Student Success Centre

Types of Questions

An interviewer will generally ask a wide variety of questions in order to determine if a candidate has the necessary skills and personality to suit the position they are trying to fill.

It is becoming more common for employers and academic institutions to use behaviour- and/or situational-based questions to test a candidate’s suitability for the job or academic program.

To be fully prepared however, you should practice answering all of the different types of questions. Always remember to think about why a question is being asked – what does the interviewer really want to know? – and address this directly and concisely.

No matter what the type of interview question, be certain to tell the truth, get to the point, stay focused, turn negatives into positives, and be consistent with your responses.

Behaviour-Based Questions

Behaviour-based interviews are designed to elicit information about how you have performed in the past because past behaviour is a good indicator of how you will function in the future.

Interviewers develop their questions around the traits and skills they consider necessary for succeeding in a position or organization. These questions usually begin with phrases such as the following:

  • Tell me about a time...
  • Describe a situation in which...
  • Recall an instance when…
  • Give me an example of...

Some applicants find the format of such questions difficult to understand and have trouble responding. However, if you have done your research and are prepared for the interview, you will have work, academic, and life experiences ready to share.

You can prepare for behaviour-based questions by recalling specific actions that demonstrate your accomplishments, abilities, and fit for the position. Common behaviour-based interview themes include the following:

  • Working effectively under pressure
  • Handling a difficult situation with a co-worker
  • Applying good judgment and logic in solving a problem
  • Thinking creatively
  • Completing a project on time
  • Persuading team members to do things your way
  • Writing a report or proposal that was well received
  • Anticipating potential problems and developing preventative measures
  • Making an important decision with limited facts and information
  • Adapting to a difficult situation
  • Being tolerant of a different opinion
  • Dealing with an upset client
  • Delegating a project effectively
  • Explaining complex information to a client, colleague, or peer.
  • Surmounting a major obstacle
  • Prioritizing the elements of a complicated project

Behaviour-Based Interview Strategies

There are two strategies that are commonly used to create a focussed and articulate answer to behaviour-based interview questions – STARS and W5.

Regardless of the strategy used, be sure to answer the question in approximately ninety seconds because that's the typical attention span of an interviewer per question.

1. STARS

STARS outlines the key points that you should highlight when answering behaviour-based interview questions, in the order that they should be addressed.

Begin by describing the situation in which you demonstrated the skill/knowledge/ability that was highlighted in the interview question followed by a description of your specific task.

The actions that you took are particularly important because it allows the interviewer to visualize how you responded to the task and helps them to imagine you taking those same actions in their workplace. Be sure to include a clear result of your actions.

Lastly, summarize your answer concisely. 

  • S - Situation
  • T - Task
  • A - Action
  • R - Result
  • S – Summary

2. W5 Model

For the W5 model, take approximately 70 seconds to state the appropriate skill/knowledge/ability and give an example of it by explaining: what, who, when, where, why, and how.

Also, be sure to include the successful outcome that corresponds with your example.  Choose words that will help the employer visualize you in the experience (e.g., "It was five minutes before closing on the busiest night of the year and the power went out...").

Whenever possible, include positive feedback from supervisors, colleagues, professors, and others to reinforce your accomplishment.  The remaining 20 seconds should be used to re-state the skill and outline the benefits that are transferable to the interviewer’s organization.

Examples: 

  • Describe a time on any job that you’ve held in which you were faced with problems or stresses that tested your coping skills. What did you do?
  • Give an example of a time in which you had to keep from speaking or not finishing a task because you did not have enough information to come to a good decision.
  • Give an example of a time in which you had to be relatively quick in coming to a decision.
  • Tell me about a time in which you had to use your spoken communication skills in order to get a point across that was important to you.
  • Give me an example of a time in which you felt you were able to build motivation in your coworkers and subordinates at work.
  • Describe a situation in which you felt it necessary to be very attentive and vigilant to your environment.
  • Give an example of a time in which you had to use your fact-finding skills to gain information for solving a problem, then tell me how you analyzed the information to come to a decision.
  • Give me an example of an important goal that you set in the past and your success in reaching it.
  • Give me an example of a time when you had to go above and beyond the call of duty in order to get a job done.
  • Give me an example of a time when you were able to successfully communicate with another person, even when that individual may not have personally liked you.
  • Describe a situation in which you were able to effectively ‘read’ another person and guide your actions by your understanding of their individual needs or values.
  • Describe the most creative work-related project you have carried out.
  • Describe a time in which you felt it was necessary to modify or change your actions in order to respond to the needs of another person.
  • Give me an example of a time when you had to carefully analyze another person or situation in order to be effective in guiding your action or decision.
  • What did you do in your last job to contribute toward a positive team environment? Be specific.
  • Give me an example of a problem you faced how you went about solving it.
  • Tell me about a time when you had to work collaboratively in a group and how successful it was.

Situational/Hypothetical Questions

An interviewer will use situational/hypothetical questions to establish how you would react to and handle real-life situations on the job. For situational/hypothetical questions, candidates must have a good understanding of the job and its requirements.

To successfully answer an interviewers situational question, be sure to take your time and give the question some thought before answering, be honest, and answer clearly and with detail.

There is no right or wrong answer but rather, the interviewer is looking to develop an idea of how you will respond in situations that are common on the job you are interviewing for.

Examples:

  • If you had met your project deadlines and your direct supervisor was unavailable, describe how you would remain busy.
  • You are the manager of a small software testing team and one individual is continually late for work and taking extended breaks. How would you approach the issue?
  • During construction, a contractor unexpectedly finds a very large object in one of the trenches where he is about to dig. He requests that you tell him how to proceed. How would you deal with this situation?
  • You plan a workshop to teach newcomers to Canada how to use word-processing software. Unfortunately, only four people have registered and you are required to have a class of ten. You really feel that the training is important but are worried about the financial consequences. It is five days before the class is scheduled to begin. What do you do?
  • You have a conflict with someone who is senior to you and is not your supervisor. Describe how you would handle it.

Skill-Testing Questions

Potential employers often require proof that you have the practical skills and savvy to successfully do the job. Skill-testing questions can be hands-on (e.g., programming on a computer, solving a complex math problem, etc.) and are most commonly found in technical, scientific, and industrial/manufacturing fields.

For skill-testing questions, if you know the answer, great! But if not, don't fake it. Instead, indicate your interest and desire to learn. If possible, indicate something else that may compensate for this lack of knowledge (e.g., "I'm not familiar with that programming language but I do have experience with...").

Examples:

  • What is the difference between server-side and client-side scripting?
  • Provide a brief description of a diode.
  • Explain the theory of elasticity.
  • What is a comma splice?

Problem-Solving Questions

An interviewer uses problem-solving questions to gain a greater understanding of how you will solve problems in the field.  When answering problem-solving questions, you want to demonstrate your abilities to process information quickly, think logically, and problem solve creatively.

The key to answering problem-solving questions is not to worry about getting the ‘right’ answer but, rather, to demonstrate your logical thought process in solving the problem.

The following five-step process is appropriate for handling most problem-solving questions:

  1. Listen carefully to what is being asked.
  2. Ask clarifying questions to determine exactly what the interviewer is looking for.
  3. Respond by first explaining how you’d gather the data necessary to make an informed decision.
  4. Discuss how you’d use that data to generate options.
  5. Based on the data you’ve gathered, the available options, and your understanding of the position, explain how you’d make an appropriate decision or recommendation.

Examples:

  • Why is a manhole cover round?
  • How many automobiles are there in Toronto?
  • Estimate the size of the DVD rental market in Tokyo, Japan.
  • How would you project the future rate of PC game purchases in Canada?
  • Describe how you would extract caffeine from coffee beans.

Case Based Interviews

Case interviews are used primarily by consulting firms and investment banking companies as part of their interview process to determine if a candidate has the qualifications to succeed.

Case interviews are most similar to problem-solving questions with the exception that you will be given many types of case interview questions during this type of interview.   

What is case based interviewing?

  • Real world situations, sometimes taken from actual client engagements
  • Topics covered in the case are usually reflective of the type of work the candidate would be doing
  • Interviewer provides the candidate with a set of facts about a problem – often business or technology related
  • Interviewer assess the candidate’s ability to synthesize many different situational elements into a cohesive understanding of the problem at hand
  • Candidates draw upon their analytical abilities, business experience, and deductive reasoning to “solve” the case

Examples:

Market Sizing

  • How many golf balls are made in the US each year?
  • How many cans of paint are needed to paint the Delta fleet?

Brainteasers

  • Say you are an inch tall and stuck in a blender. The blender is going to turn on in 60 seconds. How do you escape?
  • Why do fashions change every year or two?

General Business

  • To which site should we relocate?
  • Why are our profits falling in Division ABC?

Other Examples

  • A major health insurance company has just bought out a slightly smaller competitor.  What are some considerations that the companies might have in merging the billing systems, and what are some strategies that you might use to combat the most important of these problems?
  • A major North American drug/convenience store has been losing market share for three years. They have asked us to determine the cause for this trend and to recommend solutions to regain market share.
  • A small manufacturing company has just announced its merger with a competitor of equal size.  The two companies have different benefits and compensation packages for employees at the same level.  They have asked for recommendations about how to merge the packages successfully and cost-effectively while causing minimal confusion and disruption for the employees.
  • You are a consultant for a German luxury car manufacturer interested in entering the sports utility vehicle (SUV) market after noticing the market has grown dramatically worldwide in the past two years. The client currently has no experience with manufacturing these types of vehicles.  How would you advise the CEO about what his company should do?
  • How many gas stations are there in Europe?

Benefits

  • The focus in a case interview should be the candidate’s approach to the question and plausibility of the solution.
  • The candidate’s background and level of experience will play a large role in his/her performance with regard to creativity and recommending solutions
  • It is important to stay within the timeframe and scope of the question – when the candidate gets sidetracked, interviewers should reel them back in
  • The interview should not be one-sided; interviewers should respond with additional information and follow-up questions as appropriate
  • As with behavioral, case interviewers should demonstrate consistency, fairness, preparedness, effective listening skills

Case based interview

Traditional Questions

In addition to asking the other types of questions mentioned, many employers rely on a series of standard questions. While responding to these questions, use to your advantage information that the employer volunteers about the position and organization.

Listen for verbal cues and hints (e.g., what is said, how it is said) and customize your responses accordingly, but be honest.

In order to successfully answer traditional interview questions, the PAWS method is most commonly employed. The "PAWS" acronym stands for Profile, Academic, Work, and Skills. Include all or as many of the four (in any order) as possible to reinforce your fit for the job.

As with any interview response, limit your answer to a maximum of ninety seconds.

Here are some examples of what to discuss in each of the four areas:

  • Profile: Mention how you became interested in this field and perhaps point out any relevant community involvement, extracurricular activities, memberships, and personal interests that further demonstrate your commitment to the field.
  • Academic: Talk about your educational background (degrees/diplomas/certifications) and other related training and professional development initiatives/courses that you participated in.
  • Work: Highlight paid or unpaid experience related to the job.
  • Skills: Refer to specific technical skills that relate to the position or field (e.g., programming C++, knowledge of GIS) and relevant transferable skills (e.g., time management, problem-solving skills).

Examples:

  • Tell me about yourself.
  • What are your greatest strengths?
  • What are your weaknesses?
  • Why do you want to work here?
  • Why should we hire you instead of someone else?
  • Why did you leave your last job?
  • What did you like/dislike about your last job?
  • What would you like to be doing five years from now?
  • What is your vision/mission statement?
  • What do you think you will be looking for in the job following this position?
  • Why do you feel you will be successful in this work?
  • What other types of work are you looking for in addition to this role?
  • Why did you apply to our organization and what do you know about us?
  • What do you think are advantages/disadvantages of joining our organization?
  • What is the most important thing you are looking for in an employer?
  • What were some of the common characteristics of your past supervisors?
  • What characteristics do you think a person needs to work effectively in our company/department?
  • What courses did you like best/least? Why?
  • What did you learn or gain from your part-time/summer/co-op/internship experiences?
  • What are your plans for further studies?
  • What would your references say about you?
  • Do you have any questions for me?

Illegal Questions

There are many questions that are illegal for an interviewer to ask. It is important to be aware of these questions so that you are able to recognize when they have been asked and can prepare for how to handle them.

It is best to politely decline to answer these questions during the interview as answering them may result in the interviewer inappropriately discriminating against you in the hiring process.

Below are examples of topics that are off-limits within the interviewing and hiring process.

Examples:

  • Race
  • Ancestry
  • Place of origin
  • Colour
  • Ethnic origin
  • Citizenship
  • Religion
  • Gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Age
  • Record of offences
  • Marital status
  • Same-sex partnership status
  • Family status
  • Disability