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A beginner’s guide to decoding interview questions

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As Autumn approaches, many employers are embarking are one of the busiest times of the hiring season, which means a lot of people reading this could be about to sit interviews, facing questions of varying complexity. 

Some interview questions are straightforward, requiring only a simple, factual answer.

Others are more complex and designed to achieve several things at once.

The key to answering complex interview questions well is in understanding their purpose. If you understand why you’re being asked a particular type of question, you can provide a better answer. So let’s take a look at some of the types of questioning you’re likely to face, and what your interviewer is seeking to learn about you in each case.

 

 

Question types

The most commonly-encountered types of interview questions are competency, situational and behavioural questions. There is considerable overlap and blurring between these, but they generally work as follows:

  1. Competency questions are used to assess how you have previously deployed specific skills and competencies deemed important in the context of the role you’re interviewing for.  They encourage evidence-based answers from your own experience.
  2. Situational questions test your approach to a purely hypothetical scenario, normally a problematic or challenging one. They require you to apply problem-solving logic to a situation you may have never faced, and can reveal a lot about how you think under pressure, or the processes you apply.
  3. Behavioural questions are all about how you have approached challenging situations in the past and are designed to test your behaviours, attitude and ability to learn from experience. They are very similar to competency questions, just more focused on behaviours rather than skills. Some questions can be a mix of both, but the techniques used to answer them are the same.

All of these question types are designed to assess not only the content of your answer, but how you answer. They can reveal a lot about your resourcefulness, imagination, emotional intelligence, ability to reflect, how well you organise your thoughts and your communication skills. They test your ability to think on your feet too, because you’ll have to do that with all of them!

How to answer these questions

A renowned method for structuring responses to these questions is the STAR technique, which comprises four steps:

  • Situation: Describe the situation in which the event took place.
  • Task: Describe the task/issue/challenge/problem you had to complete/resolve.  
  • Action: Describe the action you took to achieve this.
  • Results: Describe the results of your actions, emphasising any resulting success or changes.

You can apply this approach, with tweaks as appropriate, to all the above question types.

A typical answer to a question, using the STAR framework:

Question: Tell me about a time when you proactively sought to provide a solution to a customer issue.

Answer: In my role as a Customer Account Manager for MyTelco Limited, I inherited a major account. My client, the ICT manager, was really unhappy about the service she had received and was on the verge of changing suppliers. I arranged to visit her and asked her to explain why she was dissatisfied with the service. It turned out that each of the four technical departments involved in servicing her account never talked to one another and that she was getting different, often conflicting messages from different teams, who had been contacting her directly. She didn’t know who to believe, and lost all faith that her issues would be addressed. 

I listened to her problems and explained that it would be a priority for me to resolve them as soon as possible. Within three days I had spoken to all of the technical support teams, got an accurate picture of the historical and current situation with her account and took sole charge of communicating with her. I ensured all future communication would come through me once I was fully informed about any and all issues from each of the teams.

My client was pleased with the improvement in the service and despite the fact that I couldn’t always ensure issues were resolved immediately, I was always careful to set her expectations, be the sole source of communication (with contingency plans for any absence) and provide consistent and regular updates on any issues. As such, she always knew where she was and my relationship with her was excellent. The account was treated as a churning account; nobody expected me to win it back, but I successfully retained it.

Common mistakes to avoid with these questions

When interviewers ask these questions, they want to see evidence of skills and expertise that you have applied. They’re looking for evidence of what you can do as an individual. So make your answer about what you did, not what the team you worked for did.

By all means briefly outline the wider context, but make sure your example is specifically chosen to illustrate what you accomplished: what did you do and why/how, and what difference did it make?

Now let’s look at these question types in more depth.

Competency-based questions

A popular form of questioning designed to ascertain your competence in key areas essential in the context of the role. Do you have the competence an interviewer is looking for? They will test you by asking you to reflect on situations where you’ve applied them in the past.

Examples

Give me an example of when you used your management skills to motivate a peer or subordinate.

Tell me about a time when you took responsibility for a project.

Tell me about a time when you implemented something new.

Situational questions

Situational questions are designed to test your responses to hypothetical, often pressurised scenarios. You’ll need to think fast, imagining yourself in a scenario you may not have experienced before.

Scenario-based questions are designed to prevent you from giving a pre-scripted response. It’s hard to prepare an answer, but you can prepare the method you’ll use to provide an answer: as with competency and behavioural questions, use STAR to describe the situation. But this time, you’re talking about a problem or challenge instead of a task, as mentioned above. You can still go on to describe the actions you’ll take. 

Examples

If someone makes an error and you’re the only one who has spotted it, what would you do?

How would you handle a member of your team who was failing?

If you got the job, what would you do in your first three months here? (A challenge, not a problem!)

Behavioural questions

Like the very similar competency questions, these questions are based on the idea that how you worked in the past is a good signifier of how you’ll work in the future. They are often about how you approached a challenging scenario, so your interviewer can get a sense of how you might do that when you work for them.

Examples

Describe a situation when you had to persuade your manager that you were right and they were wrong.

Describe a situation where you had to win over an angry client.

Describe a situation where you had to motivate a failing employee.

Learning from mistakes

Some competency or behavioural questions might invite you to reflect on your own mistakes. You could face questions such as this:

Tell me about an experience that made you change the way you manage customers, and how you changed

Or

What’s the hardest lesson you’ve had to learn?

Questions like these are a good opportunity to show your ability to learn from experience. For leadership roles in particular it’s interesting for interviewers to see whether candidates can reflect on mistakes of the past, which takes emotional intelligence and a bit of humility.   

Furthermore, conversations about learning from “failure” bring a human element to interviews, creating a safe space where people can talk about mistakes without feeling judged. It’s a great technique for seeing the person behind the professional, slick exterior. 

Other questions you can expect

Curveball questions/brain teasers

These can vary enormously from the famed and so-called “Google Questions” asking you to explain how you’d work out how many tennis balls you can fit into a swimming pool, to what colour you would be, and why! Though challenging, they aren’t standard for most employers and even when they are asked they’re more about understanding your thought process than providing a “correct” answer. Some of the more off-the-wall questions are just a bit of fun and a useful ice-breaker.

Talk me through your CV/give me a summary of your career to date

You’re likely to be asked to deliver a summary of your employment history. This is a great opportunity to shine, and here’s how: rehearse. Practise delivering a smooth, concise history of your career. If you’ve made all your career decisions consciously to contribute to your overall value in a specific skill area, you’ll have a great story to tell. But if your career has been fairly random, sit down with your CV and find the common threads and the narrative within it so that you can present a logical progression.

Quick tips to ensure you don’t get caught out by interview questions

  • Do your research on the company, its markets and products or services.
  • Prepare well for when it’s your time to ask questions. Go into your interview armed with strong questions that show you’re really interested in the job and have done your research.
  • Ask for clarification if you don’t understand a question.
  • If you’re really stumped by a question, repeat it out loud or say “That’s a challenging question, I’ll have to think about that…” rather than sitting in silence. It will buy you thinking time.
  • Go into each interview with a positive mind-set. See interviews as an opportunity: your best-ever job could be just an interview away!