How To Approach Questions in a Situational Job Interview

Updated Dec 21, 20226 min
How To Approach Questions in a Situational Job Interview

How To Approach Questions in a Situational Job Interview

Caroline BantonUpdated Dec 21, 20226 min
How To Approach Questions in a Situational Job Interview

We won’t lie, a situational interview is one of the most stressful situations a candidate can face during their job search. It requires coming up with answers to difficult challenges on the spot. The candidate must show recruiters that they have top-notch analytical and problem-solving skills. 

The good news is that it’s not that hard to come up with answers that show how valuable you are to a hiring company with adequate preparation and research.

This article will demystify the situational interview and, more importantly, explain how to prepare for it. We explain the difference between situational interview questions and behavioral interview questions, provide questions, template sample answers, and some tips so that you can prepare your own, unique answers.

What Is a Situational Interview?

A situational interview, like any interview technique, is one that attempts to determine whether a candidate is a good fit for a role. The situational interview does this by asking the candidate how they would behave in a hypothetical situation. 

The questions are designed to see the candidate's analytical and problem-solving skills because they are put on the spot and not given time to prepare an answer. 

Don’t let this put you off, but another term for a situational interview is a “stress interview.”

What Other Interview Types Are There?

There are many types of interviews; however, the situational interview is most similar to the behavioral interview. 

In a behavioral interview, the candidate is asked to describe a past experience and how they behaved or dealt with the situation. The theory behind the technique is that past behavior is the best indicator of future behavior. So, if you panicked when you faced a tight deadline and took no initiative to expedite a project such as prioritizing work, chances are you will do that again. 

To clarify, a situational interview question might begin with the words, “How would you react if...” whereas behavioral questions might begin with, “Tell me about a time when.”

Some other common types of interview are the following:

Traditional interview – this type of interview is usually conducted between the candidate and the hiring manager only. The questions will typically pertain to the experience and skills required for the role. A candidate facing a traditional interview should prepare by researching the company and the role.

Panel interview – in a panel interview, the candidate will be faced by more than one interviewer and each person will ask questions. It’s important that the candidate maintain eye contact with the person who is asking the questions.

Group interview - a company may interview multiple people at once. This is a competitive environment, so a good strategy is to listen to the response of others before coming up with your own, unique answer.

Phone interview – a phone interview is usually used as an early screening tool, or it could be a formal interview for a remote or non-remote position. It’s important to set your environment up well so that your equipment is working and you are not distracted by dogs, cats, roommates, or other visitors!

Video interview – see the phone interview. Employers use video interviews because they are convenient and avoid travel costs. They can also be reviewed later. It’s important to dress as you would for an in-person interview. Find a neutral backdrop without clutter so the interviewer can focus on your responses. Find a room with no noises or distractions, like dogs, cats, and roommates.

Off-site interview – these interviews are informational interviews and are conducted over lunch or coffee. They may seem less formal, but they should be treated like a formal interview. Dress professionally. When ordering food, choose something easy to eat. To be safe, order something similar to the interviewer.

Case interview – in a case interview, the interviewer will present a case to the candidate and ask them to analyze it and use their problem-solving skills. The case will likely be based on a real situation the company has faced in the past. Thoroughly read all the instructions to ensure you are on the right track as you analyze the problem.

The best approach to situational interviews is the same as that used for behavioral interviews. It’s called the STAR technique.

How to Answer Situational Questions—The STAR Technique

The STAR technique uses examples of past real-life events to showcase your skills. The technique lays out the context of the event and what you did, and why. So, if the interviewer poses a situational question that asks, “What would you do if...,” the STAR technique would describe a real event that corresponds to the interviewer’s hypothetical event.

STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result. First, explain the situation. Next, describe the task that you needed to do and the actions that you took. Lastly, describe the results of your efforts.

For more on the STAR technique, read “Answering Behavioral Interview Questions with the STAR Method

How to Prepare for a Situational Interview

Hold on! Before you can implement the STAR Technique, you need to know what type of scenarios your interviewer might pose to you. You also need to identify what specific skills and behavior your interviewer is hoping you will describe in response to those scenarios. You can’t predict the questions, but you can do some research to better understand the role and potential contexts you might face.

In addition to studying the job description, if you can, find someone within the firm who has knowledge about the role you are applying for and whose ear you can bend. Look on the company’s LinkedIn page for a possible contact, or ask HR if they could recommend someone you can talk to.

Once you have a better vision of your potential role in the new job, you can then think about what past similar situations you have experienced that would showcase your skills. This will help you to anticipate job interview questions and think how you will answer them.

Examples of Common Situational Interview Questions

Situational interview questions assess hard technical skills, like coding, and soft skills, such as communication, leadership, growth potential, and cultural fit. Your research into the company should tell you what characteristics and skills the interviewer wants to see. Then, you can incorporate these into your answers using the STAR technique

For more details on hard and soft skills, read “What's the Difference Between Hard Skills Vs. Soft Skills?”

Here are some sample questions and answers for questions that assess technical IT skills, for example, for a software engineer. The STAR method is used in each case.

What would you do if your coding for a product fails early tests?

Uh-oh! Here, you have to talk about a failure that you experienced. But that’s actually a great opportunity because you can show what you learned. Learning is the result of failure, so show the interviewer how it has made you a more valuable commodity.

Example Answer: I would go back to the earlier steps in the agile process and re-engineer from there. In my last job, I had a looming deadline for a project (Situation). I had to deliver some code (Task), and I thought I would go ahead with a stage without consulting with the rest of the team. I didn’t think it was a big deal. Well, because my assumption was wrong, the whole project was thrown off schedule. We went back five steps and reiterated (Action). I learned the importance of collaboration and that short cuts are not the way to go (Result).

How would you explain a new product’s makeup and features to management or a non-technical person? 

This question is asking how deep your technical knowledge goes in a reverse way. To answer it well, give an example of a product’s features and then explain how you dumb the tech down so that a less technical audience can understand it. Your answer will show your ability to understand the coding and explain the value of the product to the end-user.

Example Answer: I did a presentation for my management group of a new payments solution (Situation). I had to explain how it worked using a visual presentation but keep the technical parts to a minimum (Task). Instead of going into details of the technology, I compared the features of our solution to a competitor's to show why ours was better-suited for our clients and their industry (Action). The management group agreed unanimously that the solution I presented was worth developing once they could understand that it brought greater convenience and security for the customer and the company. (Result).

Here are some sample questions and answers for questions that assess soft skills

What would you do if a product you are leading falls behind schedule?

This question is assessing your project and time management skills. However, your answer can also emphasize your other soft skills like communication skills, problem-solving, and decision-making.

Example Answer: This is something I think every project manager faces. Our team had promised delivery of a product to a difficult client (Situation), but at the last moment we found a glitch that needed fixing (Task). We knew that there might be problems because the client was really under time constraints, which meant we could not do beta testing the way I would have liked. I immediately informed the client that we needed more time, but they were not willing to compromise on the deadline. I laid out all the options. (Action). Ultimately, because we had pre-warned them of the possibility of glitches at the outset, they agreed to pay for additional engineers so we could get the product fixed and to market in time. The result was customer satisfaction. (Result).

What would you do if you had conflicting opinions in your team about a product that is being considered for development? How would you handle that situation?

The interviewer is interested in seeing your approach to conflict-resolution, teamwork, and how you collaborate with team members. You can use this question to show your ability to listen to others and be open to new ideas when coming up with solutions. If you are interviewing for a management role, you could also demonstrate your leadership skills.

Example Answer: In my last job, we really needed new infrastructure to move forward with our product mandate (Situation). The legacy systems were really holding us back, but some of the engineers wanted to keep the legacy systems because they worked for their needs, so we needed a solution (Task). I called my co-workers together, and we brainstormed possible configurations that we had not yet really considered (Action). We managed to find a compromise that worked for everyone and could integrate the key functions that some of the engineers wanted to retain. We were able to move forward and bring new products to market in half the time (Result).

Final Tips for Situational Interviews

  • Prepare, prepare, prepare. Do research on the company and reach out to an employee.

  • Determine what skills the hiring manager is looking for in job seekers.

  • Use the STAR technique to show your application of those skills in the work environment for real past events.

Follow the advice in this article and do your due diligence regarding research and preparation. Anticipating situational types of interview questions is the best way to ensure a successful situational interview and not a disappointing, stressful one!

Caroline Banton
Expert on career acceleration and business topics with vast experience writing for globally-recognized publications

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