Job interview questions (the new type) – hypothetical situational questions

A new type of job interview question is gaining popularity – hypothetical or situational questions. Competency-based interviews have long been the preferred method of job interviews for large employers, but I’m finding my clients reporting hypothetical or situational questions being asked more often in their interviews.

Here are my tips on preparing for a job interview which includes situation-based questions.

What’s a hypothetical situational question?

This type of job interview question asks you to consider a particular scenario and explain how you would respond, they aim to gain an insight into how you might react or deal with a specific situation for this role. It could be specific to the specialism of the role to check your technical abilities, or it could be more generic to check your fit with the organisation’s values and how it wants its employees to approach things. It will often be based on the very real challenges and issues or opportunities associated with the role.

By contrast, a competency-based job interview question asks you to give examples to demonstrate you have a particular skill or capability. They are relatively straight-forward to prepare for as you can analyse a job description and predict many of the competencies the organisation might be seeking. Then you can identify the examples you want to use for each question using the STAR technique.

A situational or hypothetical job interview question needs much more thinking on your feet as it asks you to respond to a situation the interviewer gives you. These questions tend to be, what would you do if… or how would you handle X. Examples include:

  • How would you stand your ground and maintain relationships in this role?
  • Where will you focus your network-building and influencing in the first month in this new role?
  • If a team member confided that they were going to miss the major work deadline the whole team was working towards, what would you do?
  • One of the key challenges in this role is managing multiple sites – how would you ensure consistent communication and visibility across these sites?
  • Tell us how you would go about influencing and persuading a stakeholder with a different point of view about a strategy/direction you want to take?
  • What would you do if you realised you had made a big mistake?
  • Could you outline your approach to a facilitating a project review meeting where a project member is not forthcoming with their actions/progress?
  • How would you handle a big delay to a project you are leading?

Other examples may be more specific even more technical based on the type of role you are applying for.

These are different to competency-based questions which tend to be a variation of: “Tell us about a time when…” or “Give us an example of…” where you use your proven experiences to illustrate your capabilities and instead are future focused on how you would use your skills and expertise in this role and organisation.

Sometimes you may get lucky and still be able to use a past example to illustrate your answer if you have something that fits perfectly with the scenario. If not though, you have to use your past experience to help explain how you would approach this specific scenario.

How to answer situation-based job interview questions

As I work with my career coaching clients to prepare for their job interviews, we explore ways of dealing with these questions.

  • First stay calm – gather your thoughts, assess the scenario in your mind, visualise yourself in the role and think about how you would handle the situation/solve the problem.
  • State that you believe you are strong or have good skills in the area being explored e.g. “I believe I am adept at standing my ground while maintaining relationships…” or “I feel confident when influencing and persuading others…”
  • Then briefly play back to the interviewers your understanding of the scenario, picking out the key problems/challenges.
  • Now be specific about how you would tackle it e.g. “In the scenario you described I would…” highlighting the skills you would use to take these actions. Don’t assume they know what you mean, you have to explain it e.g. I would hold listening groups to get a deeper understanding of the person’s point of view, showing empathy and understanding and patience.
  • Connect with past experience if you have a strong/similar example that fits with the situation or apply your learning to this scenario.
  • Link to your research of the company – there may be an opportunity to connect the scenario to the values, core competencies, or culture of the company that you have discovered in your research and share how you would demonstrate these in your approach.
  • Be honest – if the scenario is something you haven’t experienced don’t panic, explain it isn’t something you have come across but this is your likely course of action in that situation.
  • Be clear and concise – don’t let these type of questions de-rail you, avoid waffling and stick to the scenario they have put to you. Don’t go off on a tangent to something not as relevant.

What’s important is to take the interviewers through your thought processes, as this is what situational questions are intended to explore. So, mention what you would consider, who you might involve, and be specific about how you would address the challenge they have posed for you. The more detail you can add to your answer, the better the interviewers will be able to assess your suitability and fit for the role and organisation. If you have experience of a similar scenario you could draw on this and give examples of what you actually did, and what you might do differently with hindsight.

So although situation-based job interview questions are much harder to prepare for as they aren’t as easy to predict as competency-based questions, you can still practice giving the type of answer you will need to if you encounter these questions in your next job interview. You can always ask someone to ask you a wide range of questions: what would you do if this happened, how would you handle this situation… to help you practice thinking on your feet.

For help with the next step in your career, identifying the role that’s right for you or preparing for your next job interview, give me a call to arrange a free chemistry session on 07765 894040.


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