Three Types of Interview Questions and How to Answer Them  

11 mins | Travis O'Rourke | Article | Interview advice

If you’re preparing for a job interview, it’s important to plan for all eventualities – including all of the different types of job interview questions you might be asked. So, to help you in your interview preparation, in this blog I’ll outline three different types of interview questions, why they’re asked and how you should answer them.


1. Situational job interview questions

Situational interview questions are based on specific scenarios that could conceivably await you in the new role. They seek to deter you from simply providing pre-packaged, generalized, scripted statements about your skills and experience, to 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 you’ll be faced with in the job. 

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 puck’ 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 judgement. 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 for 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 by. 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.” 


2. Competency-based job interview questions

Competency-based questions are used by interviewers to assess specific attributes, knowledge and behaviours. For example a hiring manager looking to understand more about your behaviours that led you to be successful in a job may ask about different ways in which you used your analytical ability in a previous role to solve a problem. Alternatively, if it is your decision making that they are looking to assess, they may ask you to provide information about how you built strong professional rapport with colleagues to make informed decisions. 

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 and be focused on specific competencies than a general approach to situations. 

Again, as with situational job interview questions, before answering, you should 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 that other members of their team would not have even thought of. Therefore here the interviewer will be looking for you to demonstrate how you approach problems.  

  • Example of a good answer: “I worked at a 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: 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.” 

Remember competencies are the knowledge and behaviours needed for the specific role, so during your interview preparation double check the job description for what they are looking for and think of clear examples of when you’ve demonstrated these competencies. Having examples 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 any of a range of real-world challenges 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, and 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 realizing 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 to keep colleagues motivated as well. 

  • Example of a good answer: “The deadline for sign off on a whitepaper was looming, so I worked with my other team members to finalize 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 arising again, and decided to conduct similar research in the future over a longer period of time, to ensure more effective results.” 

By familiarizing yourself with these common types of interview questions, you will be able to better position yourself as a candidate who can be depended on to deliver an instant impact and make the right decisions. You’ll be able to show your value at the interview stage to an extent that wouldn’t be possible through the obvious ‘templated’ interview answers alone.

About this author

Travis O'Rourke
President of Hays Canada & CCO, Hays Americas

Travis is a Marketing graduate from Fanshawe College and was the 2023 recipient of their Distinguished Alumni Award. He joined Hays after holding various leadership roles elsewhere in the Canadian staffing industry. Travis setup and established Hays' outsourced talent solutions business and played an integral role in building Hays’ temporary and contract divisions throughout Canada. Initially joining Hays with a deep background in Technology, he holds extensive cross functional knowledge to provide clients with talent solutions in Financial Services, Energy, Mining, Manufacturing, Retail, and the Public Sector.

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