What job interview questions really mean and how to answer them

If you view a job interview as a minefield, this advice by the head of a top recruitment agency could help you safely across

James Reed: avoid “canned answers”, as there is nothing more boring or frustrating for an interviewer than hearing the same rehearsed response over and over again

Can the path of your entire life come down to what you do in just one or two decisive moments? I think so – and it is likely that one of these moments of life-changing destiny will present itself in the form of a job interview.

Being great at interviews is an invaluable skill but you can’t prepare an answer for every interview question. So, of the thousands of questions interviewers might ask, which ones will they? As the chairman of Reed I have access to thousands of organisations that recruit through Reed Specialist Recruitment and reed.co.uk, so I asked them what questions they most commonly ask during interviews.

In the thousands that came back I noticed patterns, and narrowed them down to a list of 101 questions that kept cropping up. Once I had this, I asked our experts at Reed for their advice on how best to answer them. A recurring theme appeared as I spoke to dozens of Reed’s recruitment consultants: avoid “canned answers”, as there is nothing more boring or frustrating for an interviewer than hearing the same rehearsed response over and over again.

I compiled all our findings into a book, Why You? 101 Interview Questions You'll Never Fear Again. It is the only interview advice book on the market to be crowd-sourced and use up-to-date information from real and current employers. The questions it contains are real questions being asked by real interviewers right now. Below are four of them, along with some of our expert advice on how to answer them:


What is your dream job?

The real question: Can we help you on your way, or is this the wrong job for you?

Top-line tactic: Play down the dream, play up the things your dreams are made of.

Does the interviewer really want to know your deepest and most heartfelt dream? Maybe, but probably not. For that reason, you should treat this question as a bit of fun, respond in good humour and then move on quickly. Whatever you do, do not take this question too seriously.

Consequently, the following two answers are likely to be taken as misguided or insincere.

“My dream job is … the job we’re talking about today”

(They probably won’t believe you, which means you’re in trouble.)

“My dream job is ... to be an astronaut”

(You’re in trouble if they do believe you, unless you happen to be Buzz Lightyear!)

There is no such thing as a lawyer who never loses a case or a mechanic who can keep your car going forever. Such jobs exist only in dreams – and that’s your clue to answering this question. You can get the “dream” part out of the way by saying that you would like to do a real-world job to a surreal, dream-like extent. One Reed recruiter did just that when she said:

“My dream job would be a fairy job-mother, giving everyone the job of their dreams with no rejections or disappointments”.

When were you last angry – and why?

The real question: Are you a hothead? Can you handle stress?

The top-line tactic: Give them a time you constructively worked through a stressful or annoying situation.

Angry is a strong word. It connotes losing control, emotionally-driven thinking and impulses that are destructive rather than constructive. None of these things are exactly valued in business. So while the interviewer is asking you for anecdotes where you were angry, on the face of it you shouldn’t give him any.

Claiming you have the patience of a Zen priest is certainly going to come off as disingenuous. Instead, massage the question slightly to replace “angry” with “stressed” or “frustrated” and offer the interviewer a time you ran into an annoying situation but were able to keep your cool and handle it constructively.

What is it about this job that you would least look forward to?

The real question: Are you going to like this job? Do you have the guts for it?

Top-line tactic: Acknowledge an unfortunate (but key) aspect of the job and say how you have dealt with it before.

This question is not an opportunity to pretend that the job holds zero downsides for you. It is a wonderful opportunity to show you’re tougher than the rest.

The cliche answer to this question sees you cherry-pick an infrequent task and hide behind the fact that you won’t be performing it very often. If you can do that and sound like you mean it, then good luck. In truth, most of the time you will probably come over like you’re dodging the question.

A better tactic is to pick on a part of the job that nobody in their right mind would enjoy. There is not a job in the world that doesn’t have obvious downsides. You should talk about a vacancy’s downsides in a way that proves you can handle it, preferably with reference to experience.

Have you ever stolen a pen from work?

The real question: Will you pretend you've never put a foot wrong, or will you do the right thing?

Top-line tactic: They're more worried about your integrity than their inventory.

Some people might not regard borrowing a pen as stealing, when strictly speaking it is nothing but, so here the question is being used to obtain insight into your values. But they’re also asking to see if you think the sun shines out of your filing cabinet, because, of course, almost everyone has stolen a pen from work. Don’t be tempted to fob them off with:

“I have once or twice taken a pen from the office without knowing but I have always returned it the next day or the day after”.

…because the employer knows that that pen is still on your desk at home, and they might challenge you to that effect. Better to ‘fess up.

The sheer variety of interview questions that exist today is a direct result of a need to avoid rehearsed responses. The principal task of an interviewer is to differentiate between his candidates so as to identify the best fit for his vacancy and he won’t be able to do that if he has to endure half a dozen identical interviews in the space of a morning.

However, if a company is looking for a detail-oriented person while you are a big-picture strategic thinker, bluffing your way in will, over time, move you further away from happiness. The point of my book is to arm you with some self-knowledge and provide a little help in how best to demonstrate to employers exactly why you.

James Reed is author of Why You? 101 Interview Questions You'll Never Fear Again published by Portfolio Penguin (£6.99)