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These Three Common Interview Questions are Not What They Seem

by Alice Pyclik, Ph.D.

November 18, 2021Blog

Choosing the right questions to include in a job interview can be a daunting task. There are lists upon lists of interview questions available online, but how do you know whether they’re any good? Unfortunately, many of the most common interview questions have some pretty serious flaws. Of these, three stand out: “Tell me about yourself,” “If you were an animal, which would you be and why?” and “Sell me this pen.” 

  1. Tell me about yourself. The main problem with this question is its lack of structure. In general, the more structure an interview has, the more predictive it is of performance. One way to gauge the amount of structure a question has is to consider how you know when you’ve heard a “good” answer. If the question has a pre-determined scoring rubric, it it’s more structured than one scored based on spur-of-the-moment gut feelings.

Though there are exceptions, this question is so broad that it’s usually scored based on interviewers’ instincts rather than objective criteria. This means that interviewers can vary on how they assess responses to a question from candidate to candidate. Not only does this reduce the question’s predictive power, it leaves room for interviewers’ own biases to cloud their judgment. There’s plenty of data to suggest that traditionally underprivileged groups experience discrimination in job interviews, and that introducing structure can reduce that bias. 

  1. If you were an animal, which would you be and why? This question lacks both structure and content validity, which refers to how relevant a question is to the job. I’ve written about this problem in the context of AI and the message is the same here: The best selection processes are both predictive and explainable. Understanding the applicant is crucial to understanding their fit for the job.

When you ask this question, what is it that you really want to know? Are you looking for honeybee-like work ethic or crow-like intelligence? Or are you simply trying to gauge candidates’ creativity? By asking questions that measure these characteristics more directly, you’re more likely to get relevant information on what to expect from your applicants. 

  1. Sell me this pen. This question is especially dangerous because it can drive top performers away. The best person for a sales role thrives in companies with a clear purpose behind their products. Unless you’re an office supply store, a pen probably has very little to do with your company’s purpose.

A question like this signal top performers that your company prioritizes making the sale over selling the right thing to the right person. That directly contradicts their values, regardless of whether it’s true. The best candidates will probably take their job searches elsewhere. Instead, consider using a structured interview that directly targets top salespeople, such as one of the sales assessments from Talent Plus. 

Common interview questions aren’t always common because they’re good. Many of the questions that appear in lists online lack structure, lack content validity, or are likely to drive away top performers. Rather than resorting to an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach, let Talent Plus partner with you to choose a job-relevant interview that predicts top performance. Your ROI will speak for itself. 


Alice Pyclik, Ph.D.

Alice Pyclik is a Research Consultant at Talent Plus, where she uses The Science of Talent ® as a discovery and problem-solving tool for clients. She uses talent data to tell stories about variables that matter to clients most, such as values, engagement and retention.

“I use my talents to apply and advance The Science of Talent for the benefit of clients, colleagues, candidates and the community.”

Talents: Conceptualization, Focus, Intelligence, Ego Drive, Individualized Approach