Sample interview questions

It’s really important not to fixate on what you might be asked and think you have to have a pre-prepared answer to any question. It’s impossible to predict every question exactly. Rather, good interview preparation, should allow you to answer virtually anything you're asked effectively. 

Research more below and on Prospects and TargetJobs

Use every question, if possible, as an opportunity to cover a piece of your prepared evidence. This is your agenda for the interview. That said, here are a few types of questions and tips on how to answer them effectively.


These questions tend to concentrate on 3 main areas:

  • Research skills
  • Academic performance
  • Teaching ability

It’s important to prepare any examples relevant to these criteria.

Here are a few examples of questions, but there are lots more on the Vitae site.

  • What were the key achievements of your research project?
  • Outline the project you would undertake if you were awarded research funding
  • How have you managed your research project?
  • If you were starting your project again today, what would you do differently?
  • Describe a research problem you have faced. What did you learn?
  • What experience do you have of teaching and what areas of teaching do you want to work in?
  • Tell us about your research
  • How would you describe your research project to a layperson?


The questions are to see how you react under pressure. There probably aren’t any perfect answers, but it’s vital that you say something.



We have seen 5 others today, why should we employ you?

Don’t be critical of anyone else, or run anyone else down! Rather, use this question (which is usually asked towards the end of the interview) to sum up your blend of relevant skills and qualities. You could give extra examples if possible to increase the effectiveness of your evidence.

  • What would you say is a development point for you?
  • Do you have a weakness?

Show that you have recognised a weakness and have improved. This shows you can reflect on your performance positively and take steps to improve.

For example, “The first time I gave a presentation, I was nervous and didn’t enjoy it. However, the feedback from my audience was better than I expected. I took confidence from this, and made sure I was even better prepared in future presentations and my grades have improved.”

  • If you were a biscuit, what would you be?
  • If you were an animal, what would you be?
  • Give me two things you could do with a paperclip apart from hold paper together?
  • Sell me this pencil.

Thankfully these are not very common. Don’t panic! Try to think of something – it could be witty.

Don’t choose badly though, such as “I’d be a Rottweiler as I always get my way in the end!”



These types of questions can seem vague or even irrelevant, don’t assume they have memorised your CV and consider the skills and evidence your achievements.



What have you learned from your degree/course?

Good preparation means you’ll have examples of things you’ve done as part of your course that demonstrate relevant key skills and qualities. For example, talking about a field trip overseas could show teamwork, communication skills and time management.

Don’t talk much about course content unless it’s directly relevant (like going for a scientific or engineering job with a science or engineering degree).

Why did you change course/have resits?

Expect questions about time gaps or anything unusual in your CV/application. Always give positive reasons for your choices or negative outcomes if at all possible.

Tell me about your dissertation/project.

Don’t go into lots of detail about the content unless it’s directly relevant. Rather concentrate on how you researched, worked on your own, managed your time, analysed data and presented conclusions.

  • What was the last book you read?
  • What kind of music do you like?

These might seem irrelevant, but the employer is trying to gain an insight into your true interests.

How did you choose your degree course?

The employer is trying to gauge your genuine motivations and interest. Try to include concrete examples of some activities you’ve done as part of your course that demonstrate relevant qualities.


These questions are designed to test whether you’re commercially aware. They also show whether you’re genuinely motivated to work in the sector or for the organisation.



  • Why have you decided to apply to our company?
  • What do you know about our business?
  • What are the key issues facing us?
  • How should we respond?

Commercial awareness is a vital quality for a lot of employers in many sectors. They want employees who understand business ideas and how their function contributes to the growth and development of the organisation. It’s important to research these areas carefully, and have informed opinions.

Hypothetical commercial questions

These questions are hard to prepare for. You can ask for a few seconds to think about your answer. The employer is not looking for a “perfect” answer, but you need to show that you can think on your feet and justify your opinions or suggested actions. The important thing is to not just answer with what you would do but also show how you got there- what is your “working out”.


You’re monitoring the customer service area of the supermarket, when a customer arrives complaining of finding a fingernail in his pre-packaged pizza. What do you do?

You’re working for an Environmental Consultancy. It’s Friday afternoon and you have a report to finish by 5:00pm for the Director. Your line manager calls and asks that you join her on site to look at an urgent problem with a client company’s effluent, which is toxic and leaking into farmland. What do you do?


The interviewer will ask questions directly related to the essential and desirable criteria for the job. Typical competencies are:

  • Communication skills
  • Team working
  • Problem-solving
  • Leadership
  • Time management
  • Organisational skills
  • Customer-facing skills
  • Influence

Your STAR preparation should make these questions relatively simple to answer.



  • Can you tell me when you’ve been part of a team?
  • What was your role and what was the outcome?

Testing team-working.
Just use a STAR example – it fits perfectly.

What would you do differently in hindsight?

Examines whether you’ve reflected on the experience and learned from it – one of the most desirable qualities for an employer.

When have you ever had to explain something to someone who didn’t have your level of knowledge?

Testing communication skills.
Cover all 4 aspects of the STAR format. This will make sure you give a convincing answer.

Give me an example of something you have organised. What was your role, and were you successful?

Testing organisational skills.
Just use a STAR example – it fits perfectly.

What would you do differently if you were in this situation again?

Examines your ability to reflect.

Tell me when you have successfully worked out a solution to a difficult problem.

Cover all 4 aspects of the STAR format. This will make sure you give a convincing answer.

Tell me about when you have had to meet a deadline under pressure. How did you cope?

Cover all 4 aspects of the STAR format. This will make sure you give a convincing answer.


This type of question seeks to examine if you’re genuinely interested in, and have the right motivations for the job.



Why have you applied for this job with us?

You need to show why you are interested in the job and/or the organisation. If you make a claim that you have a quality they desire, try to back it up with an example.

Why are these reasons important to you?

You can only give a convincing answer to this if you’re really genuinely motivated e.g. if you have said that you like the fact that teamwork is emphasised in their work culture – back it up with proof that you like teamwork.

How did you prepare for this interview?

If you can talk about looking at the company’s website, then ok. However, if you’re genuinely motivated, you might have done a lot more, such as networking; reading business/industry reports; talking to people doing a similar job etc.


If genuinely motivated, you will have researched into typical career paths within the organisation and have an idea of how you might progress if you were successful.

Strengths based

Some recruiters are changing from competency interviews to strengths based because they feel that applicants are being given lots of help with competency interviews and are becoming too good at them!

The recruiter is trying to find out what skills you genuinely enjoy using, as these are likely to be your strongest. The interviewer will look for signs of genuine enthusiasm, such as how easily your answer appears to come to you, your tone of voice and body language. Don’t worry! Follow our preparation advice and then think how you might answer strengths based questions and give appropriate examples of evidence.

At first glance, these can seem really tough. However most of them are just competency questions in disguise!



  • How do you judge if you've had a good day?
  • What does success mean to you?

If you are genuinely suited to the job you will have examples of experiences which demonstrate the qualities the employer is looking for.

Tell me something you learnt last week.

Most students might not have prepared such a recent example. Remember the employer is trying to find out your genuine and most enjoyable strengths. You’re more likely to exhibit these more often – like last week! It’s useful then, to think about a recent example.

  • What energises you?
  • What activities come naturally to you?
  • When are you at your happiest?
  • What are you most proud of in your life? What are your greatest strengths?

Again, give examples of when you’ve done something successfully which demonstrates one of the key skills or qualities. If you enjoyed it, then it’s more likely to be a genuine strength.

If you can show why this proves you have a strength, it will make you look like you’re good at reflecting on your own performance.


These are more usual for engineering and scientific jobs. You’ll be asked questions to see if you’re able to apply your technical knowledge and academic theory to solve practical problems. These could be real or hypothetical.

Interviewers will be interested in your final year project, including the techniques and skills you used and how you coped with any problems.

Some hints and tips

  • Try to stay calm and listen carefully to the interviewer
  • If you’re given any resources, use them to make notes or calculations to help you form your answer
  • Don’t rush – don’t miss anything important
  • If you’re not clear about something – ask!
  • Make sure you know the basics of your subject. Employers love common sense!
  • It’s great if you can back up technical knowledge with experience
  • You might be asked some competency questions too – prepare for this!