5 common interview questions and how to answer them

Getty ImagesGetty ImagesWhen I posted about how to ace a telephone interview, several people wrote to me saying that whether the interview is on the phone or in person, there were several questions that they anticipate with dread. I've been collecting those questions and talking to some pros about how best to answer them. Here are the top five, with suggested answers. Of course, there are no right or wrong answers, only ways of thinking about answers that will get you to the next stage of the process. Have a look at these and when you're done, chime in if you have better ideas about how to approach any of these questions:

What's your greatest weakness?

It's an interview cliche, but it still gets asked. The key is to come up with something that is truthful, yet doesn't impact your ability to do the job, according to career coach and blogger, Miriam Salpeter. More important than what you identify as a weakness is the part about how you've overcome it. Salpeter offers this example: A computer programmer might say, "Speaking in front of very large crowds really scares me, but I've been working on becoming a better public speaker. I've joined Toastmasters, and I stand up in front of my mirrror, pretending there is a crowd." It's a good one because public speaking is something most people are afraid of, and it is also not likely to be essential to a job as a programmer. One thing you should never say, says Salpeter, is that you are a perfectionist because no one wants to work with a perfectionist. If you want to know why, read this spot-on post by Penelope Trunk.

So tell me about yourself?
(Also posed as "Why do you think you're the person for this job?" "Why should we hire you?" "What distinguishes you from other candidates?")

This is not an invitation to recite your biography. It is an opportunity to draw out the parts of your story that best sell you for the position. So if you were born and raised in Boston and are passionate about the city, that might a good topic for conversation in an interview for a marketing position with the Boston Red Sox. But it wouldn't necessarily be worth mentioning if you were talking about a job in international banking. If you're fluent in three languages, have worked overseas, and have parents who hail from outside the U.S., then those facts would be good ones to highlight in the interview for the international banking job.

Talk about a time you failed and how you recovered.

Since we all mess up from time to time, the important thing is that you choose something where you can demonstrate what you've learned from the experience. A classic example here would be a time that you took on too much responsibility or agreed to do something on an unreasonable timetable, according to career coach and resume writer, Chandlee Bryan. Your recovery could be as simple as the fact that you now feel comfortable raising concerns about what you can deliver on a given schedule.

What changes would you make to our company if you came on board?

This one can set you up to stumble in a variety of ways, according to Ford R. Myers, author of the new book, "Get the Job You Want Even When No One is Hiring." "No matter how comfortable you feel in this situation, you are still an outsider, and don't know the inside story," warns Myers. "Even if your suggestions are good, you might make them look like idiots, if they don't see things your way. And if you say something that doesn't align with the company's culture, then you look like an idiot." Myers recommends saying something like this: "I wouldn't be a very good doctor if I gave my diagnosis before examining the patient. If I were hired, I'd take a very good look at what's going on, speak to a lot of people. And after examining the entire situation, I would come to you with a proposal for your input, and collaboratively we would come up with a solution."

Why are you returning to a field or a company you left?

The key with this one is to present your time away as a learning experience and focus on what you know now that you didn't understand before, says Chandlee Bryan. Say you were in banking, helping to evaluate companies for mergers and acquisitions and went for a stint to a startup. You'll now be able to say that you understand the start-up mentality from more than just a balance street perspective. You might want to add that the time away helped you understand why you are more suited to working in a large organization than in a small one, or some other observation about the difference in cultures and why the one you left is a better fit for you.

For examples of more challenging interview questions along with sample answers, spend some time on Glassdoor.com's interview section where people post real questions -- as well as other details about interview formats -- from real interviews. To gain full access to the interview section, you need to post information about an interview you went on. The site offers a range of questions -- from basic ones like the ones above, to some that will appeal to anyone who enjoyed studying for the SATs. This was apparently a question in an interview for an account manager Microsoft interview: "One train leaves Los Angeles at 15mph heading for New York. Another train leaves from New York at 20mph heading for Los Angeles on the same track. If a bird, flying at 25mph, leaves from Los Angeles at the same time as the train and flies back and forth between the two trains until they collide, how far will the bird have traveled?"