Can You Answer These 10 Phone Interview Questions?
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. We spoke to Harhaj, Augustine and Lynn Kindler, a senior career strategist at Executive Career Partners, about what questions to expect during a phone interview.
10 Common Phone Interview Questions
- 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.
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.