What 5 Common Interview Questions Are Really Asking & How to Answer

As someone who frequently coaches professionals applying to competitive jobs, I’m familiar with the most common interview questions asked by top companies. What always strikes me, however, is how often folks don’t know what is really being asked.

From my perspective, an interview is like those tests in high school where you were allowed to bring in cheat sheets. It’s not about knowing a set of facts; it’s about what you do with them.. Once you’re in an interview, chances are your interviewers already think you know how to do the job. What they’re actually looking for are behavioral characteristics: How competent are you? How personable?

Here are 5 common interview questions, what they’re really asking, and how you should answer them:

#1 How many emails do you get a day?

While it’s tempting to think of this as straightforward, don’t be fooled. The question appears to be looking for a number, but what it’s really asking for is your communication style. How responsive are you? How do you handle the constant deluge of communications coming from Slack, Skype, Chatter, Twitter, Facebook, and email? (Hint: mention the communication channels you use in your answer).

The best way to answer this question is to throw out a rough range of the number of emails you receive each day — and then tell a story about how you typically interact with co-workers and clients. If you can throw in an example of the types of groups you usually speak to (customers, internal staff, developers), even better. The key is to express positivity and responsiveness, and give a peek into your personal communication style. The interviewer wants to know: “What’s it going to be like communicating with you?”

#2 How many tasks were you answering and completing simultaneously?

Again, it’s tempting to answer with a numerical figure. While the number of priorities is important, this question is more about how you manage your time. How do you deal with cross-functional teams that are making very different types of requests on your time? What technologies do you use to keep yourself organized and handle tasks (JIRA, Wunderlist, Smartsheets)? Answer in the form of a story where you had multiple requests coming in, and you communicated your availability, set boundaries and expectations, and (hopefully) achieved a successful result..

#3 How do you handle ambiguity?

This is a question companies love to ask. Don’t let it throw you. What this question is really asking is “how do you create structure?” If you can reference methods you use (process-apping, checklists, project plans) along with technologies, you’re off to a good start. A pro answer would again be in the form of a story that highlights how you successfully created structure in some instance, and the positive results achieved from it. If you are someone who loves organizing, this is a great question to let your systems-building skills shine.

#4 What if a competing priority pops up mid-way through a project?

This question really addresses your time-management skills. Answer with a story about a time when you had multiple priorities, and how you categorized or responded to them. Even better, what do you do to proactively identify risks to your projects? Do you create change management or risk management plans (even if you don’t, it’s great to be familiar with these concepts so that you can reference them in your answer). The key is to show how you calmly communicate and strategically manage your time.

#5 How have you managed challenging situations or mistakes?

This last one is a question that almost always gets asked. The best response is to recount a prepared story of a time when you tried something and failed — and explains how you handled your failure. Did you respond by asking your boss for additional training? By reading books on the topic, or practicing? No one knows how to do a job perfectly: this behavioral question seeks to elicit details about how you handle mistakes or challenges through a continuous-learning mentality.

In short, always have a story prepared — you want to engage your interviewers in a conversation, not respond as though you’re answering questions on a test. Think critically: what’s the question behind the question? If you prepare stories to all five of these questions, jot down notes — not the whole narrative, but useful keywords to remind you of the beats ins in each story. Bring your cheat-sheet with you to the interview, and you’ll on track to landing the job.

Jas Johl works at the technology company Salesforce. As part of their 1:1:1 model, she volunteers as a college and career coach. Find her @jasjohl or jasjohl.com.