How to Ace Problem-Solving Interview Questions

interview tips

What would you tell a recruiter who asks you to describe a situation where you had to solve a difficult problem?

If you don't know how to respond quickly and confidently to the scenario above, then you have some work to do before your next interview.

Problem-solving questions are becoming more commonplace, especially in consulting interviews. Hiring managers want to assess how you identify issues, and what steps you would take to implement solutions.

Some problem-solving questions can be technical and specific, designed to validate that you have the skills that you listed on your resume. But others are more open-ended, presenting you with scenarios where there is no single "right" answer. These questions are opportunities for you to showcase creativity, analytic thinking, persistence and positive results. 

The next time a problem-solving question is thrown your way, be ready for it, be yourself, and tackle it with ease. Here are some tips to prepare accordingly, and to answer with flying colors. 

Anticipate the Question

Granted, this is easier said than done, but here are some common variations on problem-solving questions (from the Big Interview blog) that you can prepare for based on your prior work experiences.

• Describe a situation in which you found a creative way to overcome an obstacle.

• Tell me about a time that you identified a need and went above and beyond the call of duty to get things done.

• Tell me about a time when you came up with a new approach to a problem.

• What’s the most innovative new idea that you have implemented?

• Tell me about two improvements you have made in the last six months.

• What was the best idea you came up with at your last job?

 Describe a time when you anticipated potential problems and developed preventive measures.

• Please describe a time when you faced a significant obstacle to succeeding with an important work project or activity.

Think through responses to these types of questions in advance, utilizing the S-T-A-R method outlined below. Remember that some challenges require a Plan B, so draw out how an alternative path can lead to a positive resolution.

As noted, there isn't always a right answer to these questions, but there are definitely wrong answers. Avoid finger pointing and blame, and don't disparage your prior company or show frustration when responding.

Responses where you cast yourself as a hero, acting independently of a team, can also backfire. You want to showcase your individual competence and decisiveness, but also demonstrate collaboration, explaining how you would utilize your team's strengths to provide the right solution.

Answer Like a S-T-A-R

Problem-solving interview questions require a certain thinking process so you can address the scenario from start to finish. When put on the spot to solve a problem, be sure to frame your answers using the S-T-A-R technique:

  • Situation: Assess the problem and what is being addressed
  • Task: Identify what you need to solve the problem
  • Action: Outline the actions you will take (this can include your plan b)
  • Result: Describe what you expect the outcome to be, and why it’s the best choice

It’s a recruiters job to find the ideal person for a position, and that includes testing a candidate’s problem-solving skills. Instead of seeing this as a nerve-wracking problem, see it as an opportunity to differentiate yourself and show how you can be a positive addition to any company.