Often overlooked is the fact that an interview is actually an extended, albeit highly directed, conversation between two people. Interviews are not interrogations. You are not required to be a passive respondent to the interviewer's questions. Instead, you should engage him or her in conversation. Sure, you should answer questions, but you should also ask them. If you don't query the person conducting the interview, you effectively make him or her responsible for running the show. This can only work to your disadvantage: Someone struggling to keep the interview going will most likely have to dig deeply into the question bag, and real "zingers" are bound to follow once all the basic questions have run out.
The best method for avoiding a one-way interview session is asking questions. The goal of asking questions during an interview is to create an interactive dialogue between yourself and the interviewer. What should you ask about? Obviously, you want to inquire into any aspect of the job or company about which you are uncertain. Besides these basic, informational-type questions, you want to ask questions that will provide useful information for acing the interview itself.
Question #1: "How would you describe the ideal candidate for this position?"
In most cases, if you were to ask an experienced interviewer this question, you probably won't get the response you want. Most interviewers don't want to give you the answers to the interview/exam ahead of time. Still, you want to get an idea about what kind of person the interviewer is looking to hire. Therefore, you should use questions that seek similar information, only in a less obvious or direct manner. For example, you might ask:
"What do you feel are the ideal qualifications for this job?"
"What factors do you feel are most vital to being successful in this job/position?"
"Considering the people who have been successful doing this job in the past, what factors do you think contributed most to their success?"
Once you understand what the interviewer feels is required for successful job performance, all you need to do is reiterate that information to the interviewer by way of describing yourself as the ideal candidate for this position.
Question #2: "What aspects of this position would you most like to see improved from a performance standpoint?"
The objective of this question is to discover where opportunities for improved performance lay. Every hiring manager wants to hire someone who can do the job better than the last person did it. This not only reflects positively on the manager's ability to bring in the "right" people for the job. It also makes them feel good about hiring you. In effect, they are killing two birds with one stone: They are ensuring the job will be done better and making themselves look good come their year-end review.
The obvious way of making this information work for you is to highlight those skills and abilities that will enable you to bring improved performance to those aspects of the job that have been singled out as representing opportunities for overall improvement. Convincing the interviewer that you can bring about some desired improvement goes a long way toward assuring him or her that you bring an added measure of value to the organization-and that you are worth hiring over other the other candidate competing for the job.
Question #3: "As you think about the organization's longer term goal and objectives, what are some of the changes and improvements that must be brought to this position in order to realize those goals?"
Most interviews are so focused on fulfilling an organization's present needs that very little attention is ever given to some of the longer term changes that need to be implemented by the person in the position you want. As an employment candidate, you can generate considerable interest by framing yourself as an agent of positive change-someone who is concerned, beyond the current scope of the job, with effecting strategic change and/or bringing about improvement in the organization. Again, this will create a sense of "added value" about your candidacy, and distinguish you from the other candidates who have interviewed for the same position.
You want to gain some insight into the department's longer terms strategies and goal, and then you want to ask some fairly direct questions about the impact they have on the position for which you're applying. What are you (as the job incumbent) going to have to do in order to help the department/organization achieve its goals? Oftentimes, simply demonstrating your interest in such matters will set you apart from other candidates. To probe the subject further, consider asking the following questions:
What do you currently see as the major barriers to effecting these changes?
What hurdles need to be overcome before the organization can focus on achieving its goals?
What needs to be done to move ahead on this strategic front?
Question #4: "What fundamental problems do you think a successful candidate for this position will need to be able to solve?"
A candidate's problem-solving abilities are a major concern to interviewers. Problem solving will be key to a candidate's interviewing success. Demonstrating your ability to solve problems must be one of your basic goals during the interview process. Not only do you want to show how you've solved problems in the past, you also want to "forecast" your abilities as a problem solver in the present. To that end, it will be useful to discover the kinds of problems that you would face as a member of this organization, and then elaborate on the skills that make you uniquely capable of tackling those problems successfully. The idea is to create a vivid picture in the interviewer's mind of what you'd look like were you in the position to find solutions. The interviewer is never as concerned with your past than with what you can do in the future.
Answers to these questions will provide you with critical insight into what is truly important to the hiring manager. Not only will you better understand the basic challenges of the job, you will have a clear understanding of the interviewer's priorities as well. If you don't understand these pressing issues, you will have a tendency to drone on about skills and capabilities without being able to properly contextualize them. While they may be interesting, they are more or less irrelevant to a hiring manager, who is looking for someone to do this job, not the one you used to have.