During the hiring process, an employer may ask a series of situational interview questions. These questions help the hiring manager gain crucial insight into how you react in specific circumstances on the job. You can use your responses to demonstrate how you’ll overcome specific obstacles and help the company meet its objectives. Situational interviews are also referred to as "behavioral interviews."
Here is some helpful background information as well as five situational interview questions and answers to help you prepare.
What are situational interview questions?
Because every industry and job role has a unique set of challenges and opportunities, employers must assess how well candidates are prepared to manage these circumstances before they make a hiring decision.
Situational interview questions focus on how you’ll handle real-life scenarios you may encounter in the workplace, and how you’ve handled similar situations in previous roles. Asking these questions helps employers better understand your thought process and assess your problem-solving, self-management and communication skills.
They also give you a chance to highlight how you use your professional experience, abilities and personal strengths to overcome business challenges and meet goals.
How to prepare for a situational interview
While you may not know the exact situational questions an employer will ask, you can use something called the STAR method (Situation, Task, Action, Result) to prepare thoughtful, thorough speaking points. Using this method helps you fully address the interviewer’s question in a cohesive story, highlighting a clear obstacle and resolution.
First, take some time to identify specific challenges you’ve faced in your career. If you’re entering the job market for the first time, consider obstacles you experienced in school or extracurricular activities such as team sports. Then, break down each experience using the STAR method:
Explain the context of the situation you experienced, including relevant details.
Example: “In my previous role as a customer service manager for a retailer, my team was often overwhelmed with calls and emails during the busy holiday season. However, we didn’t have the budget to hire seasonal help.”
Discuss your responsibilities or your role in the situation.
Example: “I was responsible for making sure the customer service team was able to resolve customer questions and concerns quickly and effectively and to ensure customers were always fully satisfied with their experience.”
Describe how you overcame the challenge or faced the situation.
Example: “To help ease the workload, I created a more condensed version of our phone script and developed several additional email templates to help my team address customers needs faster.”
Share the outcome you achieved through your actions, and be as specific as possible.
Example: “By creating better resources, I was able to help increase response time 60 percent and increase customer satisfaction rates by more than 25 percent year-over-year.”
Five situational interview questions and answers
Here are five situational interview questions and sample answers you can use to help craft your own responses.
1. What would you do if you made a mistake that no one else noticed?
Would you address the error and risk slowing things down or ignore it to keep the project or task moving forward?
Employers may ask this question (or something similar) to assess your integrity and determine whether your ethics and beliefs align with the company. Consider using your response as an opportunity to share your commitment to honesty and quality work.
Example: “I’ve always found it’s better to take responsibility for your mistakes—and work to correct them—to learn from your errors. When I worked as a barista, a customer asked for a soy latte and I accidentally made their drink using whole milk. While there’s a chance they may never have known, I knew my error could affect their experience. I promptly told my manager, remade the drink and apologized to the customer for the wait. The customer was satisfied, and my manager thanked me for doing the right thing. From that point forward, I paid special attention to drink ingredients.”
2. What would you do if you were asked to perform a task you’ve never done before?
When you’re new to a position, your manager may ask you to complete duties beyond your level of experience. Employers ask this question to understand how you leverage your problem-solving skills to learn how to do something new. Your response should detail your methods for developing a new skill.
Example: “In my last role as a marketing coordinator, my manager asked me to build and launch a digital ad campaign, which was something I’d never done before. I explained to my manager that I had no experience leading that type of project, but volunteered to do all of the work if someone more experienced could offer guidance. I met with several employees who had experience running digital ads, studied best practices and successfully launched the campaign. Thanks to that hands-on learning experience, I became the team expert on digital advertising.”
3. Tell me about a time when you failed. How did you deal with this experience?
Employers use this question to assess your ability to overcome pitfalls, recover from defeat and learn from your errors. You can use your response to demonstrate your flexibility and share an example of how you transformed a negative experience into a positive outcome.
Example: “In my first month as an account manager, I wanted to impress a top client and over promised on a project timeline. Unfortunately, the team didn’t have the resources to deliver by the deadline I’d promised, and we ended up losing the client. I reached out to the client and took full responsibility for the loss, and they decided to give us another chance. Because of this experience, I learned the value of setting realistic expectations and never guaranteeing more than I could deliver.”
4. What would you do if an angry and dissatisfied customer confronted you? How would you resolve their concern?
Employers ask this question to determine whether you have conflict-resolution and communication skills required for the role. Use your response to share your ability to be empathetic and address unexpected challenges.
Example: “When I worked as a receptionist for an auto mechanic, I answered a call from a customer who was angry their vehicle wasn’t finished. I listened to the customer’s concerns and used phrases like, ‘I completely understand your frustration.’ Then, I took down their information and promised to call them back. I found the technician who’d been working on their car and learned the problem was worse than anticipated and would take several days to fix. I coordinated a loaner vehicle for the customer, and then called them back. Not only were they appreciative of my help, but they also publicly thanked us on social media.”
5. What professional accomplishment are you most proud of and how did you achieve it?
Employers ask this question to identify the type of work you find fulfilling and steps you take to meet goals. Your response should address a career highlight that’s also relevant to the job for which you’re applying.
Example: “In my previous role as an IT administrator, during my regular maintenance rounds, I found a security vulnerability. Rather than simply patching it, I looked into the network records and discovered a virus had recently compromised several files. I notified the rest of the team and we quickly isolated the infected files and prevented its spread, which saved the company millions of dollars. That experience ignited my passion for preventing cybercrime and drove me to apply for this position as a cybersecurity manager.”
A situational interview allows you to communicate your expertise, skills and talent for overcoming challenges on the job. By having a few examples prepared, you can ensure your answers highlight your best professional accomplishments and abilities.