Step 1: Understand why they’re asking
There are two different reasons an interviewer might ask “What are your interests?”:
To find out what parts of your job or career you’re most passionate about. Are you a marketing manager who loves creating campaigns for clients in the healthcare space? Are you an IT professional who nerds out about all things cybersecurity? Or do you just love any opportunity to learn more, solve a problem, or come up with creative ideas?
To learn more about who you are as a person beyond work. Interviewers want to see how you’d add to the existing team, and might be wondering if you’re “someone they can see themselves enjoying their time with,” says Muse career coach Leto Papadopoulos. How would the small talk be? What can they learn from you? You might “hit it off based on your response if you share interests,” Papadopoulos says. But if not, don’t worry. “At the very least, they can appreciate what you like to do,” she says, and know you’ll have something new and exciting to share.
So how do you know why this particular interviewer is asking about your interests? Most likely, “If this question is at the beginning or end of an interview, it’s a chance to share interests that you’d talk about at a polite dinner party,” as in outside-of-work interests, says Muse career coach Matthew Ford. But “if it’s in the middle, it’s probably more of an ask about what you feel driven to do in your career.”
And if you’re still not sure? Ask. Say something like, “Do you mean outside of work or are you asking more about my professional interests?” and respond accordingly.
Step 2: Choose a genuine interest
Regardless of why the interviewer is asking about your interests, you need to be honest about what they are. “Be yourself,” Papadoupolos says. “It’s best to find a work environment that suits you.”
If you’re talking about job-centric interests
Look back to the job description or think back on what you’ve already learned about the role and company from interviews. What excites you most about the job? Why did you apply?
Choose something you’re actually interested in and can talk about with some emotion. If you say you’re interested in spreadsheets but can’t back it up with any explanation or a single shred of enthusiasm, you’ll sound either disingenuous or like some sort of job robot created to perform VLOOKUPs—neither of which is super appealing in a coworker.
That’s not to say you can’t be passionate about spreadsheets—you do you. It’s all about what you bring to the rest of your answer. You might explain that you love Excel “because it’s a powerful tool that most people only scratch the surface of. I’ve been able to streamline so many calculations by figuring out the right formula or function and it’s so satisfying when I can solve a problem or realize that I just made a five-step process into a one-step process. Plus, I love when I can teach my teammates how to do something new with it.” Boom, suddenly you sound less like an automaton and more like someone who’s interested in learning more, solving problems, and helping your coworkers with something they may find boring or confusing.
If you’re talking about outside-of-work interests
In this case, “What are your interests?” is very similar to “What are your hobbies?” except that while hobbies are generally activities, interests can be much broader (and you can speak about either or both in your answer, Papadoupolos says).
If you have an interest that’s directly related to the job or you know is shared by people at the company, you can certainly bring that up. For example, if you’re interviewing for a cosmetics company and you love trying out new makeup looks, mention it. If you know that the company hosts bimonthly karaoke parties and you love to sing, talk about that.
Choosing a genuine interest you can speak about with passion will help you make a stronger connection and find the right environment. Personally, a workplace where one of the main bonding activities is a fantasy football league would be a living hell. So I’d never say I’m passionate about fantasy football just to land the job—instead I’d answer honestly and see how the interviewer responds. If I say I love spending time with my dog and they reply with, “We’re a pet friendly office and our Slack channels are full of dog pictures,” great! But if they respond to my interest in current events by saying, “Cool, we’re not big on swapping headlines but we do keep up with Elon Musk’s Twitter feed,” I’m (politely and professionally) running for the hills.
Avoid talking about any interest that might not be appropriate for the workplace. Steer clear of religion and politics—unless you already know that this organization is cool with these discussions or it’s important to you to find out. Otherwise, think: Would you chat about your interest with your grandma over Thanksgiving dinner? If not, maybe choose something a bit more safe for work than your fascination with erotic fiction or how you love clubbing every weekend.