As great as you might be at thinking on our feet, chances are you’ll still struggle with this one type of interview questions:
Situational interview questions.
Overlooked by many, feared by even more, these questions are sure to have your brain freezing as soon as you hear:
“So, tell me about a time when…”
You need to keep your calm though. Then, come up with a concise, but attention-grabbing answer.
This article is going to show you how to do that and more!
- What’s a situational interview question?
- How to answer situational interview questions using the STAR method
- 11+ Situational interview questions and answers
- Some extra interview preparation
Let’s get started!
What’s a Situational Interview Question?
Situational interview questions - also known as behavioral questions - are questions that ask you to share a previous (work-related) experience and how you reacted.
They’re easy to spot as they always start with:
- Tell me about a time when…
- Have you ever been in a position where... How did you react?
- Describe a situation where…
What the interviewer gets from this is an insight into how you react to certain work situations.
While your resume gives the recruiter an overall introduction to your education and experiences, your answer to situational interview questions helps interviewers understand your character.
More specifically, your problem-solving and communication skills.
Answering Situational Interview Questions With The STAR Method
Even outside of job interviews, telling a story can get messy and confusing. And while in most situations you only risk boring your friends, at a job interview the stakes are much higher.
You wouldn’t want your interviewer dozing off mid-story, right?
To avoid that you need a method - the STAR method.
STAR is an acronym that stands for Situation, Task, Action, and Result. That’s the structure you should follow when giving your answer to situational questions.
Let’s break it down a little bit further:
- Situation - Start by explaining the setting of the story and giving the interviewer some context.
- Task - Talk about your role in the story (what were your duties and responsibilities).
- Action - Explain what you did to carry out your duties or how you dealt with the situation.
- Result - Wrap up your answer and talk about whether the situation was solved or not. What were the results? (Feel free to use numbers and data)
Following this structure will help you avoid steering off track and getting into unnecessary details while keeping your story interesting.
To make things clearer, let’s look at an example answer for a very common situational interview question:
Situational Interview Question: “Tell me about a time when you faced conflict at work. How did you deal with it?”
Situational Interview Question Sample Answer:
Situation - While working at the accounting firm XY, I was once faced with a very angry client who said I had skipped the meeting I had scheduled with him. This meeting was nowhere on my schedule and I didn’t even remember setting it in the first place. I did some digging and it turns out that a colleague was supposed to have notified me about it.
Task - I confronted him about it and he said he had sent me an email a day in advance. I’d obviously never gotten an email so he either didn’t realize it was never sent or there was a bug and it got lost somewhere. Regardless, he should’ve noticed my lack of reply to the email and double-checked with me. I had to reschedule with the client and do a lot of apologizing. After a few days, I could tell that my colleague was a bit cold towards me.
Action - I decided to have coffee with him and figure out what the problem was. He had been offended that I didn’t believe he’d sent the email. I apologized on my part as I’d been too harsh on him. I explained that I trusted him and that no real harm was done. The client seemed to have forgotten all about it at the rescheduled meeting.
Result - We moved past this incident just fine, and I even ended up in friendlier terms with my colleague than I’d started on.
10+ Situational Interview Questions (And Answers)
#1. “What is your greatest achievement?”
“When I was working as a sales agent at a boutique store, the business was going through a bit of a hard time. A lot of competitive stores had opened up nearby and sales were below target. I decided to try something and with the owner’s permission, decided to do some marketing. I opened up social media accounts for the store and did some advertising. I also got in touch with some other businesses, mainly bars and restaurants, and proposed we collaborate on some posts and help advertise each other. No matter how minimal, this appeared to have an effect. In the beginning foot traffic at the store increased a lot, while sales grew slightly. After a while, sales started consistently reaching the target. That experience is what made me decide to pursue a career in marketing.”
This answer not only explains a great achievement, but it also shows initiative on the interviewee’s part, all while maintaining a humble tone.
“I used to work for a boutique store as a sales agent. The business wasn’t going very well for them until I decided to intervene and did some marketing. That had a great result and the business was back on its feel. Who knows, they might’ve even closed if I hadn’t helped. I was very proud of that achievement. It made me realize my marketing skills.”
Apart from not giving enough information about the situation and action taken, the interviewee sounds very self-centered and conceited.
If you want to know all the tips and tricks for answering “What Is Your Greatest Accomplishment?”, check out this article!
#2. “Tell me about a time you went above and beyond for work.”
“Sure! This one’s a very funny story, actually. I was working as a real estate agent at Company X at the time and I’d taken a week off work because my sister was getting married. Fast forward to the wedding day, two hours before the ceremony, I get a call from one of my clients. They ended up in town for a day and wanted to schedule an impromptu apartment viewing. This particular client was usually very busy, so I didn’t want to miss the opportunity so I agreed to do the showing... while in my bridesmaid dress! I was extremely tight on time, but I made it back to the ceremony on time AND sold the house to the client. My boss was very impressed that I’d sold a property even while being off work.”
This example shows the interviewee puts great effort and dedication into work (even in a situation where there were other priorities).
“Well, I remember this one time I was about to leave the office. My boss called me in and asked me if I could stay longer to help with some work. Of course, I agreed. That caused me to miss the bus and get home for dinner late, but it’s fine.”
This answer on the other hand… well, that’s not quite the definition of “above and beyond”, right? While nobody is obligated to stay after hours for work, saying that that's the maximum you’ve done (only once) is not the most impressive answer.
#3. “Give me an example of a time you made a mistake. How did you manage the consequences?”
“Hmm, so this happened when I was working as an office assistant at a legal firm. It was my first job, so I was both excited and nervous. One time, one of the partners had asked me to stay late and help prepare some paperwork before the trial on the following day. On the day of the trial, I go to photocopy some other documents at the office when I notice a paper on the printing machine. It was part of the trial documents. I’d accidentally left it there, which meant the lawyer didn’t have it with him for the trial. I immediately rushed to deliver it myself but didn’t make it in time. When I got to court, the trial was already over. Luckily, the lawyer had still managed to do without it and even won the case, but I was still devastated. After that day, I made sure to double and triple check all machines after using them.”
This example shows an interviewee that takes responsibility and acknowledges their mistakes. The answer is honest, but it strategically focuses more on the solution and result of the problem, rather than the gravity of it.
“Well, I once made a mistake that almost cost my law firm a trial and a lot of money. It was accidental, but still. I’d given one of the lawyers the trial documents with some missing pages on them. I should’ve checked better, but ah well, we all make mistakes!.”
In this case, the only thing that will stick with the interviewer is “cost my firm a lot of money”. Not good. The “ah well” and careless tone also doesn’t make things better.
#4. “Tell me about a time when you were under a lot of pressure. How did you handle it?”
“When I was working as a receptionist for Company Y, the CEO’s personal assistant quit without notice. She asked me to temporarily cover that role until she found a replacement, so I suddenly found myself with a lot of things on my plate at once. I was taking and redirecting calls for the company, managing the office meeting rooms, setting meetings for the CEO, overlooking her schedule, and a bunch of other things, sometimes outside of the office. It was exhausting, but I was proud of myself for being able to manage it all. This went on for two weeks, longer than expected. The CEO was very happy with the work, so she offered a full-time PA position to me, which I gladly accepted.”
This answer shows a reliable and hard-working person that doesn’t say no to a challenge.
“I was working as a receptionist at Company Y when they announced that they would be merging with Z Company. The days after the news, reporters and clients wanted to know details, so my phone was constantly ringing. I had to redirect so many calls. I asked the company if they could hire a temporary assistant and they did. Thank god!”
It’s not that this answer is bad, it’s just that it’s… not good. It only shows that if times get a little tough, they can’t know if you’ll be able to handle it.
#5. “How would you respond to a request for doing a task you’ve never done before?”
“I’m a very quick learner and like a challenge, so I would accept the task. If it’s something that I feel uncertain about, I would ask for guidance. In fact, a similar situation happened when I was working as a sales associate for Company B. We’d just expanded and opened another store, and my manager asked me if I wanted to be in charge of the new employees at the location. I’d never been in a management or leadership position before, but I knew how the store and business worked very well and I agreed. It took me the first few days to get adjusted to the team and my duties, but everything went smoothly after that. After two years I was offered the position of general manager at the store.”
With this question, the employees are looking for someone who isn’t afraid to say no to a challenge but also knows their limits and capabilities. This answer gives them just that.
“Well, It depends on the task, really. I wouldn’t accept something that’s too difficult for me and risk making a fool of myself, but sometimes that’s necessary in order to move up in my career so I’d probably say yes (once in a while, anyway).”
In this example we have quite the opposite: the image of someone kind of lazy, who gets out of their comfort zone only when really necessary.
#6. “Tell me about a time you had to deal with a client that was asking the impossible.”
“Clients in the marketing industry are very demanding in general, but one of them stands out when I look back. I was a manager at marketing company X at the time and I had a sales meeting with a prospective client. The client demands were unrealistic, to say the least. They wanted us to do the complete rebranding in just two weeks. This included an updated logo, new website, posters, AND a digital ad campaign. I didn’t want to turn down the client, but what he was asking for was just not possible. So, I took my time and carefully explained to him what goes behind each step of the marketing process, and how long everything takes for us. I think it’s important for clients to know the value of the work they are getting. After our talk, the client seemed to be more understanding and decided to give us 20 days instead of 2 weeks. That’s still a pretty tight deadline, but we made it work. While the work wasn’t easy, we managed to establish a reasonable flow of work with the client for future projects.”
This answer shows great patience and communication skills on the interviewee’s side. It shows they know their limits and know when something can and can’t be done. It also shows they are good at what they do since they managed to deliver work even if the conditions weren’t the best.
“When I was working as a manager at marketing company X, we had to deal with a very difficult client. He really asked us the impossible, not understanding one bit how much effort and time is put into our work. So we sat down and I told him that the time he had given us to complete the marketing pitch was simply unrealistic and he needed to reconsider, which he did!”
This answer is explaining the same situation, but you can tell the difference in the tone. The client isn’t referred to with much respect and with the way the story is told, they were lucky he agreed to reconsider.
#7. “Tell me a situation where you took the initiative to fix a problem.”
“When I was first working in the service industry as a barista, the coffee shop was constantly having problems with the supplier. They were always bringing orders days late and in a lot of cases, with some products missing. The manager was barely present and didn’t mind that much, but I had to constantly tell customers that we were out of decaf or whatever product we were missing. I decided to contact the supplier to discuss the issues, but they were very unhelpful. So I did some research and found another supplier. They had glowing reviews and even had a larger variety of ingredients. I brought the proposition to my manager and laid out my case. He immediately agreed and we switched suppliers. It was a great relief for everybody.”
This answer gives the interviewers exactly what they are looking for and more. It shows a person who takes initiative, is a great problem-solver and has leadership skills as well.
“When I used to work for B Company, I found out one morning that the elevator to the offices had stopped working, so I immediately called maintenance. Since I’d arrived at work earlier than everybody else, by the time they got there the elevator was up and running again.”
Is this initiative to fix a problem or just common courtesy? You guessed it - it’s the latter.
#8. “Did you ever have to collaborate with a difficult coworker? How did you manage the situation?”
“When I was working as a real estate agent at Company Y, we were divided into teams, each covering a specific region. My team was amazing, very hard-working people. There was one coworker however, that was becoming a little problematic. He kept taking on responsibilities and agreeing to help others and then... bailing last minute. The final straw was when he agreed to cover for another agent at a property showing and he ended up 30 minutes late! Suffice to say, the client was very angry. I decided to approach him personally instead of calling for a meeting as I didn’t want this to look aggressive on our part. I explained to him that he shouldn’t take on responsibilities if he is not certain that he can go through with them. He was actually very understanding and apologized for the previous situations. We agreed to keep him on board, but we’d define very specific goals and KPIs to make sure that he improved. This actually ended up working out, and the person became a valuable member of the team.”
In this example, the interviewee shows great communication and leadership skills in the way he decided to approach the colleague individually and the way he discussed the problem.
“Yes, as a real estate agent I once had a coworker that kept letting us down with his tasks. He always agreed to help but never came through. It was becoming an issue and affecting our relationship with clients, so I decided to complain to the manager about this. They transferred him over to another team. I hope he did better there.”
Opposite to the correct example, the interviewee, in this case, showed no attempt to remedy the situation or give his coworker a chance. He chose the easy way out and complained to the manager. The action itself is not wrong, but the purpose of the question is to show the interviewee’s problem-solving and communication skills and this example showed none.
#9. “Tell me about a time when you handled a challenging situation.”
“The store where I used to work offered a delivery service for orders. We were always very precise, even during peak periods. However, mistakes do happen and one time, we had made a wrong delivery. The store phone rang just as I was leaving and the client was panicking over the delivery she got. She needed the dress she ordered for the next day, as she was going to a wedding, so I quickly got busy and tried to solve the issue. I called the delivery service (that was closing in 30mins) and tracked down the client’s package. I drove, picked it up, and brought it to her myself. She ended up writing us a glowing review after that.”
This example works because it not only shows a challenge well-handled, but it also demonstrates that the interviewee is able to take charge of the situation and go out of the way to solve it.
“When I was working as a sales associate, I once got a call from an upset client. She said she had gotten the wrong order and needed the problem fixed right away. I called the delivery service, tracked down her order, and assured her that they would fix it the following morning.”
Compared to the previous situational interview answer, this one is quite underwhelming, right? The lack of detail doesn’t make this look like a challenging situation and rather than “handling it”, the interviewee’s actions are only the bare minimum.
#10. “Was there a time when you were overwhelmed with work? How did you handle the situation?”
“The accounting firm where I was working did some downsizing and I suddenly found myself with twice the amount of work I previously had. Initially, I started planning down my time to the minute. That worked, but I still felt very overwhelmed and worn out. I decided to approach my boss and I suggested the company switch up their account software with something more modern, as it would make some of the tasks easier. We tested it out for a month, and after it worked successfully for us, we permanently upgraded. I immediately felt the change! I was able to do more in less time and dedicate each task the attention it deserves.”
In this case, the interviewee handled the situation in a way that not only helped her manage the workload but benefited the company as well.
“Well, I usually try to keep my workload average, but I once had to cover for a colleague that was taking a leave for a week. I tried to do everything, but in the end, I had to prioritize my own assignments and I couldn't manage to finish his as well. He caught up when he got back though.” ”
This example doesn’t do the interviewee any good. Although there weren’t any consequences to the work not being done, the example shows unreliability.
#11. “Tell me about a time when you and the team you were managing had opposing views on an issue. How did you get to a conclusion?”
“I try to include my teams in decision-making as much as I can. I remember when I was managing the marketing department of Brand B, we had to prepare a campaign for the Christmas and New Year season. Our CEO wanted to launch it pretty early, in mid-November, so we had a tight deadline to work with. Despite that, I judged it to be very achievable. When I brought this to my team, however, they disagreed. They were very certain that the time they had given us wasn’t enough and that we would either not make it in time or end up with a rushed final project. I explained that we would have to work extra hard to get it done, but I would still take their concerns to the CEO. We ended up negotiating on a further deadline that satisfied everyone.”
This example shows a manager that respects his team and does his best to find the best solution for everyone. He didn’t shut down his employees with an “I’m the boss, I decide” attitude, but rather took their concerns seriously and got to a compromise.
“When I was managing the marketing team of Brand B, we had to come up with a campaign for the Christmas and New Year season. The CEO had given us a deadline, which I thought was fair. My team, however, disagreed and was concerned with not having enough time. Truth is that as a manager, the decision comes down to me so I decided to go forward with the initial time frame. They were not happy, but this is how things work in the business. Plus I am a very determined manager and I think anything can be achieved.”
Although determination is a good quality to have, this example doesn’t really leave a good impression. It shows an autocratic manager that doesn't take his team’s views into account and is so over-confident that he takes upon a lot of risks.
Acing the Interview - Further Readings
At this point, you should be an expert at answering situational interview questions.
You shouldn’t forget, however, that there’s a bunch of other things you should look out for at a job interview.
If you’re interested in becoming a 5-star interviewee, check out these other helpful articles and practice answering:
- “What Is Your Greatest Strength?” - Without the right preparation, you’ll probably freeze in front of this question. Make sure you ace it by following this guide.
- “Why Should We Hire You?” - Well… why should they hire you? Read on how to give a concise but convincing answer.
- “Why Do You Want to Work Here?” - Follow up and give an answer that will show the interviewer that your intentions are in line with the company’s mission and values and that you’re not just aiming for good pay.
- “Tell Me About Yourself?” - So much to say in so little time… Don’t worry, this article has your back! Check it out and learn what structure your answer should follow.
- “Where do You See Yourself in 5 Years?” - Yes, we know you probably don’t have a good idea of that, but you still have to say something to the interviewer, right?
Our All-Time Best Interview Resources
- 35+ Common Interview Questions and Answers - This is your complete interview preparation guide, covering all the popular interview questions you might get asked.
- 26+ Biggest Interview Mistakes - Knowing what NOT to do is just as important as knowing what to do. Make sure you don’t go to an interview and make these mistakes!
- Questions to Ask an Interviewer - Most people don’t give this enough thought but trust us - it’s important. Ending the interview with “umm no, no questions” is not gonna help your case.
That was quite the read, but we hope you enjoyed it and found it helpful.
Let’s recap some of the key things we mentioned:
- Situational interview questions are asked by the interviewer in order to see how you react to certain work situations.
- Your answer should be structured according to the STAR method - Situation, Task, Action, Result.
- You should be equally prepared on both situational and non-situational interview questions, so take your time and go over as many tips as you can.