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Graduates ask: what are situational interview questions

Jaymes Carr

Be prepared for your graduate job interview by understanding what situational interview questions are and knowing the best way to answer.

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.

What is a 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…’).  

Why are situational interview questions so common?

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:

  • Do you envisage yourself relying on your colleagues, or will you handle a situation independently?
  • Do you improvise in a sensible way or implement a standardized process (i.e. do you refer to the organisation’s internal protocol for dealing with a particular type of challenge, like data loss or customer dissatisfaction)?
  • How do you deal with the pressure of being put on the spot? Are you calm or do you panic?
  • Are you willing to ask for clarification if you don’t understand the situation you’re being asked to imagine?  

How can you prepare for situational interview questions?

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:

  1. How would you respond if you were asked to do something that you believed to be contrary to the goals of your team?
  2. Imagine that you’re leading a team. What would you do if one of your subordinate team members was failing to meet expectations?
  3. How would you handle feedback from a disappointed client? What if they called you on the phone and were angry or upset?
  4. How would you respond if you received criticism from a superior?
  5. 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?
  6. Imagine that you’ve been assigned to work alongside somebody with whom you don’t get along. How do you proceed?
  7. What strategy would you adopt if your team rejected an idea of yours, even though you know it to be better than the alternative approach?
  8. You're working on a critical project with an imminent deadline, but you can't complete it because you're waiting on overdue work from a colleague. What do you do?
  9. What process would you follow to make an important decision on the job?
  10. How would you respond if your client kept calling you at the last minute to request substantial changes to a key project?

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.

Answering situational interview questions

Step one: use soft skills to decode the situational question

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:

  • Clarity
  • Confidence
  • Respect
  • Empathy
  • Listening skills
  • Conflict management
  • Collaboration
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Persuasion
  • Negotiation
  • Integrity
  • Responsibility
  • Discipline
  • Initiative
  • Goal setting
  • Prioritisation
  • Attention to detail
  • Professionalism
  • Time management

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.

Step two: craft a strong response to the situational question

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:

  • ‘That’s a challenging situation, but I’ve always had a lot of confidence in my communication skills, and I think they’re what I’d need most.’
  • ‘I always listen carefully to constructive feedback because I believe it’s one of the best ways for me to learn from people who have more experience than I do.’
  • ‘The first thing I would do is ask for more information—in a situation like that, I think it’s really important to pay attention to the details before figuring out my next move.’
  • ‘I endeavour not to disappoint clients, but, should it occur, I’d take responsibility and aim to learn as much from the experience so that I can provide a better service in the future.’

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:

  • Question: How would you respond if you were asked to do something that you believed to be contrary to the goals of your team?
  • Answer: ‘That’s a challenging situation, but I’ve always had a lot of confidence in my communication skills, and I think they’re what I’d need most. First, I’d seek to understand the reasons behind the instructions. I’d also share my reservations in an open manner while listening carefully to my supervisor’s explanation. It could well be that I’ve missed something, and, in that case, I’d welcome the opportunity to learn a new approach.
  • If I still had misgivings after hearing my supervisor’s explanation, I’d set them aside for the sake of team cohesion and treat it as a learning experience. I’d only continue to challenge the instructions if I believed them to pose a risk to the safety or health of me or my colleagues.’
  • 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?
  • Answer: ‘The first thing I would do is seek out confirmation of the mistake and its magnitude—in a situation like that, I think it’s really important to pay attention to the details before figuring out my next move. I would, of course, communicate openly with a supervisor, but I think we could have a more constructive conversation if I first took the initiative to determine the scope of the problem: have I made a mistake that can be fixed easily, or will it require me to reconsider various other parts of the project? Once I’ve figured this out, I’ll be in a better position to take responsibility, focus on prioritising the aspects of the project that need to be fixed first, and then work hard at correcting them. It would also be important to notify the client as soon as possible of any delays so that they can adjust their timelines accordingly.’

Practice, practice, practice

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.