Common phone interview questions and how to answer them

So you’ve got a job interview. Congratulations! Whatever job you’ve applied for, phone interviews are a common part of the hiring process. Many employers or recruiters use phone interviews to narrow down their list of candidates – to figure out who they want to invite to the next stage of the hiring process – but what specifically are they looking for?

In a nutshell, employers want to get a sense of who you are, screen for any obvious issues and understand why you want to work for them.

The pros and cons of phone interviews

If you haven’t had a job interview for a while, then the idea of a phone interview can seem daunting. On the surface, it may seem less intimidating than a face-to-face interview, but there are drawbacks to not meeting someone in person. Without a warm smile, genuine eye-contact or open body language, it can be harder to build rapport. And when you’re relying only on your words, your language choices and tone of voice become more important than ever.

But, the big advantage to phone interviews is that you can better prepare for them – and if you’re reading this guide, you’re already ahead of the game. You can make notes beforehand, go over them repeatedly, and refer to them throughout the phone interview – something that doesn’t usually go down too well in in-person interviews! If you do plan to use notes during your phone interview, do your best to sound natural, as opposed to reading from a script – bullet points can be helpful as a prompt during the interview, so you don’t sound too rehearsed.

Another plus is that surprise questions – that are designed to stump you – are not that common.  In fact, around 85% of interview questions are entirely predictable, according to interview coach John Lees. This means that if you’re aware of the most common phone interview questions and you prepare your own answers, then you can go into the interview feeling totally prepared. Prepared applicants have a better chance at giving succinct but thorough answers that are relevant – just what the interviewer is looking for – and are less likely to panic, too. When you’ve prepared your answers, you’re can focus on your tone of voice and are more likely to appear cool, calm and collected.

But what are the questions you can expect to be asked… and how should you answer? We’ve researched the most common interview questions and prepared some example answers for you.

9 Common phone interview questions and how to answer them

1. "Can you tell me a bit about yourself?"

This question, and its close relation “Can you walk me through your CV” are two of the most common interview questions used, yet many people struggle to answer succinctly. They’re often one of the very first questions you’ll be asked, as they’re widely used by recruiters as an icebreaker to open the interview. Because they’re very general, it can be tricky to know exactly what to say, but the thing to remember here is that the interviewer already knows quite a bit about you: they’ve read your cover letter, they’ve seen your CV and they’ve probably checked out your LinkedIn page, if you have one. They will have already formed an opinion of you before picking up the phone.

What they’re trying to do by asking you to talk about yourself, is to assess your verbal communication skills. You may come across as eloquent and confident in your cover letter – but are you like this in-person? Do you have the composure and self-assurance required for the role? Are you positive and do you radiate energy? These are the types of things that an employer will be looking to find out over the phone. “What I generally look for is someone who is at ease with themselves,” says business leader and The Apprentice star Claude Littner. If you’re calm and self-assured, it’s likely that you’ll be good to work with.

But of course, what you say is also critically important. The interviewer wants to find out more about you in relation to the role you’re interviewing for. They want to understand not only what you’ve done in your career, but why you’ve done it too. Try using the “Present-Past-Future” formula to answer. First talk about where you are now and your current situation, then explain how you got there, and finally end with what you’re hoping to do in the future. The end of your answer should tie in with why you’re interested in applying for the new role you’re interviewing for.

Example answer: “Well, I’m currently working as a copywriter at [current company name] where I manage all content for a wide range of clients – from writing company newsletters to creating new pages for websites. Before that I worked at [past company name], and I’ve worked within the writing and communications industry for 20 years. I really enjoy what I do, but I’d love the chance to work in-house and dedicate myself to one company. That’s why I’m so excited about this opportunity to work with you at [new company name].”

Example answer for someone who’s returning to work after a long period of unemployment: “Well, I’m currently not working because my role at [past company] was unfortunately made redundant last year. I’ve worked in this industry for 20 years [give specifics here] and am really passionate about what I do. I used the time off-work to think carefully about the direction I want my career to go in, and I’m really keen to step into a role where I can develop my skills and take on more responsibility – that’s why I’m so interested in this role at [new company name].”

2. “What do you know about our company?”

Here, the interviewer wants to see if you understand who the company really is and also get a sense of how proactive you are in doing your research. If you have taken the time to be proactive and research the company, then it shows that you will also likely be proactive in the role. This is your chance to prove that you understand the company’s motivations and mission, their products or brand, and their competitors and industry. The interviewer will be looking for someone who’s genuinely interested in their company and what it does. Whatever the company, always remember that your interviewer has a special affection for it (as they chose to work there) and will be looking for people who share their enthusiasm.

When answering, try not to simply repeat what’s written on the company’s ‘About Us’ page. Instead try to focus on what makes the company unique and why that is relevant to you. Do they have an exceptional company culture? Is there something they stand for that you admire? Or maybe they have a product or service that resonates with you? Whatever you say, the more personal and specific you can make your answer the better and if you can link your answer back to your own values it can be quite compelling.

Example answer: “I know that you are [details about the company]. More importantly I’m a big admirer of the value you place in your employees and your philanthropy as a company, as well as how creative your campaigns are. From a professional perspective, I’d love the opportunity to work for… [name specific clients here], but it’s also important to me to be part of a company that shares my values. I was really impressed with your charitable efforts over the past year… [give specifics here], and from reading your website, the friendly, cooperative spirit of the company shone through. I’d love to be part of a team where there’s so much positive energy.”

3. “Why are you interested in this role?”

Now you’ve talked about why you want to work for the company, this is your chance to go deeper, and talk about why this specific role attracts you. Just as with the previous question, the interviewer wants to see whether you’re genuinely passionate about the role or whether you just want a change of scene and/or a better salary. Think honestly about why you want the position: what first drew you to it? When reading the job description, what stood out?

Be sure to align your skills and experiences with the job requirements. What abilities do you have that make you a good fit for the role? It’s always a good idea to talk about how the role is ideal on both a short-term and long-term basis. The interviewer doesn’t only want to know you can do the job well, but that you can see yourself growing and evolving with the company too.

Example answer: “I’m really excited about the opportunity to [explain the impact you think you could make]. I love working as part of a team, and this role offers a real chance to join up with other departments and learn from each other. I’m also excited about the breadth of responsibilities the role offers; in the past I’ve thrived when I’ve been able to work across a wide variety of areas. I’m eager to get stuck into a role that has so many different responsibilities, like… [list specifics here]. It looks like there’s a lot of opportunity to progress and evolve with the job too, and I’m keen to take on a role that will allow me to grow and develop with the company.”

4. “What are your strengths?”

This is another question you can usually expect to hear – and if you don’t hear this one, you’ll probably hear a variation of it, like “What can you bring to the role?” While your CV, cover letter and general experience should already showcase what your strengths are, this is your chance not just to say you have these attributes, but to prove you have them. Whatever strengths you have, now’s the time to provide examples and be clear and specific.

It’s a good idea to prioritise quality, not quantity here. Don’t just start listing a bunch of positive adjectives that describe you – remember you want to seem confident, not arrogant. Instead, pick a couple of strengths you have that are especially pertinent to the role, and then go into detail. Again, try not to be generic, and if you have specific, memorable examples to share, then do.

Example answer: “I’d say that one of my greatest strengths is [name one of your strengths] In my current position, I… [give examples of how you demonstrate this strength]. Another strength is my ability to thrive under pressure. While managing an important project recently, the date of completion was unexpectedly brought forward. Instead of panicking, I kept a cool head and figured out how it would be manageable [give examples here]. We made the deadline and the client was thrilled.”

5. “What are your weaknesses?”

This is the interview question that can feel like the biggest trap! What many people do is state a theoretical flaw and then miraculously turn that weakness into a strength – for example “I’m such a perfectionist, I’m never able to stop working on a task until I know it’s faultless.” Interviewers can sniff out that old tactic a mile off, and you’ll lose credibility.

What interviewers are actually looking for here is to see if you’re honest and self-aware. You don’t want to be too honest (saying “I’m a terrible timekeeper, I’m always late for work and usually miss my deadlines,” won’t go down well!), but you do want to share something that’s a genuine weakness of yours. The important thing is to then state how you’re trying to improve or manage this weakness. This shows the interviewer that you’re self-aware enough to realise your flaws, motivated enough to want to improve it, and honest enough to be transparent about it too.

Example answer: “One weakness is probably [name something you struggle with.] In previous roles I felt it held me back a bit, because [describe how this weakness restricted you]. However, I’m keen to improve this as much as I can, so recently I [explain how you’re tackling this weakness].”

Example answer with details: “In previous positions I’ve felt uncomfortable with large scale public speaking. While I never doubted my abilities, sometimes I felt I lacked the confidence to convey myself in the way I wanted, or to be as engaging as I want to be. However, I’m currently taking part in a public speaking course, have joined Toastmasters and I’ve also asked to run more meetings in my current role, so I can get more practice addressing large groups of people.”

6. “Why do you want to leave your current job?” (if employed) or “Why did you leave your last job?” (if unemployed)

This question can sometimes make you feel like the interviewer is looking for gossip, but that’s not the intention. Why you want to leave a job (or why you left it) and the way you speak about it can tell the interviewer a lot about your personality, values and work ethic. No matter how unhappy you are in your current position, never bad-mouth your job, your boss or your colleagues. It’s an instant red flag.

Instead of focusing on any negatives in your current or last role, talk about the positives that taking on a new role will bring. How will it help you grow? What will it help you achieve? Frame your answer in a way that shows you’re keen to develop and take on new challenges. Don’t feel ashamed if you were made redundant; remember that being able to overcome a professional hurdle like this is seriously impressive. See it as a chance to display your resilience and proactiveness.

Example answer: “While I’ve enjoyed working at [current company], I’ve noticed in the past year or so that I rarely feel challenged. I love working with my colleagues and am comfortable in my role, but recently I’ve felt I might be a little too comfortable. I feel the time’s right for me to embrace new responsibilities and challenges, and pursue a job where I can continue to grow and progress. That’s what attracted me to this position, because… [explain the positives that taking this role will bring].”

7. “Why is there a gap in your work history?”

When you’ve been working for decades, having some employment gaps on your CV is common. Maybe you were raising children or caring for a sick relative. Perhaps you took a sabbatical, or maybe you were made redundant. Gaps in your work history are nothing to be ashamed of. Work is only one side of life, after all, and we have other duties, obligations or passions that can take priority at different times.

Remember that by asking this question, your interviewer isn’t trying to dig up dirt on you – so don’t feel the need to hide anything. Be honest and confident, answer the question directly and finish succinctly. Stumbling over why there was a gap, talking for longer than you need to, or being defensive can all make it seem like it’s a bigger issue than it is and perhaps even indicate that you’re trying to hide something – even when you’re not. If you are worried about this question, it can be helpful to prepare your answer in advance and to practice saying it out loud several times before the interview takes place, so you feel comfortable with your delivery and know exactly when to stop. For more advice on this topic, have a read of our guide: common CV gaps and how to explain them.

Example answer: “For the past year I was caring for my elderly mother, who was seriously unwell. However, she’s now in a much more stable condition and I’ve organised alternative care arrangements for her, so I’m now ready and excited about returning to work full-time. After a year away from the workplace, I’ve realised how much I have missed it and am keen to get stuck into a role like this where I can make a real impact.

8. “Can you describe a time you solved a problem at work?”

This is a common example of a competency-based question. Competency-based questions are designed to assess your skills and abilities in relation to a role – for example, if you’re applying for a managerial role, you might be asked to describe a time you displayed strong leadership qualities. These questions showcase whether you can actually prove you have the necessary competencies for a role. Anyone can say they have certain qualities, but proving them by talking through the exact steps that you took is a little harder.

Other common examples of competency-based questions include “Can you give me an example of a time you worked well in a team?” or “Can you describe a time when you showcased strong organisation skills?” Once again, the key to answering competency-based questions is to be specific. It can help to use the STAR technique: first, begin by explaining the ‘Situation’ you found yourself in; then, explain the ‘Task’ you needed to complete; then, describe the ‘Action’ you took, and finally, explain what the ‘Result’ was. For more information on how to answer competency based interview questions you can read our full guide here.

Example answer: “Recently, we had a problem at work where… [describe the Situation]. The issue had the potential to seriously disrupt our progress, because the task was… [describe the importance of the Task]. I knew I had to resolve the issue as quickly as possible, so I… [explain your course of Action]. Thankfully, that method worked well, and the end result was that [describe the end Result].”

9. “Why should we hire you over all the other candidates?”

Here, it’s important not to launch into an explanation of why you’re better than the other candidates. It’s likely you don’t know who the other candidates are… so there is no way of knowing whether you are better than them. The emphasis in this question is the “you”. This is your chance to talk about what makes you special, to further highlight your passion and skills and motivation, and to mention anything else of note that you haven’t yet raised. Of all the interview questions, this one gives you the best opportunity to really sell yourself and your abilities.

Think about any past experiences that are relevant – or make you look especially good. It often takes time for people to relax during interviews, so if you feel you didn’t give your strengths enough credit earlier in the interview, now’s your chance to do so. A good answer not only shows that you can do the job well and that you’ll be a great fit for the company, but that you bring something specific and unique to the table. The best answers bring together an element of both a rational response (what you can bring to the role) and an emotional response (why you really want the role). This is your time to shine, so be proud of your achievements and the skills you can bring.

Example answer: “While I believe I have the necessary skills and experience to do an excellent job here, I’m really enthusiastic about joining a team where my goals and values are aligned with that of the company [give details here]. I have a strong work ethic which has enabled me to deliver results for a range of different employers [give specifics here] and I am excited about using my experience to make a real difference to the organisation.”

And remember…

For many of us, nerves are a natural part of the interview process, but with the right preparation there’s no need to worry. Be confident in your abilities, and be calm. Remember the interview isn’t trying to trick you or catch you out. You’re being interviewed because your CV and cover letter stood out, and the interviewer simply wants to find out more.

Good luck!

Are you preparing for a phone interview? Or have you recently had one? We’d love to hear from you at [email protected] or on the community forum.

3 thoughts on “Common phone interview questions and how to answer them

  1. Avatar
    Linde Melhuish on Reply

    Good, constructive advice-having conducted plenty of interviews as Principal of a school & also assisted others with interview preparation , this advice should reassure.
    One point I would make is on the issue of gaps in CV/ application forms – any organisation that requires DBS clearance must rigorously explore any gaps in case of issues affecting children/vulnerable people.

    1. Avatar
      Helen on Reply

      Thank you for your comment Linde and highlighting the importance of due diligence in DBS clearance. It would be fair to say that by the time we’ve reached our 50’s and beyond, many of us have had employment gaps. It’s important to be honest about them and nowadays people understand (and may have experienced for themselves) being made redundant, taking time off to be a carer, choosing to stop working in order to re-train and health issues. Stretching your employment dates and skirting around any gaps will ultimately look more suspicious than a very clear “yes, 2019 was a challenging year after I was made redundant and these are the steps I took to stay positive”.

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