How to answer a hypothetical interview questionHypothetical interview questions put you in an imaginary situation and ask how you’d react. They are similar to role plays. Interviewers ask these types of questions to assess your problem-solving skills, how quickly you can think on your feet and how clearly you express yourself. Questions will often begin with “Imagine you are…” and are designed to assess your thought process rather than extract ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers.

These questions also help recruiters put candidates on an even playing field, since the same hypothetical situation can be proposed and candidates’ answers can be assessed against each other.

How to prepare for a hypothetical

You might think it would be difficult to prepare for hypothetical questions, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Questions usually revolve around solving a work-related problem, so it can help to think about possible issues that could arise in the role you’re applying for. Depending on the role, the question might focus on:

  • Resolving a customer complaint or issue.
  • Addressing a case of employee theft or misconduct.
  • Getting to the bottom of employee conflict.
  • Missing an important deadline.
  • Dealing with an aggressive customer.
  • Working with team members who aren’t pulling their weight.
  • Being passed over for promotion or additional responsibility.

Once you’ve come up with some potential situations, the next step is to think about how you’d resolve them and why you’d take that approach. Drawing on past experience to describe a similar situation you’ve faced and how you reacted is a good way to respond. This shows the interviewer that you’ve ‘been there, done that’ and worked successfully in a similar scenario. You also shouldn’t be afraid to mention things you wouldn’t do.

Tips for answering a hypothetical question

  • Don’t feel pressured to rush your answer: Take a few seconds to gather your thoughts and resist the temptation to blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. The interviewer is testing your problem-solving skills and wants to see reasoned thinking.
  • Clarify if you’re not sure: Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you need further explanation. Asking a question or two can also buy you a little thinking time.
  • Stay on point: Try not to ramble or go off on tangents. Tell your story in a structured way, with a beginning, middle and end. Come to the conclusion naturally with a clear description of your desired outcome or result.
  • Don’t think there is a definitive right answer: Discussing your approach – where you’d start, what you’d think about, who you’d talk to, what steps you’d take, etc. – is sometimes better than trying to provide an answer or resolution. The interviewer isn’t necessarily asking you to solve the problem for them – they want to know how you would approach it.
  • Use your own history: Consider preparing some examples focused on common skills such as problem solving, communication, people skills and customer service, as well as general challenges you’ve faced. When a question is posed, you may be able to draw on one of your prepared examples and adapt it to suit the hypothetical situation. You can then say “I actually faced a similar situation and was able to do XYZ.” Again, this shows that you have relevant experience.

It might seem impossible to prepare for hypothetical questions, but by analysing the job description, you can get a sense of what an interviewer might ask. What are the focus areas for the role? If it’s heavy on customer service, you might be asked how to resolve a complaint; if deadlines are important, you may need to explain how you’d handle a missed deadline; if you’re leading people, you might have to discuss handling a conflict. Take time to prepare some thoughts and examples, and boost your chances of success.

Do you struggle with answering questions like this during interviews? If you’d like some help preparing for a job interview, so you can build your confidence and increase your success rate, take a look at our Interview Training and Coaching Services.

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