What Should You Ask an Interview Candidate?

You’re interviewing a candidate, looking for aptitude and attitude, but you’re not sure what to ask.  Just like the candidate, you have access to hundreds of thousands of web pages listing “interview questions.”  How do you decide what to ask? 

Remind yourself of what you’re trying to accomplish: Is this candidate the best person to do the job you’re trying to fill?  The candidate’s previous experience and skills are only important in relation to that question.  They serve as the foundation for your questions but, by themselves, those skills and that job history aren’t enough.

Here are some guidelines I follow in preparing questions for an interview candidate.

  • Avoid the most common cliché questions

I’m not a fan of questions like, “What is your greatest strength (or weakness)?” or “Where do you see yourself in X years?”  Most candidates have rehearsed answers for those questions and rehearsed answers rarely provide much insight into the candidate. 

  • Ask for examples
    • “Tell me of a situation where you …”
    • “Describe a manager / subordinate / co-worker who…”
    • “Describe your personal contributions to <some key project>”

By probing for explicit examples, you can avoid trite, rehearsed responses.  Your goal is to see how the candidate thinks and how he has handled various challenges he is likely to face at your company.  In addition, you want to separate “specific responsibilities he had” from “projects where he tenuously contributed.”

  • Probe for conceptual understanding and ability to explain

Ask the candidate to explain some core concept that he should understand well.  When listening to the answer, look for two things: does he really understand this concept and is the explanation clear?  Some examples include:

  • Describe a perfect sales opportunity (and what characteristics make it perfect).
  • Describe the architecture of the last application you developed.
  • Tell me what a data warehouse is.


  • Push the candidate to say “I don’t know”

I often do this as a follow on to the question above, especially when interviewing a technical candidate.  I probe deeper and deeper for more detail about some topic, expecting to get to a level that the candidate doesn’t know.  That’s the answer I’m looking for: “I don’t know.”  [Or even better, “I don’t know but here’s how I would find out”].  Candidates who are unwilling to ever say “I don’t know” can present risks: they may be reluctant to ask for help or advice; they may try to fake their way through things when they are uncertain; or they may have difficulty collaborating with others on your team. 

  • Validate ability to retain information

Ask the candidate something that you know they’ve heard or learned during the interview process.  One of my favorites is “Tell me what our company does.”  If I’m not the first person on the interview loop, they’ve probably gotten this description from someone else.  If I’ve previously phone-screened the candidate, I also sometimes ask them to describe something that I told them on the phone.

  • Be original

[For many people, this is easier to say than to do.]

Come up with a question you haven’t read from any list (or from this page).  One of my favorites (which I talked about in a blog post last year) is “In your current job, what was the biggest mistake you made?”  

That question combines several traits of a good question: it’s probably unexpected, it asks the candidate to do some introspection, and it urges the candidate to reveal some vulnerability.  If the candidate says “I can’t think of any” or “I don’t make mistakes” it makes me worry. 

For now…I’ll leave you with this thought:

Ask questions that will get past the candidate’s interview preparation skills to evaluate the skills that are more relevant to your open position.

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