How to Ask the Right Questions to Wow Your Interviewers

Nobody likes to sit through an interview because you never know what to expect. You might have to go through a case interview on something you have no idea about, or a brain teaser that makes you wonder if the interviewer is just messing with you. Even if it’s just a good ol’ fit interview, you don’t know when a curve ball will get thrown at you (entertain yourself with these weird interview questions).

There’s one thing you can always expect from an interview though.

At the end of every interview, your interviewer will ask you, “Do you have any questions for me?”

Over the years, this has become my favorite part of the interview regardless of which side of the table I sit at. As an interviewer, you can learn a lot about someone just by the questions they ask, how they ask them, and the way they take in the answers. As an interviewee, you can use this opportunity to stand out from your competitors because most people don’t give much thought on this.

“There are no stupid questions, but questions are certainly telling.”

A Partner from a very well-known consulting firm told me this. Every time I interview someone, I’m reminded of how true this is.

But people don’t really teach you how to ask these questions. At best, they tell you what not to ask, or they give you a list of questions to pick from. While these are nice, they fail to do one thing: You can’t differentiate yourself from others by asking questions everybody else does.

This article walks you through the steps to come up with your own, unique questions to ask an interviewer so you can always end your interviews on a high note.

Step 1. Research and Segment Your Interviewers

Any communication that doesn’t take their audience into consideration will suck (see How to Write a Resume That Doesn’t Suck). Asking great questions is no exception.

Some companies will tell you exactly who your interviewers are going to be prior to the interviews. Others don’t and let you go in blind. Either way, you should be able to do some research on company websites or company review sites and segment your interviewers.

What do I mean by segmenting them? The goal here is not drilling down on a particular person, but rather figuring out which types of interviewers you might encounter. Your segmentation will probably look something like this:

Download this spreadsheet

Ask yourself these questions while doing the research: Which functions does the company have? How hierarchical is the organization? Which level of staff would you interview with? Do they get hired through campus recruiting, executive recruiters, or some other channels?

These questions should help you come up with 3 to 5 interviewer profiles. You’ll prepare questions for each segment in advance so you won’t get caught in surprise no matter who you run into in the actual interviews.

Step 2. Put Together a List of Questions for Each Segment

This should be pretty easy - just think about what new information you’d like to gather about the company, the interviewer, or the job opening. If you don’t have any burning question to ask the interviewers, you either know too little about the company, or you are not interested in the company at all.

To help you brainstorm, here are some common themes I’ve heard in the questions asked in interviews.

Once you have a list of questions, categorize them to fit each segment.

Different questions are meant for different interviewers. For instance, a junior staff might have a hard time discussing with you the company’s strategic plan for the coming 10 years, just like an HR manager would not be able to get very specific in telling you what an engineer’s typical day looks like.

Most people will likely stop their preparation after completing this step. Read on if you want to differentiate yourself from other candidates.

Step 3. Think About What New Information You’d Like to Give the Interviewer

When preparing for questions to ask the interviewers in Step 2, you focus on yourself and think about what you want to know. The problem is, the interviewer has probably heard these questions a million times, which makes you no better, no worse, just no different.

Does this mean you can’t ask these questions? Of course you can. But you have to ask them in a way that can impress your interviewers while you’re getting the answers.

To do this, the next step is to think about what you want to tell the interviewers through these questions. Here are some good information to give while asking questions:

  • Show your qualification: Do you have deep industry knowledge? Do you want to emphasize on the strong analytical skills you have?
  • Show your passion and interest: Are you passionate about something and want to be known for it? Does your interest align with what the company does?
  • Show your ambition: How career-driven are you? Are you on your way to do great things and want them to notice that?
  • Show your personalities: Do you want to show them your personalities are a great fit to the team? Can you bridge a gap the team currently has?
  • Give extra information: Do you have competitive offers that you want to bring up? Is there a gap on your resume that you haven’t had a chance to address?

Step 4. Know What You Interviewers Are Looking For

It’s nice to come up with all the ways you can impress the interviewers in Step 3, but you don’t want to get too caught-up in your own story and forget about what the interviewers want.

Different interviewers sit down with you for different reasons. They all want to get to know you, but they have questions of their own that they want answers to.

Let’s say you’re interviewing for a Product Manager position. To an engineer who’s going to interact with you on a weekly basis, they want to know what it’s like working with you. To your future boss, they care more about your career ambition and whether you can deliver results. To the HR manager, they keep an eye on your cultural fit.

For each segment you identified in Step 1, take some time to think about their daily routines, tasks they perform, their key performance index, and how these might determine why they are chatting with you.

Step 5. Beef Up Your Questions to Make Them Unique

How do you make a question unique? You make it personal.

Compare the following examples:

Candidate A: “Does your company have a training program?”

Candidate B: “One thing I love about working at General Electric is its focus on people development. For example, I got into GE’s Communication Leadership Development Program and went through a series of rotational assignments, which really made me a better presenter and communicator. Could you tell me more about your training programs here please?”

Both candidates want to learn about the company’s training program, but the ways they ask the question are completely different. In the process of asking the question, Candidate B shares lot more information about herself: She’s taken multiple roles in her previous job; she’s a great communicator; she values people development. Most importantly, the interviewer understands WHY she’s asking the question and can probably answer better with more details.

You should prepare backstories for all the questions you plan to ask. The backstory can include information you want to give the interviewer (from Step 3), which should align with what the interviewers want to learn about you (from Step 4).

Questions with backstories also help you turn the Q&A session into a conversation. When the interviewer answers your question, listen actively, take notes, and respond with follow-up questions or comments. Some of the worst interviews I’ve had is to see the interviewee not acknowledge anything I just said, and move on to the next question on their lists. It felt like they were just checking off boxes (which they probably were) and weren’t really that interested in the company. Building on the interviewers’ answers and turning it into a conversation always help you end the interviews on a high note.

Final Thoughts

Asking great questions is a killer skill to have no matter in an interview, in class, or at work. Many people believe that the ability to ask the right questions is a prerequisite to being a strong problem solver. This is why you should not underestimate the importance of the last ten minutes of your interview - asking amazing questions can give you a leg up in the interview in ways you never imagined.

Don’t forget to download this free spreadsheet tool to help you come up with amazing questions!

Ellie Chang
Ellie is the founder and CEO of Jobalaya. She is an ex-consultant and a veteran working with multiple Fortune 500 companies. Ellie received an MBA from Michigan Ross.