Finding a Job - Interview Questions

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Question Types and Samples

There are three principal types of questions you may encounter during an interview: 1) traditional, 2) behavioral and 3) industry specific.

    Traditional interview questions focus mainly on general information that you can answer directly. Some of the questions will be based on your application, so know your resume thoroughly in order to answer questions effectively. In addition, use examples that will help illustrate your point and give the interviewer a greater sense of who you are as a person, student, and potential employee. Below are common questions that you may be asked during your interview:

    • 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 are based on the premise that past behavior predicts your future performance; therefore assess your skills and abilities so that you are prepared to answer any questions that require thorough descriptions of your past. To answer these questions, identify the skills employers are most interested in and select examples that illustrate these skills. Examples can be drawn from your academic coursework, internships, volunteer work and student activities. When answering these questions, your answers should be organized and illustrate your thought process.  You may wish to use the SARA (Situation, Action, Results, Application) framework to guide your answers. Detail your situation, your tasks, your actions, and your results, and then summarize your overall experience.  See below for more information and an example of a response using the SARA framework:

    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 application to the future.

    Example of 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 on 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 of 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 you want.

    Below are sample behavioral questions that you may be asked during your interview:

    • 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 work it out?
    • 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.

    Industry specific interview questions test your knowledge and skills as related to the industry for which you are applying. This is your opportunity to reveal how much research you've done on CCE's website and by talking with professionals.

    • Tell me how your research has influenced your teaching. In what ways have you brought insight from your research to your courses at the undergraduate level?
    • What course, not currently in our catalogue, would you like to develop?
      • How do you structure your courses?
      • Name your favorite architects and what do you admire about their work?
      • Talk to me about your design philosophy.
      • Discuss your familiarity with building codes.
      • How do you feel your studio work relates to practical projects you might encounter here at our firm?
      • Apple is trying to increase its market penetration of iPods on American college campuses by 50 percent. You need to recommend a strategy to achieve this. What do you recommend that Apple do to achieve this goal?
      • How many piano tuners are there in New York City?
      • What was the closing number of the Dow Jones two days ago? (Sales and Trading specific)
      • How do you value a company? (Investment Banking specific)
      • What is 23 x 17?
      • Why sales and trading? Why not banking?
      • If interest rates rise, what happens to bond prices and yields?
      • What specialization of law are you interested in?
      • Have you ever attended a court hearing or employment tribunal? What was the outcome?
      • How do you respond under stress?
      • In your view, what are the major problems/opportunities facing the legal industry?
        • If you were to introduce a new product into a foreign market, what are some of the factors you would need to study in that country?
        • You need more shelf space in a store. How do you convince the store manager to give it to you?
        • Who is your favorite author and why?
        • Who controls the news?
        • What magazines do you read and why?
        • What does it mean to be a critical reader?
        Real Estate
        • If you were preparing a memo for a real estate investment committee, what would you include?
        • If you had $100 million, where would you invest your funds? Why?
        • Two properties are across the street from each other in midtown Manhattan. The properties look exactly the same on the outside. Why might one be worth more than the other?
        Teaching (K-12)
        • Give an example of how you used cooperative learning in your classroom?
        • What four words would students use to describe your teaching strategies?
        • If you were to give an assignment that your students ridiculed for not making sense, what would you do?

            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 is one of the hardest interview questions to answer. You do not know what the employer is looking for specifically. However, this is also one of the best questions to be asked. At no other time will you be given so much latitude to answer a question. You want to be sure to capture the interviewer's attention with a clear, quick, and focused response. This response ("two-minute pitch" or "elevator speech") should give a summary of your background, focusing on why you are a good fit for this position in this organization. Please keep in mind that the employer is not interested in learning about your entire personal history. Before the interview, prepare an answer to this question. Write out your relevant or professional qualifications using the past, present, and future approach. 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? In your answer 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

            The following are questions that companies, based in the United States, cannot ask:

            • What is your age?
            • 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?
            • Do you have a police record?
            • What is your sexual orientation?
            • Are your parents citizens?

            For additional information, please refer to Chapter 13 of Sweaty Palms: the Neglected Art of Being Interviewed by H. Anthony Medley. If asked an illegal interview question, please contact the Center for Career Education at (212) 854-5609.

            Sample Questions to Ask During an Interview

            • What do you see in the future for this industry?
            • Can you tell me a little bit about your own experience with the company?
            • How do you rate your competition?
            • What sort of projects will I be involved in at first?
            • When can I expect to hear from you?

            Additional Resources

            Please refer to the following additional resources:

            • Vault interview guides
            • Wetfeet interview guides
            • Interviewing Basics Tipsheet
            • Interviewing for Experienced Candidates Tipsheet 
            • Interview Questions Tipsheet
            • Academic Interviews Tipsheet 
            • Second Interview Tipsheet 
            • Professional Image Tipsheet