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How to Answer 6 Common Situational Interview Questions

Tips for crafting the perfect answer

Woman in a job interview

During the interview process, you’ll certainly come up against situational questions.

Situational interview questions are about (sometimes) hypothetical situations candidates may face on the job. They’re designed to allow you to demonstrate your analytical and problem-solving skills rather than the hard skills the recruiter already knows you have. And because you can’t completely prepare ahead of time, you will show how quickly you can think on your feet.

Fortunately, however, there are a couple of methods you can use to answer situational interview questions; one of them is the STAR method. The acronym stands for situation, task, action, result. Address each point in your answer, and your responses will cover everything the hiring manager’s looking for.

We asked executive career coach and resume specialist Victoria Ipri, who is the CEO of Revamped Resumes, for examples of situational interview questions you’ll likely encounter.

What’s the difference between situational and behavioral questions?

Interviewers may conflate the terms “situational interview questions” and “behavioral interview questions,” so you may hear them interchanged. But there is a difference: situational questions are hypothetical and have a “what would you do if...” format, while behavioral questions are about your experience, and usually start with “what did you do when…”⁠. 

The different wording doesn’t seem like a big deal, but there’s a reason for the approach. Each is designed to bring out unique answers (values for situational and predictive actions for behavioral).

They’re similar in that both questions are looking for proof that you’ve got a positive, can-do attitude, that you’re a good team player and leader, and that you can accept criticism positively looking at mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow.

1. What would you do if you were asked to collaborate with a difficult coworker?

Your answer will allow the recruiter to assess your soft skills and understand how you’ll fit into the company culture and manage workplace stress. You can discuss your ability to empathize, negotiate, and lead others.

Here’s an example answer:

I would take the time to learn more about my coworker. For example, if I learned they were going through a difficult home situation, I could express empathy and perhaps relieve some stress by taking on the more deadline-driven and public-facing tasks. If it’s a case of simply refusing to collaborate or cooperate, I would document all tasks and who is responsible along with dates and details and share it with my coworker and loop in our manager. This way both of us are held accountable for the work.

2. If you were dissatisfied with your job, what could you do to make it more tolerable?

In this case, the hiring manager is looking for creativity (in terms of creating the hypothetical situation and your response to it) and positivity throughout. Recruiters ask these seemingly “dumb” questions because they want to measure your initiative.

Here’s an example answer:

Working in customer service, it’s easy to get fatigued when all you’re dealing with is customer complaints. And let’s be honest, that’s most of customer service. Staying on top of what customers are complaining about and why is key. The more you understand the root of their frustrations, the more quickly you solve the problem. 

I’d conduct interviews with some of our top customers, document their issues, and bring my findings to my manager. I imagine we’d then take it to product and work together on fixing the cause of the complaints. Then, I’d take those fixes back to the customer. That’s the enjoyable part of customer service—showing a customer how you listened and responded to make their experience better. 

3. How would you prioritize work from several different managers?

Your answer should demonstrate that you know how to strategically prioritize and take control of your workload so that nothing slips through the cracks. You’ll show the recruiter that you’re calm under pressure and have a logical way of working through problems. 

Here’s an example answer:

First I'd make a prioritized list of all my assignments, identifying those that are time-bound and those that will have the largest impact on the business. After prioritizing by urgency, I’d then decide which of the two most urgent to begin with: the shortest, to finish it as soon as possible; or the longest in order to clear it off my desk and make room for the rest. 

Once I’ve built a chart that shows when tasks/deliverables will be completed, then share this with all managers. That way, all stakeholders are clear on when they can expect their projects completed. 

4. How would you manage an assigned project in which you and your coworker have widely different opinions on how to proceed?

Career coach Clara Console, CEO of Choice Careers, provides us with her example answer to this situational question below.

She says clarifying the project goal is the first step to agreeing how to proceed. Recruiters will be looking for the ability to negotiate and compromise in order to ultimately agree on an approach, as well as the flexibility to review a decision and possibly change direction.

Here’s her example answer:

Assuming we are both professionals, and we don’t have major egos that could get in the way, I would discuss the project with my coworker and its goal to make sure we are in agreement of what the end goal is. Then I would suggest that we both offer our opinions as to how to proceed and why we think we should go in that direction. 

Do we have experience with this type of project? Assuming we are open to working it out, I would want us to review our histories with other projects to determine if either of us have managed similar projects before and assess how that worked out.

Depending on whose approach has more merit, proceeding should not be difficult. At this point, we need to make a decision since we have to start the work. We both should agree that if for whatever reason the first approach doesn’t work, then we should quickly try the other’s approach.

If, however, after starting the project we agree that it is not going as well as expected, we should quickly we should change direction, if that is an option.

5. Tell me about a time you went above and beyond. 

Wow them, but tell the truth. What you did to go above and beyond is not as important as why. The interviewer wants to know what motivates you

My boss asked me to improve our design process, but that really wasn't my strength. So, I spent two nights a week at the library, I found a free online course, I interviewed my coworkers and clients about our process. It took me longer than expected, but I did it. I built a plan, presented it to my boss, and we started using it. We made plenty of changes and improvements over the last year, learning as we went. I believe that everyone should be a lifelong student. I'm so proud of what I did—they still use my process today. 

6. Tell me about a time you failed.

Oh, no one likes to answer this one. The interviewer wants you to tell them about something that actually happened. The key to answering this situational question is this: It's more about the lesson you learned or how you remedied the situation than it is about the actual failure. 

Everyone has messed up. Royally. At work. Remember that. 

Here's one way to answer:

In my last position, I was assigned to lead the RFP process for a potential client. My boss took a big chance on assigning this to me since I was brand new to the company and the industry. What I should have done was ask for feedback from my coworkers and my boss before the first call with the client. But fear and pride got the best of me, and I didn't. I embarrassed myself because I wasn't able to answer basic questions. Lesson learned. Now I prep well in advance, and I prep hard.

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By Stephanie Olsen

Contributor

Stephanie Olsen is a freelance writer and copy editor. She writes about everything from women’s issues in the workplace and Ethiopian coffee culture to facilities management and expatriate life. Laughs uproariously at her own jokes.  

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