How to Write a Situational Question

Situational interview questions are future-oriented assessments of candidate skills. They present candidates with a specific job-relevant problem or scenario they could encounter on the job and asks them how they would respond to the situation.

Why are situational questions effective?

The Theory of Reasoned Action explains the ‘science’ behind why situational questions are good assessments of future on-the-job behavior. A candidate’s intention to behave in a certain way can give accurate predictions about their on-the-job future performance. Behavior is informed by intentions, while intentions are a function of the candidate’s attitudes towards the behavior and their subjective norms. 

An advantage of situational questions is that all interviewees are responding to the same hypothetical scenario. Compared to more past-oriented questions (i.e., behavioral), the responses will be more directly comparable and likely easier to score reliably across multiple interviewers. Situational questions are also more accessible for candidates who may not have directly relevant experience but still possess the necessary skills to perform well on the job (e.g., Our partner Opportunity @ Work advocates for this approach to hiring). 

How to compose great situational questions

Within every role, there are different challenges and opportunities where candidates must be able to perform well. The secret to writing strong situational questions is to identify the skills, challenges, or opportunities which are most crucial to every role. Then, a scenario-based question can be developed around those important elements.

The following steps will walk you through developing effective situational questions:

Step one: Identify the question’s job-relevant focus

There are several approaches you can use here to figure out what your question will target. However, the most important element of this step is ensuring that the focus of what the question will assess is relevant to the job. 

This could be done by creating scenarios based on the necessary skills required for the job (through conducting a job analysis). Alternatively, you could take a Critical Incident Approach where you can think of (or ask a supervisor/job incumbent) real and important on-the-job problems or challenges that are often encountered. 

Example: If you are hiring for an Account Executive position within a sales company, you might ask current job incumbents about what are the top three situations they face in their jobs that are important to be able to handle. To push a little further, you can ask them what it looks like to do a good job in those situations versus a poor job. 

Step two: Develop your question

Based on the job-relevant information you have collected, you are now ready to turn your scenarios into questions. Write your questions by placing candidates in those scenarios following these formats: “Imagine a scenario where…” or “What would you do if…”. You can follow up by asking candidates to describe the specific steps they would take if they encountered the same situation on the job.

Example: If in your hiring efforts for an Account Executive you identify that many of the scenarios coming up include running a discovery call, you can choose this as your question focus. Your question could be:

  • “Walk me through how you would run a discovery call, highlighting how you would structure it and which specific questions you would ask.”

Step three: Develop an answer guide

Next, to develop your question-answer guides, you can draw on your experiences/knowledge and other information collected about good/poor performance in the scenario. 

Example: Now that you have a good situational question to assess candidates for your Account Executive position, you will use the information collected about what running a successful discovery call looks like. These could be:

  • Understands the importance of letting the prospect do most of the talking” or 
  • “Lets the client ask questions and schedules a follow-up call.” 

Step four: Test it out!

After developing your situational question and its accompanying answer guide, you are now ready to test your question out! Make sure you’re asking all the candidates this very same question in the same manner and that you are rating all candidate answers for an accurate assessment and comparison. 

Interested in validated and effective situational questions? Try Hireguide! 

The simplest way to implement this method is using Hireguide. We’ve done all the work for you by determining which skills are needed for thousands of roles and we’ve taken it a step further by pre-populating situational questions with answer guides! Ready to get started? Sign up for access today. 

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