Here's how to answer challenging situational interview questions.

When preparing for a job interview, it's important to understand there are various types of interviews, including the situational interview. Since this is a common style of interviewing, it's very likely the hiring managers will ask you at least one or two situational interview questions.

In this guide to situational job interviews, you'll learn exactly what a situational interview entails, how to prepare for one, and some common situational interview questions with sample answers.

What are situational interview questions?

If you have an upcoming job interview, congratulations! You overcame a huge hurdle by snagging the hiring department's attention. Now, it's time to prepare.

Everything about a situational interview is similar to a traditional job interview. You're in a room with an interviewer – or interacting with an interviewer through video. The only difference is the types of competency interview questions you're asked.

Most professionals would agree situational interviews are equivalent to behavioral interviews, with interviewers using situational questions to gain a better understanding of who you are and how you handle various situations in the workplace. At the core of each question, they want to get a glimpse at how you manage stress, collaborate with team members, juggle multiple projects, as well as your problem solving skills, communication skills, and more.

The formula to answering situational interview questions

The best way to prepare for situational questions is to make a list of several specific challenges or obstacles you've faced in the workplace, as well as your greatest accomplishments. Then, using the STAR method, outline the situation, task, action, and result of each situation.

Here's a breakdown of what that will look like:

  • Situation: Think about a professional challenge you've faced, which could include overcoming a workflow hurdle, building a team, managing several projects, or communicating with a difficult co-worker or client. Just give the interviewer a general overview of the situation.

  • Task: Address the role you took in the situation. How did you handle it? What responsibilities did you own?

  • Action: Think about what action(s) you took to overcome the challenge. This is the perfect opportunity to highlight some of your skills, such as problem solving skills and communication skills, so think specifically about the hard and soft skills you utilized.

  • Result: What was the outcome? You'll want to tie this situation up with a nice bow. To make sure your answer to the hiring managers is as strong as possible, think about quantitative results and highlight those numbers. Did you increase output by 20 percent? Secure another $20,000 partnership? The more specific and concrete you can get, the better.

How do you choose which situational interview questions to prepare for?

Obviously, you won't know exactly which situational interview questions you'll be asked ahead of time. However, there are some ways you can gain insight into what you might be asked. 

The goal is to think like the hiring manager. What types of questions might they ask based on the challenges one could face in the role? 

A great starting point is to refer to the job description and note any keywords and key job responsibilities that stand out. For example, if conflict resolution or problem-solving are specifically mentioned in the description, think back to situations where you had to apply those skills with a successful outcome. Or, for a particular responsibility listed, what are some situations or obstacles that could arise, and how would you handle them?

Once you come up with a handful of situations, you can use the STAR method to develop your answers. And the good news is, you'll find you can often tweak your answers to address various situations, like the ones mentioned in the following questions. 

Common situational interview questions and answers

To help you prepare for the situational interview even more, here are some common situational interview questions – plus examples of ways you could answer them.

1. “Tell me about a time you had to work alongside a difficult co-worker”

By asking this question, the hiring manager wants to see how you work with others. They also want to know you can resolve conflict on your own, when possible.

Example answer: In my role as a marketing assistant, I worked with a copywriter who was frequently absent from work. This made completing assignments on time difficult. 

Instead of dwelling on my frustration, I had a conversation with her. I found out she was caring for her mother, who was sick. We worked together to adjust our workflow and shift deadlines to ensure she had plenty of notice for upcoming assignments, making it easier for her to work ahead and prioritize. 

Once we were on the same page, we were able to communicate better, and we even started meeting our deadlines an average of two days early! Our manager was thrilled.

2. “Describe a time when you failed. How did you overcome this?”

This can feel like a jarring question; after all, you're being asked to expose a weakness. However, use this as an opportunity to highlight the skills and experience you used to bounce back from this failure. 

Expert tip: Don't dwell on the failure part of the question too much; instead, focus on the positive outcome.

Example answer: As a content manager, I was responsible for overseeing the team's editorial calendar, keeping tabs on deadlines, and posting new articles to the website. One time, I accidentally made a mistake and let a sponsored post written for one of our largest clients slip through the cracks, and I missed the deadline to get it on our website. 

I realized my mistake the next morning, and I immediately took the steps I needed to remedy it. I posted the story as quickly as possible, and I took ownership and apologized directly to the client. 

After that, I suggested we refine our workflow, so this wouldn't happen again. I pinpointed weaknesses in the process and found ways to fix them. With the improvements we made, we hit every deadline 100 percent of the time after that!

3. “You're assigned a task you don't know how to complete. What do you do?”

With this question, an interviewer wants to gauge your ability to work independently, problem-solve, and take initiative.

Example answer: When I started my job as a data analyst at AB Co-op, I was the first person who ever held this position. I didn't have many training documents, and I didn't have concrete direction from management. 

Instead of waiting for someone to tell me what to do, I immediately began sitting in on various team meetings so I could get a better understanding of the company's product, sales,  and marketing strategy. I asked team members what type of data they needed, and I helped them understand how they could benefit from using data. 

With these insights, I took this as an opportunity to apply my 10 years of experience with other companies and developed a plan of action. It took a few months to really settle in, but with the insights I provided the team, we increased our sales 90 percent the first quarter I was there.

4. “Tell me about a time you made a mistake and no one noticed. What did you do?”

With this question, an interviewer is looking for your level of integrity and trustworthiness, as well as your ability to problem-solve and handle stress.

Example answer: One time early in my career as an HR Advisor, I was responsible for developing monthly presentations for my manager, which were then shared with the senior leadership team during their monthly meetings. 

The presentation covered a lot of data that focused on employee headcount numbers, including new hires, retention, attrition, and years of service. To create the presentations, I ran reports from our HRIS. One month, I inadvertently ran the reports for the wrong date range, which I didn't realize until I ran the reports for the following month. 

Honestly, the numbers hadn't changed significantly month over month for the previous three months, so I could've gotten away with not saying anything, though that would not have sat well with me. Instead, I went to my manager and let her know about the error. 

She appreciated my honesty and requested I update the reports so she could present both the updated previous report and the current report at the next monthly leadership meeting. 

I learned that I needed to take my time and double-check my work to avoid a similar mistake happening in the future. Fortunately, from that point forward, I didn't make that kind of mistake ever again! 

5. “Tell me about a time you felt overwhelmed at work. What did you do to handle it?”

Your response to this type of question will provide insights into your level of self-awareness, integrity, and honesty, as well as your ability to manage stress, problem-solve, and request help when needed.

Example answer: There was this one time about five years into my career as a Business Analyst where I had a lot on my plate and was feeling challenged to keep up with it all. Part of the challenge was that I had a coworker that had to be out unexpectedly for leave, and he was out for about three to four weeks. 

I had agreed to take on part of his work to support the team until he could return. At the same time, I had two high-priority projects to complete within a month of when he went out – one was focused on managing the data migration to a new reporting system, and the other one was updating our data reporting parameters for over 100,000 pieces of data and more than 50 reports spread across our eight departments. That was all on top of my typical day-to-day tasks.  

I pushed myself a lot during that period and was working around 60 hours or more a week. I started to quickly wear down, and though I managed to stay on top of the projects, I could tell that my day-to-day tasks simply weren't getting the attention they needed. For example, I was responsible for regular communications with stakeholders, and I started lagging behind and missing deadlines to get them out, as well as missing important details when I did send them out. 

To handle the situation and improve, I did a few things. One, I went to my manager and shared what I was experiencing and asked her to support me in prioritizing my tasks in conjunction with my coworker's tasks that I'd taken on, which was super helpful. We identified the tasks that were priority based on priority level and also identified the items that could wait until my coworker returned. 

I also made some lifestyle shifts to reduce my stress level by going to the gym more regularly, ensuring I got plenty of rest, and giving myself more breaks during the day to regroup as needed. All of these steps proved beneficial in allowing me to relax more, focus better, and improve my quality of work to where I wanted it to be. 

Additional situational interview questions

So you can prepare even more fully and come up with your own situational interview question answers, below are more types of situational interview questions you could be asked. 

  • What would you do if an angry client confronted you?
  • When was there a time that you noticed an issue at work, and how did you handle it?
  • Tell me about a time you had difficulty communicating with someone and how you dealt with it.
  • How do you manage your schedule to ensure you get everything done in a timely manner?
  • How would you handle the situation if a customer was adamant about speaking with a manager and they weren't available? 
  • What do you do to remain on top of things on the days or weeks when you're not feeling motivated? 
  • Tell me about a time when you disagreed with your manager and how you handled it. 
  • How do you handle your workload when you have multiple projects that are high priority on your plate? 
  • Explain a time when you received a promotion and what you did to achieve it.
  • Tell me about a time when you felt your work was not up to standards and what you did to improve. 
  • Let's say you notice a coworker bullying or acting inappropriately towards another coworker. How would you handle it?
  • Tell me about a time you were placed into a leadership role you didn't feel fully prepared for and how you handled it. 
  • Share a time you feel you went above and beyond at work. 
  • Share a time when you were able to persuade a customer to go in a different direction. 
  • Tell me about a time you made a decision that was unpopular with your teammates. 
  • Has there been a time when you asked for additional work? Tell me about it. 
  • Tell me about a time you had to deal with a difficult manager. 
  • Tell me about a time when there was a conflict within your team. 
  • Share a time when you were pushing up against a deadline due to having to wait on a coworker to get their part of the project completed. What did you do?
  • Describe a time when you had to be quick on your feet to solve a workplace situation or challenge.
  • If you were in a scenario where your company decided to suddenly change its employee management system, what would you do to ensure you were able to use the new software effectively?
  • Tell me about your most successful work presentation. Why did it go so well?
  • If you were attempting to finish a project and had to wait on your manager's approval to move forward, what would you do if they were taking a while to respond?
  • What's been the most challenging thing you've dealt with during your career, and how did you overcome it?

Preparation is key

Although situational interview questions might feel overwhelming at first, the key is to compile your experiences, use the STAR method, and practice! By walking into your interview prepared with a handful of situations you could apply to various questions, you'll feel more confident and at ease.

Want to practice answering situational interview questions with a pro? Connect with one of our interview coaches to schedule a practice interview.

This article was originally written by Carson Kohler and has been updated by Ronda Suder.

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