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8.4 Different Types of Questions

Learning Objectives

  1. Learn the three distinct types of interview questions.
  2. Understand how to answer each type of question confidently and stress a results-oriented approach.

Interviewers are most likely to ask one of four types of questions:

  1. Open-ended questions
  2. Specific questions
  3. Motivation questions
  4. Unconventional questions

Lastly, we’ll review illegal questionsDiscriminatory, including questions that touch on the following information: age, birthplace, childcare arrangements, ethnicity and race, disability, marital and family status, national origin, and religion. that hopefully will not be a part of your interviews.

Open-Ended Questions

Open-ended questions don’t have specific answers. They include questions like the following:

  • Tell me about yourself. Walk me through your career. Why did you make the choices you made?

Such questions present an opportunity to tell your story in an engaging, articulate, and compelling way. Explain why you selected the school(s) you selected, your major and your minor, and your GPA (if it’s above 3.3). Describe the jobs you’ve had and how you got them. Did you apply directly or did you get them through networking? What were your most significant accomplishments at each job? Highlight significant accomplishments that may or may not be explicit in your résumé. Often, a theme will emerge, but if that isn’t the case, talk about your decisions in a positive light.

  • With which skills and functions are you most comfortable? If I were to assign you a project based on your expertise, what would I give you?

If you enjoy working with clients, talk about your specific achievements and how you helped your clients. Have you served them well enough for them to be repeat customers? Have they referred other clients to you? If you are very strong analytically, give an example of the most analytical project on which you’ve worked and the project’s outcome.

  • What are your weakest skills, and how are you addressing them? What areas would your supervisors say you need to develop?

Everyone has strengths and everyone has weaknesses. You should do a substantive assessment of your weaknesses prior to an interview. A weakness should never be a critical component of the job for which you are applying. If there is a trick to answering this question effectively, it’s to highlight what you are doing to strengthen each weakness. For example, if public speaking is something you consider a weakness, you can say that to improve this, you raise your hand as much as possible in class, and you volunteer to present whenever possible. The more prepared you are with the content of your presentation, the better you perform.

  • What do you do for fun? What do you do in your free time? What do you like to read?

These questions present an opportunity to enthusiastically and specifically discuss what you enjoy doing in your spare time. If you enjoy tennis, talk about how long you have been playing and your favorite player. If you enjoy reading, mention the last great book you read.

Specific Questions

Specific questions have concrete answers and might include the following:

  • Tell me about this [the interviewer can point to anything on your résumé, whether it be a project, an employer, a class, a skill, or a hobby].

You must be able to quickly and completely discuss any topic from your résumé and its relevance to your professional career. You should be able to recount every detail about each project, and enthusiastically relay those details to your interviewer. If you are not enthusiastic about your work, they will not be either. Also highlight the result of your work or any project about which they want to know more.

  • Tell me about your favorite project, your most significant project, or a project that demonstrates your leadership, project management, analytical, research, or communications skills.

When answering this question, remember who sponsored the project, the project’s objective and deliverable, steps you took to complete the project, and the results of your efforts. Note your role as well as the roles of other team members. Be specific and quantify the results.

  • Tell me about a project where something went wrong or tell me about a difficult client.

Everyone has worked on projects where something went wrong. If we procrastinated, we learned to become more disciplined in our approach to projects. If someone didn’t do their part of the project, which then caused us to do extra work, we learned to communicate more clearly and check the project’s progress on a regular basis.

We also have worked with difficult clients. The trick is to not say anything negative about a client. If a client was demanding, remember that all clients have a right to make demands. We need to raise our game to ensure they are pleased with the service and our level of professionalism. Never make negative comments about a client, a boss, a peer, or a company. Doing so sends an immediate red flag to the interviewer, so avoid such negativity at all costs. Position everything in a positive light, which can only help your candidacy.

  • What do you think about current events or significant events in the employer’s industry?

Interviewers want to know that you are knowledgeable about current events, especially those pertaining to their industry. The very best candidates are well versed in the current news, so be prepared to discuss one or two items. It’s important that you cite the source of the news and what you learned from it. If you did subsequent research about the topic, discuss that as well. It’s an opportunity to highlight your research and your passion for this industry.

Motivation Questions

Interviewers often want to know about a candidate’s motivation by asking the following questions:

  • With which firms are you interviewing? What positions are you seeking? How will you choose?

The most savvy interviewers know that the best candidates interview with multiple companies. Many candidates are comfortable discussing specific companies with which they are interviewing, and, from a recruiting perspective, it’s fine to mention the company names. If you would rather not discuss this, mention that you are currently interviewing with other companies, but this company is your number one choice and highlight why you want to work there. They should get the hint that you don’t want to mention specific companies.

No matter what company is interviewing you, ensure that you know why you want to work for that particular company. Know their strong points and know their competitors. Know clearly why you want to work for them versus their competitors.

  • What do you hope to accomplish in your career? Where do you see yourself in one, five, or more years?

Your research will help you answer this question. If you’ve conducted some informational interviews, you will have a clear idea of what a career can look like in one, five, and ten years. It is also important to network with peers who have interned at the companies in which you are interested because they can share specific information with you. For example, consulting, investment banking, and brand management have well-defined career paths. Advertising has a defined career path, but it may not be as defined as other businesses and industries.

Additional sources of information on this topic can be gathered on various job-seeker sites such as and Career services can be a huge resource, as can alumni who are in the industries in which you are most interested.

  • What questions do you have for the interviewer?

This can be a make-or-break question because some interviews consist of just this one question. Every interview candidate should enter an interview with five to seven questions written down in advance. These questions should come directly from your research.

  • Why do you want this position? Why do you want to work with this company?

Answers to these questions will come from your research. Have a specific reason you want to work at the company doing the exact job for which you are interviewing. Is the brand name very strong, giving you an opportunity to work with the best? Is the brand name not yet a household name, giving you an opportunity to make it so?

It’s also important to know what skills you will gain in this specific position and which will enable you to be successful. Will the position strengthen your analytical skills? Will it enable you to become a subject-matter expert? Be specific in your answer.

Unconventional Questions

Some interviewers may think you are too rehearsed and may want to inject a bit of stress; perhaps they want to shake you up a bit by asking what may seem to be crazy or certainly bizarre interview questions:

  • If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be? Why?
  • If you were a car, what color would you be? Why?
  • If you were an item in the supermarket, what item would you be? Why?
  • If you were an animal, what kind of animal would you be? Why?

Note that these questions are rare and you probably will not be asked them, but since preparation is key, it’s worth examining why they are asked. These types of questions are asked to get a true glimpse into your personality. The “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be and why?” question could be answered the following way:

  • If you were a corporate research analyst who relied purely on your research to describe a stock, and that research would be shared with hundreds of portfolio managers, you might say you were a redwood tree. A redwood is one of the strongest trees on the planet and has roots that grow hundreds of feet into the ground. Not even the strongest of winds can cause the redwood to sway.
  • If you were applying to be a technology customer service representative who troubleshoots during their entire day, you may say that you were a palm tree. A palm tree bends and yields to gentle breezes and hurricanes alike, but it survives almost anything that comes its way and stands tall and straight the minute the wind stops.

The two types of trees have very different characteristics, yet they both survive and thrive.

Unconventional questions have no correct answer, but when asked them, four strategies can help you succeed:

  1. Practice answering a few of these types of questions. If you need a few minutes to consider your answer during an interview, it’s fine to ask for a bit of time.
  2. Answer by showing something positive or beneficial about you and your personality.
  3. Avoid humor and answer the question seriously and sincerely.
  4. Work backward to the answer. Think about a characteristic that is important to the job, and then match it to a tree, a fruit, or an item in a supermarket.

Illegal Questions

Illegal or discriminatory questions include references to the following:

  • Age
  • Birthplace
  • Childcare arrangements
  • Ethnicity and race
  • Disability
  • Marital and family status
  • National origin
  • Religion
  • Sexual orientation

If you are asked any question relating to the preceding topics, it could be for one of two reasons. Either the interviewer is asking an illegal question or the interviewer might not be well versed in interview techniques. Many hiring managers have not been formally trained in interview techniques, and that lack of training can result in asking an illegal question.

It is hoped that the question would be harmless enough so that you can answer it without feeling uncomfortable. If you feel uncomfortable answering something, tactfully say that the question doesn’t relate to the job. Try to move onto another question or ask a question pertaining to the job to get the interview back on track.

If you feel that you were subjected to discrimination, speak to someone at your career services office. They could provide the guidance necessary at this stage of your job search. If that is not possible, consult a friend or professor and ask for guidance in your next steps. This is not a matter to be taken lightly, so it’s important to get help from someone who is familiar with these issues.

Key Takeaways

  • Interviewers are most likely to ask one of three types of questions: (1) open ended, (2) specific, and (3) motivation questions.
  • Unconventional interview questions might be asked, and you must be able to spontaneously answer them.
  • It’s wise to know what questions are illegal in case they are asked.


  1. Practice answering each of the open-ended, specific, and motivation questions, ensuring that you use specific examples for each.
  2. Practice the unconventional interview questions as well. Ensure that you tie the positive traits of the object (such as a tree) to key components of the skills needed for the job.
  3. Review questions that are illegal. If you are asked one of these questions during an interview, follow up with your career services office.