Updated 24 February 2020
Every company wants the reassurance that its employees are capable of managing the responsibilities of their job, and excelling even in challenging scenarios. Consequently, during your interview, you may be asked one or more situational questions, which will help your interviewer predict your future performance at work.
This article will explain what situational interview questions are, their purpose, the best way to answer them using the STAR technique, and five key questions for which you should prepare.
Situational interview questions, or hypothetical interview questions, ask you to put yourself into a speculative situation and explain what action you would take.
In many ways, they are similar to behavioral interview questions. The way they differ is that behavioral questions specifically ask you to describe a past situation that actually happened to you. For example, “Tell me about a time you demonstrated leadership.”
Situational interview questions, on the other hand, are always purely hypothetical. Although they also require you to refer to past experiences to describe the action and result. For example, “How would you react if a coworker asked you to cover for a mistake they made?”
Your interviewer is scoping out how you might react in actual workplace situations. Your answers to situational questions will predict your future workplace performance – and whether you are suitable to take on specific challenges posed by the job.
You are likely to encounter situational questions in any interview and at any job level. A well-rounded interview will include a mixture of traditional, behavioral and situational questions. Therefore, it is vital you prepare for all possibilities.
The ideal way to answer situational interview questions is to relate the interviewer’s hypothetical situation to a similar situation you've encountered in the past.
While the hypothetical situation will most likely be set in the workplace, your past situation can be in any context, such as work, school or volunteering.
Your goal is to demonstrate soft skills that would help you deal with the hypothetical workplace scenario and predict your future performance at work. Such skills could include:
The STAR technique is a helpful tool for structuring your answers to situational interview questions. The acronym works as follows:
S = Situation. Choose a situation which presents similar issues to the question at hand.
T = Task. What problems or challenges arose which required you to take action?
A = Action. What action did you take? What skills did you use and develop? Did you consider any alternative solutions?
R = Result. What was the result? What did you learn? What were the reactions of others around you?
Situation: “In my previous role as Personal Assistant, I was tasked with managing the Creative Director’s schedule.”
Task: “During a supervision meeting, the Director asked me to take more initiative in organizing her schedule to reduce her input.”
Action: “I took the criticism on board and made it my goal always to be one step ahead of the Director's schedule. Every evening, I reviewed her calendar for the following day, so I always knew exactly where she was supposed to be. I also focused on building relationships with other support staff, such as the Meeting Room Assistants, to make the process of organizing meetings fast and seamless.”
Result: “During my next supervision meeting, the Creative Director praised my organizational skills.”
Why this answer is good: The candidate described a situation and problem which related to the question, and showed how they used their skills to achieve a positive outcome.
Many job candidates assume that there is no point in trying to prepare for situational interview questions, since you cannot predict what situations you will be asked about. These candidates often resort to long, rambling stories which never quite answer the question.
You should prepare for situational interview questions using the STAR technique to ensure your answers are clear and concise.
You are not expected to memorize perfect answers to situational questions. The purpose of situational questions is to:
You will not impress the interviewer by regurgitating an over-practiced answer.
Before your interview, you should research the job and organisation, and take notes on the skills and qualities you think the company values – so you can tailor your answers accordingly.
Below are five popular situational questions you should prepare for before your interview:
Starting a new job often means a steep learning curve and a period of adjustment for the employee. Your interviewer wants to assess whether you have problem-solving skills and whether you can approach new tasks intelligently.
“In my previous position as Project Support Officer, I was often challenged with new projects requiring me to step outside of my comfort zone. Therefore, I developed a systematic approach to each new challenge. For example, if the project was overwhelmingly large, I would first break it down into manageable steps.
“I would undertake internet research and consultations with colleagues who had previous experience with the task. After I had completed each piece of work, I would always double-check it before handing it to my manager.
“My method means my work is always presented to the best of my ability, even if it is something I have never done before.”
Conflict resolution skills and the ability to work with people with different thoughts and opinions to your own are essential. You should refer to a time you and a co-worker disagreed, but make sure you were ultimately able to achieve a positive result.
“My goal is always to find a way of communicating which works for us both. This often involves compromise, but my outlook is, if the work gets done to the best of our abilities, we have succeeded.
“I recently faced this scenario in my current role as an IT technician. My co-worker took issue with the way I was handling a particular case. Therefore, I scheduled a meeting with the co-worker to discuss it.
“Although we both had different approaches to the case in question, we agreed that our end goal was the same – we wanted our client to receive a positive solution to their IT problem.
“Ultimately, the co-worker agreed my method was correct, but I accepted my co-worker also had good suggestions and I incorporated some into my work. I fixed the client’s issue without delay, and they thanked us for our support.”
This question also challenges you to demonstrate conflict resolution skills. Your interviewer wants to know how you cope with particularly stressful situations and whether you can empathize with others’ problems.
“First, I would stay calm and remember that every customer has a right to complain if they are dissatisfied with our service. I would aim to end the encounter on a positive note, by offering the customer a remedy or compromise that is within my power to make. I understand that, sometimes, a customer will not be satisfied with a compromise. In that situation, I would refer them to a line manager.
“I dealt with a similar situation while working as a Retail Assistant last summer. I sold a customer an item, which, unbeknownst to me, was faulty, and they later returned to the store with it. Unfortunately, we had run out of that particular item and this made the customer angry.
“I informed the customer that I could offer them a full refund, or I would be happy to help them find a similar product among our range. The customer viewed the alternatives and decided to exchange for a similar product. They left the store satisfied with the outcome.”
Your interviewer wants to know whether you are flexible, and whether you can manage a heavy workload intelligently and efficiently.
“I always approach my work methodically. In my current position as Administrative Assistant, I am often faced with clashing deadlines, so prioritizing my work is part of my day-to-day life.
"First, I write a list of all the tasks I need to complete. I note down their deadlines and which tasks are of most importance to the business.
“Where tasks are of equal importance, the one with the tightest deadline gets my immediate action. However, I review my workload regularly and re-evaluate my priorities if necessary. As a result, I rarely, if ever, miss deadlines or feel overwhelmed by my workload.”
A productive employee-manager relationship is built on cooperation and communication.
A good employee can prioritize their workload effectively, but they must also be able to recognize when their workload is too heavy, communicate this to their manager and make suggestions as to how to improve the situation.
“I would assess my workload, and if it appeared unmanageable, I would communicate with my manager and offer suggestions to make it manageable.
"For example, during my previous role as a Litigation Paralegal, I managed my own caseload assigned to me by my manager. One day, a co-worker received an urgent document request and my manager instructed me to assist with the work.
“I found myself working very long hours to maintain my caseload while also working on the document request. I arranged a meeting with my manager and said I was concerned about being unable to complete my work.
“I suggested that some of my more straightforward cases be temporarily reassigned to junior paralegals, enabling me to focus on the document request.
“My manager appreciated my honesty and my self-awareness, and he agreed to reassign some of my cases. I completed the document request on time, and my co-worker complimented me on my dedication.”
You should now be able to plan your own answers to key situational interview questions. Here is a summary of the key tips covered in this article to help you get started:
Finally, try not to over-rehearse your answers as, ultimately, your interviewer is looking for some spontaneity. The primary purpose of advance practice is to develop your ability to approach situational interview questions intelligently.
The more you practice, the easier it will be to come up with well structured answers on the spot.
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