Open-Ended Interview Questions: Types and Tips for Answering

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated January 13, 2023

Published February 25, 2020

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Job interviews are a critical part of the job application process. They present an opportunity to give personal context to the skills and qualifications listed on your resume. Often it is through open-ended questions that prospective employers obtain this additional information. In this article, we describe different types of open-ended interview questions, tips for answering them and sample open-ended question responses.

Types of open-ended interview questions

While the specific questions asked in a job interview will vary by organization and job type, there are a few common types of open-ended interview questions. Preparing in advance for how you would answer these types of questions can help improve your chances for a successful interview. Four common types of open-ended interview questions are:

  • Behavioral questions

  • Situational questions

  • Anecdotal questions

  • Competency questions

Behavioral questions

A behavioral interview question is one that asks you to describe how you handled a specific situation at a previous job. These questions are intended to assess your skills and readiness to address similar situations appropriately if hired.

You should answer these questions in a narrative manner, sharing not only the steps you took but the rationale behind your decision making. If successful, it can be helpful to include the outcome as evidence of how your job performance yielded positive results. An ideal response to this question provides evidence of good judgment and relevant skills.

Sample behavioral questions include:

  • Can you tell me about a mistake that you made and how you handled it?

  • Can you describe an ethical dilemma you faced and how you resolved it?

  • Can you talk about critical feedback you received in the past and how you responded to it?

Related: How To Prepare for a Behavioral Interview

Situational questions

A situational interview question is one that asks you to share how you would respond to a hypothetical scenario if hired. Often the scenarios reflect actual situations that have occurred at the organization or situations that are likely to occur given the job responsibilities that you would fulfill if hired.

These questions are intended to assess your decision-making skills, comfort level with particular content and experience handling similar situations in the past. Convincing a prospective employer that you would responsibly and effectively handle the hypothetical scenario will increase your chances of success in a job interview. Some sample situational questions include:

  • Let's say that you have to address one of your direct reports about an accusation of unethical conduct. How would you approach this individual and what would you say?

  • As the Dean of Students, you will be responsible for supervising the cafeteria during fifth-grade lunch. How would you go about building a culture of safety and organization?

  • How would you respond if confronted aggressively by a customer who uses profanity and refers to you in a derogatory manner?

Anecdotal questions

Like behavioral interview questions, anecdotal questions are intended to learn more about you by asking you to describe scenarios from your current or previous job. As opposed to assessing ethical decision-making skills or a sense of judgment in a given scenario, these questions are intended to verify your skills and fill in the details of the job responsibilities indicated on your resume.

For example, interviewers may ask you to describe how you approached certain tasks or how they accomplished a particular objective. Sample anecdotal questions include:

  • On your resume, you indicate that you expanded the client base by 30%, resulting in a 50% increase in sales over two years. Can you describe the steps you took to accomplish that?

  • You referenced experience with strategic planning. Can you speak about how you use data to drive your strategic planning and evaluation processes?

Competency questions

Competency questions are also similar to behavioral questions in that they ask you to describe scenarios or specific situations at your current or previous job. The focus of these questions, however, is on your interpersonal or "soft" skills.

The prospective employer is looking to verify if you possess strong interpersonal skills that will complement your content knowledge and enable you to build positive relationships with colleagues. You can prepare for these types of questions by reviewing the job description for a desired or preferred qualities section. Sample competency questions include:

  • In your current role, you supervise 20% of the staff. Can you describe your management style and how you approach relationship building with your direct reports?

  • Can you describe a challenging relationship you have had with a manager and how you worked to improve it?

    Related: Interpersonal Skills: Definitions and Examples

Tips for answering open-ended interview questions

Thoughtfully and thoroughly preparing for open-ended interview questions can build your confidence and help you succeed in a job interview. Here are four tips for answering open-ended interview questions:

  • Be specific.

  • Connect it to the job description.

  • Provide the right amount of detail.

  • Make it personal.

Be specific

One of the best ways to inspire confidence in your ability to be successful if hired is by giving specific examples of things you have done or would do if hired. This gives substance to your answers and communicates your knowledge and abilities.

Connect it to the job description

Offering examples that are relevant to the job in question helps a prospective employer see how well you would fit in their company. It also communicates that you prepared in advance and are seeking this job specifically, as opposed to any job that matches your skillset.

Provide the right amount of detail

Being thorough but succinct is an effective strategy for answering open-ended questions because it keeps the interview productive and respects everyone's time. It also demonstrates effective communication skills that would be valuable if hired.

This is especially important for questions that relate to challenging topics with former employers. Sharing enough detail to make your point while respecting the confidentiality of former colleagues communicates respect for the workplace that will be appreciated by a prospective employer.

Related: How To Succeed at a Hiring Event or Open Interview

Make it personal

Open-ended questions present a great opportunity to let your personality shine. By answering naturally and sharing a little about who you are as a person, a prospective employer gets an idea of how well you would fit with the company.

This offers a human context for the skills and qualifications on your resume, which will distinguish you from other candidates. Being able to show humility, a sense of humor and ambition are a few powerful traits that will help a prospective employer connect with you during an interview.

Sample open-ended question responses

When considering the possible questions you may face, it will also be helpful to see some potential responses to inspire you for creating your own. Here are two sample responses to commonly asked open-ended interview questions:

Why are you interested in this position?

With this question, your prospective employer is checking that you have done your research and have a genuine interest in joining the company. Use this opportunity to express interest in the company while tying your experiences and values into their core mission.

Example: "I am interested in this position with Baltimore Public Schools because of my passion for this work and the opportunity it affords to make a positive impact on a broader scale. I have over 10 years of experience supporting schools and school leaders with topics directly related to this role including social-emotional learning, physical wellness and positive behavior supports.

While my experience in these positions was positive, it was limited to one school setting at a time. This role would create opportunities for me to influence entire networks of schools or at times, all schools in the system."

Can you describe an ethical dilemma you faced and how you handled it?

Employers need to know that you can act with integrity in challenging situations. Consider using the STAR response technique to give a thorough answer that highlights the Situation, Task, Action and Result:

Example: "Yes, I can. At a former job, my supervisor instructed me to disregard staff votes on the leadership board election ballot and choose the individuals I thought would make the best candidates instead. Initially, I was stunned and did not say anything.

After taking a minute to compose my thoughts, I approached him and expressed my discomfort with that recommendation, noting the ethical compromise and my personal value of integrity. I explained that if he wanted me to count the ballots, I would do it honestly and if he preferred another method, he would have to find another colleague.

I closed by saying that I hoped my decision did not negatively impact our working relationship and I looked forward to continuing to collaborate with integrity on behalf of the organization. I documented the incident in a personal file and saved it in case I needed to refer to it in the future. There were negative repercussions as a result of my decision, but I am proud of how I handled it and I would do the same thing again if I found myself in a similar situation."

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