Interview questions are tricky. While there a number of ways to stumble during a review of general facts and work history, it’s the situational questions that often pose the greatest risks. These open-ended questions are the business world’s equivalent to an essay question on a college exam; it’s a chance to show off what you know in a format of your choosing, with just as many chances to choke if you’re not ready.

But just like an exam, even if you don’t know specifically what you’re going to be asked, you can still prepare for likely questions. And part of that is preparing responses, including stories that showcase your talents or learning experiences worth noting.

So what should you say? What kinds of details do you need to share, and in what order? Below, members of Forbes Coaches Council offer their advice on the best ways to prepare for situational questions:

11 ways to ace situational interviews

From top left to right: Jennifer Oleniczak Brown,  Anne Marie Segal, Lianne Lyne, Lucie Yeomans,  Sunil Harrypersad, Lindsay Guthrie, Meridith Elliott-Powell, Laura DeCarlo, Jill Hauwiller, Adrienne Tom, Lisa Barrington.


1. Take An Improv Class 

The problem with most interview answers? People aren’t listening to the question: They are answering what they think they hear. Cue improv: Even after one class, your listening is primed to be sharp, specific and clear. By paying attention and being present for the interview question, you can form an authentic and genuine answer that connects with the interviewer’s words and who you are. – Jennifer Oleniczak BrownThe Engaging Educator 

2. Fit Your Answer To The Role 

The best way to prepare for situational questions is two-fold. First, know what will be expected of you in the target role. Second, anticipate that the questions may come up — sometimes in unexpected formats — and have a number of examples ready. As you prepare your examples, make sure that they speak to those expectations, so that the interviewer can imagine you being successful in the role. – Anne Marie SegalSegal Coaching 

3. To Prepare, You Need To Breathe And Visualize 

Once you are satisfied you have prepared what you want to communicate, calm any nerves and build your confidence with a deep breathing and visualization exercise. Breathe in for four counts, hold for two, and breathe out for six counts. Focusing on the breath, and then repeat four or five times. Then visualize yourself confidently answering questions with clarity and maintaining positive body language. – Lianne LynePLP Coaching, LLC 

4. Research The Company To Tailor Your Answers 

Simple research of the company can help you prepare for the “How would you handle a situation where …” questions. What do you know about the company culture? What character traits do they value? How do they solve problems: collaboration, innovation, investigation? Learn as much about the company through your connections, the company website, Glassdoor and Twitter. Visualize yourself there. – Lucie Yeomans, Resumes

5. Have In Mind 10 Responses That Address Leadership 

Situational-based questions are designed to probe and solicit well-composed responses. The questions are crafted to measure scope, complexity and behaviors within answers. A candidate should prepare 10 responses that discuss leadership involvement within the situation, the assessment and decision-making process, the behaviors and competencies leveraged, and the final outcome of the project. – Sunil HarrypersadLeading My Career Consulting 

6. Use The STAR Format 

Most coaches recommend using the STAR — or situation, task, action and results — format for the five to eight most common interview question categories. It’s very important to make sure that your answer paints a picture and clearly articulates your results. Interviewees often spend so much time setting up the situation and task, that they gloss over impact. Instead, ensure your story is primarily about the action and results. – Lindsay GuthrieThe Career Path Partners 

Forbes Coaches Council is an invitation-only community for leading business and career coaches. Do I qualify?

7. Tell Non-Work Stories About Successes 

Don’t limit your answers to just work history. Think about all the situations you have been in personally: Raising kids, being captain of the football team or even failing your high school English exam. Your personal life is full of amazing stories, so tap into your full life experience to answer those tough situational interview questions. – Meridith Elliott-PowellMotionFirst 

8. Be Ready To Tell Solid Stories With Good Details 

It’s not enough to do homework on the company and position, or to have the right skills. There is only one winner in the interview, and it’s the individual who is best prepared to share concrete and specific stories that demonstrate fit and performance. This means you have to use strategy by practicing answering common questions with an emphasis on where, what, how, and with what specific result. – Laura DeCarloCareer Directors international 

9. Aim For A 2-3 Minute Story 

Anticipate a handful of questions based on the job description, and then practice telling your stories using a model that suits you. Aim for a 2-3 minute story that highlights the skills you want to emphasize, but also directly answers the question asked. Be careful not to tell an amazing story that doesn’t address the question: Listen carefully, pause and then respond. – Jill HauwillerLeadership Refinery 

10. Don’t Sound Mechanical Or Rehearsed 

Often job seekers overthink what they are going to say in an interview and responses come out sounding rehearsed or mechanical. Interviewers are likely to retain content that is easy to relate to and engaging, so spend time preparing “career stories.” Using the “challenge, action and result” approach, focus on delivering well-rounded, tailored stories instead of stiff, flat responses. – Adrienne TomCareer Impressions 

11. Have A Story For Each Listed Competency On The Job Posting 

The key to a successful interview starts with becoming intimately familiar with the job posting. For each listed competency, prepare an example of a time where you excelled using that skill. Practice repeatedly, recording yourself, explaining the opportunity or problem you were faced with, what you did (or led), the benefits for the company, and what skills you brought to the successful outcome. – Lisa BarringtonBarrington Coaching