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Advice / Job Search / Interviewing

3 Problem-Solving Questions You'll Get in an Interview—and How to Answer Each One

woman interviewing

Over the course of your interview, the hiring manager needs to figure out a few things. She needs to get a better sense of how your skills and experience line up with the open role. She needs to figure out how likely you are to fit in with your prospective teammates. And she needs to find out how sharp your problem-solving techniques are in an effort to figure out if you’re truly someone who “thinks on his feet.”

You could add this to the list of reasons why interviews are unnatural and intimidating. Or, you could use it to your advantage. After all, once you know what the other person is looking for, you can come prepared to answer any sort of problem-solving interview question.

Here’s how to respond to the most common ones:

1. Questions About How You’ve Handled Challenges in the Past

Some people believe that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, so the best way to gain insight into how a person will respond to a tricky situation is to ask, “Tell me about a time when…” questions. Of course, since he wants to see your problem-solving strategies, the second half of the question will be about times things went awry (as opposed to times when you were praised for being all-around amazing).

Examples include: “Tell me about a time when you faced an unexpected challenge at work and how you handled it?” “Tell me about a time when a client or customer approached you with a concern—and how you responded?” and “Tell me about a time when you had to change your planned course of action at the last minute?”

How to Answer

The best way to answer is to follow a three-part formula: The first part is what went wrong, the second part is what you did about it, and the third part is the resolution. Since you’re highlighting your ability to handle a challenge, spend the most time discussing the reasoning behind your actions. (Oh, and pick an example where the resolution is either that you saved the day, or learned a valuable lesson so that you could save the day if it ever happens again.)

2. Questions About Tricky Situations Unique to the Position

When I was a fellowship program manager, we’d routinely ask candidates how they would handle being assigned too much (or too little) work. It didn’t make sense to phrase this as a “Tell me about a time” question, because it’s possible the applicant had never been in this situation before. But since it was quite likely in an entry-level role, we wanted to see how an applicant imagined he or she would troubleshoot the situation.

This question is often phrased as “How would you handle…” followed by a challenge specific to the responsibilities of the role you’re interviewing for. It could vary from “How would you handle an angry client?” to “How would you handle falling short of your sales goal?” to “How would you manage an employee who wasn’t doing her work?”

How to Answer

A great strategy to answer this type is to add detail to guide your response. So, instead of just saying that if a client was ever angry, you’d listen and try to fix it, get specific. The best responses start by repeating the question: “If the client was frustrated because we were outside of our projected timeline, I would…” or “If a client was angry because he felt the initial proposal didn’t fully meet his needs, I would...” When you frame the situation as you respond, you free yourself from having to come up with a one-size-fits-all answer (or include a ton of caveats).

3. Questions That Arise Throughout the Hiring Process

OK, these aren’t questions, per se. When the hiring manager asks if he can change around your phone interview time at the last minute, books a conference room where the AC is on the fritz, or sends you an email without an all-important attachment, it’s very likely he’s not intentionally testing your problem-solving skills. But, how you respond to snafus throughout the process makes a strong statement about your ability to handle unforeseen issues.

I cannot overstate this: Even if you answer all the questions flawlessly, it’ll count against you if you balk at an actual problem. On the bright side, even if you stumble over a question and give a less-than-graceful answer; nothing shows you can handle a technology fail like coming prepared with a back-up flash drive, or that can you segue a potentially awkward email exchange by pulling things back on topic.

Hiring managers are tasked with picking the best person for the job, and that includes testing a candidate’s problem-solving skills. Instead of seeing this as a problem, see it as an opportunity to differentiate yourself and show what kind of hire you’d be.