Interviews can be stressful experiences. From choosing what clothes to wear to coping with nerves, there is always a lot to think about. Elsewhere on the Future Skills Blog there are some handy tips for interview preparation, but here we’re going to focus on a part of the interview that many people dread the most: “Do you have any questions?”

Even though we all know to expect this, it’s easy to freeze up in the moment, and so we have some top tips to ensure that you can ace this part of the interview:

  • Research is everything
  • Be specific
  • Turn the tables
  • Think long term
  • Don’t panic

With a couple of carefully chosen questions, you can instantly show what a thoughtful and determined candidate you are.

1) Research is everything

Doing background research is obviously a vital part of any interview preparation – TheBalance.com offer some great tips for this. Knowing who will be interviewing you, the ethos and history of the company or institution, and what exactly you’re applying for is incredibly important when considering what questions you might be asked. However, background research is also vital when coming up with questions of your own.

For example, looking into an organisation’s ethos might raise some interesting questions. If a company’s website says that they value individuality among their employees, for example, you might want to know how they foster that individuality while keeping everyone united as a team. If a university department has recently opened a new library, you could express your excitement and ask about its facilities. These are just two simple examples, but they show how even a little bit of background research can bring up great ideas for questions.

Remember, the best questions are always genuine. The easiest and most natural way to work out what to ask is by doing some research and making a note of what interests or excites you. Not only will you come up with unique questions to which you really want to know the answer, but it will also show your interviewers that you have gone the extra mile in your preparation.

2) Be specific

General background research is very handy when it comes to deciding what questions to ask at an interview, but it helps if the questions themselves are specific. After all, questions which are too general could be difficult for interviewers to answer or take up too much time. Take the following question as an example:

  • “Where do you see the industry going in the next few years?”

This is certainly interesting and relevant, but it is too general. By contrast, consider these alternatives:

  • “How is [your company] seeking to shape the industry in the next few years?”
  • “What would you say [your company] is doing that no one else is doing at the moment?”

These questions address the same issue but in a much more focused and practical way. You can apply the same principle to all the questions you are thinking of asking. Not only will you get the answer you were looking for, but you will have shown direct interest in the activities of the company or institution you are interviewing for. Including specific details from your background research is also a great idea.

However, questions should also be somewhat open-ended. Avoid questions which could be answered with “yes” or “no”. For example, this question…

  • “Does the college have a music society?”

…is not as effective as this question…

  • “Could you tell me a little about the musical life of the college?”

The difference may seem small, but the second question invites your interviewer to answer in more depth and is more conversational than a simple yes/no question.

3) Turn the tables

When doing any interview, it is important to remember that it is not just a chance for interviewers to see whether you are right for them, but also for you to see whether a job or a place is right for you. The best interviews are not one-way interrogations, but dynamic conversations.

With this in mind, remember that as well as your interviewers asking what you can do for them, you should also find out what they can do for you. They’re testing your knowledge and experience, but you’re also seeing how they do things. This doesn’t mean you should be arrogant or get ahead of yourself, it just recognises that an interview is for you too.

Here are some ideas for questions that turn the tables in an interview:

  • “What are the biggest challenges and opportunities you have faced as a company in the last few years?”
  • “How do you cultivate good team spirit among your employees?”
  • “Please could you say a little about the culture of the institution and how it supports its students?”

These questions are, of course, both interesting and relevant, but they also show assertiveness and put the ball in your interviewers’ court. This is a great strategy when it comes time to ask some questions.

4) Think long term

Another good strategy is to ask questions which look to the future. This may seem presumptuous – after all, you haven’t been offered the job or place yet – but it shows your commitment, confidence and long-term ambitions. To help with this, The Guardian offer some great tips for how you can work on your long-term career plan.

For example, one of the most potentially important questions to ask at a job interview is what opportunities for promotion and development would be offered down the road if you get the job. Questions you could ask include:

  • “What promotion opportunities might be available in the future?”
  • “How do you support your staff’s long-term professional development?”
  • “What are the future prospects for someone in this position?”

If you are interviewing for a university or college, the same principle applies. Considering what will happen throughout your time there and beyond is important in general and also very helpful when it comes to asking questions. Here are some potential questions to think about:

  • “How do you support your students over the course of the three-year programme?”
  • “What career prospects are there for [subject] graduates here?
  • “How does the institution support graduates beyond the end of the course?”

As well as your own future, you could also ask about the future of the company or institution. Questions like these show that you’re looking beyond the interview and thinking about long-term development.

5) Don’t panic

Even with all the preparation in the world, we can all panic at the crucial moment. When faced with “Do you have any questions?” there’s always a small chance that you’ll freeze up and not know what to say.

Of course, dealing with interview nerves and making sure you stay cool, calm and collected is a great way to guard against this problem – Monster.co.uk gives some handy advice on how to do this. However, it is always better to ask a question than say nothing, and so it’s worth memorising a few more general questions you could ask if in doubt. For example:

  • “What is the next stage of the interview process?”
  • “When will I hear back from you?”
  • “What do you enjoy about working here?”

Finally, here a few general tips on what questions to ask at an interview. It’s best not to ask for information which has already been included in the application materials or online, as this will make it look like you haven’t put much thought into your application. Also, don’t forget to thank the interviewer for their answer, and don’t be afraid to ask any follow-up questions that may arise. This being said, don’t try to make this part of the interview go on for too long – interviews often run on a tight schedule and you don’t want to cause a hold-up.

Well-chosen interview questions work on many levels. Not only are they a chance for you to show yourself off and impress your interviewers, but they also allow you to find out vital information which can help you to make an informed decision. Thinking about the tips above will ensure that you have some brilliant questions up your sleeve so you can make the best possible use of this part of your interview.