Top tips for answering situational interview questions

When it comes to that all-important interview that's either going to kick-start your career or elevate it to the next level, there's no such thing as being over-prepared. To impress the interviewer you need to be ready to tackle the toughest questions.

Last time, we looked at behavioral interview questions (also known as competency-based questions), which are aimed at assessing how you've handled yourself under pressure in the past; now we're going to dive into situational interview questions, which are intended to explore how you might react to a hypothetical scenario in the future.

In other words, a behavioral question would follow the form of "tell me about a time when…", whereas a situational question would begin "tell me what you would do if…"

The latter pattern is designed to examine your problem-solving and analytical skills as well as how fast you think on your feet.

You may be wondering how to prepare yourself for a question based purely on conjecture, but it's not as daunting a prospect as you might think. In fact, bracing yourself for an incoming situational question isn't all that different from weathering its behavioral cousin: the key is rooted in calm, clear thinking and concise answers.

In your interview preparation, it's always best to assume that you will at some point be confronted with a situational question (better safe than sorry!), and with that in mind to consider the following:

  • Look to the past for insight into the future: Your experiences at previous jobs are a fair indicator of how you will function in upcoming jobs. Even if a question is framed as a hypothetical, it hasn't been conjured from a void: it's possible – probably even likely – that you've been in a similar situation before. In this regard, a lot of the legwork has already been done if you're prepared for behavioural questions.

    If you have a bank of anecdotes on hand describing previous pressure-cooker circumstances, retool them and draw on them for inspiration. Remember, however, tempting though it may be, not to slip into a straight retelling of the past: a situational question is intended to test your grit at your new job, not your old one. The next two points will help keep this notion in focus.

  • Understand the job: The expectations from the employer on how you handle yourself in various scenarios will vary significantly based on the role you are expected to fulfill. You may be interviewing for a management position coming from a more junior, team-oriented background, meaning that the nature of your conflict resolution methods will have added dimensions that you need to consider in your answer.

    For example, whereas before you may have taken issues up the management hierarchy, you are now a part of that hierarchy and will have to understand your responsibilities. Think about how your superiors dealt with situations (whether positively or negatively) and use that knowledge as the basis of your answers.

    Read the job description very carefully before the interview: there might be subtle clues (or blatant outlines) about how you are expected to act in your new role; use these as a guide when formulating your responses.

  • Research the company: It may seem obvious – no one should ever walk into an interview ignorant of the company they wish to join – but you can gain some valuable insight into how to shape your answers by doing a deep dive into company culture.

    Have a close look at the company's mission statement/values if available on its website. The "about us" section usually offers valuable information about the inner workings of an organisation and its company culture: does it value interpersonal relationships and open dialogues, or does it lean more heavily into professionalism and due process?

    You can use these details to build your answer around what the company values most; for example, if a company espouses the virtues of innovation and out-the-box thinking, then you have some leeway in the creativity of your response, whereas a more established and traditionally-minded company might prefer a methodical and formal approach to problem-solving.

Hopefully you now understand how you can expect the unexpected and prepare for the hypothetical, and armor yourself in ready-to-go answers that will see you endure and emerge victorious from even the most grueling of situational interviews.

Good luck out there!