The three common types of interview questions – and how to answer them
10 min read | Nick Deligiannis | Article | Job searching Interview advice
There are many common types of job interview questions – but they all come from one of three themes. What are they, and how can you answer them?
If you’re preparing for a job interview, it’s important to plan for all eventualities. This includes all of the different types of job interview questions you might be asked.
So, to help you in your interview preparation, it’s important to know the three common types. In this blog, I’ll outline three different types of interview questions, why they’re asked and how you should answer them.
To keep things really simple to start with, I’ll break down the three types of interview questions you’re likely to encounter – and explain why they are asked.
This is crucial to know, as you can then articulate your answers to address what your interviewer really wants to know about you, including what you’ve achieved and how you respond under pressure.
Common types of interview questions at a glance
Situational: Hypothetical situations form the basis of these questions. They draw on your previous experience and instinctual approaches towards specific scenarios that might occur day to day in the role.
Competency-based: These questions are related to the exact skills and experience the candidate has acquired in their career thus far. These might be with specific technologies, industry standards or service management, for example.
Behavioural: Questions that aim to gauge what kind of character you possess by asking about your thought process when approaching challenging, practical work-based situations.
It’s important to bear in mind that not all interview questions you’re asked will fall into these distinct three categories. There is often some overlap in the way questions are asked, and therefore the way you should answer – but the below examples will help you enter your next job interview with confidence.
Now, we’ll learn more about how to handle these types of job interview questions.
1. Situational job interview questions
Situational interview questions are based on specific scenarios that could conceivably await you in the new role. They deter you from simply providing pre-packaged, generalised, scripted statements about your skills and experience, focusing on a given hypothetical situation and how you would handle it.
Situational interview questions can be difficult to answer, as you are required to think on the spot – which in itself is a skill the interviewer is testing you on. Answering these questions well can prove that you are willing to take the lead or ask for help, stay calm under pressure, and make positive choices that help you to overcome any situation.
Before answering a situational question, take a moment to fully understand what it is you’re being asked. For example, is the interviewer looking for evidence of your time management skills? Do they want to find out how you manage conflict?
Example situational interview question #1: “You know that a colleague has made a mistake at work, but as far as you’re aware, only you have spotted it. What do you do?”
- How to answer: One thing that your response definitely shouldn’t include – and this goes for any situational question – is any indication you would ‘pass the buck’ to someone else to attempt to absolve yourself of responsibility. Instead, you will be expected to show that you can take ownership of the situation, and find a solution calmly and productively.
- Example of a good answer: If you have a real experience of this situation, draw on this. Otherwise, the following would work: “I would first assess the situation, making sure that I am correct in my judgment. Then, I would follow any internal protocols for handling the situation, such as contacting my boss directly, before taking it any further. Otherwise, I would calmly approach the subject with the individual and let them know what I think has happened, what the impact of the mistake could be, how it could be resolved, and what I could do to help. If the individual was certain that no mistake had been made, I would seek advice from a supervisor and raise my concern to them.”
Typical situational interview question #2: “Describe a mistake you’ve made at work.”
- How to answer: We’re all human, and as a candidate, the interviewer will expect you to be able to admit that you have made mistakes at certain times in the past. This isn’t a question designed to ‘catch you out’ – indeed, a refusal to admit to any past mistakes may leave the interviewer with the impression that you aren’t willing or able to learn from difficult situations. However, they will wish to see evidence of your capacity to reflect on and learn from errors in the future. As mentioned, try to think about why the interviewer is asking the question, and what information they are looking for in your answer.
- Example of a good answer: “During my time as X at Y, I missed a major deadline due to poor communication with my colleagues. As soon as it became clear that the deadline would be missed, I contacted all of the stakeholders in the assignment to make clear that we were working hard to resolve the situation, and when they could expect the project to be completed. We put in the additional hours needed to complete the assignment swiftly. I then set up a shared spreadsheet for all future projects that made deadlines clear and showed the status of each assignment at any given time. I’ve never missed a deadline since then.”
Example situational interview question #3: “You’re working on a number of high-priority projects with hard deadlines. How do you go about determining what to prioritise?”
- How to approach: What this question is really trying to determine is your ability to manage your time strategically and effectively. Most jobs inevitably involve this situation on a day-to-day basis, so you should have experience to draw from.
- Good answer example: “I would begin by listing all the tasks I need to accomplish in one place, with when they need completing by. I’d then rank the tasks according to importance or urgency to structure my day, and ensure that I am reviewing my workload regularly to check that nothing needs reprioritising. I try to keep multitasking to a minimum as starting a number of jobs simultaneously means that you are unlikely to give any of them your full attention.”
A useful piece of advice here is to reflect on a general oversight or error of judgment, as opposed to a mistake that led to more serious consequences.
2. Competency-based job interview questions
Interviewers use competency-based questions to assess specific attributes, knowledge and behaviours. For example, a hiring manager looking to understand more about the behaviours that lead you to be successful in a job.
While these questions may often seem to be situational, competency-based questions are far less likely to be hypothetical, enabling you to draw directly on real-life examples. Try to focus on specific competencies rather than a general approach to situations.
Before answering, take a moment to think about what the interviewer is really asking or looking for.
Typical competency-based interview question #1: “Tell me about a time when you were required to use your creativity to solve a problem.”
- How to answer: Creative people are often able to think on their feet and come up with new solutions to problems than others. Therefore, the interviewer will be looking for you to demonstrate how you approach problems. The STAR technique will be useful in helping you to structure your answer here and tell a story.
- Example of a good answer: “I worked at an HR firm where one client was struggling to determine the causes of its high level of employee turnover. My manager asked me to undertake some data analysis to identify any trends or patterns indicating the likely causes. I ultimately devised an anonymous staff questionnaire that employees were able to complete online. We discovered from this that staff were concerned about the company having inadequate provision for their training and development. Many respondents also felt that it was difficult to talk to management. The client used these findings to make changes that helped to reduce their employee turnover by a third over the next six months.”
Typical competency-based interview question #2: “Tell me about a time when you supported a colleague who was struggling.”
- How to answer: Again using the STAR technique, your response should demonstrate clearly your teamwork and empathy, and how you applied these to help your colleague – but also how this improved performance for the business, thereby benefiting its bottom line.
- Example of a good answer: “A colleague who had only recently joined the team was having some difficulties with using reporting software. I offered to provide him with some ongoing training and support, and since then, he’s been using the software proficiently and helping our team to deliver brilliant results that have boosted company profits by a quarter in the last six months.”
Example competency-based interview question #3: “Describe a situation in which you led a team.”
- How to answer: This might seem a bit of a daunting question – it requires you to ‘sell yourself’, and if you’re too modest then you risk downplaying your achievement. That is why the STAR format is so useful – it allows you to illustrate your approach and the result in a story format that accentuates your success.
- Good answer example: “I was assigned to lead a group presentation to a number of important potential clients in the hope of winning their business. I then delegated sections of the presentation to various team members and systemically reviewed their progress as a team, ensuring that the messages were cohesive and made structural and narrative sense. I also led a series of practice sessions to ensure that everyone was word perfect and had full understanding of the role they were playing. As a result, the presentation went very smoothly, and we ended up winning business from nearly all the clients present.”
Remember, competencies are the knowledge and behaviours needed for a specific role. During your interview preparation, double-check the job description and think of clear examples of when you’ve demonstrated these competencies. Having examples to hand will enable you to answer these questions with great ease and allow you to really showcase your expertise.
3. Behavioural job interview questions
Behavioural questions are asked to elicit information from you on how you would be likely to handle real-world challenges. They’re usually based on your previous behaviour facing a similar circumstance. Whereas situational questions decipher how you would approach certain scenarios, and competency-based questions prove you have the skills required for the role, behavioural questions ascertain if you have the character traits the interviewer is looking for.
Such questions tend to be based on the principle that a candidate’s past behaviour is the best predictor of their future behaviour. They can touch on such aspects as your ability to work as part of a team, client-facing skills, adaptability, time management skills and more.
Typical behavioural interview question #1: “Give me an example of something you tried in your job that didn’t work. How did you learn from it?”
- How to answer: I touched on the importance of creativity and initiative above – but a vital part of being creative is realising that not all of your ideas will necessarily work. When the interviewer asks this question, they will therefore wish to see evidence of your willingness to learn from what did and didn’t work, while nonetheless learning from your experiences.
- Example of a good answer: “Working in customer service for a community health club, we had the idea of offering one-off month-long memberships. However, not enough people who took up these memberships then purchased a longer-term membership for it to be cost-effective for the business. We, therefore, switched to making our shortest contract six months long, and found that this did a better job of keeping the health club in profitability.”
Typical behavioural interview question #2: “Tell me about a time you knew you were right, but still had to follow directions or guidelines.”
- How to answer: The best response to this question is one that shows you are a responsible team player who – even if you disagree with a decision – nonetheless does what needs to be done while remaining motivated and helping colleagues.
- Example of a good answer: “The deadline for sign-off on a whitepaper was looming, so I worked with my other team members to finalise and quantify the market research we’d agreed upon. I did have concerns, however, as to the relevance of the date range used in our research, and so raised this at a team meeting. We were able to make some good changes to the status quo to help to prevent the same situation from arising again, and decided to conduct similar research in the future over a longer period of time, to ensure more effective results.”
Example behavioural interview question #3: “Think about an occasion when you were faced with a completely new situation and had to learn everything from scratch. How did you approach that?”
- How to answer: The interviewer is looking for an enthusiastic, proactive approach here – this is not only a chance to illustrate your approach to a previous learning experience, but also the opportunity to show your commitment to learning on an ongoing basis.
- Example of a good answer: “I firmly believe that no matter how high on the career ladder you climb, you should always maintain a keen interest in learning new things. When I began my career in marketing, I tried to immerse myself in the industry as much as possible by reading blogs and books and watching webinars – the industry is constantly changing so you need to stay up to date.”
What you need to remember about the common types of interview questions
By familiarising yourself with these common types of interview questions, you will be able to better position yourself as a great candidate. You’ll show your value at the interview stage to an extent that wouldn’t be possible through the obvious ‘templated’ interview answers alone.
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About this author
Nick Deligiannis began working at Hays in 1993. Since then, he has held a variety of consulting and management roles across the business, including the role of Director responsible for the operation of Hays in Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania, and the Northern Territory. In 2004, Nick was appointed to the Hays Board of Directors, and was made Managing Director for Australia and New Zealand in 2012.
Prior to joining Hays, he had a background in human resource management and marketing, and has formal qualifications in Psychology.