Soft Skills

12 minute read

What are Situational Interview Questions (and How Should You Answer Them)?

Kat Boogaard

Kat Boogaard

What would you do if we asked you to stand up in the middle of this interview and do the hokey pokey? How would you respond if we told you that you had spinach in your teeth? What would you say if we told you that the entire company would be joining us for the interview? 

It’s normal to feel anxious about what questions a prospective employer will ask you in a job interview—and we’re pretty confident that you won’t have to deal with any of the questions above!

However, while the above questions are somewhat ridiculous, they’re good examples of situational interview questions. That’s a category of questions you’ll want to be prepared for when you’re searching for a job.

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What are situational interview questions?

You’ve probably heard about behavioral interview questions, which ask you to recall a real, previous experience and share it with the interviewer.

So what's the difference between situational vs behavioral interview questions?

Situational interview questions (also referred to as scenario-based interview questions) are similar, except they rely on hypotheticals. They’re easy to recognize, as they start with phrases like:

  • What would you do if…
  • How would you respond if…
  • How would you handle…

The interviewer will start the hypothetical interview question by explaining a scenario and follow up by asking you to describe how you would deal with it.

These types of questions don’t just exist to give you sweaty palms. Instead, they present an opportunity for the interviewer to assess your critical thinking skills, evaluate how you think on your feet, and match you up against other candidates. 

Since all applicants are likely being placed in the same hypothetical situations, it’s easier for the employer to compare their answers.

Additionally, it’s totally possible that an interviewer will toss out a hypothetical interview question based on a scenario that has actually happened at their company. Your answer will show them how you move forward in the types of situations that might be commonplace in their work environment. 


How to answer situational interview questions

Situational interview questions are usually enough to make your mouth dry and send your heart leaping into your throat. We won’t deny it—they can be tough to answer. 

But, let’s cover a few tips to help you talk through your hypothetical approach in a way that’s polished and professional.

1. Ground your answers in reality (when possible)

The question might be hypothetical, but that doesn’t mean your answer needs to be farfetched. If you’ve experienced a scenario similar to the one your interviewer is asking about, make sure you mention that. 

Start with something like, “I experienced a situation similar to this one in my role at CompanyXYZ…” and then use the STAR method to answer that question the same way you would a behavioral interview question. That will be far more impressive in the long run. 

2. Don’t get too hung up on specifics

When answering behavioral interview questions, details matter a little more. But, considering situational questions require you to respond to totally manufactured scenarios, there aren’t many specifics for you to obsess over.

You don’t want to get too hung up here. When an interviewer presents a situation, resist the urge to ask a bunch of follow-up questions. Chances are, they won’t have answers for you (remember, this situation is made up!). 

Instead, accept the situation they’ve outlined at face value and place your emphasis on how you would react or respond. 

3. Get comfortable with caveats

We know that the above tip can cause a little bit of discomfort, and that’s where the beauty of caveats comes into play. Since you’ll undoubtedly lack a ton of specifics, it can be helpful to add caveats to your answer.

Imagine that your interviewer asked you how you would respond if a co-worker continued to take credit for your work. Include a caveat like, “Assuming I had already confronted my colleague about this directly several times…” before you move into how you’d take more serious steps to address that situation with upper management.

That sort of strategy lets you provide multiple answers to the question by describing the different stages you’d move through to handle that conflict

4. Ask for more time to think

Situational-interview-questions-answersWe’re all a little afraid of silence, and it can seem particularly deafening when your nerves are running high in a job interview. 

So, when an employer stumps you with a challenging situational interview question, it’s tempting to respond and fill the silence right away by saying, “Oh gosh, that’s a good question. I don’t know…”

Rather than starting to stumble through your words immediately, ask for some time to ponder that situation. Even something simple like, “Could I have a minute to think through how I’d respond?” shows your interviewer that you’re giving serious consideration to the scenario they’ve outlined and that you want to address it to the best of your capabilities. 

6 example situational interview questions and answers

Remember, one of the reasons employers ask situational interview questions is to see how you think on your feet. That means there’s no way to know with any degree of certainty which scenarios they’ll toss your way.

However, there are some standard situations that interviewers like to lean on. Let’s dig into six example situational interview questions and answers. 

Situational interview question #1: What would you do if you discovered that one of your co-workers was doing something unethical? 

Example answer: My response would largely depend on the severity of their infraction. Regardless, I would start by documenting their unethical behavior, so I had an appropriate record. 

If the grievance was relatively small and inconsequential, such as making personal calls during work time, I would approach my colleague first to make them aware of their behavior. If things didn’t improve following that conversation, I’d loop in my manager or HR department. 

However, if I believed that my co-worker’s actions were significant and could potentially cause harm to themselves or the company, I would immediately skip the direct conversation and approach upper management immediately.  

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Situational interview question #2: How would you respond if you knew that the direction provided by your boss was incorrect? 

Example answer: I have great respect for my leaders and managers, but I also recognize that we’re all humans, and we make mistakes.

In most cases, I would invest the time and necessary research to confirm that my boss’s instruction is indeed misguided. If I concluded that they were incorrect, I would request a private conversation where I could point out the error and present my reasoning for disagreeing.

Of course, if the error is quick, like a misquoted statistic in a team meeting or a mispronounced name, I’d simply state a correction right away. I think that’s better than allowing managers to continue to operate with incorrect information. 

Situational interview question #3: How would you react if you were presented with constructive criticism you disagreed with? 

Situational-interview-questions-answersExample answer: I experienced this exact situation in my previous position with CompanyXYZ. In my performance review, my manager stated that I lacked initiative, although I consistently exceeded my sales goals.

I’ll admit that my boss’ seemingly unfounded feedback stung for a moment. But, once I moved on from the surprise of that comment, I gathered evidence of times when I had taken the initiative and surpassed my goals.

I requested a one-on-one with my supervisor to discuss my performance in further detail, and I came prepared to that meeting with the supporting evidence I had gathered. 

My manager clarified that he didn’t mean that I wasn’t a hard worker but that he’d like to see me take the initiative and volunteer for more projects outside of my comfort zone. That ended up being a very valuable and influential piece of feedback that I would’ve missed out on had I shut down after that first exchange. 

Situational interview question #4: How would you handle being unhappy with a particular aspect of your position? 

Example answer: I recognize that no job is perfect, and we all occasionally have tasks and responsibilities that aren’t quite as thrilling as others.

However, if an element of my job were causing significant dissatisfaction, I would approach my manager to discuss the specifics of my role and how we could improve my circumstances.

I’m fortunate that all of my previous supervisors have been incredibly receptive to conversations about my career goals—and I’ve also learned that you can’t expect your boss to be a mindreader. 

Situational interview question #5: What would you do if you had made significant progress on a project, only to realize that the project’s goals had changed and you needed to re-do your work? 

Situational-interview-questions-answersExample answer: I’m sure this has happened to most of us. Having to spend time on rework is frustrating, but goals and priorities shift now and then. When I realized that my project was no longer on the right track, I would pause all work immediately until I could collect more information about the new direction.

I would make sure to ask plenty of clarifying questions to confirm I understand the required changes and then get started on making the necessary tweaks. I would also commit to providing regular project updates from that point forward to build more regular opportunities to course correct.  

Situational interview question #6: What would you do if you were given a task or assignment that you had little to no familiarity with? 

Example answer: I like to think of myself as a self-starter, so I’d start by doing as much independent research as possible. Even if that didn’t help me tackle the entire assignment, it would help me craft thoughtful questions.

Equipped with that basic knowledge, I’d approach my manager or another subject matter expert within the team to ask the questions I had identified and get more directions for the project.

In situations where I realized I was completely over my head, I would talk with my manager about reassigning that task or securing the necessary resources to complete that project. 

What would you do if…?

It often feels like interviewers have never-ending tricks up their sleeves, and situational interview questions feel like some of the biggest “gotcha” moments.

Needing to describe your anticipated response to a made-up scenario can feel like an impossible challenge, but we promise that you’re capable of addressing these situations in a way that’s concise and impressive. 

Use this as your guide, and you’ll ace that interview in reality—and not hypothetically. 

For more interview tips, check out our guides on how to answer key interview questions like a pro for different industries:

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Kat Boogaard

Kat Boogaard

Kat is a writer specializing in career, self-development, and productivity topics. When she escapes her computer, she enjoys reading, hiking, golfing, and dishing out tips for prospective freelancers on her website.