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So you have an interview for a dream internship—score! Now what?

Interviewing for a job or internship doesn’t have to be intimidating, even though there may be reasons it seems that way. “I worry about being able to properly articulate my thoughts or understand the questions being asked,” says Kevin L., a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

But according to the experts, beating interview anxiety and acing the interview is as simple as honing your skills in answering a few key questions, which can turn you into the star candidate for that summer job, internship, résumé-building volunteer position, or post-grad dream job.

First steps to prep

Interviewees sitting in a waiting room

Research the company

“One of the first questions students will most likely be asked is, ‘What do you know about our organization and this position?’” says Jason Henry, the coordinator of career and transfer services at Arkansas State University-Beebe. So, step one is researching the organization you’re hoping to join—its values, mission, and day-to-day operations.

Research yourself

Next, flip that inquiry around on yourself. “Students should also take time to reflect on their personal, academic, and work experiences so they can appropriately articulate to the interviewer how those past experiences have prepared them for that position,” Henry says.

Even if you’re interviewing for your first-ever job or a position where you don’t have any experience yet, that’s OK. Your experiences in class—even summer jobs—can help convey how you’ll perform on the job. Think of these examples ahead of time—sort of like a highlight reel of your greatest hits.

Take notes

As you polish up your mental highlight reel and prepare answers to the following questions, don’t be afraid to jot down notes. Bring your pen and paper into the interview to help you stay on track and take notes during the interview. “Taking notes is very important. It shows the recruiters that you’re comfortable being you and are interested in understanding more or gaining more from the conversation than just getting the job,” says Rishabh T., a second-year graduate student at Purdue University in Indiana.

To learn how to specifically tailor your reel during game time, check out these seven common interview questions—and how to ace your answers.

1. “What are your strengths?”

  • Provide enough detail for the interviewer to picture you in a working environment. Include an example where you demonstrated problem-solving skills.
  • Show enthusiasm for tasks that you successfully completed.

“When I was working on a final project for my biology class, I was given a set of data I’d never seen before. I figured it out and took it to the team, and we combined our materials. It was a great experience—we worked diligently for a week, and we got a lot of praise on the final project. I really enjoyed bringing all the different aspects of our work together.”

“I work well independently and also as part of a team.”

“Everyone thinks I’m a pretty great person.”

“I’m good at basketball.”

2. “Tell me about yourself.”

This question allows you to zero in on what you want the interviewer to know. “It’s incumbent on the interviewee to be knowledgeable about the organization where they’re interviewing for a job,” says Henry. As such, you should use this question to talk about your experiences in a way that specifically highlights why you’re a perfect fit. “This is your opportunity to control the narrative and make your case for why you should be hired,” Henry says.

  • If you’re concerned about your GPA or something else that may be perceived as a weakness, think about how to frame it.
  • Stay on topic. Only talk about things that are relevant to the position, not your entire life story. 

"I worry about not being able to sell myself enough because it feels awkward for me to talk about my achievements." -Tiffany C., second-year graduate student, University of the Pacific, California

“Let me start with my special assignment in electrical engineering last semester. That really appealed to me because it allowed me to be creative and visual while staying grounded in the technical skills of my major. In the past two years, I’ve found the classes and projects that bring together those ways of thinking really represent who I am.”

“My aunt is a circuit court judge, and I’ve always admired her passion for her work and her drive to be successful in a difficult industry, which is why I’m pursuing a career in law. I spent the summer before college shadowing at a local law firm and loved learning about some of the less glamorous ins and outs of the profession.”

“I got a 2.7 GPA at Glory Poly, which, as you may know, is ranked the number six engineering school in the country. That 2.7 put me in the top 15 percent of my class.”

“It took me a year or so to get my bearings at Entrepreneur University. Once I did, I was able to achieve a 3.0 average for the remainder of my college career.”

“I’m the youngest of three brothers, and in the summer I enjoy surfing and music festivals.”

“What would you like to know?” (Avoid answering with a question.)

3. “Why should we choose you?”

The interviewer is asking what you can do for the organization—not how the organization can help you. In your response, “be confident, but be humble—not arrogant,” says Michelle Cook, a career and education counselor at Calgary Career Counselling in Alberta, Canada.

  • “Use affirmative statements, such as ‘I will bring’ rather than ‘I hope I can bring’,” says Cook.
  • Make sure to align your answer to the specifics of the job.
  • Phrases like “I’m a people person” have no meaning. What does have meaning is an example of how you’ve successfully worked with or helped others.

“I have worries about whether I can convincingly convey to the company that I’m fit for the job.” —Victor C., third-year undergraduate, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

“One of the reasons I’m an excellent candidate for this job is that I have a track record of going above and beyond. For example, in my last internship, my supervisor thought my work in spearheading a client event was so good that she had me present in the next client pitch.”

“In addition to the specific responsibilities outlined for the position, I’ve researched your company’s philanthropic efforts and leadership in corporate social responsibility. That resonates deeply with my track record of planning philanthropic events on campus.”

“This is a good commute from where I live.”

“This role will look impressive on my résumé.”

“I really need the money/experience.”

(These are weak because they aren’t relevant to the job and only benefit you, the interviewee.)

4. “Where do you want to be in five years?”

This is a tough one for a lot of people—no matter how experienced. Don’t worry about having every detail of your life mapped out. “The employer [just wants] to see that you have some drive to learn and grow, in your role and in the company,” says Cook.

  • Bring the question back around to why you’re the right person for this opportunity.
  • Don’t oversell your ambition by giving a specific answer or pie-in-the-sky scenario. Stay on track. This is about getting this job now, not your ultimate dreams.

“I worry my plans [to pursue] my dream of being a nurse don’t coincide with the types of jobs I’m currently seeking, like retail.” —Christine B., third-year undergraduate, Wake Technical Community College, North Carolina

“In my last internship, because of the quality of my work on writing a funding grant, I was brought back to address a more demanding project. I don’t know what opportunities would open up for me here, but I’m confident that they will be there.”

“Serving as a leader in my Greek organization, I was able to sharpen my organizational and communication skills, which I think will serve me well in this position. I would like to see myself in this company for at least five years, as I expect to grow within the profession.”

“I’m not sure—I don’t like to plan that far ahead.”

“I hope to make enough money to take a year off to travel.”

“I hope to move to California/Barbados.”

5. “What are your weaknesses?”

The key is to turn your negatives into a positive. “Be honest, but don’t dwell on the negative,” says Cook.

  • Stick to one or two weaknesses—don’t air all your dirty laundry.
  • Be truthful without overexplaining. It’s OK to admit a little vulnerability.
  • Come up with something that enables you to bring the conversation back to reassuring them about your skills.

“It’s hard to admit where we struggle when trying to make a good first impression! Everyone prepares for the good they’ll say, not what makes them unqualified.” - Samantha L., second-year undergraduate, University of North Dakota

“I like to prepare well for meetings; sometimes I feel I might be overpreparing.”

“I had previously thought a weakness of mine was talking to customers on the phone because I used to get a little nervous, but having to do it as part of my last job, I now feel much more confident.”

“I thought it was hard for me to get up to speed on some systems, but I’m working hard at doing better, and it’s paying off—I just aced my Excel course.”

“Sometimes it’s hard for me to receive criticism, but I’ve been working on that and have turned it into a positive way for me to improve myself.”

“I’m a perfectionist.” (This is vague; they don’t know what it means.)

“I try too hard to please people.”

“I do so much that others resent me.”

6. “Can you bring leadership skills to this position?”

  • Leadership potential is prized by companies and organizations.
  • Leadership comes in many forms; it’s not just about standing at the podium or getting elected. Think about your experience so far and the ways that you’ve positively influenced other people.

“An end-of-year review of a certain client account was needed while my supervisor was on maternity leave. I took over the process and made the deadline. The analysis was well received by the senior partner.”

“In my Greek organization, I served as philanthropy chair, where I was responsible for organizing a campus-wide fundraiser, which involved liaising with 30 other campus organizations. I was able to create teams and delegate tasks, and we ended up raising more money than in the previous five years.”

“In my intramural Ultimate Frisbee club, they always had me arrange the games.”

“My brothers always look to me to schedule the family meetings.”

“I don’t have examples, but I feel that people see me as a leader.”

7. “Do you have any questions about this role or organization?”

This question gives you a perfect opportunity to get the interviewer to begin seeing you as a colleague rather than as a candidate. If they tell you what’s going on in the company, that’s a good sign.

  • “Don’t ask a question that you could have easily learned by doing some research,” says Cook. “Also, don’t ask questions about benefits, vacation, pay, etc.—leave these for when they call to offer the position.”
  • Ask open-ended questions that demonstrate your interest in the organization or role.

“What departments would I interface with?”

“What are the busiest quarters or periods for this organization?”

“What does a typical day look like in this role?”

“What states/countries are you in?”

“What are your company’s goals in the next two years?”

“What are the biggest challenges facing this organization?”

“What kinds of initiatives are taken up to better serve the patients of this community?”

“What have others done to excel in this position, to go above and beyond what’s listed in the job description?”

“What have others in the position struggled with the most?”

“What’s the size of the team I would be working with, either directly or peripherally?”

“Do I get off the day off following the Fourth of July?”

“Where do I park?”

“Do I really have to come in at 8:30?”

“What time is lunch?”

1. Rigorously review your online footprint

Assume the interviewer will look at everything. Those photos with the red cups, your sloppy friend, or anything discriminatory—get rid of them.

2. Dress conservatively

You can never be too overdressed (unless you’re wearing a tuxedo—that’s a little much). Even if you’re interviewing at a fast-paced, youthful internet company, you can’t go wrong showing up in conservative attire (e.g., dress pants and a button-up top, or a knee-length dress with a blazer). Make sure the outfit is clean (no stains), crisp (not pulled out of a pile on the floor), and professional. For more corporate, conservative settings, you might consider covering tattoos or piercings. 

3. Avoid bad-mouthing an old boss

Saying something negative about a previous employer can make you look like you lack respect or that you might be difficult to work with. “It’s important for students to realize what it means to be a professional,” says Henry. “Professional employees go out of their way to leave any employment experience, regardless of how bad it may have been for them, on good terms with their employer and supervisor.”

Why? Former bosses can still influence your future job prospects. So keep it polite. When explaining why you left a role, try something like this: “I was there for a year, and I was excited about the publication. I was hired in a production role, and over time I realized what I was really interested in was developing content. That’s why I’m looking to move on, but it’s a great company.”

4. Send a follow-up note

Show them that you follow through with a thank-you email expressing your gratitude for the chance to learn more about the role. “Include a sentence or two about something you’re excited about that you learned in the interview, such as a project you would be working on,” says Cook. “Finish with a sentence letting them know you would be happy to answer any other questions they may have and that you look forward to hearing from them soon.” Send the note within 24 hours of the interview. Worst case, you don’t get the job, but chances are you still have built your connections.

Student review: Job Interview Questions and Answers By Vinh Tran

Read review here

Rachana T., third-year undergraduate, Creighton University, Nebraska


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Article sources

Michelle Cook, career and education counselor, Calgary Career Counselling, Alberta, Canada.

Jason Henry, coordinator of career and transfer services, Arkansas State University-Beebe.

Student Health 101 survey, May 2018.