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Think smart: How to work through situational interview questions

October 7, 2022 - 14 min read

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Why are situational questions asked?

Situational versus behavioral interview questions

Answering situational interview questions: Do's and don'ts

15 situational interview questions

Moving forward

"How many years experience do you have?"

"Tell me about yourself."

"What's your biggest strength?"

These are all job interview questions you've probably encountered before, and they're usually easy to answer. But what happens when you're asked a more challenging and complex question? One that makes you explain your decision-making and problem-solving abilities.

Of the many possible interview questions you could be asked, you need to be especially ready for situational interview questions. These questions force you to dig deep to give a good answer.

They could throw off the good first impression you want to make and derail the rest of your interview. Done well, they show the hiring managers that you're a capable, reliable, and efficient worker.

Situational interview questions don't have to be daunting. We'll explain why hiring managers ask these questions, how they differ from others, and some do's and don'ts for giving your answer.

Why are situational questions asked?

Situational interview questions give insight into how you would handle a challenging situation you could face while on the job. These hypothetical situations demonstrate your thought process.

It's the chance to show the hiring manager your skills in (hypothetical) action. Hiring managers want to see your future-minded leadership and how you'd adapt in the face of adversity.

It's also a great opportunity to show off your soft skills. Throwing in things like your problem-solving skills or critical thinking abilities also gives insight into your character. Do you remain cool under pressure, or lash out at coworkers easily?

These hypothetical interview questions describe your prioritizing methods and adaptability in potentially difficult situations. But they also show how you'd fit the company culture and impact your future team.

Maybe your way of handling a tight deadline or keeping up with a fast-paced work environment isn't how the company prefers it done, which could be a red flag to an interviewer. 

And if you dread situational interview questions, know they aren't going anywhere anytime soon. Research has found that they're one of the most valued ways of interviewing someone because they help describe behavioral intentions. They help predict job performance, personalities, and job knowledge, which are all important for hiring managers to consider.

But while these types of questions may seem straightforward and easy to point out, they're often confused with other interview questions.

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Situational versus behavioral interview questions

Situational and behavioral interview questions are often lumped together. They both give you the chance to highlight your soft, problem-solving, and communication skills and emphasize how you value teamwork. Both might have you discuss how you'd use your cognitive flexibility in challenging situations and rationalize your thought process. 

While these are both considered scenario interview questions, they have their differences.

Situational interview questions ask you to explain how you'd react to situations in the future, some you've never experienced before. But behavioral interview questions ask you to reflect on your past experiences and highlight specific examples and actions you’ve taken.

Young-man-working-from-home-situational-interview-questions

It's not that situational questions can't be specific: it’s that behavioral questions rely on your first-hand experiences. 

One reason why these questions are often confused with one another is because they might describe similar situations.

Take a look at these examples of situational and behavioral questions:

  • Situational example: How would you talk to a coworker routinely failing to meet their deadlines?
  • Behavioral example: Give me an example of a time when you had to talk to a coworker who couldn’t meet their deadlines.

Notice how both questions ask about the same topics. Both give you the chance to explain your communication, problem-solving, and leadership skills. The situational question allows your answer to be open-ended, but the behavioral question will demand that you bring up specific details about the event and the actual outcome of what happened.

You’re also able to bring experience into your hypothetical answers. It might help you to say, “In the past, I had to X… which would lead me to do Y in this situation,” to prove your experience while offering a strong solution to their proposed problem.

Learning how to answer situational and behavioral interview questions might be tricky to do alone. At BetterUp, our coaches can provide the support and guidance you need to build your confidence and identify your strengths to ace your next interview.

Answering situational interview questions: Do's and don'ts

As the interviewee, you want to give your answer in a specific, respectful, and insightful way. But that's easier said than done. 

Maybe you think you have a good action plan for answering these questions but backfires on you in the moment. Even if you've done dozens of job interviews before, it's helpful to continue learning new interview tips to best answer questions. 

That’s how a growth mindset benefits you: you'll learn new skills, gain more confidence, and feel inspired to set new goals.

Young-woman-thinking-situational-interview-questions

Here are four do's and don'ts for how to answer situational interview questions:

Do:

  1. Use the STAR method: STAR stands for situation, task, action, and result. It's a way of structuring your answer so that you're detailed and your story comes to a close. Even though the STAR method is usually used for behavioral questions, just switch the point of view to a hypothetical situation, and you'll be good to go.
  2. Be yourself: Recruiters can sniff out when someone isn't being their true self. So why not be authentic? Share your ideas, be creative with your solutions, and don't be afraid to share a smile.
  3. Take a deep breath: Interviews are stressful, and it's OK to feel uncomfortable. But before you share your answer, remember to take a deep breath. Be mindful of how fast you're talking, and slow down if needed. There's no need to rush your words or skip over details.
  4. Reflect on previous experiences: Just because these are hypothetical situations doesn't mean you can't use your real experiences to help you out. Consider if some of your experiences are similar to the question and how you ensured a positive outcome.

Don't:

  1. Drift off-topic: This is the last thing you want to do for any interview question. Make sure you answer the specific question, and don't get distracted by other thoughts or questions.
  2. Be vague: What exactly are you talking about, again? A good answer is focused and specific. Remember to only include necessary details and keep your descriptions concise. You’re usually welcome to take a minute to collect your thoughts to make sure you’re properly answering the question.  
  3. Forget to prepare: Preparing ahead of time limits your worries and surprises. But when you don't prepare or create an action plan, everything will seem like a surprise and catch you off guard. Certain questions might seem more confusing if you haven't thought of them before.
  4. Use inappropriate language: If you're talking about hypothetically dealing with a difficult coworker or helping an unhappy customer, make sure to watch your language. You want to speak about people and situations with respect. Bad-mouthing your boss won’t make you seem professional or mature.

15 situational interview questions

Of course, every industry and position is different. What type of situational interview questions recruiters ask you depends on the job description and your potential and previous roles and responsibilities. But you can count on questions that make you problem-solve.

New-Candidate-On-Business-situational-interview-questions

Here are 15 common situational interview questions to review:

  1. If you're working under a tight deadline and don't think you'll be able to make it, what would you do?
  2. Let's say you disagree with your project manager on something. How would you handle it?
  3. A coworker tries to blame you for a mistake during a team meeting. How do you react?
  4. How would you act if you saw a coworker do something unsafe at work?
  5. If you knew your manager was about to make a huge mistake, would you tell them? And how?
  6. What would you do if a customer became violent and hostile?
  7. How would you react if you saw signs of burnout in yourself?
  8. You notice a team member is scrolling through social media instead of working. How would you talk to them?
  9. What would you do if you received harsh feedback on one of your assignments?
  10. What would you do if you were put into a situational leadership position at the last minute?
  11. Imagine you have a super long project to take on alongside your regular, smaller tasks. How would you approach it?
  12. Let’s say halfway through a major project, you realize you've made a big mistake in the early stages. How would you handle that?
  13. What would you do if your team members continuously shot down your input and suggestions?
  14. A new employee has joined your team. What do you do on their first day?
  15. You're very busy with your work, but a team member has asked for your help before they go on vacation for the week. What would you do?

If you’re feeling really unprepared, draft up some sample answers to these questions to see how you’d react during the interview.

Moving forward

Female-hacker-explaining-advisors-situational-interview-questions

Situational interview questions ask you to envision yourself doing the job. They allow you to share your insights and ideas from previous roles while hyping up your soft skills. You're trying to make a good impression on the hiring manager and show that you're the perfect fit for the job. 

We've talked a lot about what to do and don't do while giving your answer, and some example questions. But one thing that job seekers sometimes forget is that good storytelling goes a long way. And it's all about the delivery.

Research has found that when speakers share their information in story form, the listener will understand them better and be more engaged. It excites the sensory cortex in the brain, and the listener becomes hooked. It happens when your story includes details, interest, and a beginning, middle, and end. 

You want the hiring manager to be hooked on your words, so don't forget to have fun with how you share your answers. Keep your professionalism, but add in some spice and personality. It'll help solidify you as a candidate they'll never forget.

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Published October 7, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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