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I am in the final year of my undergraduate degree and so I have been applying to PhD positions and job vacancies that I find appealing. At first I thought the interview application process would be similar to applying for a degree, i.e. that the questions would mostly be technical and competency based. However the opposite seems to be the case, interviewers ask few or no questions about the actual subject I would be studying or working on and instead ask a lot of questions about why do I want that role and to work for that company/institution.

From my point of view I have put a lot of work and effort into filling out the application form and preparing for the interview so obviously I am very interested in the role, otherwise I wouldn't be applying for it!

Could someone help me to see the interviewers' point of view about why they are asking these questions and what is the best approach to answering them?

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    related: How can I measure motivation in an interview? – gnat Mar 25 '15 at 15:05
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    @gfv while you might be interested in the role, I can say from hiring it's almost depressing how many lousy people have a good resume... (Not talking lousy like lack of technical expertise, rather lousy as in crappy attitude, no motivation, etc.) I can fill gaps in a persons technical expertise, but I can't teach people to care. Having a skill gap is just inconvenient, having someone with a lousy attitude can be toxic to a company. Sometimes seemingly off topic questions are a great way to get a better idea of what you have to offer me in regards to work attitude. – RualStorge Mar 25 '15 at 18:29
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    As Jeff Atwood (founder of this site) puts it, no matter what they tell you, it's always a people problem. The blog post is definitely worth reading. – Pavel Mar 26 '15 at 8:24
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    In Germany I had almost only technical questions, so it might depend on the country also. – emcor Mar 26 '15 at 10:10
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    Responses on this site are often very "politically correct" - no one will tell you how to game you the application process even if gaming it is possible, easy, and done by many people (possibly some of them even come here and tell you not to game it). You will not get any advice that someone wouldn't be comfortable saying in front of an interviewer or their boss. – Superbest Mar 26 '15 at 16:52

11 Answers 11

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Whenever you answer a question, it's important that you understand what the interviewer is trying to find out from it. Let's say I am interviewing for a chef for my French restaurant. I have a number of culinary-school graduates whose resumes say they have worked in restaurant kitchens before. I ask each of them "Why do you want to cook here?" and they say:

  • I love French techniques and ingredients. My work at [previous employer] was exclusively French food and I'm very good at it. I see your French restaurant as a chance to expand my skills even further.
  • I love Mexican techniques and ingredients. My work at [previous employer] was exclusively Mexican food and I'm very good at it. I see your Mexican restaurant as a chance to expand my skills even further.
  • I want to be famous and I saw your restaurant on TV once
  • I think I should make a lot more money than I do at my current job, and I understand your restaurant pays very well
  • I dunno, gotta work somewhere, can't stand the place I'm at now

Even though it doesn't appear on the surface to be a technical question, you can give a technical answer. The only difference between the first two answers is the type of cuisine - but what a difference it is! (For a programming job, imagine C++ and PHP, or the like.) Many of these questions are simply prompts for you to talk (on a technical level) about what you're good at and what you like to do.

Yes, they want to know if you'll be motivated and a good cultural fit. But they also use these questions to get you to talk in a very free form way about the technical things that matter to you. And even if that wasn't their intention, it's a great way for you to run with the question. Give a technically-focused answer explaining what it is about the opportunity (doing research, working in the X field, solving real customer problems, some sentence from the job description basically) that appeals to you, and why you're good at that or want to do that.

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    This certainly accords with the interviewing I was involved in at the Bar of England and Wales. "Why do you want to be a barrister" and "why did you apply to these chambers" will, hopefully, allow us to discover whether the candidate really understands what being a barrister involves and what being at this particular chambers involves. If the answer they give is garbage, you know they don't really know what they are getting into and need to think again. The bar is a very odd profession. You want to filter out people who don't understand it. These are good questions for that purpose. – Francis Davey Mar 25 '15 at 17:28
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    Only one thing to add to this, which is - it's also useful to catch any misconceptions about this job and company. A recruiter's nightmare is someone who takes a job then, after 3 months, realises it's not for them and leaves. If they say, "I'm a very creative chef, I'm very good at developing new recipes, and French cuisine has so much room for creative combinations", but this job involves strictly following existing or traditional recipes, you need to discuss that before offering them a job they might hate and quit. – user56reinstatemonica8 Mar 26 '15 at 18:21
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    right, like the candidate who says "I love Mexican" cooking when the job is for French cooking. That's my issue with people asking for good answers to interview questions. The exact same (word for word) answer to the exact same question can be excellent or terrible depending on the job you're applying for. – Kate Gregory Mar 26 '15 at 18:25
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    @JackAidley: The OP wanted to "see [...] why they are asking these questions and what is the best approach to answering them?" I think this answer does a good job with both parts of that; why do you feel that it doesn't? – ruakh Mar 27 '15 at 4:09
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    @JackAidley if you agree that this question helps to tell apart the 5 people who might give those 5 different answers, then you know why interviewers ask it. Right? – Kate Gregory Mar 27 '15 at 11:09
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Could someone help me to see the interviewers' point of view about why they are asking these questions?

From their point of view you showed up for an interview. That tells them that you are the kind of person who shows up for an interview. It says nothing about your motivations for doing so.

I have put a lot of work and effort into filling out the application form and preparing for the interview so obviously I am very interested in the role otherwise I wouldn't be applying for it!

I assure you this is by no means obvious to the interviewer. I have interviewed many many candidates, and a significant fraction of them show up with no interest whatsoever in the job. How, as the interviewer, am I to tell those candidates from the candidates like you, who are genuinely interested? Asking what you want to know is a highly effective technique.

You imply that it is obvious that anyone who would both apply for a job and show up for an interview wants the job. This is simply false, so stop believing that. I've had people show up for interviews who were practicing interviewing. They won't take the position; they'll just waste your time. I've had people show up for interviews who were intending on obtaining the given position as stepping stone to a completely different position. Those people are far more dangerous; they will suck resources out of your organization for no benefit in return. People interview for positions they don't want because they want to keep their options open, or because they want to find out secret information about the team and are hoping the interviewer will let something slip, or whatever. There are lots of reasons to take an interview other than "I want the job", and one of my tasks as an interviewer is to figure out if the candidate first off actually wants the job.

After I've determined that, knowing why they want the job, if they do, is a big part of knowing whether this person is a good fit for the organization and the position.

what is the best approach to answering them?

Please answer completely honestly; it will save us all time and money and help ensure that you get a position that suits you. The best answer to that question I ever got was "I don't want the job; the team I want to work for isn't hiring, your team is, HR suggested that I interview with you". Ten points to Gryffindor for honesty, NO HIRE, and now I know who in HR to stop trusting to have my best interests at heart. It was a win for everyone: the candidate wasn't hired into a position they didn't want, I didn't have an unmotivated coworker, and HR found out that they had an ineffectual recruiter who wasted everyone's time.

No, really, what's the best approach?

Beyond simple honesty, you tailor your answer the same way you tailor every answer in an interview: by considering the motives of the person doing the interviewing. Presumably they have a business problem and they believe that going to the enormous expense of interviewing and then hiring you, they might have a chance to solve that problem at a reasonable cost. (This is assuming that the interviewer is acting in good faith; see my comment above for thoughts on that.) If you want to make yourself seem attractive, make it clear that your motives are aligned with the business problem that you are solving. (This of course requires that you understand what business problem you are possibly solving in the first place; use the interview as an opportunity to clarify that if it's unclear.)

For example, if the position is sales at a car dealership, "I want to make a lot of money" is a perfectly acceptable answer. It shows that your goals and the goals of the business are totally in line. Commission-based sales generates profit for the dealership at the same time as it generates commissions for the seller. It's a terrible answer if you're applying for a job teaching math to high-school students. (Unfortunately.)

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    Thorough answer. When in doubt, stay honest. It may not net you the most short term, but long term it saves everybody a lot of nonsense. – Mast Mar 25 '15 at 20:45
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    +1 "I have interviewed many many candidates, and a significant fraction of them show up with no interest whatsoever in the job." I think anyone who doesn't believe this should sit in on some interviews! Of course, in some jurisdictions getting welfare is conditional on "trying" to get a job (in the sense of satisfying box-ticking exercises), however inappropriately, which doesn't help. – Julia Hayward Mar 26 '15 at 8:06
  • Note to people finding this question from Google. The advice to be honest about this question applies to career type jobs. If you are 16 and interviewing for a job at McDonalds, it is shameful of them to ask you this question, and you must lie. They want you to work for them because they want someone they can pay slave wages to. You don't care where you work, and should just make up some nonsense about why you like that particular faceless corporation more than the other, identical corporations that you have also applied to for jobs. – Scott Mar 26 '15 at 22:20
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    @Scott: I admit, I've never applied to a McDonald's; but if it's true, as you say, that "they want someone they can pay slave wages to", then I suspect that they won't really care how said someone answers this interview question. Perfect 16-year-old honesty ("I'm saving up for a car" or "my parents said I should get some work experience" or whathaveyou) should be fine. – ruakh Mar 27 '15 at 4:14
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    @Scott: I understand your take on the situation. But I would counter that first, I don't think it is shameful that the question would be asked. It might be pointless or foolish, but I don't think it is something to be ashamed of. Second, McDonalds does not want someone they can pay slave wages to. McDonalds wants to sell burgers for a profit. If they could do that without sixteen-year-old burger flippers being paid below-poverty wages, I assure you they would. The low wages are not a goal; the low wages are a tactic. They'd much rather employ robots and pay them nothing. – Eric Lippert Mar 27 '15 at 16:29
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They want to make sure you did your research about the company and for the job you are applying. The question is to probe if you will actually be passionate about your job or are just there to collect a paycheck.

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    Spot on. The company can see your skill set. They want to know more about the person behind the paper. – Brian Mar 25 '15 at 13:35
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There is a big difference between I want a job and I want this job. They are looking to find how motivated you will be to do a good job. Are you motivated by the technology, the problem domain, maximizing the money or maybe you are just desperate for a job and a blasting out resumes everywhere. Your long term prospects are as much dependent on your attitude and motivation as they are on your skills, which they can see in your resume.

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In my experience, it's often a form of bikeshedding. The interviewers don't know enough to ask meaningful competency questions (or fear appearing incompetent, even if they're not), but they know how to ask questions about their own company, and garbage questions about your motivations.

The other thing to remember is that many people are not trained to do interviews - they're just not great at them. They ask these sort of questions because they're supposed to, and feign insight from them.

The nominal reason is as the other answerers mention - they want to get a feel if you want their job or if you want a job. This too is ever more meaningless in an age when workers are more likely than ever to be contractors or otherwise change jobs (voluntarily or not) after years of service rather than decades.

The best approach to answering them is usually to jump through the hoop. Do enough research to provide an enthusiastically canned answer about how their company offers you something that few others could.

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I am a programmer who also does most of the interviewing for my company and I would say this is the single most important question that I ask a candidate. Why?

We are a very small company, just five people - I can't speak for why larger companies ask this question. I come in on the weekends when I need to, because I choose to, not because my boss asked me or because I get paid overtime (I don't). On the flip side, if I want to leave early for any reason (last week I left early to beat traffic to go to a carnival), I am allowed to do so.

Everyone here is very good at what they do and we treat the people who work here like grownups. The only thing that matters is that the work gets completed when it's supposed to be completed. As such, this culture really only suits the right sort of people, and we are very picky about who we hire. Last year we interviewed two dozen people for an unpaid internship and hired no one.

So, why do I want to know why prospective candidates want the job? Because we want someone who will care about the work, and will be happy to be self-motivated. Someone who can be given the freedom I describe above and we can expect them to work hard and not abuse it. Someone who is looking for more than just a paycheck and watches the clock at the end of the day.

So that's why we ask it. YMMV. As far as what you should say to a company like us? We want to know all the things I outline above. "Is the work interesting to you?" "Do you want to work hard because you like the work?" "Are you self-motivated?" "What did you learn about the company in your own independent research?"

  • What a sloppy interviewing technique! Ask straightforward questions about your concerns otherwise you'll get meaningless answers like "because it is a suitable role" or "because I need to work for a living". Don't let your candidates guess what you really meant by your question. Ask them if they care for work or if they are prepared for expected commitment. Explain your expectations and ask if candidates if they are ready for challenge. Or better read a book about how to interview. – Onlyjob Nov 19 '15 at 13:13
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You've already answered part of the reason in your question - you've provided them with an expertly-crafted resume, which means you've presumably listed all your technical skills and provided proof through references and, as a fresh graduate, your academic transcript. So most of your technical prowess is already proven.

What they're looking for at the interview therefore is not your technical prowess, but your ability to work in a company and as a part of the group. They assume you've done some research into the company and their history (and if you haven't you really should) and are testing you to see if you have a keen interest in the company and your field - to see if you're really interested in working the position they're offering.

The reason they're so concerned about this is that you're a new hire, and you're just starting your career, both of which increase the risk that you'll be leaving for a better position in a few years. What you need to do is show a keen interest in the specific position they're offering, even if you don't have much interest in it, to give them the impression that you'll be a reliable hire.

Interviews are more about judging the attitude of a person, and seeing if they will make a good fit for the workplace. A small part of that may be a proof of technical prowess, but you aren't going to be 'tested' like you were in school - unless you consider proving that you're a capable and reliable person a 'test'.

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If you are talking about a technical position, they may not know anything specific to the role so they ask more general questions. Having the skills for a job is only half of what they are looking for, they also want to hire someone who will enjoy their role enough to stick with it for a few years without getting burned out or bored. Preferably you also actually have a personal interest in what the company does rather than just what your role would be, since if you are interested in the former it will be more difficult for another company to poach you.

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You haven't mentioned how you applied for the job - was it directly or though a recruiter?

Recruiters are highly incentivized to place candidates anywhere because they'll get a commission that can go as high as 30% of the candidate's first year salary. In Silicon Valley, that can easily amount to $40,000.

Thus if I'm an employer who gets candidates sent by a recruiter, I'd make sure that the candidates actually want to work at my company above most other choices they have; not that they just showed up because the recruiters convinced them to.

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"I have put a lot of work and effort into filling out the application form and preparing for the interview..."

No you haven't. Really, you haven't. You put in, what, a couple of hours writing the application form, an hour checking the web about the company, and half an hour ironing your shirt and shining your shoes? If you think that's a lot of work and effort, you're going to be SOL in the real world.

As for why there are so many non-technical questions, it's not uncommon to find people who are very intelligent and very skilled but can't work with others. It's the equivalent of the footballer who won't pass - sometimes they score amazing goals, but mostly they end up screwing their team over. They want to find out whether you're someone they can work with.

And as a fresh graduate, you aren't anyone's star player anyway. As a graduate, how do your school exams from age 15 or so look now? Trust me, that's how your uni work looks to the guys interviewing you. It should definitely be a pointer to how you're going to perform in a job, sure, but there are a couple of dozen other graduates with equally shiny degrees competing against you. What makes you different from them is how you approach your work life after uni.

Interviewers can smell bullshit answers, so "this job is all I've ever dreamed of" is not going to work. But interest in that general area will always work. No-one needs to pretend that this is the only job they're going for - getting pushy about having to hire you or miss out is never going to work, but it's not bad to be honest about what you want to do with your life after uni. If you're applying for jobs in the same specific area (e.g. UI design, embedded software, big data handling) then you can mention that. Or if you're looking at jobs in several completely different areas, and you can talk competently about all those areas, that's another selling point for your breadth of experience. They want to see that you're keen to start making a career. If you don't seem to be keen about it, they won't be keen about you.

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    this sounds more like a rant, see How to Answer – gnat Mar 25 '15 at 22:06
  • Actually this job is all I've ever dreamed of might work if you explain what's so good in this job for you. Like for example, a person has been a software developer in a bank and had to wear a suit and work from 9 AM to 6 PM and that has been driving him nuts. Now he sees a similar position in a software shop that has flexible schedule and no dress-code - "what a relief" - and the company has good reputation for releasing products A, B and C which everyone loves - he might easily summarize it as this job is all I've ever dreamed of. – sharptooth Mar 26 '15 at 15:06
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There are many reasons for not giving an importance to the course and studies you have completed. It's not that only your academic course is required for your job selection. Interviewers today have many tricks to judge you. By these questions they judge that whether you are fit for the long term relationship with the company or not, will you be able to handle the work pressure or not, and other factors.

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