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What are the 3 most common types of interview questions?

By Roddy Adair, Director, Hays Personal & Executive Assistants

Job interviews can be a daunting prospect. However, the best way to banish the butterflies is through preparation.

To help you with this, I’ve outlined the 3 most common types of interview questions, and how you should be answering them.

The 3 types of job interview question

We have broken down the 3 most common types of interview questions. Crucially, we have also explained why these questions are asked. This means you can prepare answers which provide the type of information the interviewer really wants to know.

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.


1. Situational questions:

As previously mentioned, situational interview questions are based on specific, practical scenarios that you might encounter in the new job. These are somewhat difficult to prepare for as they are designed to evoke a natural, kneejerk response - encouraging you to think on your feet. Scripted, generic statements are of no real use here, as the situation may be new to you.

It’s easy to feel under pressure if you think the interviewer is trying to test you with this kind of question, but there’s no need to panic. Before you go to answer, take a minute to understand what kind of response they are looking for – if it’s a situation you have never faced what they are most likely trying to do is gauge your ability to stay calm under pressure, willingness to take the lead or ask for help if necessary and ability to take positive action to overcome the challenge.

Example situational interview question #1: “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.”


Example situational interview question #2: “You’re tasked with increasing market share for a product without an increase to the existing marketing budget. Describe how you would go about solving this problem in a creative way.”

  • How to answer: Questions around creative thinking often derail candidates, as it sounds something like an arts-based question. But remember that creativity is a desirable quality in an employee, as it allows you to approach situations in a different and often original way – the interviewer is looking for an example of ingenuity or original thought from you, bringing about positive change.
  • Good answer example: “I’d begin by doing some internal brainstorming, and leverage on the resources we already possess about how to be more creative with our marketing. Utilising social media channels and blog pages etc. in an innovative way and creating thoughtful and engaging content is a way to connect with customers that requires minimal investment but can potentially have enormous reach and create huge buzz around a new product.”


2. Competency-based questions:

The aim of competency-based questions is to gauge the specific skills you possess, using the reasoning that your existing experience can be used as an indicator of future performance. They often require you to answer in the context of actual events, demonstrating some overlap with situational questions. Systematic in nature, each question will likely target a different competency, such as communication, commercial awareness or teamwork.

The key to answering these is to use real-life past examples, using the STAR technique:

Situation/Task: Describe the task you were assigned to or the situation you faced.

Action: Explain exactly how you met the challenge and why you did what you did.

Result: Describe the outcome of your actions and the positive effect it had on your business.

Example competency-based interview question #1: “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.”


Example situational interview question #2: “We all make mistakes and wish that we could have done things another way. Tell me about a time you wish you’d handled a situation differently.”

  • How to approach: We are human at the end of the day, and the interviewer would probably be suspicious if you claimed never to have made a mistake before. This isn’t a question designed to ‘catch you out’ – in fact, a refusal to admit to past mistakes may give the interviewer the impression that you aren’t willing to learn and grow as a person. What they are looking for, however, is evidence of your capacity to reflect and learn for the future.
  • Good answer example: “At a previous job, I missed an important deadline due to mis-communication with other members of my team. As soon as it became obvious that we weren’t going to be able to meet the deadline, I contacted all of the stakeholders in the assignment with a full apology, made it clear that we were all working hard to get the project back on track, and updated them with a new deadline. We put in the additional hours needed to complete the project as quickly and efficiently as possible, and as a way of preventing the same thing from happening again I created a shared spreadsheet for all future projects that logs the status of each assignment. Since then I’ve always kept to deadlines.”


3. Behavioural questions:

Interviewers ask behavioural questions in order to elicit information about your character, based on descriptions of the ways that you have approached similar challenges in the past. Whereas situational questions decipher your immediate, practical approach to certain scenarios, and competency-based questions are designed to gain information on the skills you possess, behavioural questions ascertain if you have the character traits they are looking for.

Example behavioural interview question #1: “Tell me about a time you had to work on a project with someone whose working style clashed or didn’t align with yours.”

  • How to answer: Whilst this question does require a certain degree of honesty, it’s important to be diplomatic and not be too critical of your former colleague. The interviewer will be looking for flexibility here and a proactive approach towards overcoming challenges.
  • Good answer example: “One of my colleagues had a very creative mindset, and their approach to campaigns was more impulse-driven whereas I work better with structure. I knew that to get the best out of both of us it had to be a dual effort, so I conducted brainstorms at regular intervals that allowed spontaneous, organic idea generation but also had fixed, focused outcomes.”


Example behavioural interview question #2: “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.”


By becoming familiar with these three types of interview questions, you will be find it easier to position yourself as a rounded candidate who is adaptable, able to think on their feet and willing to apply lessons they have learnt to future situations. Answering these questions competently means that you’ll be able to demonstrate the value you can bring to the role that would not have been possible just using generic, templated answers.

About this author

Roddy joined Hays in 1999 as a Recruitment Consultant. In 2012 he took over operational responsibility for Hays in Scotland, managing dedicated teams providing expert temporary and permanent recruitment services for a wide range of sectors and professions. From 2017, he has been the lead for Hays Personal & Executive Assistants business across the UK, providing strategic leadership to over 200 consultants.

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