A big part of any job search includes preparing for the interview. And while you can prepare for common interview questions (“Tell me about yourself”), you should also prepare for situational interview questions.
Unlike “hard” questions (“If you could be any kind of tree…”), situational interview questions are designed to give the interviewer more information about you. And they’re an excellent opportunity to sell yourself to the interviewer. Here’s what you need to know.
What Are Situational Interview Questions?
Situational interview questions, also known as behavioral interview questions, are nontechnical questions all about you! Specifically, these questions probe how you have handled or might handle a situation you’ll encounter on the job. Often, these questions start with:
- Tell me about a time when…
- Have you ever…
- How do you deal with…
- What do you do when…
When you hear these phrases, you know a situational question is coming next.
Why Do Employers Ask These?
It might seem a bit odd to ask these kinds of questions. For example, if a hiring manager asks, “How do you deal with angry customers?” it’s unlikely you’ll say, “By throwing them out of the store” or “Hanging up on them.”
However, there are two reasons why employers ask situational interview questions. First, past behavior is often a good indicator of future behavior. Asking how you’ve handled a past situation gives the employer a better idea of how you’ll probably behave while working for them.
Second, situational interview questions are also a great way for the hiring manager to see if you have the specific skills or traits they’re looking for in applicants. Using the above example, you might focus your answer on your conflict-resolution skills and talk about how you listened to the customer to better understand their concern, then worked with them to find an agreeable solution.
How Do I Answer Situational Interview Questions?
Situational interview questions are a fantastic opportunity for you to tell a detailed (but brief!) story that illustrates your skills and can help the employer understand why they should hire you over the other candidates.
One of the best ways to answer these questions is to use the STAR method. STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result. Using this method can help you not only explain which skills you possess but how you would put them to use on the job.
In brief, you explain:
- The Situation you faced
- The Task you needed to accomplish
- The Action (or actions) you took to complete your task
- The Result your action had and what that meant for the company
Situational Interview Questions and Answers
So, what does all of this look like in action? We spoke to the career coaching team at FlexJobs to get their expert insights into why employers ask these questions and how to answer them.
Tell me about a time when you disagreed with a coworker or manager. How did you handle it?
What the employer is trying to find out: Toni Frana says, “An employer is trying to understand your communication style, particularly in a potentially awkward or difficult situation.” And as Tracy Capozzoli points out, “The employer is trying to ascertain your ability to build and nurture relationships using communication and problem-solving skills.”
Answer: “A coworker and I were working on a presentation and had a hard time agreeing on what information was best to share. It was important that I understood exactly where my coworker was coming from, so I asked a few clarifying questions. From there, we were able to reevaluate the objectives of the presentation and reports we both felt were essential to include. The result was a highly successful presentation. The leadership team thanked us for providing detailed and accurate information, allowing them to make more informed decisions about critical organizational objectives.”
Tell me about a time you failed at work.
What the employer is trying to find out: Frana says that the employer is not trying to learn about your failures. Rather, “they are trying to see what you learned from an experience where you failed.” She advises job seekers to highlight what they learned and what they would do differently when faced with a similar situation.
Answer: “I was responsible for [X] project. While the team worked well together, we encountered several unexpected obstacles, including [Y and Z]. As a result, we missed some deadlines [or missed this goal]. Even though we didn’t have the outcome we hoped for, we debriefed and reflected on what happened. The team then put processes and procedures in place [include an example] to ensure something like that didn’t happen again.”
How would you approach a task you’ve never done before?
What the employer is trying to find out: The employer is trying to understand how you face the unknown. There may be times you’re assigned a task you don’t understand. Do you ask for help or go it alone? What’s your game plan for difficult tasks?
Answer: “First, I would evaluate why this task is important and what overall purpose it serves. Then, I would do some research to identify who I might need to speak with, including people who have done this task or might have the skills to help me. I would also do some independent research into how to do it. Lastly, if I felt stuck, I would reach out to my manager to clarify any lingering questions. Once I completed the task, I would try to gain feedback about my performance, so I could know what to improve in the future.”
How do you deal with conflicting deadlines from different managers?
What the employer is trying to find out: Keith Spencer says that the employer is trying to figure out how you manage multiple priorities at the same time. So, talk about how you prioritize tasks and block off time to work on them.
Answer: “First, I examine all the assigned tasks and estimate how much time it might take to complete each. I also examine how important the task might be. For example, if the CEO wants something by tomorrow, that’s pretty important! Then, I’ll look at due dates and work backward on my calendar to see how much time I’ll have each day for each task and block off that time to devote to the task. Finally, if I see there are conflicts or just too much to do, I’ll talk to my manager and see if any of the deadlines are flexible or ask if there’s anyone who can help me out.”
Tell Me About…
Situational interview questions seem difficult—at first! But once you understand why the interviewer is asking it, you’ll be able to formulate an answer that demonstrates you’ve got the right skills and experience for the role!
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