Situational interview questions — also called behavioral or experience-based interview questions — can provide you with the chance to shine on many levels. They often begin with, “Tell me about a time when you ___” or “When was your ability to ___ put to the greatest test at a previous job?”
Chances are, you only have an hour — often less — to make a lasting, positive impression. How can you maximize that time either on the phone or face-to-face with the interviewer?
Two words: Be prepared.
Our career coaches recommend these strategies to help you achieve situational interview success:
Understand what the interviewer is looking for in your response
Past behavior is a generally reliable indicator of future behavior. Situational interview questions allow the interviewer to ascertain the probability of seeing a desired action or response — or the opposite. The better you can articulate a relevant example of when you used a unique skill or demonstrated a positive character trait, the more you build evidence for the interviewer to make a grounded assessment.
Bear in mind that how you respond to situational interview questions reveals your ability to think on your feet —and provides a snapshot of your communication skills.
How you relay a story is just as important as the story itself. Because you are competing with other qualified candidates, you need to be able to articulate your stories in a succinct, compelling manner. Failing to do so, whether that means rambling on and on, telling a confusing story, or coming up blank when asked for an example — can automatically eliminate you from the running for that position, regardless of your stellar qualifications.
Create an “Interview Box”
Take preparedness to a new level — and conquer the competition — by creating an interview box. This tool will provide value whether you are actively involved in a job search or blissfully happy in your current position. Things change — sometimes with little notice.
Buy a pack of 5 x 7 index cards and a box to hold them. On the front of each card, jot down a typical situational interview question. Use the back of each card to write a thoughtful response. When formulating your answers, use bullet points. A list format will make it easier to remember your answer(s), keep you on track and encourage you to be succinct.
Add a new card to the interview box when you think of or are asked a new question — or work backwards when you have a particular skill in mind that might lend itself to a situational interview question at some point down the road. By constantly adding to the collection, you can build a comprehensive tool that you can use to prepare for interviews, even if they crop up at the last minute.
Tell a good story
Few people know your stories. And they’re good stories that cumulatively reflect your strengths. The situational interview provides the perfect opportunity to tell them — in a succinct, impactful manner.
For starters, be honest. Most interviewers can spot the fluff from a mile away. Don’t waste their time or yours by inventing or embellishing a story.
Provide a concise account of a situation using a three-part approach: Describe the situation, your action(s) and the results.
To help keep your story clear and to the point, imagine that you have a 1-minute television ad spot to fill. Put your story in a context that will make it shine — and make you a memorable candidate.
If you’re asked a question that you didn’t prepare for, don’t panic. Pull from your in-depth knowledge of your industry; the types of interactions you have with your manager, colleagues, vendors and customers; the “pain points” they each experience; and the work you’ve done that effectively addressed, alleviated or eliminated those pain points.
Balance the use of the words “we” and “I.” We shows that you are a team player, while I emphasizes your individual contributions to the group.
When possible, focus on something unique. Keep it relevant to the position you’re seeking, but try to highlight a situation/response that distinguishes you from the crowd. “I really pay attention to detail” can become a trite answer — unless you attach it to a story that leaves a lasting impression.
Example: As a public relations professional, one of my responsibilities is coordinating all corporate branding materials. When ordering marketing materials to announce one of my client’s new salons, I noticed that the address on the proof said “2145 E. Maple Street,” when it should have said “2154 E. Maple Street.” Had the materials been printed with that transposed address, it could have caused frustration and confusion, sending her clients to a cemetery office instead of a hair salon! By catching the misspelling in the proof, we avoided a costly mistake and the need to rerun the entire marketing packet.
Hold a situational interview dress rehearsal
It’s one thing to think you’re prepared … and quite another to actually be prepared to answer situational interview questions. Practice out loud. When you practice your responses out loud, you accomplish two things: you catch phrases that worked “on paper,” but are clumsy on the way out of your mouth; and you commit your answers to memory. Every time you practice your responses they become less stiff, leaving room for your personality to punctuate your words.
Enlist a buddy, or stand in front of a mirror to rehearse your responses. If you are going to wear a scarf, tie or jewelry to the interview, put it on when you practice. It may seem silly, but the more comfortable you are when you walk into that interview environment, the better you can focus.
Expect the unexpected
While being prepared is critical to your success in situational interview settings, being flexible and able to think on your feet is just as important.
If you enter an interview with a rigid script, you set yourself up for failure. To avoid being caught completely off guard, take an inventory of pivotal moments in your life, your greatest accomplishments and lessons learned along the way. Know who you are, and how you could contribute to the target company, given the opportunity.
If you need a moment to collect your thoughts when (not if) the interviewer throws you a question from left field, smile, take a deep breath and say, “Let me think about that one.” Pause for a few seconds, remain unruffled, think about the cards in your interview box and knock out your best ninth inning, home-run answer!
Winning the game — or in this case, the job — may depend on it.