Networking sessions are common in MBA programs but are tough to come by outside of the academic world.  Those forums are perfect for gaining some nuanced learning about companies to understand if the opportunities and culture synch up to your career objectives.

For most of us, all we have are the internet and interview sessions, assuming we don’t know anyone already in the company.   Interviews are a challenging place to gather intel because your focus is selling yourself.

Because you want to leave the best impression while balancing two objectives, why not use your Q&A time to ask important questions that also leave strong clues about your passion and abilities?  Yes, you can sell yourself with your questions!  Here are a few to get you started (and, please, feel free to massage the wording to sound authentic to your personality):

How does your company reward or value exceptional performance?

A question like this suggests you are ambitious. Furthermore, you’re coming off like the type who doesn’t want a parade just for coming in and doing your job; you show the desire to exceed…and probably expect to do so.  This question for you is the perfect gateway to understand total compensation, from money to stocks to perks and the like; this insight places less weight on starting salary, which rarely tells the whole story.  This was very much the case in my experiences at both Johnson&Johnson and Warner Bros.  As I performed, the benefits came in many unexpected forms.

Does this company have a high-energy / social culture?  Are there opportunities on social or event committees?

Now don’t ask this if you’re not willing to follow through!

Again, you’re showing that you can bring energy to the company and develop a team dynamic.  It also suggests a natural orientation to surpass basic job requirements by taking on projects.  All while you learn about culture and working conditions.

Questions like these can also lead to bonding opportunities with your interviewer (and as I already shared, employers tend to recruit like-minded candidates).  Imagine this hypothetical conversation between you and the company contact:

YOU:  Are there many social or team bonding events at this company?

CONTACT:   Definitely.  These events are essential to building the team and making this a fun place to keep working.

YOU:  Do you think there’s enough involvement to get the right number and type of events organized?

CONTACT:   We could always use more help!  And, to your point, most of the events are sports or drinking related.  We should be looking at other things, too.

YOU:  I agree. There should be a diverse slate of activities to reflect the diversity of interest of the work force.  Is there a specific type of event you’d like to see happen that you could use my help?

(take it from there)

Can you describe any resources this company has for self-development?

Asking a question in this particular way shows that you are resourceful and don’t expect the company to serve up your entire career plan in a ready-made curriculum.  You remove some of that burden by suggesting that your development is a partnership in which you are anxious to take part.  You may find there are online or offline courses you could take or extracurricular work teams you can join.

Aside from what we talked about, is there anything else I should be thinking about on the job that I should do or watch out for so that YOUR boss thinks highly of our team?

This question wins every time but of course is best asked of an interviewer who is likely to be your direct boss. This question sends the message you are selfless and a team player. Most importantly it sends a signal that you understand part of your role is to make your boss look good…and what boss doesn’t want that? It’s the question that comes the closest to a mic drop when you ask it in terms of making a company want to have you.

In what areas would you like to see this company improve?

Again, a question that gets you insight into the company while also perhaps leading to a bonding moment with your contact.  Listen carefully to what you’re told and be empathetic; you will score points if you can find a way to position yourself to be a part of the solution when you join the company.

Update, January 2015:  This article written by a LinkedIn influencer provides some additional angles to get at the same objectives.

Update, July 2015: I have another great one:

Think of a person in this company that you respect and is considered successful. While you don’t need to identify them, please explain why you have this high opinion of them.

Such a question will get you a more real and genuine answer to a question about the skills and abilities required to be a fit with org culture. More importantly, you need to follow up on the reply by explaining how you also have demonstrated the same abilities. In so doing, you have sold yourself AND likened yourself to a successful and respected person in the company. Identifying with winners is a great strategy; it’s in part why political leaders publicly congratulate sports champions. Some have even historically been filmed in the locker rooms!

Update April 2016:

Cool video from Forbes on the 10 questions everyone should ask in an interview!