The idea of situational interview questions might be intimidating, but they’re actually a blessing in disguise. Far from being just an opportunity to “humblebrag,” situational interview questions provide a unique chance to explain your background and experience using real-life situations. They can also highlight your arsenal of “soft skills,” which are vital to job performance but sometimes hard to quantify. It’s easy to say, “I’m a team player,” but it’s much more effective to give an example of a time you demonstrated how you were a team player. As the old writing adage goes, “show, don’t tell.” Situational interview questions are an opportunity to do just that.
In this article, we’ll discuss the ins and outs of situational interview questions, including:
What is a situational interview question?
The difference between a situational and behavioral interview question
How to prepare for situational interview questions using the STAR method
15 situational interview questions (with sample answers)
So what is a situational interview question, anyway?
Situational interview questions are designed to gauge how you respond to real-life scenarios. They are generally hypothetical in nature and are an opportunity for the hiring manager to gauge your critical thinking skills, assess your ability to think on your feet, and compare you to other candidates.
These questions are easy to spot because they begin with phrases like:
What would you do if…
How would you respond if…
How would you handle…
Basically, the interviewer will start the hypothetical interview question by explaining a scenario and follow up by asking you to describe how you would deal with it.
The difference between a behavioral and situational interview question
Keep in mind that there’s a slight difference between situational interview questions and behavioral interview questions. While behavioral questions rely on your first-hand, practical experience, situational questions are all about how you’d react to future situations, even if you’ve never experienced them before. They’re often used interchangeably but there is a difference in phrasing:
Situational interview question: How would you talk to a coworker who regularly failed to finish their work on time?
Behavioral interview question: Give me an example of a time when you had to talk to a coworker who didn’t finish their work on time.
Even though they're both asking the same thing, the situational interview question is posed as more hypothetical, whereas the behavioral question asks you for a specific past example. However, you can still utilize your past experience in situational questions, and indeed, you should. You can frame your answer as, “In the past, I’ve needed to [fill in an answer] which means in this situation I would [solution].” This highlights your skills and provides a strong resolution to their hypothetical situation.
- Be yourself. Hiring managers can tell when you’re being inauthentic.
- Remember to breathe. Interviews are stressful! Be aware of your pacing and your tone of voice.
- Use your personal experiences. The questions might be hypothetical, but if you have a past experience that aligns with the questions, don’t be afraid to use it.
- Ramble. It’s easy to get off-track, so make sure you’re keeping your answer relevant and concise.
- Be ambiguous. While you can take a moment to collect your thoughts, stay focused and be specific in your answer.
- Use rude or disrespectful language. Even if you're talking about dealing with an irate client or a "toxic" co-worker, keep it G-rated; otherwise, you'll come off as unprofessional.
How to answer situational interview questions using the STAR method.
While you won’t know exactly what questions you’ll be asked during an interview, you can still utilize the STAR method to formulate your answer. While doing your interview prep, take some time to think about problems you’ve overcome in the past, then break them down using the STAR method.
As a reminder, STAR stands for
Situation: Describe the situation you experienced, along with relevant details.
Task: What was your role in the situation?
Action: Show how you overcame the obstacle or dealt with the situation.
Result: What was the outcome of your actions?
Using this format while formulating your responses will help you avoid getting off track and keep your story relevant and engaging.
Some things to remember when crafting your interview answers:
Keep it real. Just because it’s a hypothetical situation, your answer doesn't have to be off the wall. If you've actually encountered a situation like the one you're being asked about, work it into your story. Open with "I dealt with something like that at my job with [Company name]…” then use the STAR method to finish your answer.
Don't sweat the small stuff. Details are important but don't get bogged down with them. And don't ask for any clarifying details — remember, this situation is totally made up!
Take your time. Instead of hemming and hawing trying to piece together a coherent response, ask to take a moment to think about it. This shows you’re taking the question seriously and that you want to give the best answer you can.
In his essay “The Science of Storytelling: What Listening to a Story Does to Our Brains”, Leo Widrich noted that when we hear a story, "not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are, too." Instead of just going through a list of verbal bullet points, when we tell a story, the listener (in this case, the hiring manager) is more likely to have a clearer idea of what the speaker (you) intended to convey.
15 Examples of situational interview questions with sample answers
While it’s impossible to anticipate every single question you’ll be asked in an interview, here are 15 examples of situational interview questions with sample answers.
1. What would you do if your supervisor asked you to carry out a task you've never done before?
"In my previous job as a digital strategist, my boss asked me to create and release an online brand campaign, which was something I'd never been previously responsible for. But my boss said she had faith in my abilities, so I casually interviewed a few colleagues who had overseen previous campaigns and studied previous launches. Then I was able to successfully complete the project. The campaign increased our client's revenue by 15% and I was promoted to senior digital strategist.”
2. What would you do if you made a mistake that no one noticed?
"I believe it’s important to take responsibility for your work and to learn from your mistakes. When I worked as a bartender in graduate school, a customer asked for a rum and diet coke and I accidentally made their drink using regular coke. They might never have noticed, but I felt that it might somehow leave a negative impression of our establishment. I immediately informed the customer, apologized, and remade her drink. The customer appreciated it and left a nice comment about me on Yelp. Going forward, I took extra care to get the orders exactly as the customer wanted them."
3. How would you handle being confronted by an irate customer? How would you settle their issue?
“When I worked as the office manager for a computer repair store, I fielded a call from a customer who was upset that his computer wasn’t fixed yet. Believe me, he was really mad. I made sure to listen to the customer, noted his complaint, and expressed empathy. I wrote down his contact information and told him I would get to the bottom of the problem. I talked to the technician assigned to this work ticket and found out that the computer’s issues were more complicated than he anticipated. I made sure he backed up the documents on the computer, got a resolution date, and contacted the customer. I explained the situation and then offered him a discount on the cost of the repair. The customer appreciated that I went the extra mile for him, and left us a good review on several websites.”
4. How would you handle failure in your work?
"When I was a sales manager, I wanted to impress a client and provided them with an unrealistic due date for a project. It turned out my team didn't have the resources to finish the project by the closing date. I'd assured the client we could meet and lost that client. I knew I was responsible, so I contacted the client and took full responsibility, and fortunately, they re-signed with us. This experience taught me the importance of setting realistic goals and never promising more than I was able to provide."
5. What professional achievement are you most proud of and how did you accomplish it?
"In my previous role as a security guard, I found a gap in the security network. Rather than just filing a complaint, I looked into the maintenance logs and discovered a computer virus had recently integrated itself into the camera system and shut down several security cameras. I informed the IT team as well as the security staff. We quickly neutralized the corrupted files and brought the cameras back online, which would prevent millions of dollars in potential theft. That incident awakened an interest in thwarting cybercrime and inspired me to go back to school and get computer training to become a cyber security specialist.”
6. “What does “going above and beyond” mean to you in the workplace?
“In my last position as a building manager with Property Company, I’d taken a few PTO days because it was my niece’s first birthday and the family was in town. On the day of the party, my sister asked me to fill in for the fairy princess they’d hired who had to cancel. Two hours before the party, I got a call from a couple who were relocating and needed to rent an apartment – a penthouse. Their schedule only let them be in town for the day and wanted to look at the apartment before they had to return home. This was a great opportunity so I agreed to do the showing... dressed as a fairy princess! I cut it close, but I made it back to the party on time AND rented the apartment to the client.”
7. How would you handle a stressful situation?
“When I was working as an office assistant for Company Y, the CFO’s executive assistant quit without notice. I was asked to cover the desk until they could hire a new assistant, so in addition to my regular duties I was doing many other tasks as well. I was taking calls for the CFO, scheduling the meeting rooms, coordinating lunch meetings, and so on. It was a lot, but I was proud of myself for handling it all. This went on for two weeks, longer than expected. The CFO was very pleased with the job I had done, and she offered the executive assistant job to me, which I gladly accepted.”
8. How would you handle dealing with a difficult co-worker?
“In my role as a copywriter, I worked with a graphic designer who was frequently called out from work. This made it more difficult to get our projects done by the deadline. I could have just wallowed in my irritations, but instead, I had a talk with him. It turned out he was caring for his father, who was quite ill. We sat down together to figure out how to adjust our workflow and deadlines to make sure he had plenty of time to prepare for future assignments, which made it easier for him to better organize his schedule. Once we worked out the kinks, we improved our interoffice communication and, going forward, we were able to complete our work an average of two days before the actual deadlines. Both the client and our director were quite pleased.”
9. What would you do if you discovered that one of your co-workers was doing something unethical?
“That would depend, in part, on how bad their violation was. However, I would still make sure to keep a record of their unethical behavior, so it was documented in writing. If the problem was easily fixable, such as taking too much time for lunch, I would have a private chat with them — maybe they didn’t know we only get one hour for lunch. If they didn’t change their behavior, I’d make sure to inform my supervisor or someone in Human Resources. But if I thought that my co-worker's action was particularly grievous, I would go straight to HR and alert them about what was happening.”
10. How would you respond if you knew that the instructions provided by your manager were incorrect?
“I’ve been fortunate to work with some great managers, but people make mistakes from time to time. I would first do the research and make sure the directions are indeed incorrect. If so, I'd have a one-on-one with my boss and point out the error and provide a backup for my belief. I believe in "having someone's back" and I know I'd appreciate the heads-up if I had made an error.”
11. How would you react if you were presented with constructive criticism you disagreed with?
“Actually, this has happened to me before. In my last performance review, my manager documented that I lacked enthusiasm for the job, even though I consistently met — and often exceeded — my call numbers. I'll admit I was taken aback for a second, but then after the meeting, I collected documentation of the times I had not only met and exceeded my goals but helped other teams meet theirs. I asked for another meeting and shared the documentation with my boss. He said he didn't mean to imply that I was slacking off, just that he'd like me to take on new and different projects from time to time. I'm glad I didn't just simmer but was able to get clarification, and after taking his advice, I got a promotion.”
12. What would you do if you were almost done with a project, and then found out that the project’s parameters had changed and you needed to do over your work?
“Having to do work over can be frustrating, but these things happen from time to time. I would pause all work until I could get more clarification about the new goals, then ask relevant questions to make sure I was clear on the changes, and then get started on the re-do right away. I would also make sure to clear the lines of communication from then on to try to avoid future last-minute disruptions.”
13. What would you do if a client contacted you with a complaint?
“Customer satisfaction is always a top priority, and I've learned not to take their complaints personally. I make sure to truly listen to the client to figure out what the issue really is. I stay calm and collected. To ensure I understand what they're saying, I paraphrase what they've said to me and make sure the client feels I understand the issue. Then I start on a plan of action. And I make sure to always remain polite and professional.”
14. How do you make important decisions?
“I like to make sure I have all the necessary information at hand, then figure out how much time I have to make the decision. But sometimes you aren't able to get all the information before a decision has to be made. When that happens, I balance the information needed against the time allotted. Then, I figure out the potential results and decide which one works best. I’m also careful to make sure I’m making the most favorable decision for my teammates and the company at large, utilizing the best information I have at the time.”
15. How do you organize and plan your work? What steps do you usually take?
“Over time, organizing and prioritizing have become part of my daily routine. I identify my goals, and what steps I need to take to reach them, as well as estimate how much time it will take. Then I create a to-do list, putting items in order of priority. Larger tasks are broken down into smaller tasks so that I can complete them daily. Before I go home for the day, I make sure my desk is clean so that I can start right away in the morning without shuffling papers around.”
One last thought on answering situational questions
Essentially, situational interview questions require you to picture yourself doing the job. They allow you to share your experience from previous positions while highlighting your soft skills. And don’t forget to have a little fun with your answers. As long as you stay professional, you'll leave a positive impression on the hiring manager and give yourself the best possible chance of getting the job.
Situational interview questions provide a unique way to talk about your background and experience using real-life situations.
Situational interview questions are designed to gauge how you respond to real-life professional situations.
Using the STAR method to formulate your answers will help you avoid getting off track and keep your story relevant and engaging.