What are interviewers really looking for when they ask questions like “what are your strengths and weaknesses?” Carla Harris, vice chairwoman at Morgan Stanley, has revealed the subtext.
If you think the most common interview questions are often the most difficult to answer, then you’re not alone. More people trip up on things like “tell us about yourself” and “what is your biggest weakness?” than questions about their skills.
That’s because the most common interview questions all have a subtext, explains Carla Harris, vice chairwoman at Morgan Stanley. “What an interviewer is really trying to find out by asking common questions, is what kind of personality you have; are you a leader or a good pair of hands and will you fit in? They already know you have the qualifications because they’ve seen your resume.”
Harris has coached hundreds of people on their careers during her 30 years at Morgan Stanley and is the author of Expect to Win and Strategize To Win. We asked her to demystify some of the most common interview questions — here’s what she said:
1. Tell me about yourself
“This is the first question you’re likely to get in an interview and it’s the one that people most often struggle with,” says Harris. “This isn’t an invitation to recite your life story or go through your resume. Instead, the interviewer is trying to find out if you’re a good fit for the job, so talk about the experience that’s relevant to the job. This question is an opportunity to connect the dots on your resume. It’s important that you understand the key success factors for the job that you are interviewing for so that you tell your story using those descriptors.”
Tip: “Try to hit the qualities in the job description. The interviewer wants information that is pertinent to the job you’re interviewing for.”
2. Describe yourself in three words
“This is a question designed to see if you’ve paid attention to the job specs and if you have qualities that best match the role,” Harris explains. “For example, if you’re going for an internship on Wall Street, you might say “analytical, detail-oriented, quantitative.” If it’s a sales job, then maybe “commercial, competitive, connector” – that’s assuming of course that these words do really describe you!”
Tip: “Make sure you have examples to back up each word, in case the interviewer asks you to elaborate. And read up on the company’s core values.”
3. What’s your biggest weakness?
“This question trips a lot of people up – but it comes up frequently in interviews, so it’s one well worth prepping for,” notes Harris. “Pick a weakness that’s not a key competency for the job and most importantly show self-awareness by explaining what you’ve done or are doing or continue to deal with to overcome this weakness.”
Tip: “Don’t say you’re a perfectionist. It’s so clichéd and won’t come across as genuine. You may want to offer something that would be helpful in your new role, like, I am working on public speaking skills.”
4. Why should we hire you?
“What an interviewer is looking for here is an answer that explains why you think you’re the best candidate for this role – what you have that differentiates you from others.”
Tip: Think of yourself as a product and the interviewer a customer. The things you want to talk about are similar to what you would put in a cover letter. You can talk about your exceptional skills; your passion for the industry or profession — anything that you feel would lure the “customer.”
5. Describe a time you failed
“Everyone makes mistakes or fails at some time or another, so that’s not the issue here,” says Harris. “Instead, this question helps to reveal whether you have the self-awareness to admit failure and the maturity to learn from it.”
Tip: It’s important to outline the steps you took to improve. If you under-delivered because you didn’t completely understand what you were asked, for example, it’s likely you learned to have people repeat their requests to ensure you have the exact details.”
6. Why are you interested in us?
“Here an interviewer wants to see just how much you know about the company and the industry and whether you’ve done your research,” Harris explains. “It’s also a question that will reveal if you’re talking to competitors, or whether you’ve specifically targeted the company because of its reputation and values.”
Tip: “Show how your strengths and personality traits align with the job position and the company’s culture. The people who are interviewing you are proud of their company’s values — and will be pleased to see that you have taken the time to appreciate the culture.”
This story originally appeared on Business Insider.