In a job interview, you’re thoroughly prepared for the standard questions about your skills and your work history. You’ve got anecdotes that show off your leadership skills or your communication skills. Smooth sailing, right? Sure, until you get a question that’s a little off the map: “Here’s the situation. You have an angry client on the phone, an urgent email demanding your attention, and the fire alarm is going off. How do you handle this?”
The answer to that question isn’t in your resume (at least not obviously so). It’s not one of the stories you rehearsed in your bathroom mirror this morning. So what does this kind of question achieve, and how do you tackle it?
Situational interview questions are popular with interviewers because they unearth two immediate things about the interviewee:
- How quickly he or she thinks on their feet.
- How he or she approaches problem solving.
These are interview skills that you can’t necessarily drill ahead of time, without knowing the specifics of what the interviewer is going to ask. But we will walk through ways to recognize situational questions right away, and how to approach these questions on the spot.
Situational vs. Behavioral
Situational interview questions are slightly different from that other popular interview question type, the behavioral interview question. Both question types lure you away from the resume review template. Behavioral questions call for you to tell a story about something you’ve done, or a time you’ve faced a particular challenge. Telltale signs of a behavioral question:
- “Tell me about a time you…”
- “Describe a situation where you did…”
- “Give me an example of…”
These all boil down to a very simple ask: “Tell me a story.” The Interview Guys recommend breaking each one down using the STAR method:
- What is the (brief) context for the story you’re about to tell? (the situation)
- What task did you need to complete, and what were the challenges/constraints?
- What did you do? (What action did you take?)
- What were the results? Be as specific as possible, and pull out any quantifiable results (sales, statistics, etc.) if available.
Behavioral questions are ones that you can kind of anticipate ahead of time. If you come up with a few ready anecdotes for each of the skills you want to emphasize/the skills on your resume, you can shine those up ahead of time and get ready to pull them out at the right time.
Situational questions are a little different. Instead of a story about how you did something, these questions want you to talk about how you would do something. Hallmarks of a situational interview question:
- “How would you handle…?”
- “What would you do if…?
- “What would happen if…?”
- “Here’s a hypothetical situation…”
Hypothetical is the key word here, whether it’s explicitly mentioned or not. Situational interview questions are almost always structured as scenario + “what would you do?” The interviewer isn’t necessarily interested in how you’ve handled things in the past, although your experience can certainly be used to inform your answer to this hypothetical question. Really, it’s a test of your critical thinking skills, and showing the interviewer that you can hear a situation that you may or may not have ever faced before, think fast, and come up with a satisfying solution. It also gives insight into your thought processes.
How to Answer Situational Interview Questions
The first strategy for answering questions like these is to remember that it’s not a trick question. It’s not a gotcha. The interviewer didn’t wake up this morning and think, “I’m gonna mess with that dude’s interview just to throw him off his game.” It’s not a personal question, it’s a professional one—so before you answer, it’s important to take a deep breath and think logically.
More often than not, the answer is going to be the one that lines up most with common sense. Think of it as a kind of role playing, except the role is your best professional self, not someone else.
Your plan of attack for situational interview questions should be to follow these guidelines:
- Be a good listener. Make sure you understand what you’re being asked. If you want to clarify any points, ask a question or two. (This has an added bonus of giving you more time to chew over the question.)
- Be honest. Interviewers know when you’re only saying something because you know they want to hear it. None of us is as subtle or slick as we think we are.
- Be brief. This story doesn’t need additional characters, or big embellishments. Make sure you get right to the point.
- Be clear about actions you would take, and why.
- Be specific. Always tailor your answer to the job description and the skills that would be required.
What NOT to Do and Say
Don’t wing it. You may decide that since you can’t anticipate the specific question, you should go into it cold and let your instincts be your guide. Unless you have a small cricket friend accompanying you to the interview and whispering guidance, this is not a great plan. You can still practice common situational questions, and work on connecting your own experiences to them.
Don’t ramble. “…So anyway, what was I saying before I went off on that tangent? Oh, right, how I’d organize a project. Organization is so important…umm…sorry, lost my train of thought.” Staying focused is key. You want to get in, answer the question, and get out. There are no bonus points for a novella-length answer.
Don’t give a generic answer. You want to give specifics whenever possible. Maybe that’s saying, “I actually faced something similar, and I did X. Given the chance again, this is what I’d do differently.” Maybe it’s saying, “I know Job Corp values efficiency, so here’s how I’d improve that process.” Either way, you want the interviewer to know that you’re not answering questions in the void, you’re being thoughtful and describing how you would react in this particular job.
Common Situational Questions
Now that we’ve gone through some of the theory behind situational interview questions, let’s look at some common ones that you can use to frame your interview prep.
Q: Say you’re leading a team on a project that has a very strict deadline. It’s looking like you may miss that deadline. How do you handle that?
A: In a case like this, where the deadline might not be negotiable, I’d make sure there was a Plan B option in place, and make sure that communication is strong throughout the group to make sure everyone knows what that Plan B is if things don’t go according to plan. This is similar to a situation I faced in my current job, where a server failure meant that we wouldn’t be able to finalize a process on time. We ended up having to use a manual workaround to get the data in, and it took some epic overtime, but in the end we just made it. When a deadline is in jeopardy, you do what you need to do.
Q: You and your boss don’t get along, and you find that your everyday tasks are not getting done because of this ongoing conflict. How would you handle that?
A: In my experience, resolving conflicts before they blow up is one of the most important professional skills to have. I know how important it is to work with people of all different kinds of perspectives, so I’d try talking to my boss about our priorities, and about the best way to achieve them. I’d make sure to stay very neutral and professional, and try to open up a dialogue.
Q: You get an email from an angry client complaining about service. What would you do to defuse the situation?
A: First, I’d make sure I understand why the client is upset, and what the root cause of the problem is. If I need to do more digging, I’d be very apologetic and let him or her know that I am looking into the issue, and will keep him or her posted. I’d be very careful to keep that line of communication open, so that even if I can’t fix the problem right away, the client knows that I’m working on it and that this is a priority for me and the company.
See? There’s no magic to answering these. You just want to make sure that you have a clear answer that makes sense, and aligns with the brand you’re trying to convey in the interview. And although you can never tell exactly which (if any) situational questions you’ll get, you can start thinking ahead of time about what skills and priorities you want to emphasize in the interview.
You got this—happy hypothetical-ing!
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