Answering the Unexpected or Unrehearsed Interview Question

Writing down answers for anticipated questions might cover 50 percent of the questions you are asked in an interview. How do you handle the other 50 percent? You can deftly handle any question if you develop a method for doing so.

If you are asked to describe specific skills, try this:

In this amount of time Do this
70 seconds State skill and give an example of it by explaining what, who, when, where, why and how.
Describe the outcome.
20 seconds Re-state skill and outline benefits transferable to the interviewer’s organization

Behavioral questions, those that aim to discover how you handle situations, often require you to describe how you solved a problem.

Your answer should follow this sequence:

  • Lay out the problem you faced;
  • Explain your solution; and
  • Discuss the results

Another form of behavioral question asks you to explain how you would approach a situation or solve a problem, rather than explaining how you did so in the past. These are called “case” or “hypothetical” questions. The interviewer wants a glimpse into your critical thinking and decision-making skills.

When asked a hypothetical question, it is important to first make sure you know exactly what the interviewer is asking.

Follow this sequence of steps to develop your ad lib answer:

  • Listen intently to what is being asked.
  • Ask questions to determine exactly what the interviewer is looking for.
  • First, explain how you’d gather any data needed to make a decision or decide a course of action.
  • Describe how you would assess your options in order to decide what action to take.
  • Describe how you’d make an appropriate decision or recommendation.

S.T.A.R. is a strategy taught by many career counselors for answering behavior-based questions. S.T.A.R. is an acronym for the four elements of the answer: Situation, Task, Actions, Response.

The example below, written by the career center at Northwestern University, illustrates the S.T.A.R strategy.

” Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult customer. How did you handle the situation and what happened?”

Situation: “While working as a salesperson for Monica’s MuuMuus, I was given an account that had been mishandled by our company in the past. When this customer came in to place a large, new order, she was angry, expressing dissatisfaction with past service and asked us to guarantee superior work this time around.”

Task: “I wanted to maintain this customer relationship, without promising service we could not deliver. I expressed regret to her over past service problems and told her I would review her order in detail with my supervisor and get back to her within 24 hours.”

Action: “I scheduled a meeting with my supervisor and we reviewed her order, identifying potential pitfalls, resulting in our adjusting the services we could provide. I then returned the customer’s call, negotiated a new contract, and faxed it to her.”

Result: ” While the customer was a little disappointed that we could not provide everything she wanted, she appreciated my being honest about what we could do. In the end both parties were happy.”

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