A reader writes:
I searched on your site and saw you have given examples of common questions interviewers ask. However, while a candidate can prepare for those types of questions, for situational interview questions it’s tough for them to come up with answers when I’m asking them to draw on their experience and give me examples of specific situations on the spot.
Are there any disadvantages to supplying situational interview questions to candidates ahead of time so they can prepare thoughtful answers? I’ve never had a potential employer offer them to me prior to an interview, but I see only advantages to doing so. For example, for people who get very nervous in interviews, it seems to me that it would help to level the playing field since they wouldn’t have the stress of having to answer on the spot. In addition, it also seems the interviewers would get better quality answers from all candidates who took the time to prepare. The only potential disadvantage I see is that people could used canned responses, but since situational interview questions draw on their experience, it seems like it would be difficult to do that.
The timing of this letter is uncanny, because I’ve been thinking about trying this and have now started experimenting with it.
I’m interviewing for a junior-level admin position, and most of the candidates are fairly inexperienced — especially at interviewing. Candidates who are newer to the work world tend not to be great at interviewing, and they often struggle to come up with useful answers to questions like “tell me about a time that you improved an existing system” or “tell me about a time that you had to juggle lots of competing priorities” or any of the many other “tell me about a time when…” questions I like to use. (And in general, interviewers should use lots of those questions because they get you the best information about how candidates operate.)
I thought exactly what you’re thinking here: that giving them a heads-up in advance would help them prepare more thoughtful answers and give me better information about them. And they can’t really “cheat” by making up fantastic but false answers ahead of time, because I respond to their initial answer with tons of follow-up questions about what they’ve told me.
So now for this position, when I confirm a phone interview, I send along a note that says this:
“I’d love if you’d come prepared to talk about:
– a particularly significant professional achievement — what your role was, what the challenges were, and how you approached it
– a specific time in the past when you’ve had to stay on top of a large volume of work and juggle a lot of competing priorities, and how you approached it
– a time when you went above and beyond to get results — what the situation was and what you did”
The result has been great. I’m getting better-thought-out answers that make it easier for me to assess each person’s fit for the role, since they’re not scrambling to think of an example on the spot. Plus, I’m able to see how well they did or didn’t use the chance to think through the questions ahead of time. (Specifically, I’m still encountering candidates who struggle with these answers, which is particularly telling now that they’ve had an advance heads-up.)
To be clear, I’m not prepping these candidates for every question I’ll be asking, or even for most of them — just for a few specific situations that I really want to probe into and where having some time to come up with strong examples will help (and won’t hurt).
I’m also only doing this with candidates for junior-level roles. For more senior roles, I expect candidates to be more equipped to talk about their experience — although frankly, I could see an argument for doing a bit of it there too.
And I can’t stress this part enough: If you do this as an interviewer, the key is to probe into whatever answers you receive. You need to ask a bunch of follow-up questions (what was the biggest challenge with that? why did you approach it that way? did you worry about X? how did you handle Y? what would you do differently if you could do it again?) or you do risk a canned answer.
But I’m really liking it, it’s strengthened my ability to assess this particular group of candidates, and they seem to like it too.