Responding to a hypothetical interview question

By Bec | Changing Your Job or Career Path

Don’t know the difference between behavioural and hypothetical interview questions? Get all the deets in this post: Don’t make these mistakes when responding to hypothetical interview questions – Pop Your Career

Have you ever been asked a hypothetical interview question? If so, you would be forgiven for misunderstanding the point of a hypothetical and responding with a real life example of when you have done something similar. With so much information and advice available on the internet about behavioural interviewing, and with most employers now preferring the behavioural interviewing method, you’ve had it drilled into you over and over again. Use an example. Provide an example. Use the STAR method.

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But, when an interviewer asks a hypothetical interview question, they're actually trying to elicit a different response from you. And if you fail to pick up on this slight distinction, you could lose marks in your interview. In this post, I’m going to break down the difference between hypothetical and behavioural questions. You’ll be able to spot a hypothetical interview question a mile away in your next interview!

First of all, what is a behavioural interview question?

behavioural interview question is one where the interviewer asks you to “tell me about a time when you did XYZ.”. Behavioural questions are designed to get you talking about specific experiences in your career, where you have demonstrated a specific skillset, knowledge or capability. The idea behind this is that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. Your interviewer want to know how you have handled a situation like this one in the past, so that they know you are capable of handling similar situations if you are successful in winning the role.

So, how do I respond to a behavioural question?

This is where it is imperative that you provide an example. Use the STAR method to walk through your example methodically and provide your interviewer with all the information they need to assess your suitability. Make sure that your example is as relevant as possible. Listen carefully to the question to ensure you don’t miss any sneaky details or nuances, that aren’t immediately apparent. You can always ask your interviewer to repeat the question if you aren’t sure.

Don’t make these mistakes when responding to hypothetical interview questions…

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What about hypotheticals? What does that even mean?

A hypothetical interview question is one where the interviewer asks you, “what would you do if you were in XYZ situation?”. Hypothetical interview questions are not trying to elicit examples of your work, but are instead focused on assessing how you think on your feet, as well as your problem solving, logic and abstract thinking skills.

How should I respond to a hypothetical interview question?

This is where you need to use your imagination. If it helps, you can think about similar situation you have experienced, but avoid falling into the habit of talking about a specific example from your past, rather than explaining what you would do in the future. It’s all in your language – use “I would”, instead of “I did”, when providing your response. 

What if the interviewer asks me to provide an example of a similar situation, once I have responded to the hypothetical interview question?  

Ooh, sneaky! If that is the case, then go for it! There is no harm in backing up the rationale for your thinking by providing an example. In fact, I have seen candidates provide an example after explaining their hypothetical response, even before being asked. As long as you complete your hypothetical response first, this can be executed really well. 

Is that it?

Yep! That’s it! I know this was a much shorter post than usual, but that’s all I’ve got to say on the topic. In summary, listen to the language in the question. If it starts with “tell me about a time when you…”, then tell a story from your past with pride. If it starts with “what would you do if…”, let your imagination run wild, think through the steps involved and provide an example to back up your response.  

Best of luck in your interview! Be sure to let me know if you get asked a hypothetical interview question. I’d love to know if these tips help you to win your dream role. 

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About the Author

Bec McFarland is an experienced HR practitioner, manager, career coach and the creator of Pop Your Career. She delights in sharing practical, straight to the point career advice, spending time with her family and eating Mexican food.

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