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How to answer situational interview questions

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One of the main types of interview you might encounter when applying for a new job are situational interviews. These interviews use questions based on specific scenarios that could conceivably be part of your new role. They seek to deter you from providing pre-packaged, scripted statements about your skills and experience, to instead focusing on a given hypothetical situation and how you would handle it.

Situational interview questions can be tricky to answer, as you are required to think on the spot – which in itself is a skill the interviewer is testing you on. However being able to answer these questions well can prove that you are able to stay calm under pressure, and make positive choices that help you to overcome any situation that you may be faced with in the job.

If this type of question comes up in an interview, before jumping into a response take a moment to fully understand what it is you’re being asked & what skills the interviewer is trying to determine. For example, is the interviewer looking for evidence of your time management skills? Do they want to find out how you manage conflict?

Below are some example situational type questions and guidance on how to answer them to help with your upcoming interview prep.

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. If you have a real experience of this situation make sure you draw on this and include this in your answer. If however you don’t take a moment to think on how you can structure your answer to show the steps you’d take and the outcome you are driving to achieve

An example answer would be: “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 use this questions to show that you are able to admit that you have made mistakes but that you are proactive in solving problems. This isn’t a question designed to ‘catch you out’ – but, 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 how you 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. Here try to refer to genuine experience. Clearly structure the answer to give an overview of the situation, the steps you took to resolve this and, importantly the actions you took afterwards to ensure the same mistake wouldn’t repeated.

An example would be: “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.”

Although situational questions may seem daunting they are a great way for you to really showcase how you utilise your skills. Before your interview think of some key scenarios from your career that you can have front of mind at the interview so you can draw directly from these experiences to answer questions with confidence.

If you are looking for further advice on interview preparation and job hunting take a look at more career advice here

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