How to Answer Behavioral and Situational Interview Questions (Without Panicking)

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June 22, 2022
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min read

You’re pretty sure you’re acing your interview. You made some friendly small talk. You knocked your introduction out of the park. You’ve even cracked a few jokes.

And then it happens: “Can you tell me about a time when…?”

Gulp. Suddenly your stomach is in your shoes. Your mind goes blank. You can hardly remember your own name, let alone a time when you solved a problem. Or spearheaded change. Or achieved a goal. 

Behavioral interview questions and situational interview questions are enough to trip up even the most poised and confident candidates. But, that doesn’t mean you need to sit there in a panic while the menacing melody of the “Jeopardy” theme song echoes through your empty brain. 

We’re here to get you through these anxiety-inducing interview questions—maybe even without sweating through your shirt. 

Behavioral interview questions vs. situational interview questions: What’s the difference?

You’ll often hear these terms used interchangeably, but there’s a difference between these two types of interview questions.

Behavioral-based interview questions ask about what you have done. You’ll need to recall a specific experience or anecdote that actually happened. 

In contrast, situational interview questions ask about what you would do. They set up a hypothetical situation (hence the “situational” name) and require you to explain how you’d react and respond.

How can you spot the difference? You’ll hear it in the different prompts:

  • Behavioral: “Tell me about a time when….”
  • Situational: “What would you do if….”

These questions won’t always start with those exact words. For example, when asking a behavioral question, the interview might kick it off with something like, “Give me an example of…” or “Describe a time when….” For situational questions, they might start with, “How would you…” or “Imagine that…”.

While the specific phrasing might vary, the difference between situational and behavioral interview questions remains the same: Behavioral questions ask you to look at the past while situational questions ask you to look toward the future.

What are the 10 most common behavioral and situational interview questions?

Alright, we’ll admit it: Saying any interview questions are the “most common” is sort of a misnomer. In reality, interview questions run the gamut—there are a lot of nuances here and there’s really no way to know with certainty what questions they’ll ask.

Are you applying for a leadership role? An entry-level role? Are you in the first round of the interview process? The third round? Are you applying as a software developer? Or a human resources manager?

All of those things matter, as the hiring manager or interviewer will use that information to pick out more tailored questions that help them determine how qualified you are for the specific position you’re applying for.

But, generally speaking, there are some questions that a lot of employers like to lean on—especially when it comes to sussing out your soft skills (that is, non-technical skills related to interpersonal communication). Here are a few of the most popular ones. 

Some of the most common behavioral interview questions

  1. Can you tell me about a time when you successfully led a team?
  2. Can you tell me about a time when you failed?
  3. Can you tell me about a time when you had to solve a difficult problem?
  4. Can you tell me about a time when you had to work under pressure?
  5. Can you tell me about a time when you had a conflict with a coworker and how you resolved it?

Some of the most common situational interview questions 

  1. What would you do if your boss gave you a direction you didn’t agree with?
  2. What would you do if you had to convince your team to do things your way?
  3. What would you do if you received negative feedback on something you worked hard on?
  4. What would you do if you made a mistake and you knew nobody else noticed?
  5. What would you do if you were assigned a task you had never done before?

Again, this isn’t an exhaustive list. But, it’s a good place to start if you feel totally lost about what you might be asked. 

How do you answer behavioral and situational interview questions?

Now to the part you really want to know: How on earth are you supposed to answer these questions? 

The good news is that there’s a framework you can use to make sure you hit all of the important points, without getting too lost in unnecessary details. It’s called the STAR method. 

While it’s frequently talked about in the context of behavioral interview questions, you can use it for situational questions too—you’ll just explain a hypothetical example instead of a real one. 

Let’s quickly break down the STAR method. It stands for:

  • Situation: Briefly describe what was happening. 
  • Task: Explain what your role was in that specific situation. 
  • Action: Describe exactly what you did. 
  • Result: Share what happened after you took action.

Often, people spend far too much time setting up their anecdotes. However, the most important parts of the acronym are the action and the result, as they place the emphasis on what you did and what you achieved. So, make sure you dedicate enough time and detail to those pieces—you don’t want to bury the lede. 

Sample behavioral interview questions and answers

Scratching your head about how to use the STAR framework in an actual interview? Let’s clear it up with a couple of behavioral interview questions and answers:

Example Behavioral Interview Question: “Can you tell me about a time when you failed at something?”

Example Answer: 

  • Situation: “In my previous position as a sales representative with Company XYZ…"
  • Task: “ manager and I set an ambitious target for me to close $15,000 in sales by the end of the second quarter.”
  • Action: “I narrowly missed that goal, achieving $13,900 in sales when the end of the quarter rolled around.”
  • Result: “I felt discouraged at first. But, I used that experience to refine my sales techniques and my cold outreach. In the following quarter, I exceeded my $15,000 goal, reaching a total of $17,500 for the third quarter."

Example Behavioral Interview Question: “Describe a time when you had to work under pressure.”

Example Answer: 

  • Situation: “While working as a marketing manager at Company XYZ…”
  • Task: “...I was responsible for coordinating speakers for our annual customer meeting. Unfortunately, one of our keynote speakers had to drop out only two days before the event.”
  • Action: “I jumped into action by tapping my network to see if anyone could recommend another speaker who was available for a virtual session at the last minute.”
  • Result: “I managed to secure a new speaker who delivered an incredible presentation. She received rave reviews and glowing feedback from all of our attendees.”

Sample situational interview questions and answers

What about situational interview questions? We have a couple of examples of those to guide you too. 

Example Situational Interview Question: “How would you respond if you received negative feedback on something you worked hard on?”

Example Answer: 

  • Situation: “Receiving harsh criticism on work always stings, especially if I know I did solid work that I’m proud of.”
  • Task: “But, I also view it as an opportunity to collaborate, learn, and improve.”
  • Action: “I would make sure to ask clarifying questions to understand the root of the feedback. I might also approach other people on my team for second opinions. From there, I’d decide which pieces of feedback are worth implementing, improve my project, and share the new version with the relevant team members.”
  • Result: “Responding that way would hopefully improve the end project—along with the trust shared between my coworkers and me.” 

Example Situational Interview Question: “What would you do if you made a mistake and nobody noticed?”

Example Answer: 

  • Situation: “If I were to make a mistake that went by unnoticed by anyone else…”
  • Task: “ I’d respond would depend on whether it was a small or major slipup.”
  • Action: “For minor errors, I’d immediately take action to correct the mistake and then loop in anybody who needed to be aware of the correction. For a major mistake, I’d dig into what happened, identify potential solutions, and then approach my supervisor to explain the situation, take accountability, and talk through the potential resolutions I identified.”
  • Result: “I think those steps would prioritize transparency, trust, and communication—and they’re far better than sweeping things under the rug.” 

3 other tips for acing behavioral and situational interview questions

The STAR method will set you on the right path to answer these types of questions in an effective and organized way. But, there are a few other best practices to help you deliver impressive answers—without all of the panic.

1. Spend some time reflecting before your interview

One of the biggest struggles that people deal with when answering behavioral interview questions in particular is drawing a blank when it comes to finding an actual anecdote.

When the pressure is on, it’s increasingly difficult to comb through the mental files of your professional history and find fitting examples and experiences. 

That’s why it’s so helpful to do some reflection on your career prior to your interview. Sit down with a notebook and a pen and scribble down some of your most notable projects, achievements, interactions, and pieces of feedback. That will naturally highlight some key moments throughout your career journey.

You still might not know exactly what you’ll be asked, but you can repurpose those examples  and tweak them to fit specific questions. 

For instance, that time that you and a colleague worked through your differences and completed an incredible project together? You could use that story  to answer a question about resolving a conflict. Or solving a problem. Or working successfully as part of a team. Or handling a difficult conversation… You get the idea. 

2. Ask for a minute to think

Silence feels daunting—especially during an interview—so, we try to avoid it at all costs, jumping right in before we’ve even had a moment to think about what we actually want to say. 

As awkward as it can feel, asking for a minute to pause and collect your thoughts is far better than charging ahead and hoping that you find an adequate example amongst all of your rambling. Practice saying this:
“That’s a great question. Do you mind if I take a minute to think about it?”

It gives you some space to actually think through your answer. Plus, the interviewer will likely be impressed that you want to give the question the thorough consideration it deserves. 

3. Remember your nonverbal cues 

Despite the fact that your nerves will likely be on hyperdrive when answering these types of questions (seriously, they feel like the essay questions on an exam when you’d much prefer multiple choice), you still need to be mindful of all of the other interview best practices.

One of the big ones? Paying attention to your body language, facial expressions, and other nonverbal cues. Try your best to:

  • Avoid fidgeting
  • Maintain adequate eye contact, whether you’re in-person or on camera
  • Sit up straight with your chin up and shoulders back 

The last thing you want is for your incessant shuffling and shifty eye contact to undermine your confidence when you finally come up with the perfect anecdote. 

Can you tell me about a time when you panicked in an interview?

Most of us know that we’re going to be asked behavioral and situational interview questions—yet, they still manage to catch us off guard and send our hearts skyrocketing straight to our throats.

Rest assured that you can answer these questions in a way that’s cool, confident, and professional. Like any other part of the job search, it just requires a little planning and strategy.

Use this as your guide and you’ll be ready to nail those dreaded interview questions—even if you feel like the only one you’re capable of answering is, “Tell me about a time when you wanted to run out of a job interview.” 

Ready to take a little more stress out of your job search? Get started with Teal's Job Application Tracker today.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I prepare for unexpected situational interview questions?

To prepare for unexpected situational interview questions, it's beneficial to familiarize yourself with the job description and identify key competencies required for the role. Practice the STAR method (Situation, Task, Action, Result) to structure your responses, and think of diverse scenarios from your past experiences that demonstrate your problem-solving and decision-making skills. Reflect on challenges you've faced, how you addressed them, and what you learned, so you can adapt these stories to various questions.

What is the best way to convey my thought process during a behavioral interview question?

During a behavioral interview question, clearly articulate your thought process by breaking down the steps you took to handle a past situation. Use specific examples and focus on your role in the scenario. Explain your reasoning, the options you considered, and why you chose a particular course of action. This transparency in your problem-solving approach shows the interviewer your analytical skills and how you might perform in the role.

Can you provide an example of how to turn a negative experience into a positive one in an interview answer?

When discussing a negative experience in an interview, focus on the positive outcomes and what you learned. For example, if you faced a project setback, explain how it taught you the importance of contingency planning and how you successfully navigated the challenge by implementing a plan B. Highlighting your resilience and ability to learn from difficulties demonstrates growth and adaptability, which are valuable traits to employers.

Kat Boogaard

Kat is a freelance writer focused on the world of work. When she's not at her computer, you'll find her with her family—which includes two adorable sons and two rebellious rescue mutts.

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