How to answer interview questions about previous experience
Updated 31 July 2023
Your work history is often a key topic during a job interview. Interviewers like to ask about your previous work because it's a good indicator of your capabilities and potential to contribute to the organisation. If you're preparing for an interview, knowing how to answer a question about your work history can be very useful. In this article, we explain why interviewers ask about your previous experience, describe how you can answer such a question and provide you with some examples of good answers.
Why do interviewers ask about previous experience?
For roles that aren't entry-level, your previous experience is often the most important contributor to your candidacy. Towards the beginning of your interview, the interviewer may ask a few introductory questions first to get a conversation going and help you introduce yourself. You can expect some questions about your work history at some point, especially if the requirements for the job stipulate particular types of experience. From the perspective of an employer, the best way for them to find out if you're able to perform a particular task is to find out if you've done it before.
For instance, you might be interviewing for a position like a team leader or assistant manager. Although not a very senior managerial position, leadership is going to be an important factor. When an interviewer asks you to tell them about your work history, they want to know about the responsibilities you've had in the past that match those of the role to which you're applying. In the case of a team leader or assistant manager, they'd probably want to hear about your leadership and managerial experience.
How to answer a question about previous experience
If you get a question from an interviewer that asks you to talk about your work experience, consider the steps below to help you formulate an effective answer:
1. Align your description with the vacancy
While preparing for your interview, try to learn as much as possible about the vacancy in question. If you're applying for a specific role, you want to give a specific answer. This is similar to tailoring your application documents to the job and hiring organisation. Ensure that you have a good understanding of the job requirements for which you're interviewing and describe your work experience in terms that match it.
For example, you might be interviewing for a content writer position. Based on your knowledge of the type of content in question, you can talk about how you've done similar work in the past. This is almost always preferable to talking about aspects of your experience that have no direct relevance for the role in question or giving broad or more generalised answers.
2. Identify transferrable skills
In some cases, you may find that your experience doesn't correlate directly with the job requirements for which you're interviewing. In this case, try to identify tasks you've completed in the past that require a similar skill set. For example, you might have experience as a member of wait staff at a restaurant but be interviewing for a role as a receptionist. While your experience serving food or drink isn't relevant, your other skills are.
You'd likely know how to take questions from customers, handle complaints and offer good customer service. In this case, talk about how you offered good customer service by greeting them upon arrival, took bookings for tables and handled any queries or complaints.
3. Give examples
Specific examples of your experience are a good way of demonstrating your eligibility for the role in question. An example can be specifically mentioning a similar role and talking about your title and duties. Additionally, you can give examples of achievements or significant contributions you made to a former employer. The examples you select depend on the information you have on the vacancy.
For example, you might know from the job advertisement that the hiring organisation wants candidates who've overseen a project before. In this case, give specific examples of when you've managed a project in the past and talk about your successes. Quantify these if possible, such as if you managed to deliver project objectives ahead of schedule or cut costs. The more specifically you can align these examples with the requirements of the job in question, the more effective they're going to be.
4. Practise answering naturally
While it may be tempting to memorise answers, it can be challenging to deliver these in a manner that sounds natural. If an answer sounds like a rehearsed one, it may not be compelling for the interviewer. Instead, try to memorise key points of information and find natural ways of including them in your answers. Practising these answers with a friend or family member can therefore be a good way of finding effective approaches for doing so.
A good approach is to consider the various requirements for the job in advance. For each aspect of your previous experience that aligns with one of these requirements, remember three to five key pieces of information that you believe are compelling. You can work these into your answers naturally on the day of the interview.
5. Show growth
A good way of making your work experience sound more compelling is to use it to produce a narrative based on growth. This is preferable to simply stating a series of static pieces of information that have little to connect them to where you are today. For example, you might be interviewing for a supervisor role and want to communicate your leadership ability. Instead of just stating a list of jobs or tasks that required leadership, talk about how you got started and how that led to subsequent professional development.
For instance, instead of just saying that you mentored someone, briefly mention what you learned from that and how it led you to seek further opportunities to lead. Connect this to the next example and again talk about what you learned and how you improved. Showing that you're capable of learning and improving can benefit your candidacy.
6. Be honest
There may be instances where your work experience lacks something necessary for the role in question. It may be tempting to change the descriptions of your experience to match the role. Where this requires you to change facts, it's best to avoid doing so. Interviewers value honesty greatly, and if they suspect you're being liberal with the facts, it's likely to harm your chances. Instead, be open and honest about your experiences.
This doesn't mean it's necessary to mention all of your shortcomings, as focusing on trying to justify these can also be counter-productive. Instead, communicate your eagerness and capacity for learning and how you can bring transferable skills to the role.
Here are some examples of answers to a question about your work history:
'I got my first customer service job at a leisure centre's reception. Although the typical visitor was courteous, it did expose me for the first time to disagreeable people whom I had to placate. This taught me interpersonal skills and conflict resolution, so when I got my next job at Barnaby's Insurance Ltd I was already well-prepared to handle all sorts of customers. With greater industry knowledge, I now feel ready for the next step.'
'After completing my college course, I got my first job as a bookkeeper with a local firm. I was the only one there, so I quickly learned the importance of being self-driven and had to learn a lot on my own. My ability to self-teach allowed me to get my next job as a senior bookkeeper, where I even trained new recruits. My employer sponsored my accountancy training and I became certified soon after that, making me a full accountant.'
'I started off as a junior designer working on website designs. My aptitude led to a promotion to designer at the same company, although I was still working on the same designs. While I haven't done marketing and logos yet, I have taken courses and built up a portfolio of independent work that I believe has prepared me for this role.'
Disclaimer: The model shown is for illustration purposes only, and may require additional formatting to meet accepted standards.
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