Ask An Interview Coach:  How Do I Answer Hypothetical Questions In An Interview?

Staff, Rocket Interview

This post is from our Founder’s blog on Glassdoor, and is re-posted here.

Hypothetical, also known as situational, interview questions can be some of the most challenging to answer as the questions can vary widely, and unlike questions like “what is your greatest weakness,” it is difficult to prepare discrete answers in advance.

However, these types of questions are important for companies that want to see how you think on your feet, as well as get an accurate sense of how you would approach regular work situations that may occur in your day-to-day.  Unlike questions that ask about past experiences, these questions provide a window into how you would apply your capabilities in their company setting.

Types Of Hypothetical Questions

There are three main types of hypothetical questions, each with different areas of focus the interviewer is looking to test.

  • Problem-solving questions related to your job.  For example, they might ask a project manager how they would handle losing key team members from their project.
  • Behavioral questions to better understand your mindset.  Common topics in this category are ethics, leadership, and conflict resolution.  For example, an interviewer may ask a sales professional how they would handle an unhappy client.
  • Lateral thinking questions to test creativity and critical thinking skills.  An example, from a Google interview, is “You have a colony on Mars that you want to communicate with. How do you build a system to communicate with them?”

Across all types of hypothetical interview questions, there are some common techniques you can use to demonstrate confidence and present a compelling response.

Pause, Reflect, and Clarify

It is very common for candidates to jump right into an answer to avoid what feels like an awkward silence and quickly get to an answer.  This often results in a less organized and unfocused response, as candidates are processing the question while simultaneously framing up an answer.

Instead, take a moment to process the question before transitioning into answer-mode.  This shows the interviewer you are being thoughtful and deeply reflecting on the question.  Moreover, a moment of pause can exude confidence, a technique powerful speakers use to demonstrate gravitas and poise.  Finally, this pause can help you organize your thoughts which will help the interviewer more easily follow your thinking.  A slower, methodical answer will always beat a fast, unstructured answer.

In addition to taking a pause, this is also an opportunity to ask a couple clarifying questions.  Though these questions should push the thinking of the problem and should impact the solution.

 

Externalize Your Thinking

Hypothetical questions allow interviewers to see how you think, including how you structure problems, assumptions you make, and how curious you are in exploring the problem.  This is why it is significantly more important to show HOW you work through the question rather than WHAT your answer is.  Taking the time to walk the interviewer through your thinking also helps the interviewer guide you towards the path they want you to explore, while also giving them a glimpse of what it would be like to collaborate with you as you react to their real-time feedback.  This technique also helps to move the interview from a question and answer format to a conversation between colleagues, which will feel more natural and engaging.

Structure Along Big Themes

Grouping ideas into themes will make it easier for the interviewer to follow your thinking, while also helping you think about other ideas in each theme.  For example, if you were asked “How would you improve the iPhone?” rather than laundry listing many disparate ideas, you could group them into

a) Hardware – functionality and aesthetics

b) Software – OS and apps

c) Developer ecosystem

Using this technique reduces the cognitive overhead an interviewer would face in interpreting many disparate ideas, while also helping you think of other related ideas in each category.

It is also important to be thoughtful about the themes and to reflect on why those themes are important.  The “why” will help you figure out which themes to prioritize in your answer and ensure you have a solution orientation, not just an exploratory approach, to your answer.

Integrate Actual Experiences

While the situation is hypothetical, compelling answers can weave your actual experiences into the answer to show your approach is proven and authentic.  Note, that you do not need to give full examples, but rather integrate salient snippets of your experiences in the answer.  For example, let’s take the question – “How would you prioritize two simultaneous projects with limited resources?”  You could mention that your approach would include speaking with the project stakeholders to understand their objectives and ensure there was no conflict, and that this is something you recently did, which prioritized competing projects and built trust with the business.

State Your Assumptions

Every hypothetical will have incomplete context, and that is the point.  You are meant to frame up an approach with incomplete data and have a point of view based on your experience and reasonable assumptions.  So, candidates should avoid asking a series of questions to the interviewer to get the full context, as that will be seen as a stall tactic or worse, as evidence that they cannot draft an approach, knowing it will need refinement.

Instead, as you go along, state your assumptions and the key variables you think the approach hinges on, and potentially highlight how the approach might change if those assumptions turn out to be different.  This also has the added benefit of helping the interview be more of a two-way dialogue as the interviewer may engage with you on your assumptions and even potentially guide you based on the assumptions your approach is predicated upon.

Revisit and Iterate

As you walk through your answer, the interviewer may provide additional context or you may realize there is another aspect of the question you have not considered.  Too often, candidates believe that they must continue down the path they have started on in their answer, but the interviewer is also screening you for the flexibility of your thinking, and not how often your first instinct is right.  Given that, you can change directions on your answer, and as long as you convey your rationale, it can help you get to a better answer.

Closing Thoughts

Finally, remember to have fun with these questions.  Answering a hypothetical question can allow you to be creative and truly demonstrate your capabilities, even more so than questions about past experiences, since you have a blank canvas.  Moreover, interviewers are assessing your energy and enthusiasm, so being excited to walk through a hypothetical scenario will indicate you are ready to jump in and tackle the challenges the job may present.