There are Only Three Interview Questions

No matter how many books and blog entries are written about the ins and outs of job interviews, there are really only three questions that occur in an interview, though they are worded in a million different ways:

Can you do this job?
What kind of personality do you have?
Do I like you?

Now, every question you hear asked in an interview can get filed under one of those headings. As a job hunter, this is good to know, because you can better answer the question behind the question. For example, the interview may ask about a previous project and your role in it, but really, they are asking if you can do the job they have in mind. Even the chit-chat ahead of the "serious questions" actually are just forms of the last two questions. This means you can hyper-prepare and perfect your answers.

For the interviewer, this can feel limiting, like you're trying to come up with new spins on the same old questions. Here are some suggestions on how to change things up to get better and more honest and deeper answers.

Change the context: I've been on hundreds of interviews, and they all felt the same. If you break the context, you break the underlying structure of the interview and the prepared perfect answers won't work. Take an interviewee to coffee. Or take a walk together. I've heard about one interviewer who lets the interviewee drive the interviewer's car around while answer questions. The fear of wrecking your new boss's car tends to strip responses down to the most vital information.

Change the rules: Some part of the standard "I ask a prepared question and you give me a 3-5 minute answer" needs to change. Force the interviewee to ask all the questions. Have them make a 15 minute presentation in front of a bunch of people, but make sure they can't a projector. Tell them if they wear a tie, you won't interview them. Have them spend an hour with someone they might work closely and pretend they are doing the job.

The interviewer's job is to determine the suitability of the applicant, and they can't if the applicant has turned him or herself into a polished commercial. Break the rules, try something different and stop hiring people because they knew how to play the game.

You want a killer employee, not a game-player, right? 

James Ellis is a Chicago-area digital strategist with Google Analytics certification. That said, he still wonders what happened to Mandy on The West Wing. You can get in touch with James at to tell him how many ways he's wrong.

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