Interviewing

15+ Situational Interview Questions & Answers

Tristin Zeman

Copywriter, Human Resources Manager, and Marketing Expert


Situational interview questions are a great way for hiring managers and recruiters to learn more about an applicant’s prior experience. They also show how an applicant would approach potential challenges in a new role.

These scenario-based interview questions can be directly related to the duties of a job. For example, for a Customer Support role, you may see questions that are hypothetical or ask about your past such as: “Tell me about a time when you had a customer service situation that you turned from negative to positive”.

Prepare for your next interview with tips on how to plan for scenario and situational interview questions. 

Scenario interview questions vs Situational questions

Scenario and situational questions for interviews are common and often very similar. In either case, a potential supervisor is looking for insight into how an interviewee would handle (often) difficult situations. In general, scenario interview questions try to dig into how you would handle something that happened after a series of events. On the other hand, a situational interview question is looking at a specific point in time. 

Scenario-based interview questions: 

  • What would you do if a customer felt like service was taking too long and they walked out of the restaurant without paying for their bill? 
  • What would you do if you were finishing up a big project and your computer crashed so you knew you weren’t going to be able to meet a deadline? 
  • How would you handle a customer who received a broken item and it was the only one we were going to be able to have available for sale? 

Situation-based interview questions: 

  • What would you do if a customer walked out without paying?
  • What would you do if you knew you weren’t going to meet a deadline?
  • How would you handle a customer who received a broken item?

As the person being interviewed, you have the freedom to expand on your answers. Depending on the situation or scenario you are given, you may answer how you would have handled a particular situation. You may also add what you would do in a certain scenario if the surrounding details would change your answer. 

The goal of scenario interview questions

Scenario interview questions help interviewers understand more about your personality and problem-solving skills than just a list of facts on your resume. Not only are they helpful in understanding how you would treat customers, but also how you would fit in with the company culture. Here are a few examples of goal-based hypothetical interview questions.

Situational questions aim to discover who the applicant is and what they would do in certain scenarios.

When you need the right skill fit: Tell me about the best and worst times you [did job duty]. What made it the best and what did you learn from the worst? 

When you need the right culture fit: Tell me about a time when you had a disagreement with [a person]. How did you solve the issue at that specific time and in the long term? 

When you have little room for error: Tell me about a time when you were in a high-pressure situation. What was going on and how did you handle it?

When you can train all needed skills: Tell me about a time that you failed at something. Why do you think you failed and what did you learn from it? 

When should you expect a scenario-based interview question

When can you expect to see scenario-based interview questions.

Scenario based interview questions can be used at any time, but if the hiring company has a multi-step interview process, you may not be asked one until the later stages of interviewing because hiring managers want to keep things moving quickly and efficiently. Using scenario questions is a great way to get more insight into a person’s behavior and thought process. It can lead to more in-depth follow-up questions, but if you don’t meet the base qualifications established by early common interview questions, then there is likely no point in hiring managers asking these specific questions.

Someone asking about how you would handle a specific theoretical situation is looking almost exclusively for information about your personality and problem-solving skills. Therefore, typical scenario-based interview questions are hypothetical problem-solving questions.

Problem-solving interview questions

Problem solving interview questions photo with question cards and string attachments

Recruiters and hiring managers use interview scenario questions to understand how a potential employee would react in certain situations. This can ensure the right company culture fit and also help to make decisions between applicants when soft skills like communication and problem-solving are more important than hard skills.

Problem-solving interview questions can take the form of “tell me about a time when” questions to explore your prior experience, or they can be turned to help the interviewer get more insight into how your thought process works. In the former case, you can use the “tell me a time when” formula. However, for the latter, you’ll need to describe both your thought process and come up with some kind of final answer. 

Keep in mind that interviewers sometimes like to throw curveballs at job seekers. As a general rule of thumb, you can assume that ridiculous or silly problem-solving interview questions are looking more for how you get to an answer rather than the specific answer. 

Problem-solving interview questions and answers examples

There are two main types of problem-solving interview questions you may get during an interview. One is directly related to the position you are applying for and is often used when you are transitioning into a new field. So there may not be a lot of good “tell me a time when” interview questions for an interviewer to ask you. 

Interviewer: “Imagine you’re working at our restaurant. What would you do if you’re the only server on shift, and a bus full of hungry football players shows up?” 

Response: “I would start by warning the kitchen staff so they could stock up and get ready for the floodgates to open. I’d also ask anyone on my team for help with stuff that I knew would save me time and make a better experience for our guests — things like putting pitchers of water and glasses on the tables so that the guests would have something to drink while they waited.

Then I’d pick a table to start at and get to work on taking orders and sending them back into the kitchen in groups to keep everything moving. If I started seeing patterns, like everyone is ordering cheeseburgers and fries, I’d also give the kitchen a head’s up so that they could confidently start orders before I even finish putting them in.”

The other type of problem-solving interview question is often known as Google brainteaser interview questions. These are unique, often absurd-sounding questions that have been known to take place when someone is applying to work for large tech firms like Google. These can often require math skills in addition to problem-solving and reasoning. 

Interviewer: “How much sugar would you need to fill a school bus?” 

Response: “Well, a five-pound bag of sugar from the grocery store is about 12 inches by 6 inches by 4 inches. So that makes each one so that makes each bag about 288 cubic inches and there are 1728 cubic inches in one foot. That means 6 bags per cubic foot. Now we have to just figure out how many cubic feet are inside a bus…” 

These types of questions aren’t meant to hit an actual number in most cases, but rather to make sure you have the right skills and understanding of how to come to the solution. 

Answering Scenario-Based Interview Questions Based Experience Level

Scenario interview questions

From a hiring manager’s point of view, when looking for interview questions, scenario-based interview questions are perfect for candidates with any experience level. 

Scenario based interview questions and answers

The way you format your answer to scenario-based interview questions will change depending on if you have any prior experience with the particular scenario.

For example, imagine you’re in an interview for a retail clerk position and you’ve had a lot of similar jobs before. 

Interviewer: “Tell me about a situation where you took what could’ve been a negative situation and turned it into a positive one for a customer.”

Response: “In my last role, there was a customer who wanted to buy something as a gift, but they came in after the shipping deadline was passed so the gift would’ve been delayed. The customer was pretty upset that it wouldn’t make it on time. I wanted to help so I asked more about where they were wanting the gift sent and realized we had a store closer to where the recipient lived. Instead of sending the product from our store, we were able to have the item shipped from our sister store and it made it on time. The customer was so thankful and the store started using location-based shipping to upsell faster shipping.” 

Tips for answering scenario-based interview questions with experience:

  • Be honest and specific.
  • Explain what you did and the effect it had.
  • Share what you learned or the impact that was made.

If you were applying for a position where you had little to no prior experience, you may take a different route. 

Interviewer: “Tell me about a situation where you took what could’ve been a negative situation and turned it into a positive one for a customer.”

Response: “While I don’t have a lot of experience working with customers yet, I do have a lot of experience with working with people. As the captain of my school’s soccer team, there was one person who, while filled with enthusiasm and love of the sport, was a terrible athlete. They were our biggest liability on the field and the best supporter on the sidelines so I wanted to find a solution that worked for everyone. I convinced our coach to create a team manager position so that this person still be part of the team, but without actually playing on the field.” 

Tips for answering scenario-based interview questions without experience:

  • Be honest. Don’t lie or try to make up experiences. 
  • Identify why an interviewer is asking the question and answer that.
  • “Customer” can typically be swapped out for classmate, coworker, or teammate.

Situational interview questions

Instead of asking how you would go about solving a problem, interviewers may choose to ask you how you have responded when you found yourself in a specific situation. 

Situational interview questions and answers

More common than problem-solving questions are situational interview questions. Situational interview questions and answers will vary by the industry and role you are applying for, and are a useful interview tactic for sales and leadership roles because of the variety of work and types of people an applicant is likely to encounter.

Situational interview questions can be worded differently making it essential to practice your response to common and likely interview questions. That way, no matter how the question is worded, you are ready with a polished and professional response. 

“Tell me about a time” interview questions vs hypothetical interview questions

Job seekers need to be prepared for not only questions asking about what they would do in a hypothetical scenario, but also what they have done in real-life situations. An interviewer who is asking you to tell them about a time you did something or encountered a specific project or challenge wants to gain more understanding about your experience level, behavioral disposition, and transferable skills.

How to craft a response to “tell me a time when” interview questions

There are a few ways to position yourself for success when responding when an interviewer asks name-a-time-when interview questions. You can prepare general responses to many common “Tell me about a time” questions, but it also helps to learn how to format answers on the fly. In general, your responses should include:

  1. When you had this experience (at a prior job, during school, community group, etc)
  2. Important background information (keep it short, but include valuable details)
  3. Your specific actions and involvement
  4. How the other people in the story were impacted
  5. The resolution (always end on a high note)
Sample Answer to “Tell me a time when” questions

Here’s a quick sample of how to format your responses. 

Interviewer: “Tell me about a time you had to deliver bad news to a customer.”

  1. When:  “At my last job, I ran into this issue fairly often. 
  2. Background info: Our company website would only be updated once per day which meant that people might see something marked as in-stock online, but it would could be sold out by the time they came into the store. 
  3. Your specific actions: I was often responsible for breaking the news to a customer that items were no longer available, which often meant that we lost their business that day. This is because they wouldn’t find any suitable alternatives and would just leave without buying or committing to anything. 
  4. How others were affected: This hurt our company, and honestly wasn’t much fun for me, so I approached my boss to try to find a solution. 
  5. Resolution & high note: What we decided to do was put a message on our website to let customers know that inventory wasn’t always accurately reflected online. We also decided to use Facebook Messenger. I was in charge of setting it up for our store. It was intended to be a free solution for our customers to contact us more easily. This increased customer satisfaction with our store and created a new way for our marketing team to reach customers.”

15+ situational interview questions

  1. Tell me about a time you tried something new and failed. How did you handle it?
  2. What would you do if you had to make a choice between improving quality or profits?
  3. If you can only financially reward one employee for a job well done, how do you decide who gets it? 
  4. Tell me about a time when you didn’t get along with a co-worker. What did you do?
  5. If one of your direct reports doesn’t show up for a shift, what would you do? 
  6. How have you handled angry customers in the past? 
  7. Describe a time when you needed to get buy-in on an idea from many different people. How did you do it? 
  8. Would you rather have a manager that is highly involved in your daily work or one that only checks in occasionally and why? 
  9. Give me an example of a time you had to choose between delivering quality work and having the work done on time.
  10. I’d like to know more about your management style. What is an example of a time you really had to flex your leadership skills? 
  11. Explain to me how you prioritize your workload when everything needs to be done at the same time. 
  12. What’s an example of a time that you needed to get information from someone, but they weren’t being very responsive?
  13. Tell me about a time that you weren’t going to be able to deliver on a work-related promise. What happened and what did you do? 
  14. Talk me through how you would handle a customer who wanted a refund for something that didn’t qualify for a refund. 
  15. What is an example of a time you exceeded a customer’s expectations?  

Many situational interview questions can take on the format of “Tell me about a time” interview questions and answers. If an interviewer asks you to tell them about a time you encountered a situation or a specific event occurred, but you don’t have direct experience with the subject of the question, it’s okay to tell them that you haven’t had this exact situation, but you shouldn’t just leave it there.

There are two possible ways to structure “tell me about a time” questions and answers if you don’t have any experience. One option is to tell them you haven’t had this exact situation, but it sounds similar to a previous experience. You could also flip it to be a hypothetical scenario and respond as if it happened to you. 

Examples of situational interview questions for manager positions

Managers and supervisors are expected to have outstanding interpersonal and communications skills. Here are some of the top situational interview questions for managers. 

  • Tell me about a time where you wish you would’ve handled a situation with one of your direct reports differently. 
  • Describe a time where you took a chance on a prospective employee and it paid off. 
  • Our company has a lot of strong personalities. Give me an example of a time you worked with someone who held beliefs very different from your own. 

Examples of situational interview questions for customer service positions

Customer support positions require employees with excellent problem-solving and conflict resolution skills. The following are a few situational interview questions customer service job applicants should be prepared to answer. 

  • Tell me about a time you worked with a difficult customer. What was the issue that occurred and how did you resolve it? 
  • Imagine you have a customer who wants something that we cannot possibly do. How would you handle the situation?
  • If a customer is having trouble deciding between two of our products, what would you do to help them decide? 

Conclusion

Interview preparation is key to making interviews less stressful. Following the tips in this article, and learning how to spot the difference between situational and scenario-based interview questions will set you on your way to being a standout candidate for any position. 

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