The Code Words You’ll Hear During a Job Interview, and What They Really Mean

A paper with code words from the Enigma coding machine

A paper with code words from the legendary Enigma coding machine | Patrik Stollarz/AFP/Getty Images

Ever feel like a fish out of water? Perhaps you’ve found yourself in a situation where you were in so over your head that you barely had any idea what was going on. This feeling can occur at the most inopportune times, and a job interview is one example. You might lock up, allowing anxiety to take over. Suddenly, you don’t even know what the interviewer is asking. It’s like they’re speaking in another language. It’s all hieroglyphics — code words.

Anxiety is one thing. But what about the feeling that there’s too much jargon floating around the room? It might not be you. There are a number of specially crafted words that are used to probe you. It’s like a sort of HR code used to throw interviewees out of their comfort zone. And those words typically work.

The good news is you’ve probably heard most of them before and have at least an idea of what an interviewer is getting at when they use them. Here is a sampling of those code words and what an interviewer actually means when they pepper the conversation with them.

1. Overqualified

Depending on where you are in your career trajectory, the term “overqualified” might enter the discussion. It’s a tricky term, too. If you’re overqualified for a job, aren’t you, by definition, also qualified for it? The real issue is an employer might not want to meet your salary expectations given your experience and skills. Or they feel you’ll get bored with the job and gun for a higher-up position or leave after a short period of time.

Next: What if you’re told to apply again for the same job?

2. Reapply

A man applies for a job.

A man applies for a job — again. | iStock.com/Rawpixel

At some point, you’ll have a job interview you feel went well. But you don’t end up getting the job. An employer or recruiter might tell you to reapply. That’s a confusing proposition, given that you’ve already applied and been interviewed. But in some cases, if there are multiple positions available, HR needs to put every candidate through the ringer for each position — even if they’re already been considered. So it might be basic protocol.

It also might simply mean you’re a good candidate, but they found someone better. Of course, they could also be blowing you off. It can be hard to tell. If they do tell you to reapply, though, go ahead and do it if you’re still interested in the position. You might already have an advantage over other applicants.

Next: You do have a weakness, right?

3. Weakness

woman at desk holding head

Practice what you’re going to say to this question. | iStock.com/gpointstudio

It’s everyone’s favorite interview question: “What’s your biggest weakness?” The basic strategy here is to spin your weaknesses into a strength. Show your capacity for improvement. From an employer’s perspective, the term “weakness” is really a method of probing your background. They want to know whether there’s something they’re missing. Also, they want to see how you answer the question. Do you have a boilerplate response? Or can you be honest and creative?

Next: And on the flip side, what do they mean when they ask about your strengths?

4. Strength

Superman lifts object over head

Superman showcases his strength, and you should too. | Warner Bros.

This is the inverse to the “greatest weakness” question. It is, fortunately, easier to talk about the things you’re good at than the things you’re bad at. But it’s still tricky. You don’t want to come off as cocky or arrogant. And you definitely don’t want your strongest attribute to come off as underwhelming.

What they do want to hear is how you and your greatest asset are going to be able to help their organization and fill existing needs. Use that as a starting point, and explain how your particular talents and experience can be utilized in an advantageous way.

Next: Company culture can be confusing.

5. Company culture

two people on computers glare at each other

Some co-workers find it difficult to share a workplace. | iStock.com/AntonioGuillem

You might hear the word “culture” thrown around. It’s purposefully vague, and no one can really understand an organization’s culture unless they’ve operated within it. When you hear it in an interview, then, it can be tough to understand what an interviewer is getting at. If the topic does come up, they’re likely trying to gauge your personality. Will you clash or mesh with existing employees? Are you going to play the role of usurper or stay in your lane?

If the topic of company culture does come up, you can use it as a springboard to ask plenty of questions of your own. You’ll want to, especially if you expect to start spending 40-plus hours per week working for them.

Next: How will you fit in?

6. Fit

women whispering behind man's back

Two women make fun of the new guy. | iStock.com/dusanpetkovic

In conjunction with discussions about company culture, you might pick up on the use of the word “fit.” In this case, “fit” means exactly what you might suspect. They’re wondering whether you’re a cultural fit for the organization. There are a lot of variables at play, but whether you fit the role is pretty darn important, and it’s something you should give real consideration. If you’re not a good fit, you’re probably in for a miserable experience. For that reason, don’t brush off discussions of “fit” — take them to heart.

Next: How you juggle responsibility is important.

7. Prioritize

scene from "Tommy Boy"

A meeting goes wrong in Tommy Boy. | Paramount Pictures

Something that is likely to come up during an overview of your experience is your ability to prioritize. This is somewhat straightforward. They’re trying to get a feel for your logic and decision-making processes. The way you answer the question is your opportunity to showcase those processes. This can say a lot of about your time-management abilities and leadership skills, too.

Next: Your opinions say a lot about you.

8. Agree/disagree

Two people argue.

The interviewer is likely to ask this question. | iStock.com/Deagreez

The words “agree” or “disagree” might also rear their faces during an interview. An example might be: “Tell us about a time you disagreed with company policy.” This is yet another way an interviewer is trying to see whether you’re going to fall in line or rock the boat. Are you going to be a “yes man”? Or are you going to start causing problems?

Next: Is this a job or a passion?

9. Passion

person working on stringed instruments

A good employee has passion for the craft. | Foter.com

If you’ve ever come across a job posting that wanted applicants who were “passionate about accounting” or something similar, it more or less means exactly what it says. They want someone who cares about what they’re doing. When you act with passion, you’re probably going to do a better job and be more productive.

The problem is there are relatively few people who are passionate about dish-washing, filing, etc. But some people are lucky enough to turn their passions into a career, and these are the people recruiters are overjoyed to find.

Next: How can you put your potential to work?

10. Potential

businessman points to himself with both thumbs, looking ready for a job interview

This guy says he has potential. | iStock.com/lisafx

So they’re asking you about your “potential.” What does that mean? You might feel you have a lot of potential. But potential,¬†on its own, isn’t enough. An employer wants to know what you’re going to do for them, not for yourself. You can have all the potential in the world, but if you can’t follow through, what good is it to an employer? When the concept of potential comes up, this is an interviewer asking: “What can you do for me, and how can you convince me?”

Next: Lies will catch up to you.

11. Discrepancy

nervous stressed young woman

Make sure your story is accurate. | iStock.com/SIphotography

Hearing the word “discrepancy” during the job search is bad. Most likely, an interviewer is going to be asking about some sort of mix-up between your testimony, your resume, and any fact checking they did on their own. It might be an innocent mistake. It might be that they’ve caught you in a lie — which you definitely should refrain from.

Make sure you have your story straight, and make sure it’s truthful. For a lot of applicants, even a minor discrepancy (even if it’s innocent) is enough to send your resume into the wastebasket.

Next: So what do you have to show for your career?

12. Accomplishments

woman cheering at computer

A woman enjoys a personal triumph. | iStock.com/AntonioGuillem

An interview is your chance to sell yourself, talk about your conquests, and brag about your accomplishments. While doing so, you’ll want to keep one thing in mind: They want to know what you’ve done to propel the organizations you’ve worked for, not to propel your own career prospects.

If they ask you about your accomplishments, refrain from discussing personal conquests. You can weave them in, by all means. But focus on how you’ve managed to help your past employers while simultaneously progressing in your career.

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