18 Common Phone Interview Questions and How to Answer Them
Of all the stages of the interview process, the phone interview is easiest to overlook.
There is no technical challenge, no hours-long pair programming session or whiteboarding to complete. It’s often 15 minutes of familiar questions like “Tell me about yourself” or “Why do you want to work here?” Still, those 15 minutes can make or break your job prospects.
“Interviews are always unnerving. It never feels natural, whether you’re five months or 25 years into your career.”
“The old adage that you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression is very pertinent here,” said Lesia Harhaj, director of career success at the engineering bootcamp Fullstack Academy. “This is your first introduction to the company and potentially to the team. This person will be the person recommending whether or not you should go forward.”
While all phone interviews are different, they do follow a similar blueprint, Harhaj added. At this stage, recruiters ask questions to determine whether or not you can do the job and be successful at the company.
You don’t need to go into too much depth with your answers, but you should be able to succinctly tie your past experiences to the job opportunity, said Amanda Augustine, a career expert at TopResume.
This can be tricky for all interviewees regardless of experience level, she explained. More experienced candidates tend to have trouble editing down everything they’ve done in their careers to specifically answer the questions. Early-career interviewees might struggle with sticking to the etiquette of the phone interview and providing job-relevant responses.
“Interviews are always unnerving,” Augustine said. “It never feels natural, whether you’re five months or 25 years into your career. We just don’t do it enough to feel natural.”
Whether you’re just starting out or looking to change jobs, it helps to know what questions to expect during a phone interview.
18 Common Phone Interview Questions
- What’s something that you worked on that you’re most proud of?
- What kind of job environment do you feel most productive in?
- What kind of role are you looking for?
- When can you start?
- What salary are you looking for?
- Walk me through your resume.
- Tell me about a challenge you’ve encountered and how you solved it.
- What can you bring to this role?
- Why did you leave your last job? Why are you looking for work?
- How familiar are you with our company?
- Have you worked with our tech stack? How comfortable are you with it?
- Do you have any questions for me?
- Tell me about yourself.
- Why are you interested in working at this company?
- Describe a recent project you’ve worked on and tell me about your role in it.
- Describe a time you were instructed to change your actions to meet the needs of another person. Do you feel that demand was fair?
- Have you had to make a decision that was unpopular with the rest of your team? Describe the circumstance and outcome.
- Tell me about a time you were able to communicate effectively and make your work relationships stronger.
How to Prepare for the Phone Interview
If you think you can prepare for your phone interview a few minutes before the call, think again.
As a former talent recruiter and current VP of people for M1 Finance, Maria Selvaggio can always tell when a candidate is winging it. Their answers won’t be as concise and they will often trip up on questions about the company.
“You can tell when someone is prepared,” Selvaggio said. “They know a little bit about what you do as a company, they’ve got three questions prepared and they’re able to communicate [confidently].”
Most phone interviews cover three topics — your background, your achievements and challenges, and what you can bring to the company. Before your interview, you should review the job description and come up with examples from your own career for each requirement bulleted, said Margaret Buj, who works as an independent interview coach, as well as a tech talent recruiter for Typeform.
“You can tell when someone is prepared. They know a little bit about what you do as a company, they’ve got three questions prepared and they’re able to communicate [confidently].”
She also suggests having a story for every item on your resume. The interviewer doesn’t need you to repeat it line by line, but having stories ready can add more context to your accomplishments.
When you’re plotting out your answers, it can help to use the STAR method as a framework — situation, task, ask and result, Buj said. Don’t be afraid to create a cheat sheet of answers and bring it with you to the interview to reference either. That can help you remember details that can sometimes evade you during a conversation.
And when it comes to details, be sure to have numbers to back up your accomplishment. If you increased sales by 24 percent, include the starting and ending revenue numbers, Buj said. Providing that context will help your accomplishments stand out to the interviewer and make it more tangible.
But companies also want to know you’re excited to work for them, which is why you need to research the company before your interview. You don’t need to memorize the website, but you should understand what it does and where you can add value, Buj said.
At a minimum, Buj suggests looking up the company mission and history. It can also help to read a few articles about the company and what they’re posting on social media. This will give you a sense of what it’s like to work there and provide some jumping-off points about where you can add value to the company.
But perhaps the most important thing you can do to prepare for your phone interview is practice. Type out your answers and then rehearse them in front of the mirror or with your family and friends, Selvaggio said.
Phone interviews can be nerve-wracking. The more you practice your answers, the more confident you’ll sound.
“Confidence goes a long way,” Selvaggio said. “If you’re prepared, that confidence and preparedness is going to show through.”
To help you prepare for your interview, we asked the recruiting experts to break down some of the most common phone interview questions and offer tips on how to answer them.
Maria Selvaggio, VP of People, M1 Finance
What’s something that you worked on that you’re most proud of?
The recruiter’s perspective: We’re looking for your passion; we’re looking for what excites you. There’s no wrong answer besides having no answer. It shows your ability to get excited about something and to talk through your problem-solving process. We want people who are excited about the work that they do no matter what it is and can explain it in a concise way.
The answer: You can talk about anything, whether that’s your work, hobbies or school. When someone says “Oh, I've got the perfect thing that I can tell you about” and they light up as they’re talking about it — that’s what we’re looking for. An engineer might talk about a side project they worked on and how they pulled data from a data set, drew insights from that data and then built an app. We’re listening for the ability to explain things concisely and enthusiasm.
What kind of job environment do you feel most productive in?
The recruiter’s perspective: This question is really about trying to determine culture fit and whether or not you’re going to thrive in the company’s work environment. Not every environment or culture is going to work for everyone, and that’s OK. Being honest about what environment works best for you is going to be best for everyone in the long run.
“Interviewees have a tendency to tell the interviewer what they want to hear, but being honest and direct about what you need for your own happiness and productivity is going to keep you at the job a lot longer.”
The answer: Interviewees have a tendency to tell the interviewer what they want to hear, but being honest and direct about what you need for your own happiness and productivity is going to keep you at the job a lot longer. If you’re new to the workforce, ask yourself where you go when you need to study. What types of groups do you like working with on projects? If you play sports, what role do you usually play on the team? Every answer will be different, but it’s important to think about the environments where you’ve been the most productive and that brings out the best in you.
What kind of role are you looking for?
The recruiter’s perspective: We want people who are going to be in a role that they will enjoy and that they’re going to stay in for a long time. Being really specific about what you like and dislike and the role you see yourself in is better for everybody in the long run. It also gives the recruiter an area to focus on to give you your next steps.
The answer: I’ve had people who will go through the job description bullet by bullet, but that’s not what we’re looking for. The answers that impress me are when a candidate goes the extra mile and shows that they know a lot about our company. They might reference a quote from an interview our CEO did and why it piqued their interest in the role, or reference a company value. It’s impressive when people can share an example of how they embody a company value and why it speaks to them.
When can you start?
The recruiter’s perspective: I'm looking for the truth. Generally, people will say they can start after their two-week notice, but this is also the time to let the recruiter or hiring manager know that you have a three-week vacation at the end of the month that will affect your start date. My job is to figure out what your timeline looks like and determine whether that syncs with our timeline.
The answer: There’s no wrong way to answer it, but sometimes the timelines don’t match up. For example, a college student might say they can’t start until they graduate in June and the role is open for March. In those cases, we may have to say, “We’ll keep you in mind for the future.”
If you are flexible, tell the recruiter that up front, “I can be as flexible as you need me to be, but I don’t think that I can start until June.” Then we can come back and try to make the timelines work. But if we’re ready to give you an offer and all of a sudden you tell us you have a three-month-long vacation and you can’t start yet — it’s a waste of everybody’s time.
What salary are you looking for?
The recruiter’s perspective: Sometimes people think that by withholding their salary preferences to the end they are somehow giving themselves a leg up. That’s frustrating to us as a recruiter because we’re on your side. We want you to get the job. We can’t fight for you unless we know what salary you’re looking for. That’s why we ask the question. And when you’re talking to hiring managers, giving them that information up front makes the process smoother.
“You’re never going to paint yourself into a corner by giving an honest answer to this question, even if your number is higher than our salary range for the position.”
The answer: Sometimes people answer with where they’re at now salary-wise, which is helpful information. Other times, they’ll ask for a salary based on research they’ve done. They might say, “I’m really aiming for this salary, but I’m flexible with other perks.”
You’re never going to paint yourself into a corner by giving an honest answer to this question, even if your number is higher than our salary range for the position. Hiring managers appreciate people who are upfront about their salary, and if we can do it, we’ll do it. Otherwise, we’ll give you the best deal we can. But your salary request doesn’t ever discount your chances for the job.
Margaret Buj, Tech Talent Acquisition, Typeform
Walk me through your resume.
The recruiter’s perspective: This is a simple way for the recruiter to learn more about you and to see what you think is most important about your experience.
The answer: You should use this time to explain your relevant experience and the skills that make you qualified for this role. I’d recommend structuring your answer in three parts. The first part is a summary of your experience: “I’m an account manager with 10 years of experience in the software industry.” Then give them a brief overview of how your career developed so you can talk them through your resume. I wouldn’t repeat line by line what’s on there, but I’d focus on what you’ve learned and achieved in past roles. At the end, tell them why you’re interested in that position.
Tell me about a challenge you’ve encountered and how you solved it.
The recruiter’s perspective: They just want to see whether this person has experience solving similar challenges to what we’ll be doing here in our company. If you haven’t solved the exact challenge before, what’s your thought process?
The answer: You’ll want to use the STAR method — situation, task, action, result — and ideally you’d want to pick an example that’s going to be relevant to the position you’re applying for. To give a well-rounded answer, it’s important to provide some context.
Let’s say you were working on a project, when was it and how big was that project? What was going on at the company at the time? It’s about setting the scene and showing the complexity of what you did. Then talk about the specific role you played in the project and the result. The more you quantify the result, like how much money the project made or that it was completed on time, the better.
What can you bring to this role?
The recruiter’s perspective: They want to see whether the candidate understands what’s required to do the job, and if they have the experience that they’re looking for. It’s interesting to see what the candidate can bring to the role. Sometimes I’ll also ask a candidate “What is your superpower?” Because there are skills you might not list on a resume. I can’t tell, for example, that you have great attention to detail or you’re amazing at influencing people.
“Don’t just give a generic answer. Focus on your specific skills and qualities that are relevant to the job.”
The answer: Don’t just give a generic answer. Focus on your specific skills and qualities that are relevant to the job. Look at the hard skills and the soft skills in the job description and see how you can quantify some of them. If you’re a developer, don’t just say you have React experience. Say, “I have seven years of React experience and I’ve used it in projects including [example].” If you say you’re good with customers, think about how you can back that up. Reference a manager’s feedback or your customer satisfaction scores.
Amanda Augustine, Career Expert, TopResume
Why Did You Leave Your Last Job? Why Are You Looking for Work?
The recruiter’s perspective: Every recruiter wants to feel that you’re running toward an opportunity you believe is a good fit, as opposed to running away from a bad experience. So, they’re trying to get a better sense of what happened at your previous employer. Was it a performance issue? Were you fired? They’re looking for those red flags. Just know, if you were laid off, no one is holding that against you. They want to understand what didn’t work out and, more importantly, what that means for what you’re looking for now.
“You don’t want to bad mouth whomever you worked for, no matter how horrendous the situation was.”
The answer: You don’t want to bad mouth whomever you worked for, no matter how horrendous the situation was. The most important thing is to acknowledge whatever your past experience was, and then pivot to what you learned from that experience, what you’re looking for in a job and the opportunity this job provides.
How Familiar Are You With Our Company?
The recruiter’s perspective: They want to know that you took 10 seconds to learn about them. We get that you’re applying to a lot of jobs, but we also want to feel there’s something about this company that you’re interested in — or that you have at least taken a few minutes to Google our name. You’re hoping that [the interviewer] looked at your resume before the call, so it’s a mutual respect thing.
The answer: At this point, there’s no excuse for getting on a phone interview and not having an answer. If you know the interview is in a couple days, set up a Google News alert for the organization and look at the people who will be interviewing you.
You should be able to speak to the type of work [the company does], who they cater to based on how they market themselves and what they say about themselves. Make sure to find something that sparks your interest in the job, the company’s mission or its values, and relate it back to the work you might be doing. It will sound more genuine, and people are looking for the genuine, authentic you.
Have You Worked With Our Tech Stack? How Comfortable Are You With It?
The recruiter’s perspective: They’re trying to get a sense of whether you’ll be able to work in the environment they throw you in. They may also ask you about the team sizes you’ve worked on and whether you worked in agile versus waterfall [software development styles], because it has to do with the pacing of the job. They’ll start by sharing their stack with you, and then get a sense of your experience with it.
“They’re trying to get a sense of whether you’ll be able to work in the environment they throw you in.”
The answer: You want to be prepared to talk about a couple projects or products you’ve worked on and how you’ve used those languages. If you’re fresh out of school, it could be a passion project or something you’ve done on your own. Or it could be a group project or certification.
If you don’t have experience, you can say it’s a skill you’re interested in learning. It’s best to be honest about your skill set and intention because, if that company can’t give you what you need to succeed like mentorship or training, it’s not going to be a good fit.
Do You Have Any Questions for Me?
The recruiter’s perspective: The worst answer you can give to this question is, “No, you pretty much answered everything.” You need to ask at least one question. Remember, interviewing is a two-way street.
The answer: It’s important to have a few questions you can ask anyone.
- How would you describe the company culture?
- What changes has the company made since going remote?
- If I were to take this role, what are three things you’d want me to accomplish?
Depending on whom you’re speaking to, you can ask at least one, if not two, questions that haven’t been answered already during your conversation.
Lesia Harhaj, Director of Career Success, Fullstack Academy
Tell Me About Yourself.
The recruiter’s perspective: This is a question you will be asked in every interview from the phone screen to sitting down with a CTO. You have to have a 60-to-90-second pitch prepared for the employer that summarizes your experience. At Fullstack, we like to refer to it as your past, present and future. What did you do? What are you doing? And where are you going? The question sets you up to relate why you are interested in this role, why you would be a good fit and why you would be someone who could meaningfully contribute to the team.
The answer: A strong answer highlights a couple of different relevant skill sets. So if you were a Fullstack Academy graduate with a background in financial services, an answer could look like this:
“I’m a recent Fullstack graduate. Prior to enrolling in that program, I worked in financial services for two years, but I always loved building products and wanted to get more involved in coding. Throughout my Fullstack experience, I learned a lot of different tech stacks that I’m excited to apply in a financial services space, which is why I submitted my application for this role.”
It’s a brief summary of the past, present and future — with a couple of personal details. I tell my students, “If this is the only question an employer is going to ask you, and it’s the only chance you have to introduce yourself, what are the most important takeaways you want them to have about you?”
Why Are You Interested in Working at This Company?
The recruiter’s perspective: What we’ve learned during the last couple years, certainly during the pandemic, is that companies want to hire people who are excited about what the organization is doing.
“It’s not enough to just say you would be excited to work for them. Do some research on the organization.”
The answer: You need to have an answer that spans a few different areas. It can be about the tech stack they’re working in, it could be the client population that they support or the products and tools they sell. It could be about the mentorship or career development that happens in the organization. It’s not enough to just say you would be excited to work for them. Do some research on the organization. Understand what its mission is, what its values are, how it treats employees and how you can relate to that.
Describe a Recent Project You’ve Worked on and Tell Me About Your Role in It.
The recruiter’s perspective: They want to know if you can actually explain your project to a layperson. Most [developers] are primarily on an engineering team, but engineering teams are not your only stakeholders. Can you have a conversation with the product team to explain how something works? If you’re client-facing, can you talk in a manner that a client can understand? Your ability to translate the tech stack and platforms in a way that anyone can understand also shows that you have an understanding of that skill set.
The answer: Have a couple-sentence-long description ready about why you chose that project and what the goal was. Then describe what you did. Were you responsible for the front end or the back end? If you built an e-commerce platform, did you build the shopping cart? Then reference the actual technical implementation plan that you performed.
Bonus Question to Ask the Interviewer
What was your mindset when you entered your job? What were you excited to do? And how has that evolved?
“It’s a realistic way to talk to someone about coming into a new opportunity.”
No matter what industry you’re in, no matter what responsibilities you have, you always enter with one idea of what you’re going to accomplish, but the best-laid plans sometimes change. So it’s helpful to understand how [the interviewer has] evolved as a professional, what they’ve learned at the organization and what challenges they might have faced. It’s a realistic way to talk to someone about coming into a new opportunity.
Lynn Kindler, Senior Career Strategist, Executive Career Partners
Describe a Time You Were Instructed to Change Your Actions to Meet the Needs of Another Person. Do You Feel That Demand Was Fair?
The recruiter’s perpsective: When they ask if the demand was fair, they can suss out if [the candidate] has resentment they’re going to carry into whatever they do. With startups, you need somebody who can come in and modify their actions. So, you want to evaluate how they handle that situation. All of that information will help you decide if they fit into the company culture.
The answer: First, I would recommend [candidates] look at the top three bullets in the role’s job requirements. Then come up with a story you can give in 90 seconds or less about an experience in your own work life that is applicable. Try to include metrics, whether it’s the amount of money involved or the timeline of the experience. That way, the recruiter can start to visualize what you’ve accomplished.
Have You Had to Make a Decision That Was Unpopular With the Rest of Your Team? Describe the Circumstance and Outcome.
The recruiter’s perspective: They want to see that you don’t get all caught up in [team politics]. They want to see that you can keep the focus on what needs to be done, when you are going to do it and what’s going to happen, rather than how people will feel.
The answer: How I’ve handled this in the past is telling a story about these multi-million dollar requests for proposals that we had to put together in three days. Not very many people were happy, but it had to be done, and people had to get on board. So, I described what I did and what I learned. The manager is not always the most popular person, but you’ve got to get people on board.
Tell Me About a Time You Were Able to Communicate Effectively and Make Your Work Relationships Stronger.
The recruiter’s perspective: They want to find out what the person’s communication style is. Some people will hem and haw around what they want you to do or [phrase directives] as questions. Other people are very direct. In a startup, the person’s communication style can be very important.
“I’d want somebody to show they have awareness about how they communicate, and that they’re open to learning a new way of communicating with each person that comes into their world.”
The answer: I’m thinking about when I was working with a partner at an IT consulting company. I remember her taking me into the hallway and talking to me in the middle of putting together a huge request for proposals, and her telling me, “Lynn, you scared the hell out of me.” Because when I get going, I get very short. So I took a breath, and I listened to her and thanked her for being honest with me. Our relationship shifted from that moment on.
So, I’d want somebody to show they have awareness about how they communicate, and that they’re open to learning a new way of communicating with each person that comes into their world.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.