How to Answer Interview Questions Effectively

Could you imagine, it is a big test in high school or college and your teacher says; “Don’t worry, I am going to give you the questions in advance so you know exactly what to study and it is not cheating.”  Would you take the questions?  I would!!!! Who wouldn’t?

Imagine, you have been called to interview for a job that you really want and the individual calling you to schedule the interview says, “We are going to give you the questions that you will be asked on the interview in advance so you can prepare.”  My response: AWESOME!!!

Clearly this does not happen which makes interviews the most stressful portion of the job search process.  With that said, there are some basic tips to allow you to prepare and to make the experience more successful (and hopefully, less stressful). This article provides you with tips on how to answer the most difficult interview questions.


To figure this out, we need to learn what interviewers are looking for in a candidate. Interviewers want to learn about your background and have perfected the process over the years.  Today, many employers ask situational interview questions.  These situational questions target specific work experiences of you, the interviewee. These situational questions will start with phrases like:

  • Tell me about a time when…
  • Please give me a situation when…
  • Describe a time when….


Have you ever had an interview like this?  Stressful, Right?  There is a secret to the situational interviewing process.  I am going to let you in on the secret in a few minutes.  Let’s start with the philosophy behind this type of interview question.  Behavior based/ situational interviews are based on the premise that Past Work Behavior Predicts Future Work Behavior.  Think about that for a moment.  The interviewer wants to know HOW you behaved in past work environments to foresee HOW you would behave in their work environment.  Therefore, they ask questions about specific PAST situations and HOW you handled those situations in order to predict HOW you would handle FUTURE situations.  I have created my own equation to keep in mind when responding to interview questions.

Job Skill Demonstrated through Specific Past Work Experience = Predictor of Future Work Behavior

So now, you understand the premise but what specifically does the interviewer want as a response?  Well, here is the secret; the interviewer is hoping to hear these three components in your answer:

  1. Describe the Situation/ Circumstance
  2. What Action did you take?
  3. Provide the End Result/ Outcome

If you are asking yourself, how can I do that?  My recommendation is to think about telling a story.  When you come home from work or school, whether you sit down to dinner with your family or jump on the phone with friends, a common question that you respond to is — how was your day?  If anything extraordinary happened that day, you would respond in the form of a story (For example:  My day was odd.  You will never believe what happened to me.  I was dealing with this difficult customer — yadda, yadda, yadda for the Seinfeld fans out there…).   Generally these stories are brief as you share the situation, what you did and the result.  It is the same within the interview.  Each response should be a brief story that demonstrates the specific skill needed to be successful in the job.


Now, if you are like me, my first comment when this was initially described to me was “Every interview will take forever with these detailed responses”.  This is not true. For each question, the response should only be three to four minutes long TOTAL.


Since the interviewer is looking for a specific example (a story), be certain to stay AWAY from phrases such as I would, In general or Most of the time (these are not specific).  You need to provide the details of a specific circumstance in your past work experience that demonstrates the skill desired.


Now that you understand what an interviewer is looking for, here are TWO SIMPLE STEPS for having the best responses for each interview question.

Step 1: Review the Job Description to Identify Skills Needed for the Job

In this portion of your interview preparation, you should review the job description and identify the skills needed to be successful in this role.  Below is a job description for a Customer Service Representative.   As practice, review the job description and create a list of the skills needed.  Come on, do it with me; it’s a worthwhile exercise.

Job Description: Customer Service Representative

The main job function of this position is to maintain on-time delivery performance expectations within the customer base and support the Sales team to further enhance The Company’s position within each customer.


Responsibilities for a variety of customer service /sales support / planning activities include:

  • Speaking with customers over the phone to take orders and resolve customer issues.
  • Entering and maintaining sales order and expediting product delivery
  • Scheduling/expediting work orders. Interface with manufacturing and suppliers to request basic delivery information. Review and take action on backlogs.
  • Act as liaison between sales and material planning group to resolve shortage calls, quality problems, etc.


Required Qualifications:

  • High school diploma or Associates degree
  • 2 to 4 years customer service experience in a call center
  • Strong interpersonal, problem solving and customer service skills
  • Able to multi-task and deal with ambiguity

Based on the description above, I created this list of skills required for this job:

  • Ability to resolve customer issues
  • Ability to communicate with multiple departments
  • Ability to multi-task
  • Ability to deal with ambiguity
  • Ability to solve problems

Does your list match mine?  Is it close?


Now try the same thing for your dream job.  If you don’t have a job description handy, complete a search on a popular job board such as LinkedIn or Indeed for similar job descriptions.  Use the job posting to create your list.  Remember to focus on the most important skills to be successful in the job.  Once you’ve identified the required job skills, how do communicate that you have the skills to the interviewers?

Step 2: Document examples of specific circumstances/ experiences within your career where you demonstrated the required job skills

Relax and take a moment to think about your background.  Where did you demonstrate the skills for the job?  Have you ever multi-tasked?  Have you ever solved a problem at work?


To help you out, I have provided a chart below containing three job skills and a potential interview response that demonstrate those skills. (NOTE:  These are examples.  You must use examples from your own background during an interview).  Each example is written in a story format with the circumstance/ situation, the action taken and the end result of the situation.

Based on the two-step process outlined above, you now know:

  1. How to identify skills needed for a job
  2. How to reflect on your background and decide which examples (from your own career) would match up to the potential interview questions.


As a side note, I would recommend actually writing out the questions and examples – not just thinking through the examples.  In a face to face interview, it will be easier to recall the examples if you have taken the time to write them out in advance.  I usually write down a few examples in a pad folio which I would take to the interview containing my examples and a few questions for the Interviewer.

Do you feel ready for a situational/ behavior based interview?  I hope so BUT what if you are not asked behavior based/ situational interview questions?  That’s OK.  If you use the same principles, you can still impress the interviewer.  So instead of giving the common, general interview responses that we have all given at some point (For example: I am a people person; I love working with people; my biggest strength is my ability to work with people.  I have helped tons of customers.), you can give situational responses that will help the interviewer learn more about your background and better predict your behavior in their work environment.


The chart below contains three common INTERVIEW QUESTIONS and examples of how to respond to those questions with a situational response.  (Reminder:  Always use examples from your background)

The important thing to remember is that these short, specific examples demonstrate your past behavior allowing interviewers to assess your past behavior and better decide if you have the relevant skills.  In addition, other candidates (who haven’t read my blog yet) do not tend to provide these specific examples so your interview will be more impressive.


Before your next interview, follow the two part process listed above.  Once you have completed this process, there are additional behaviors that you can use to demonstrate interest in the job by making appropriate eye contact with the Interviewer, sitting forward in your seat and smiling periodically.  The interview will go MUCH better than expected.  Your confidence will be high because you are ready.

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