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How to Answer the “Hypothetical” Interview Question

Written by Kate Lopaze

Pop quiz, hotshot: It’s your first day on the job, and everything is going wrong. How do you fix it?

If you get this kind of question during a job interview, it can be alarming, to say the least. It feels like the interviewer is giving you a direct challenge, and if you answer incorrectly, you shall not pass. But if you are asked to solve a hypothetical problem, don’t panic. There’s a method that will help you get through it. Here’s how you can answer the hypothetical interview question.

DO take a few seconds to gather yourself.

First instincts may get you through in bar trivia nights or emergency situations, but this is neither. You want to make sure you’re giving a reasoned, thoughtful response. The person is testing your problem solving skills and your thinking processes, so you want to make sure you’re showing those off.

DON’T blurt out the first thing that comes to mind.

This isn’t Jeopardy!, and you don’t get a bonus for being the first to buzz in. Again, the interviewer is watching you to see how you approach something, not just the end result.

DO ask questions if you need to clarify.

This can also buy you a little thinking-on-your-feet time.

DON’T ramble or go off on tangents.

This is a nervous habit that can be tough to break, and the best way to get around that tendency is to think about this ahead of time. Sure, it’s difficult to anticipate beforehand exactly what (if any) hypothetical situations the interviewer could use, so do some general prep.

Look closely at the job description. Is it heavy on client service? If so, you might be asked to talk about how to handle a sticky situation with a client or stakeholder. Is the job focused around deadlines? You might have to field a question about what to do about potentially missing one of those deadlines. It’s unlikely that the interviewer will ask you something entirely unrelated to the job you’re seeking, so the description is a good place to start for anticipating such a question.

DO think about your own history.

The hypothetical question is a cousin to the “tell me about a time you…” question. And that’s one you should already have in your pocket ahead of interview day. Have you-specific examples of things like problem solving, communication successes, or challenges you’ve faced down. If these are at all related to the hypothetical situation posed, you can adapt. If it’s very similar, you can say, “That’s actually like a situation I had at X Corp. Here’s what I did in that scenario…”

DON’T feel pressured to give a definitive answer to the problem.

Talk about the process of resolving: where you would start, who you would loop in, which steps you would take to arrive at a possible solution, and then what you would do to choose the best option. The interviewer isn’t asking you to solve the problem and achieve world peace right now, she wants to see how you would approach it.

The hypothetical question can be a sticky point in an interview, but if you know what they’re looking for (process) and how to lay it out (clearly and calmly), you’ll be past it and back into more familiar territory in no time.

About the author

Kate Lopaze

Kate Lopaze is a writer, editor, and digital publishing professional based in New York City. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Emerson College with degrees in English and publishing, she is passionate about books, baseball, and pop culture (though not necessarily in that order), and lives in Brooklyn with her dog.