How to Rock the Situational Interview

As a student, there’s nothing more nerve-racking about a search for employment than the inevitable job interview. You’re inexperienced, in an unfamiliar environment, meeting new people — all while trying to put your best foot forward.

In recent years, this process has become perhaps more anxiety producing with the growing popularity of situational interviews. Candidates are presented with true-to-life scenarios and then asked how they would handle them, step-by-step. Talk about being put on the spot!

But depending on how you look at them, situational interviews actually can be a blessing in disguise. They give you a better opportunity to highlight your skills, as well as allow your personality to shine through. And thanks to their unique nature, they’re also likely to be more thought-provoking — never a bad thing.

There’s good reason why companies increasingly are turning to these kinds of interviews. According to a 2003 BusinessWeek article , the conventional interview is only 7 percent accurate in predicting on-the-job performance, whereas situational interviews were found to be 54 percent accurate — the most accurate of any interviewing tool used.

“It’s twofold,” explained Dr. Randall Hansen, founder and president of Quintcareers.com, a career services Web site. “One is to see where [candidates’] skills are — because anybody can put on their resume that they have these kinds of skills. But when they have to talk it out and explain it, that’s when you can often tell someone who does have the experience from someone who doesn’t. And the other reason is just to get job applicants thinking on their feet rather than [giving] a rehearsed answer.”

Typical situational interview questions might include: “Describe a situation in which you had to deal with a difficult co-worker,” and “tell me about a time you failed to accomplish a goal you set for yourself and how you handled it.”

“There are almost always going to be some competence-related interview questions,” Hansen said. “And they are going to be ones that are more general, especially if it’s a team-based situation. [For example:] How would you handle working in a team situation [in which] one team member is always going against the rest of the team and you waste a lot of time arguing, and the team is becoming less efficient? How would you help solve this problem?”

You can get a better idea of the kinds of questions a company might use by doing your homework, Hansen said.

“Look on the company’s Web site. Not all, but some companies in their career section actually give advice about [how to get a job there],” he said. “Look at the job description, and look at what they’re seeking. Look for some of the keywords, whether they’re talking about technical skills or soft skills like teamwork or communications.”

Once you know what you’re getting into, take some time to think about your previous experience and come up with several useful scenarios you can relate during the interview.

“Develop a couple short stories — two or three minutes — about specific examples of how you solved [a] problem in the past or some experience you have that you can then apply in [a new] situation,” Hansen said. “Don’t memorize them because you don’t want to come off as repeating something from the back of your head.”

The Career Center at California State University, Fullerton, recommends that you take the STAR — situation, task, action, result — approach to storytelling: That is, you describe a similar situation from previous experience, including the task you were asked to accomplish. Then you explain the action you took and the result it produced.

A tech career guide on About.com offers a few additional tips. Author Bruce Dwyer, who works at Australian IT recruitment company ADAPS, writes: “Let others help you out: Use examples of quotes from bosses or customers [such as], ‘My boss gave me a good performance review [because] she liked the way I stepped in to get the job done without being told to.”

Also, always look for ways to spin failures or negative results into positive learning experiences.

“The key there is to talk about how you recover and learn from mistakes,” Hansen said. “Of course, you could preface it by saying, ‘I hope it never goes wrong, but if it did…’ The key is you show your competency. That’s the most important thing.”

– Agatha Gilmore, agilmore@certmag.com

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