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21 Sep 2020 Austin Belcak

What Are Problem Solving Interview Questions?

You and everyone else who gets an interview probably looks good on paper.

And that’s exactly why hiring managers – no matter what type of job you’re applying for – love asking problem solving interview questions.

The good news is that you probably already have problem solving skills. But you may not know how to formulate your answers to these types of questions in a way that instills complete confidence in your ability.

So, how do you do that? How do you showcase your ability to solve problems in a way that sets you apart from other candidates?

Well, that’s what I’m going to show you in this post! Together, we’ll look a little closer at:

  • What problem solving interview questions are
  • The most common problem solving interview questions
  • The best ways to prepare for and answer problem solving questions
  • A few examples of how to answer problem solving interview questions

Let’s dive in!

What Are Problem Solving Interview Questions?

Problem solving interview questions are the questions that test how you respond to problems that arise at work, analyze and evaluate potential solutions, and come to logical decisions on how to move forward.

As I mentioned before, hiring managers love these kinds of questions. And it’s not because they want to see you sweat or pretend that you never feel any kind of pressure at work. In fact, they want to see the opposite.

They want to know when something does go wrong at work and you’re really feeling the pressure, you know how to accept that the problem exists and still take steps toward getting the job done in the most efficient manner possible.

It’s almost like they’re asking you to really walk them through why, in a scenario where everyone has the same technical skills, you’re the best person for the job.

Examples of Problem Solving Interview Questions

Problem solving interview questions being asked at an interview

Unless you’ve never interviewed for a job or read anything else about interview preparation, you’ve definitely encountered at least one or two problem solving interview questions.

But to jog your memory and point out a few you might not have heard, here are some of the most common problem solving interview questions that you might need to answer in your next interview:

  • Tell me about a time you encountered a challenge at work.
  • How did you overcome that challenge?
  • What steps do you take before making a big decision?
  • How do you deal with a difficult co-worker or customer?
  • Tell me about the toughest decision you had to make in the last year.
  • What would you do if you disagree with a decision made by your boss or manager?
  • Have you ever made a mistake at work? How did you handle it?
  • When working on multiple projects at once, how do you prioritize?
  • How do you handle interruptions to your schedule?
  • What steps do you take to get back on track?

Best Ways To Prepare And Answer These Types Of Questions

Problem solving interview questions are meant to be challenging tests of your critical thinking skills. But, luckily, you can turn the difficulty level down if you know exactly how to prepare for them.

Here’s what you can do:

Review the type of problems you’re likely to encounter on the job.

This doesn’t need to be based on assumptions. If you’ve approached finding a job using my strategies, you’ll have a connection with someone already working at the company you’ll be interviewing for. Ask them specific questions, like “What challenges is your team currently facing? What challenges do you think I might encounter in this position?”

Depending on the company, you may even be able to check Glassdoor to find the exact interview questions hiring managers have asked candidates applying for the same role!

Write down your best, most relevant problem solving stories.

Now that you’ve got an idea of what problems you might encounter, what moments from your time at work will prove you can handle them at ease? “That time I prevented ______ from happening,” is not a good answer. Why? Because it’s boring and it doesn’t give the other person the full scope of how you solved that problem.

Think of problem solving interview questions as an opportunity to tell a short story that includes a brief explanation of the problem, why it was urgent that you found a solution, and the steps you took to get to that solution. You’ll likely have more than one of these stories. Write them all down and choose which ones are best later on.

Use the STAR method to structure your answers.

STAR is an acronym that will help you structure and remember how to best answer problem solving interview questions. It stands for:

  • Situation: the context for your story about solving a problem
  • Task: the problem you encountered
  • Action: what steps you took toward solving the problem
  • Result: the resulting outcome

I recommend using this because it makes it easier to frame your problem solving skills in a way that helps the hiring manager imagine and remember, from start to finish, what you’d be like on the job. It also saves you from rambling off-topic if you happen to get nervous during the interview and forget a few details.

I’ve got some examples of how you can use the STAR method in an interview coming up soon!

Practice as often as possible.

In the days or weeks leading up to your interview, find ways to practice your STAR answers as much as you can. You can do interview prep with a friend or colleague. But you can also practice on your own.

For example, you could easily write out your answers on the Notes app in your phone and practice memorizing the key details of your answers while you’re in line at the grocery store, waiting for an elevator, or really any other moment when you’ve got even the slightest bit of time to kill. Trust me, these things add up!

You’ll know you’ve gotten the answer stored well in your memory when you can state it at a comfortable pace without sounding robotic. Ideally, you should be aiming for around 90 seconds for each answer.

Examples Of How To Answer Problem Solving Interview Questions

Alright, now I want to show you what the STAR method looks like in action. So, let’s take a look at how you could answer a couple of those common problem solving interview questions.

Question 1: Tell me about a time you encountered a challenge at work. How did you overcome that challenge?

Answer: My team members were ready to give up and move on. We had just found out that the customer acquisition campaign we’d launched was not performing anywhere close to our initial projections. And, as the team lead, it was my call on whether we should accept this project as a fail or attempt to salvage it. In the pre-launch phase, we really saw a lot of potential for this campaign to increase conversions and sales, so I wanted to try to figure out where we went wrong to see if It could be fixed. I decided just looking at data wasn’t enough. I needed to hear directly from our customers. So, I worked along-side the customer service team for a few hours each day. Getting a chance to speak directly to the customers allowed me to pinpoint exactly where we’d gone wrong. We weren’t accounting for their user experience. So, I took these insights back to my team, which we used to improve the website layout. That small tweak in the layout eventually resulted in us achieving 27% more sales than our initial projections.

Question 2: Have you ever made a mistake at work? How did you handle it?

Answer: It was my first month on the job, and I was still learning Excel functions. I thought that I knew enough to perform a simple task like data reconciliation, but I was wrong. I ended up accidentally inputting the wrong functions, which led to a mismatch of data. I knew then that this was an issue that was too big for me to handle entirely on my own. So, I quickly reached out to my manager to see if she could help me figure out where I’d gone wrong. She was more than happy to just fix the problem and let me go on with my day. Apparently, it was quite a common issue for new hires. But I decided to work with her to create a simplified training manual for new hires to refer to so that they could either avoid common Excel problems entirely or, if things did go wrong, figure out how to quickly fix them on their own. She says it’s saved her at least 2 hours a month to work on more important tasks!

Key Takeaways

Unexpected problems are bound to happen with any job — which is why how you answer problem solving interview questions can make or break the results of your next interview! So, when preparing, make sure you:

  • Review the type of problems you’re likely to encounter on the job
  • Write down your best, most relevant problem solving stories
  • Use the STAR method to structure your answers
  • Practice as often as possible

And if you’re looking for tips on how to prepare for your next interview, check out This Is How Top Performers Prepare For Job Interviews!

Austin Belcak

Austin is the founder of Cultivated Culture where he helps people land jobs without connections, without traditional experience, and without applying online. His strategies have been featured in Forbes, Business Insider, & Fast Company and has helped people just like you land jobs at Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Twitter, & more.



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