organization’s core values. A 2013 survey found that more than 80% of employers cited cultural fit as a top hiring priority.
Your Answer: If you don’t have any insight into the company culture, do a little pre-interview research. Siscovick recommends starting by reading the mission statement on the organization’s website. Scroll through profiles of the founders and see what kind of philanthropic work they support. Look at office photos to see how employees interact and if they collaborate in an open plan or closed offices. A Google or LinkedIn search on the company will help round out the picture.
After the interviewer throws out this question, connect your authentic work style and values to those of the company. For example, if employees work in teams, say how you do your best work when collaborating with talented, engaged staffers. If your workplace encourages volunteering, point out how this meshes with your values too, and you would be thrilled to spearhead a new community initiative or take part in an existing one.
4. What are your strengths and weaknesses?
A job interview is all about promoting yourself. But there’s a fine line between talking yourself up and shamelessly boasting—and being self-aware enough to know your faults but not so much that you knock yourself out of the running.
Your Answer: It’s far easier to repeat someone else’s praise for you rather than toot your own horn, so tell the hiring manager that you’d like to paraphrase what your previous manager told you at your last performance review, Wichansky suggests. Go with traits or accomplishments that line up with the requirements for the new position.
As for your weaknesses, be honest—then say how you’re taking steps to address your shortcomings. Let’s say the job requires top skills in Search Engine Optimization, which you know you don’t have. Your reply could be “I’m not as proficient in SEO as I’d like to be, but I’ve enrolled in a few classes that will bring me up to speed.” And it goes without saying, no humble bragging. “Interviewers want to see humility,” Wichansky says, so no need to go on about how you’re a hopeless overachiever or that you work too damn hard for your own good.
5. What will you bring to the table?
Employers look to new hires for fresh ideas. When hiring managers ask this question, they want details on how you’ll innovate to help grow the company.
Your Answer: First, make sure to do your homework and find out where the company ranks in its field. Then, speak to the skills and accomplishments you have that you’ll draw on to help boost the company’s bottom line, Wichanksy recommends. If you’re applying for a job to lead a new department, highlight your project management experience and how creative new initiatives you put in place improved profits by a specific percentage. Or say you’re applying for a job at a marketing firm that hasn’t fully embraced social media. Go to the interview prepared with ideas for how to improve the organization’s presence on Facebook and Snapchat.
6. What are your salary expectations?
No company wants to overpay for talent, but your goal is to be compensated fairly—and make a persuasive case for it.
Your Answer: Check out salary comparison sites like Payscale or Glassdoor to gauge how much you’re worth based on your experience and geographic location. At the interview, rather than waiting for the HR rep to set the bar for salary negotiations, throw out a number first, recommends Robin Pinkley, management professor at Southern Methodist University and coauthor of “Get Paid What You’re Worth.”
What kind of figure should you put out there? A Columbia University study suggests asking for a range instead of a fixed dollar amount. Set your target salary at the bottom of the range so you don’t undersell yourself; for example, if you’re gunning for a salary of $60,000, ask for something between, say, $60,000 and $70,000. The right range tells your interviewer that you’re a serious player who knows the industry and job level—yet you’re willing to negotiate if you land an offer.
*This story is from Forbes.com by Daniel Bortz, a Contributor for LearnVest. It originally appeared on LearnVest as “The Very Best Responses to the Most Basic of Interview Questions.”*