Have you ever been on the fence about a candidate after finishing a technical interview? How often does this happen? If it happens more than 0% of the time, it’s likely a sign that your interview questions are not effective.
Good interview questions create a strong hire or no hire signal. Even if you aren’t hiring right now, it’s always worth your time to audit your interview questions. Here are 5 things to look for while you review your questions.
1. The questions aren’t relevant to the job requirements.
Brainteaser questions and questions about hobbies and interests aren’t an effective way to evaluate a candidate’s future job performance. Don’t ask them. Even general coding questions, if they aren’t relevant, aren’t effective. Ask questions that address the core competencies of the job requirements or problems the candidate would solve on the job.
❌ There are three boxes: one contains only apples, one contains only oranges, and one contains both apples and oranges. The boxes have been incorrectly labeled such that no label identifies the actual contents of its box. Opening just one box, and without looking in the box, you take out one piece of fruit. By looking at the fruit, how can you immediately label all of the boxes correctly?1 – not job related.
✅ You have two containers. You need to adjust the pressure in one container to equalize both containers, but you can’t just release pressure from one container to match. How do you equalize the pressure? – related to an actual responsibility of the job, assuming you’re interviewing for an aerospace test engineer position.
❌ Reverse an integer. – not job related, unless you’re…?
✅ Write a function to validate the input of salary information in a web form. – a common problem that every front-end developer has solved.
2. The question has a high pass rate.
If too many people are getting the question right, it’s not a good benchmark for assessing technical competency. It’s likely too basic or too general of a question.
❌ Tell me about yourself. – asking this is a waste of time. What do you want to know specifically?
✅ Tell me about your role in shipping X. – asks for a specific example from the candidate’s resume.
❌ Why did you decide to become a software engineer? – this question is also a waste of time. It doesn’t tell you about their skills.
✅ Tell me about a performance tradeoff you had to make in a recent feature you shipped. – requires a specific example that demonstrates candidate’s engineering thinking.
3. You can’t objectively rate answers.
If you’re relying on your gut feeling to determine if someone answered the question well, then it’s a bad question. Instead, isolate the skills you want to evaluate and determine what a good or bad answer would be.
❌ Explain recursion to your great-aunt. – If their answer is bad, do they not know recursion or are they just bad at explaining, or talking to great-aunts?
✅ When designing a REST API, what elements would you consider? – the candidate’s answer will give you objective evidence about whether they have the required technical knowledge.
❌ Describe your management style. – you are biased to consider an answer that is similar to your own management style as being better.
✅ What does the useEffect() hook do in React? – the level of detail the candidate can go into will give you an idea of their depth of understanding.
4. The candidate’s answer doesn’t give you new information that helps you decide to hire or not hire.
The question you asked was either too broad, a yes-no question, or too similar to another question if you didn’t get new information about the candidate’s abilities. If you want to assess something specific, ask about something specific.
❌ Have you designed a relational database schema before? – yes-no questions don’t give you enough information about the candidate’s process or proficiency.
✅ Tell me about your process for designing relational database schema. – asks specifically about a function of the role and provides new information about how the candidate works.
❌ Tell me about previous projects you’ve worked on. – the candidate gets to choose what they tell you, so you won’t necessarily get new (or relevant) information.
✅ How did you implement authentication? – asks for specific information.
5. Your question guides the candidate’s answer.
The candidate won’t answer honestly if they think you are fishing for a specific answer. Phrase your question in a way that allows the candidate to answer with original thought.
❌ What’s more important to you when doing a code review—compactness or readability? – implies that your company values one over the other.
✅ What do you look for when reviewing code? – open ended, so the candidate can answer honestly.
❌ How do you feel about transparency? – there’s an obvious right answer for the candidate to give.
✅ What does it mean to be transparent? – open ended, and helps you understand what transparency means to them to determine if it aligns with your company's values.
The Foundation of Effective Interview Questions
Your technical interviews will be more effective if the questions are:
- Structured, so that each candidate is asked questions from the same list of question. This will allow you to accurately compare candidate responses to each other. It’s like comparing apples to apples, instead of apples to oranges. Using structured interview questions means you need to plan your questions in advance.
- Behavior-based, meaning that the question asks the candidate to explain how they have reacted or would react in a real or hypothetical situation.
- Content-focused, meaning the candidate must elaborate to answer the question, rather than simply responding yes or no.
- Short, so the candidate can answer your questions directly. If candidates have to ask if they’ve covered everything you wanted to know, you’ve asked too broad a question. Rather than asking a mega-question, plan to ask follow-up questions after the candidate responds to the initial question.
- Job-related, so you can actually use the answer to evaluate whether the candidate will be a good fit for the role and company. Brainteaser questions and questions about interests aren’t an effective way to evaluate a candidate’s future job performance.
- Conversational, meaning the questions don’t feel too casual or too interrogatory. This will benefit both you and the candidate because the candidate will answer in a more natural and honest way without feeling too much or too little pressure. A conversational interview gives you the opportunity to have some give and take—both you and the candidate will get a better read on the fit for the role and company.
With limited time in an interview to assess the candidate, don’t waste it on bad questions. Bad interviewers ask bad questions; sometimes even good interviewers ask bad questions. Every question you ask should get you one step closer to a clear hire or no hire decision. Audit your questions often to keep your process effective.
Whether you’re ready to hire now or later, Facet can help you find passive candidates and effectively interview them.
 A real interview question attributed to Apple.