20 winning interview questions to ask candidates

Anna Roberts & Phil Kendall

Apr 2021 ⋅ 9 min read

grey notebook next to a yellow, eraser-tipped pencil

We've talked at length about how expensive recruitment can be for small businesses.

One easy way to reduce costs is to improve retention, and that process begins during recruitment itself.

Every stage of your recruitment process should be optimised to find the perfect candidate for your open roles. This is particularly important during the final stage of the process: the interview.

Put simply, it's not just candidates who need to prepare for job interviews — interviewers do too.

goal net

As with every aspect of business, your focus (and results) can improve if you've settled on a goal.

During the final interview, your goal might be to find the candidate who can hit the ground running and make an immediate impact when hired.

Alternatively, you might be after a talented but less experienced candidate to let them gain skills and contribute to your company in the long term.

The structure of the interview, and the questions you ask, will depend on your goal.

Keep in mind that by the final interview stage you should only be speaking to candidates who you think could do the job successfully. This last stage is often about attitude as much as aptitude.

You should also consider the purpose of each question you're going to ask the candidates. That'll not only help you with your hiring decision, it'll also keep the interview to a manageable length.

Although many hiring managers have their ideal candidate in mind at this stage of the process, it's important not to be too set on this persona. Stay open-minded, and stay on the lookout for exceptional candidates who could fit the role even if they don't tick all the boxes.

Let's move on to look at how to craft killer interviews.

Setting the Scene

Before the interview begins properly, it's important to take a few minutes to set the scene.

Offer the candidate a glass of water, make small talk, then explain about the company and why this specific opening has emerged.

You should then go through the structure of the interview. Explain that the interview is also a chance for the candidate to see if the job is right for them, too.

These formalities will help nervous candidates settle down and set the tone for the rest of the interview.

Warm-Up Questions

casual interview

Although the format of interviews differs from industry to industry, as well as for different roles, the typical interview generally starts with some gentle questions to ease the candidate in.

Here's where you ask a few interview questions that should be straightforward and reasonably generic, including:

Why did you apply for this position?

This question should be easy to answer for all but the most unprepared candidates. Ideally, they'll talk specifics from the job description, and show that they've done their research on your company. Look for enthusiasm and an understanding of your business and its market.

What was your degree/previous job like?

Again, this question shouldn't be a challenge to candidates. They should be positive about their previous role (or studies) and talk about why it was helpful to them. If they're coming to this role from another job, they should also mention why it was time to move on.

Tell me about yourself.

This freeform question is in almost every interview. Candidates usually hate it because it's so vague and open-ended, but it's extremely revealing for the interviewer. Does the candidate focus on work or other aspects of their life? Has their career gone to plan, or have they had to make adjustments? Do they speak in a clear, logical way or are they difficult to follow? Ask additional questions if they mention something that interests you or seems particularly relevant. 

Skills & Experience


Now's the time to work out whether the candidate has the skills, qualifications and experience to excel in the role.

You should already have a good idea of a candidate's aptitude based on their CV, cover letter, and any prior interviews or tests.

Here are a few question structures you may wish to use for this stage:

How did you contribute to your previous company's success? Explain with examples and figures.

This question challenges candidates to explain how their efforts directly impacted their last employer. The more specific a candidate is, the better. Be sure to jot down these figures as you may wish to check their credibility with their references later.

Give an example of when you... [resolved a challenging situation/learnt from a mistake/led a team to success/managed a difficult colleague]?

By asking for examples of when an employee used their skills, you can start to separate CV exaggerations from facts. You can also start to visualise how the candidate might respond to similar situations at your business.

How would you respond if... [you had to manage a toxic employee/you had to lead a presentation at the last minute/you received criticism from a client]?

'What If...?' questions allow candidates to draw on previous experiences and explain how they'd improve them, whilst revealing a great deal about their mindset and their way of working.

What were your favourite and least favourite aspects of your previous role?

Learn more about what makes the employee tick, and which tasks they're hoping to leave behind. If they mention they dislike a task that they'll have to carry out in the role they're interviewing for, tell them.

Don't miss: Recruitment 101: Candidate Personas Explained

Which aspects of this role most appeal to you — and which are you concerned about?

The first part of this question gives you the chance to see what the employee is passionate about, but the second part of the question is most revealing. Are their reservations justified? Is the employee aware of their weaknesses?

In what ways will your unrelated degree (or unrelated recent job) benefit you in this role?

Here you're inviting the candidate to talk about their transferable skills. The wording of this questions suggests that candidates should go into detail and mention examples.

You could go on to discuss how the candidate might use these skills as they progress at your company.

Can you explain [relevant technical term] to me in simple terms?

Your interviewee may be an SEO expert, but if they're working in a client-facing position, they'll need to be able to distill the concept down to its foundations.

This question's great at testing communication skills. If the candidate uses another technical term in their explanation, ask them to clarify. This seemingly simple question can actually expose a fundamental lack of understanding of key concepts that they'll need to use on the job, as they don't have buzzwords to hide behind. 

Personality, Attitude & Fit

jigsaw puzzle

At this stage of the interview, you should know whether or not a candidate is capable of doing the job. However, you probably don't know whether they'll be a good fit at your company, or if they have the right attitude for the specific role.

We think that these questions should form the bulk of the interview — cultural fit is one of the most important factors when it comes to retaining employees and keeping them engaged.

Here are some questions you should consider including:

What are the hallmarks of a strong team?

There's no right answer here - it all depends on how your company operates. The candidate might say a strong team needs a strong leader, or a strong team is one that understands compromise, or the strengths of each of its members. This question will provide an insight into the type of team that the applicant would like to work in.

What's the most tedious task you've ever had to complete at work/university?

In this case, you're not especially interested in the task itself, but in the answers to your follow up questions. If they explain that they didn't enjoy the task but they recognised its importance and found ways to cope with the tedium, you've got a candidate who won't complain if you have to assign them such a task.

Turn this question into a conversation and it'll be extremely insightful.

If time, money, and experience weren’t an issue, what job would you like to do?

As well as providing a nice insight into a candidate’s personality, the answer to this question may come in useful in the future when you’re looking for ways to develop the successful applicant and consider them for promotional opportunities.

The job they’re applying for might be far removed from their dream position, but that doesn’t mean you can’t tap into their skills or provide them with work that they’ll find mentally stimulating.

Encourage them to answer honestly and to take a minute to mull the question over rather than feeling under pressure to come up with an answer that they think you’ll want to hear.

Can you describe your favourite manager?

This question's a little more subtle than the typical management style questions, which means that it's more likely to receive an honest response. You could also flip the question around and ask about a manager who's been particularly difficult.

What's the main concern you have about this job?

Every candidate will have at least one reservation about the role, so press candidates who insist that they're 100% happy with the job description. They might have an issue with the commute, the size of the company, or having to relocate.

If possible, ease those concerns. Perhaps you offer flexible working hours, in-depth training or thorough onboarding.

What would you like to achieve during your first year here?

This question is revealing for two reasons: it tests the applicant's understanding of the job role, and it shows how they measure their success.

Does the candidate thrive on results, or are they more bothered about feeling like they're part of a strong team? Again, there isn't a right answer - it's all about figuring out the type of individual that will fit your company culture.

What’s one piece of career advice you’d give to your younger self?

Asking candidates to reflect on their past self is a great way to glimpse their true personality — it’s much easier for us as humans to be critical of our past selves than the people we are today.

What have you been watching/reading recently?

The answer could be a novel, a newspaper, a Netflix boxset — it doesn't really matter. It's easy to judge the candidate if they've been reading Hello! magazine or a terrible newspaper, but try to ask follow-up questions to ascertain the reasons for their choice.

You could also ask the interviewee to try to 'sell' their reading/viewing material to you with a gushing review.

What do you think your references will say about you? What will they say you need to improve?

This slightly devious question can provide telling insight into the candidate's relationship with their previous employers, in addition to challenging the candidates to provide an honest account of their weaknesses.

What kind of working environment do you excel in?

Press candidates for details about the type of coworkers they like to work with as well as the physical office environment. This question is extremely telling and can quickly show you whether the applicant will work well at your business.

Still not finding the right people? Read: How to Hire Better Candidates


Once you've answered the candidate's questions and you're satisfied that you've asked everything you needed to, wrap-up the interview by explaining next steps and perhaps offering the candidate a brief tour of the office.

By the end of the interview, you and your fellow interviewers should know not only whether the candidate can do the job, but also whether they'd be a good a fit for your business.

Remember, the best interview questions give you valuable information about the candidates through honest, specific answers. By stepping away from the usual interview questions that the candidate can easily prepare for, you ensure that you won't receive scripted, exaggerated responses that don't reflect reality.

A candidate that fits is more likely to stay at your business for the long term, and they'll be more productive - it's certainly worth your time to perfect your interview process to achieve this!

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