Congratulations on being invited to participate in an interview! Now it’s incumbent upon you, as an ambitious and well-prepared graduate, to consider the types of questions you might get asked, and how to answer them in a way that will impress your potential employers and bolster the strength of your application. In this article, we will focus on one of the most common interview techniques: the situational interview question.
Whereas technical questions focus on your skills and knowledge, and behavioural questions on your past experiences, situational interview questions deal primarily with hypothetical scenarios that may arise while performing the duties inherent to a particular role. In other words, all situational questions are a variation on ‘what would you do/how would you respond if [insert relevant event] occurred?’ (By contrast, behavioural questions tend to be phrased in the past tense: ‘Tell us about a time when you were required to…’).
Employers love situational interview questions because they force you to think on your feet and provide a real-time example of your problem-solving abilities, understanding of the role, and communication skills (i.e. can you clearly explain what you would do?). The specific content of a situational interview question may also be intended to gauge your working style: employers will search your response for clues to the questions they don’t ask. These include:
Reading the list above, it may sound as if situational interview questions put you at a huge disadvantage: how are you supposed to prepare an answer for an unpredictable question? And how are you supposed to know the best way to handle a hypothetical situation given that many different responses might be available? Don’t worry—it is possible to prepare in a way that will allow you to knock situational questions out of the park.
To begin with, let’s look at ten short examples of typical situational questions that might arise during interviews for a variety of different roles:
Tough, huh? In each of the above questions, you’re being asked to place yourself in a difficult situation that even most seasoned professionals would prefer to avoid. But that’s not the only thing they have in common: they are all designed to evaluate similar skills, such as interpersonal skills, communication, leadership, initiative, and your ability to manage unexpected responsibilities. Collectively, such attributes are known as ‘soft skills’, and what employers really want to know is which soft skills you have, and how ready you are to put them to use.
Before jumping into the details of this technique, it can be helpful to review some of the more common soft skills that employers could be hoping to identify in successful candidates. A non-exhaustive list might include:
Before attending your interview, you should review this list and also consider which other soft skills could be important in the specific role you’re hoping to fill. You’ll then be in a position to assess situational questions for clues as to what your response should emphasise.
Let’s consider an example from the start of this article. Here’s the situational question, ‘How would you respond if you were asked to do something that you knew was contrary to the goals of your team?’
The soft skill interpretation might read, ‘Do you have conflict management skills? Are you good at listening to others, and willing to attempt to persuade them in a professional manner when disagreements arise?’
Another situational question, ‘What would you do if you were nearing the completion of an important project with a tight deadline, and then realised that you’d made a fundamental error?’
And now, the soft skill interpretation, ‘Do you take responsibility for your mistakes and show initiative when addressing them? Are you skilled at communication even when it means having a difficult conversation? Will you show initiative in correcting your mistake, and prioritise the most important things first?’
As you can see, it’s much easier to imagine an answer to the implicit question than it is to become stuck in the minor details of a specific situation (though these shouldn’t, of course, be ignored). So, consider what skills your situational question is designed to evaluate, then proceed to step two.
It’s important to emphasise that you understand the issues that really concern your prospective employer—and this is much easier to do if you’ve followed the advice in step one. You can then start your response with a phrase that identifies the soft skill you’ll need most to address the situation. For example:
After identifying the key skills you’ll need, provide one or two specific examples of how you’d put them into practice. Conclude your answer by highlighting what you’d expect to learn from the situation, and how that might help you deal with similar challenges going forward.
We can now review a few complete answers:
The above approach to situational interview questions is adaptable enough to help you address even the most disorienting interview curveballs. However, knowing the right technique isn’t particularly advantageous if you haven’t given yourself a chance to put it into practice. Thus, our final piece of advice is that you partner up with a trusted friend or colleague and, together, come up with possible situational questions for your upcoming interview: you can then ask your partner to conduct a mock interview, which will give you an opportunity to prove, to yourself, that you’ve got what it takes to pass the real interview with flying colours.
For more interview tips and insider advice, visit our interview advice page at GradAustralia.