12 Common Phone Interview Questions and Best Answers

Woman talking on cell phone at home
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Before you interview in person with a hiring manager, you may be asked to take part in an initial phone interview. This is even more likely if you're interviewing for a freelance or remote position, in which case a telephone interview may be the only actual interview you'll have.

Phone interviews are conducted just like in-person interviews. They are used by hiring managers and recruiters as a tool for screening candidates for employment.

Why Are Phone Interview Questions Important?

Phone interviews can make or break your candidacy for a job. While they are a good means for an employer to save the time and costs required to interview candidates in person, they are by their very nature impersonal. In some cases, you won’t even be talking to a hiring manager – a human resources staffer or an administrative assistant may simply ask you a preset list of questions and record your answers for later review by their superior.

These types of interviews thus come with their own special challenges. For one thing, a phone interview is likely the first time you’ll speak directly with a representative from the employer, and you won’t be able to rely upon body language to build rapport. And, unlike emailing back and forth, a phone interview offers no chance to re-read and re-formulate your thoughts.

12 Common Phone Interview Questions and Best Answers

The best approach to a phone interview is to come to the conversation prepared to answer any and all questions the hiring manager might ask. Review some typical questions and answers here, and you’ll have a great head start.

Questions About Your Background

The core purpose of telephone screenings is to segregate viable candidates from those who lack the necessary qualifications. You should be prepared to describe your training background and work experience in a way that persuasively demonstrates your strengths as a candidate.

1. What were your responsibilities in your last job?

What They Want to Know: Employers need to gauge your qualifications for the job, and they are looking for evidence that you have experience performing the tasks they require. The job listing is your best resource for answering this question. Don’t waste time describing previous responsibilities that aren’t relevant to the position you’re interviewing for. Focus instead on the job duties that match those listed in the employer’s job ad.

My responsibilities closely paralleled those listed in your job ad. As an administrative assistant, I was responsible for data entry, developing Excel spreadsheets and macros for our sales teams, handling business correspondence, creating PowerPoint presentations, ordering office supplies, and arranging for the maintenance and repair of our office equipment.

2. What are your salary expectations?

What They Want to Know: In initial phone screenings, where employers may be screening dozens of candidates, salary requirements are a key point in deciding who will be offered an in-person interview (or will be hired directly for a job, if it 's a freelance contract position). It’s a smart strategy to offer a ballpark salary range, based on current data you’ll find through online salary calculators, but with the provision that you are open to negotiation based on other factors like benefits packages or desirable work/life balances.

Well, Glassdoor.com’s “Know Your Worth” tool indicates that paralegals with my level of experience take home between $47,000 and $51,000 each year here in Minneapolis. I myself earned approximately $49,500 last year; I’m happy to negotiate this level, though, based on other factors such as a good benefits package.

3. What major challenges and problems did you face in your most recent job? How did you handle them? 

What They Want to Know: These questions are intended to evaluate your problem-solving capabilities and to ascertain how you operate under pressure. Be ready to provide an illustrative example or two of how you have dealt with difficult work issues in the past. 

After a corporate restructuring that dramatically reduce our workforce, our department was critically understaffed. In response, I rescued our productivity by cross-training three of our remaining staff to perform the tasks that had previously been handled by the personnel who were laid off.

4. Why are you leaving your job? 

What They Want to Know: Recruiting and hiring is an expensive proposition for employers, and so they want to hire personnel who are not only skilled, but are also likely to remain with their company for a while. They will also be judging your attitude and your tone of voice as you answer this question, so keep your response positive and upbeat. Don’t be tempted to criticize your former employer or to complain about the job’s responsibilities.

I loved my work as a sales manager with ABC Team – they’re a great company, and they taught me a lot. However, when I was first hired by them I was single and free to travel extensively. Now that I’m married with young children, I want to be able to come home most nights, so I’d like to find a sales job where constant travel isn’t required.

Questions About the New Job and the Company

One of the best ways to rise above your competition in a phone interview is to show that you’ve taken the time to research the employer’s company, history, culture, and mission statement.

5. Why do you want this job?

What They Want to Know: This question isn’t asking you about your personal desires and career goals so much as it is testing your understanding of the position you’re applying for. You’ll score extra points if you talk not only about the job, but also about the benefits of working for the employer.

My family have shopped at Harrow’s Department Store for three generations, and I’ve never grown out of the thrill I get when I walk through your doors and see your merchandising – it’s one reason why I decided to major in fashion retail in college. For me, helping to create your window displays would feel like working in an art studio – it’s the creative sort of work I love. I’m also impressed by how many of your employees have worked here for decades. It’s clear that you treat them like family.

6. What relevant attributes/experience do you have?

What They Want to Know: Employers want to know that you’ve taken the time to think about your own suitability for the job. Before your interview, write down the primary requirements listed on the job ad and then write a corresponding list of your relevant experience. Keep this list in front of you during the screening, along with a copy of your resume, so that you can refer to it if your mind starts to go blank.

I have seven years’ experience as a corporate accountant as well as CPA certification, and so I’m well-versed in general ledger accounting, tax preparation, AP / AR, budget development, and regulatory compliance tracking.

7. What can you do for this company? 

What They Want to Know: Employers hope that you’ll prove to be a good return on their investment in hiring, onboarding, and training you. This question is also calculated, though, assess your enthusiasm for their operations and your confidence in your own ability to make a difference to their bottom line. 

For the past three years, I have triggered consistent quarterly and year-over-year gains, becoming the top-producing pharmaceutical sales representative in my region. Everyone at industry conferences talks about your fabulous incentive programs, and I know that, given my competitive mindset, I would excel as a member of your sales team.

8. What challenges are you looking for in a position? 

What They Want to Know: The best employees are those who proactively seek to improve their job performance and grow their skill sets. This question addresses what motivates your productivity.

I’m a problem-solver by nature. That’s why I thrive on the challenges of customer service – there’s no better feeling than seeing the smile on a stressed-out customer’s face after you’ve successfully solved a problem for them.

 Interview Questions About You

These questions are asked both to assess your level of self-knowledge and to determine whether you would be able to fit in with the employer’s workplace culture.

9. Tell me about yourself.

What They Want to Know: This open-ended question is frequently used at the beginning of an interview to break the ice. Prepare for it by using the ‘present-past-future’ formula – describing where you are now, how you got here, and what goal you have for the future.

I’m an avid movie buff, which is why I attended film school at UCLA. I love everything about working as a production assistant, knowing that I’m playing my part in creating films that will bring people joy. While I’m content to be where I am now, I do dream of one day becoming a location scout.

10. What is your greatest weakness?

What They Want to Know: Employers sometimes will throw this curveball at you simply to see how you respond. The safest approach is to explain how you’ve improved upon a skill that used to be weak.

I’m afraid that I’m a perfectionist, which sometimes leads me to tinker on projects longer than I should. But I’ve learned to counter this tendency by setting non-negotiable deadlines for myself and sticking to them.

11. What is your greatest strength? 

What They Want to Know: Answering this question allows you the opportunity to showcase the fact that you possess the preferred skills the employer is seeking. Align your response to the primary requirements of the job. 

I am a superb, detail-oriented editor with a great command of the Chicago Style Manual. At the same time, I am very efficient and never fail to meet challenging deadlines.

More Answers: What motivates you?

12. What type of work environment do you prefer? 

What They Want to Know: This is another question that seeks to test whether you could be happy and productive in an employer’s company culture. Research the company’s website before your interview so you can give them the answer they’re looking for.

I thrive in team-based environments, both as a team member and, when needed, as a team lead. Collaboration really is my forte – I enjoy bouncing ideas off of other people and serving as a sounding board for them as well.

Tips to Answer Questions During Phone Interviews

Here are a few additional strategies that will help you to rock your phone interview.

 Observe phone interview etiquette “Do’s” and “Don’ts.” When it comes to getting hired, phone interview etiquette is just as important as in-person job interview etiquette. That's because, regardless of the means of communication, a successful interview will get you to the next stage of the hiring process.

Do a mock interview. Ask friends or family members to help you conduct a mock interview and record it so that you can hear what you sound like over the phone.

Prepare your environment. Prepare a quiet, comfortable space for the interview itself, so that you’ll feel ready for the call.

Prepare for tough interview questions. Preparing for these tough interview questions will save you from being surprised, should the interviewer decide to skip the easy stuff. And even if she keeps it simple for the phone screen, you’ll be happy you prepared for the harder questions that may arise in a face-to-face job interview later on.

How to Make the Best Impression

As the old commercial goes, you never have a second chance to make a first impression. Another issue with phone interviews is that you can’t rely on body language (unless, of course, your phone interview is actually a video interview; tips on that situation can be found here).

It pays to take the time to practice answering common questions before your interview.

Questions To Ask Your Interviewer

In addition to reviewing the typical phone interview questions that you'll most likely be asked, it's also important to have a list of questions ready to ask the phone interviewer. It’s very possible that the interviewer will ask, at the end of the conversation, “Is there anything I haven’t told you about the job or company that you would like to know?

Asking interested and informed questions during the phone interview can affirm your commitment to pursuing the opportunity. Serious candidates want to know what it’s like to work at the organization, whether they’ll fit into the corporate culture, and where their careers might take them at the company should they get the job.