Preparation is the key to interview success. We’ve included examples of the most common interview questions and how to answer them.

Let’s start with questions Columbia students identified as most challenging:

Tell me about yourself…

The employer is not interested in learning about your entire personal history. Be sure to capture the interviewer’s attention with a clear, quick, and focused response. This response (“or “two minute pitch”) should give a summary of your background and fit. Identify several relevant qualifications supported by experiences and results on your resume. Explain how these skills can contribute to the employer. See more about answering this question on page 52 of the Career Planning Guide.

What are your weaknesses?

This is not an opportunity to confess a major flaw in your personality. It’s also not advisable to use a strength disguised as a weakness (example: “I’m a perfectionist”). Everyone has genuine weaknesses. Employers are looking for an element of self-awareness in potential employees. Choose a skill deficit or lack of experience and identify how you are trying to improve. A good example of this: I’ve always valued cultural competency but I only speak one language. I’m currently taking a Spanish class to improve my language skills.

Why should I hire you?

Focus on what makes you unique and what you offer to an employer. Do not attempt to compare yourself with other applicants. Explain how your skills and experiences will be valuable to this company.

What salary do you expect and/or need?

You need to do research into the position and the company. You want to provide a salary range that you are comfortable with and matches the industry. Be sure to adjust for the cost of living in the city of your choice. For more  help, refer to,, and the Educate to Career Salary Calculator. For information on negotiating, see page 54 of the Career Planning Guide.


Different types of interview questions

Behavioral Interview Questions

SARA (Situation, Action, Results, Application) model

Behavioral interview questions focus on your past work performance. You need to provide examples and tell stories to give the interviewer a sense of who you are as a potential employee. They often begin with “Tell me a time when,” or “Give me an example of.” To structure your answers, use the SARA (Situation, Action, Results, Application) model.

Situation: Explain a situation/problem/conflict you dealt with in the workplace.

Action: Concisely describe the actions you took and the tasks that needed to be completed to respond to the situation.

Results: Share the positive outcome that resulted in the actions you took in that situation.

Application: Describe the lessons you learned and the skills you gained throughout the experience and how the situation is application to the future.

Some other examples include:

  • Tell me about a time when you went above and beyond what was expected of you.
  • Describe the most significant leadership role you’ve held. What was your greatest challenge?
  • When have you had to mobilize other people around your goals?
  • Tell me about an assignment you worked on in which you had to amass a huge amount of data and then analyze it.
  • Can you tell me about a situation where your analysis of a problem was deemed to be incorrect? What did you do next?
  • Tell me about a project that you persevered through after wanting to abandon it.
  • Tell me about a time when you worked under deadline pressure.
  • Describe a situation in which you had to convince others that your view, approach or ideas were right.
  • What is your approach in meeting new people? Describe how you might behave in a business context versus a social context.
  • Tell me about a successful presentation that you’ve made. Why was it successful?
  • What role do you prefer to have on a team? What role have you been most effective in?
  • Describe a situation when you needed to sacrifice your personal objectives for the team’s benefit.
  • Describe a situation where the true teamwork was the only means of achieving the most effective results. What were the elements of the team dynamic and how did you contribute to the dynamic?


These questions are specific to the industry you are seeking employment in. They test your industry knowledge and ask you to prove your skills in person. STEM employers tend to focus the entire interview on technical questions. Practice sample questions/tests and review materials from classes or projects. and faculty are also good resources.

Case Interview

Hypothetical case questions look to identify how you might handle a particular situation or approach a problem.  Check out our resource on Preparing for a Case Interview as you begin to learn more. You can also read “Case in Point” by Marc P. Cosentino, and Firsthand Case Interviews Practice Guides. Practice with peers in the Columbia Undergraduate Consulting Club and/or Columbia Graduate Consulting Club.

Additional Questions

  • Why did you decide to go to Columbia?
  • Why did you major in ____________?
  • Tell me about your job at ____________.
  • Why did you leave your job/internship at ____________?
  • What are your strengths?
  • What are your long-term and short-term goals?
  • How do you plan to achieve your goals?
  • What do you see yourself doing five years from now?
  • Why did you choose the career for which you are preparing?
  • What qualifications do you have that will make you successful in your chosen career?
  • Which three adjectives best describe you? Why?
  •  Why do you want to work for us?
  • What do you think it takes to be successful in an organization like ours?
  • What have you learned from your mistakes?
  •  How would you describe the ideal job for you following graduation?
  • What do you know about our organization?
  • What have you read about our industry lately? Where do you go to find this information?


Illegal Interview Questions

Any questions that are meant to reveal your age, race, national origin, citizenship, gender, religion, marital status, sexual orientation and arrest records are illegal as follows:

  • How old are you?
  • What are your religious beliefs?
  • What is your ancestry, national origin, or birth place?
  • What is your native language?
  • Are you single, married, divorced, or widowed?
  • Do you have any disabilities?
  • Have you ever been arrested?
  • What is your sexual orientation?
  • Are your parents citizens?
  • Do you have any children and/or are you planning on having more?
  • For additional information, check out Chapter 13 of Sweaty Palms: the Neglected Art of Being Interviewed by H. Anthony Medley. If you’re asked an illegal interview question, please contact CCE.


“What Questions Do You Have For Us?”

At the end of most interviews you will be given the chance to ask questions. This is a great opportunity for you to get more information about the position or the company and demonstrate the research that you have done. Sample questions include:

  • What are the ongoing or special departmental projects?
  • What are the top priorities for the person selected for the position over the next three months?
  • What do you like best about working for this company?
  • What training or development programs are offered?
  • What is your timetable for making a decision?