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Three types of job interview questions – and how to answer them

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If you’re preparing for a job interview, it’s important to plan for all eventualities – including all of the different types of job interview questions you might be asked.

So, to help you in your interview preparation, in this blog I’ll outline three different types of interview questions, why they’re asked and how you should answer them.

Situational, competency-based and behavioural questions – how to tell them apart

To keep things really simple to start with, below I break down the three types of interview questions you’re likely to encounter – and explain why they are asked. This is crucial to know, as you can then articulate your answers to address what your interviewer really want to know about you, including what you’ve achieved and how you respond under pressure.

Situational: To give you the opportunity to display your approach to a specific scenario and how you would handle it. The interviewer may ask for an example to demonstrate your previous approach to such a scenario.
Competency-based: To test how you have previously used the skills essential to the role you have applied for.
Behavioural: To assess your character – specifically how you have approached potentially challenging situations, in order to understand how you would do so again if you were to be hired.

It’s important to bear in mind that not all interview questions you’re asked will fall into these distinct three categories. There is often some overlap in the way questions are asked, and therefore the way you should answer – but the below examples will help you enter your next job interview with confidence, assured that you can answer the most common types of questions that will be directed your way.

1. Situational job interview questions

As I said above, situational interview questions are based on specific scenarios that could conceivably await you in the new role. They seek to deter you from simply providing pre-packaged, generalised, scripted statements about your skills and experience, to focusing on a given hypothetical situation and how you would handle it.

Situational interview questions can be difficult to answer, as you are required to think on the spot – which in itself is a skill the interviewer is testing you on. Answering these questions well can prove that you are willing to take the lead or ask for help, stay calm under pressure, and make positive choices that help you to overcome any situation you’ll be faced with in the job.

Before answering a situational question, take a moment to fully understand what it is you’re being asked. For example, is the interviewer looking for evidence of your time management skills? Do they want to find out how you manage conflict?

Example situational interview question #1: “You know that a colleague has made a mistake at work, but as far as you’re aware, only you have spotted it. What do you do?”

  • How to answer: One thing that your response definitely shouldn’t include – and this goes for any situational question – is any indication you would ‘pass the buck’ to someone else to attempt to absolve yourself of responsibility. Instead, you will be expected to show that you can take ownership of the situation, and find a solution calmly and productively.
  • Example of a good answer: If you have a real experience of this situation, draw on this. Otherwise, the following would work: “I would first assess the situation, making sure that I am correct in my judgement. Then, I would follow any internal protocols for handling the situation, such as contacting my boss directly, before taking it any further. Otherwise, I would calmly approach the subject with the individual and let them know what I think has happened, what the impact of the mistake could be, how it could be resolved, and what I could do to help. If the individual was certain that no mistake had been made, I would seek advice from a supervisor and raise my concern to them.” 


Typical situational interview question #2: “Describe a mistake you’ve made at work.”

  • How to answer: We’re all human, and as a candidate, the interviewer will expect you to be able to admit that you have made mistakes at certain times in the past. This isn’t a question designed to ‘catch you out’ – indeed, a refusal to admit to any past mistakes may leave the interviewer with the impression that you aren’t willing or able to learn from difficult situations. However, they will wish to see evidence of your capacity to reflect on and learn from errors for the future. As mentioned, try to think about why the interviewer is asking the question, and what information they are looking for in your answer.
  • Example of a good answer: “During my time as X at Y, I missed a major deadline due to poor communication with my colleagues. As soon as it became clear that the deadline would be missed, I contacted all of the stakeholders in the assignment to make clear that we were working hard to resolve the situation, and when they could expect the project to be completed by. We put in the additional hours needed to complete the assignment swiftly. I then set up a shared spreadsheet for all future projects that made deadlines clear and showed the status of each assignment at any given time. I’ve never missed a deadline since then.” 


For more information on how to handle questions that could involve you talking about mistakes, read this earlier blog on the subject. A useful piece of advice here is to reflect on a general oversight or error of judgement, as opposed to a mistake that led to more serious consequences.

2. Competency-based job interview questions

Competency-based questions are designed to test your specific skills and attributes. An interviewer who wants to know more about your technical skills, for instance, may ask how you used Microsoft Excel in a previous role. Alternatively, if it is your communication skills that they are looking to assess, they may ask you to cite an example of a time when you built up a strong professional rapport with someone. While these questions may often seem to be situational (we did warn you there’d be some overlap between the types of questions!), competency-based questions are far less likely to be hypothetical, and enable you to draw directly on real-life examples.

Again, as with situational job interview questions, before answering, you should take a moment to think about what the interviewer is really asking or looking for. 

Typical competency-based interview question #1: “Tell me about a time when you were required to use your creativity to solve a problem.”

  • How to answer: Creative people are able to think on their feet and devise solutions to problems that other members of their team may not have even thought of. The STAR technique will be useful in helping you to structure your answer here and tell a story.
  • Example of a good answer: “I worked at a HR firm where one client was struggling to determine the causes of its high level of employee turnover. My manager asked me to undertake some data analysis to identify any trends or patterns indicating the likely causes. I ultimately devised an anonymous staff questionnaire that employees were able to complete online. We discovered from this that staff were concerned about the company having inadequate provision for their training and development. Many respondents also felt that it was difficult to talk to management. The client used these findings to make changes that helped to reduce their employee turnover by a third over the next six months.” 


Typical competency-based interview question #2: “Tell me about a time when you supported a colleague who was struggling.”

  • How to answer: Following the STAR technique, your response should show that you have skills in teamwork and empathy and how you applied these in helping a team member in need – but also how this linked back to improved performance for the business, thereby benefitting its bottom line.
  • Example of a good answer: “A colleague who had only recently joined the team was having some difficulties with using reporting software. I offered to provide him with some ongoing training and support, and since then, he’s been using the software proficiently and helping our team to deliver brilliant results that have boosted company profits by a quarter in the last six months.” 


3. Behavioural job interview questions

Behavioural questions are asked to elicit information from you on how you would be likely to handle any of a range of real-world challenges based on your previous behaviour facing a similar circumstance. Whereas situational questions decipher how you would approach certain scenarios, and competency-based questions prove you have the skills required for the role, behavioural questions ascertain if you have the character traits the interviewer is looking for.

Such questions tend to be based on the principle that a candidate’s past behaviour is the best predictor of their future behaviour, and can touch on such aspects as your ability to work as part of a team, client-facing skills, adaptability, time management skills and more. 

Typical behavioural interview question #1: “Give me an example of something you tried in your job that didn’t work. How did you learn from it?”

  • How to answer: I touched on the importance of creativity and initiative above – but a vital part of being creative is realising that not all of your ideas will necessarily work. When the interviewer asks this question, they will therefore wish to see evidence of your willingness to learn from what did and didn’t work, while nonetheless learning from your experiences.
  • Example of a good answer: “Working in customer service for a community health club, we had the idea of offering one-off month-long memberships. However, not enough people who took up these memberships then purchased a longer-term membership for it to be cost-effective for the business. We therefore switched to making our shortest contracts six months long, and found that this did a better job of keeping the health club in profitability.” 


Typical behavioural interview question #2: “Tell me about a time you knew you were right, but still had to follow directions or guidelines.”

  • How to answer: The best response to this question is one that shows you are a responsible team player who – even if you disagree with a decision – nonetheless does what needs to be done, while remaining motivated and helping to keep colleagues motivated as well.
  • Example of a good answer: “The deadline for sign off on a whitepaper was looming, so I worked with my other team members to finalise and quantify the market research we’d agreed upon. I did have concerns, however, as to the relevance of the date range used in our research, and so raised this at a team meeting. We were able to make some good changes to the status quo to help to prevent the same situation arising again, and decided to conduct similar research in the future over a longer period of time, to ensure more effective results." 


By familiarising yourself with these common types of interview questions, you will be able to better position yourself as a candidate who can be depended on to deliver an instant impact and make the right decisions. You’ll be able to show your value at the interview stage to an extent that wouldn’t be possible through the obvious ‘templated’ interview answers alone.

 

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