Question Types and Samples

During an interview, you may encounter these three main types of questions:

  1. traditional
  2. behavioral
  3. industry-specific

Use the resource below to familiarize yourself with common interview questions and learn how to prepare!


Traditional Interview Questions

Traditional interview questions focus on general information that you can answer directly. Some will be based on your application materials, so know your resume thoroughly in order to answer effectively. Use examples to illustrate your points and give the interviewer a sense of who you are as a person and potential employee. Common interview questions include:

  • Tell me about yourself.
  • 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 weaknesses?
  • 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?
  • What three adjectives best describe you? Why?
  • Why do you want to work for us?
  • What can you offer our organization that no one else can?
  • What do you think it takes to be successful in an organization like ours?
  • What have you learned from your mistakes?
  • Do you think your grades are a good indication of your academic achievements?
  • How would you describe the ideal job for you following graduation?
  • What criteria are you using to evaluate the company for which you hope to work?
  • What do you know about our organization?
  • Why should I hire you?

Behavioral Interview Questions

Behavioral interview questions are based on the premise that past behavior predicts future performance. To prepare for behavioral questions, start by assessing your skills and abilities. Then, identify the skills the employer is most interested in. Think about examples from your past where you used these skills and abilities. When you answer a behavioral question, you will share a short story that shows that skill or ability in action. You can draw examples from your academic coursework, internships, volunteer work, and student activities.

Your answers should be organized and illustrate your thought process. The SARA (Situation, Action, Results, Application) framework can help you guide your answers. Detail your situation, your tasks, your actions, and your results, and then summarize your overall experience.

Sample Behavioral Questions

  • Describe a time you faced a difficult situation, how you resolved it, and what you learned about yourself in the process.
  • Tell me about a time that you worked under deadline pressure.
  • Describe an accomplishment that has given you satisfaction.
  • Describe a situation in which you found yourself challenged. How did you handle it?
  • Describe a situation where you had a conflict with someone in an academic or professional situation. How did you resolve it?
  • Tell me about a project that you persevered through after wanting to initially abandon it.

SARA Framework

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 applicable to the future.

Example Interview Response Using the SARA Framework

Situation: During my international internship last summer, I was a marketing and social media intern at a non-profit art gallery based in Beijing.  One of my primary tasks was to create and implement a marketing plan for the gallery.  Because I was new to the company, I was not familiar with their current practices in this area.

Action: To get started on the project, I met with several of my colleagues to understand what they felt was best to include in the marketing plan as well as to gauge the level of knowledge of technology used in the office for the purposes of social media and other web-based marketing.  After meeting with others and completing research on marketing best practices, I created a marketing plan in Excel which was broken down by marketing deadlines, who was responsible for the marketing, and the type of marketing.

Results:  I provided my recommendations to my supervisor and then to upper-level management.  They appreciated the marketing plan and were able to implement it soon after I finished my internship.  I still stay in touch with my former colleagues at the organization and they have verified that there has been a 10% increase in people viewing the website.  They believe this increase in viewers is partially due to the marketing plan that I was able to create.

Application: I learned the benefit of conducting due diligence before beginning a project and how to create and implement a plan while working alongside a team.  It is evident that based on the job description, these transferable skills will be incredibly beneficial to the role in which I applied.

Note: It is incredibly helpful to tie the “Application” aspect to the responsibilities outlined in the job description.

Industry-Specific Interview Questions

Industry-specific interview questions test your knowledge and skills in your target industry. This is your opportunity to reveal your knowledge! Make sure you research common industry-specific questions online and by talking with professionals in the field.

For specific industry interview questions check out Firsthand, accessible through our portal, Glassdoor, and our engineering interview resource.

Difficult Questions

Columbia students often identify “Tell me about yourself,” “What is your greatest weakness?,” “Why should I hire you?,” and “What salary do you expect and/or require?” as the most challenging to answer. Following are suggestions for tackling these difficult questions:

  • Tell me about yourself. This innocent sounding question which often starts the interview is one of the hardest questions to answer. However, this question presents a great opportunity to start on the right foot and make a great first impression. You want to be sure to capture the interviewer’s attention with a clear, quick, and focused response. This response, sometimes called the “two-minute pitch” or “elevator speech” should give a quick introduction to your background, focusing on why you are a good fit for this position in this organization. Before the interview, prepare an answer to this question. Choose four to five highlights of which you are most proud (past and present). Be sure to back these qualifications up with examples, generally from your resume. Then, explain how you believe you can help this employer.
  • What is your greatest weakness? When you answer this question, you should be cautious. This is not an opportunity to confess a major flaw about your personality that would disqualify you from further consideration. Prepare an answer that demonstrates your self-awareness. In your answer include ways that you are trying to improve upon this weakness. In addition, anticipate several follow-up questions related to your weakness. Avoid weaknesses such as “I work too hard,” or “I am a perfectionist,” which have become clichéd.
  • 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 the combinations of skills and experiences you offer and why these will be valuable to this company.
  • What salary do you expect and/or require? To answer this question properly, you need to do research on the job position and the company. You want to be able to give the employer a salary range that you are comfortable with, but one that also matches the standard rate for this position in this industry. When stating your salary range, also adjust for the cost of living in the city of your choice. For additional help, refer to

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 birthplace?
  • 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.

Sample Questions to Ask During an Interview

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?