Problem-Solving Interview Questions and How to Answer Them Effectively

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated October 21, 2022

Published June 21, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

During a job interview, the interviewer will ask you many types of questions to evaluate your experience, skills and competencies, personality characteristics, and cognitive abilities. One specific form you can expect is problem-solving interview questions. In this article, we discuss the use of problem-solving questions during the interviewing process, along with four common questions with sample answers and a list of tips to make the most of your response.

What are problem-solving interview questions?

Also known as analytical questions, problem-solving interview questions assess your abilities in critical and creative thinking and analysis. An interviewer will also use these types of questions to determine your approach to dealing with uncommon or difficult situations.

There are several characteristics that make up problem-solving skills. They include:

  • Creativity

  • Initiative

  • Determination

  • Analysis

  • Resourcefulness

Why do companies ask problem-solving questions during an interview?

Companies ask problem-solving questions during an interview for several reasons. A problem-solving question allows the interviewer to evaluate your ability to gather data, analyze a situation, develop several solutions, weigh the pros and cons of each, and decide the final outcome.

Interviewers use this form of questioning to determine if you are proactive in your approach to handling work-related challenges and whether you are goal and results-oriented. Interviewers use analytical questions based on the theory that previous results indicate your potential future behaviour. When using problem-solving questions, for this reason, the interviewer is more interested in your thought and reasoning process than whether you have a "right" or "wrong" response.

A company also uses problem-solving questions during an interview to assess your knowledge of an industry-specific process, procedure, or technology. When using analytical questions, for this reason, the interviewer wants to evaluate your understanding of a particular topic and your analytical reasoning. Interviewers will ask problem-solving questions during an interview for this reason when the position is highly technical or when the job requires a firm command of data analysis or technology, such as within IT or engineering sectors.

Related: How To Provide Difficult Situation Examples in an Interview

What are the five steps to solving a problem?

It's essential to understand the five steps of solving a problem to feel confident in answering problem-solving questions during your interview. They are:

  1. Gather data and analyze what caused the problem

  2. Brainstorm all possible solutions to the problem

  3. Evaluate the pros and cons of each solution

  4. Choose the best solution and implement a plan

  5. Evaluate the effectiveness of your solution and make necessary adjustments

This is the basic process of problem-solving throughout all industries and situations. It's a universal procedure you can follow when confronted with a challenge and when considering your responses to analytical questions during your interview.

Related: What is a Problem Statement? Definition and Example

As with any behavioural-based interview question, you also want to use the STAR method for your response. STAR is an acronym used to describe a four-part system for answering soft skill questions effectively. STAR stands for:

  • Situation

  • Task

  • Action

  • Results

When answering a behavioural interview question, using the STAR method provides you with a template to describe the situation, the task presented to you, the action you took, and the resulting success.

Problem-solving questions with sample answers

To help you prepare for your next interview, we have assembled four common problem-solving questions that a recruiter or hiring manager may pose to you, as well as sample answers:

1. Tell me about a time you had to handle an upset customer or client.

This is a common interview question used to assess several skills at once. The interviewer is testing your ability to handle conflict while providing a positive customer experience. They are also evaluating your problem-solving ability to take initiative in assisting the customer, and developing a creative solution while remaining resourceful. When responding to the question, use the STAR method with a specific example to show how you overcame the customer's challenge by analyzing their problem and developing a successful solution.

Example answer: "I recently had a customer come into the store to complain about our refund policy. I asked them several questions and actively listened to their response. I determined they were upset by feeling as if they had no other choice than to continue using the product they purchased. Once I understood their frustration, I could give them several options. Together, we concluded that the best option was to exchange the product for something that better suited their needs. I followed up with them the next day after their exchange, and we thrilled them with the new product."

2. When faced with a problem during a work task, how do you determine the best course of action?

Inevitably, problems appear throughout the workday for everyone, and the interviewer wants to understand how you handle an unexpected challenge. They use this question to assess your ability to address unanticipated issues during your daily tasks and the process you use to solve them independently. This question also evaluates your ability to analyze the pros and cons of various solutions and your reasoning for choosing a specific course of action. When responding to this question, remember the five steps of problem-solving to craft your answer.

Example answer: "When faced with a problem during my daily tasks, I first figure out how or why the problem occurred. I will brainstorm ideas on how I can proceed. Once I have a few ideas, I'll assess the pros and cons of each to make the best choice to overcome the problem. I'll then take that specific course of action. Afterwards, I'll reflect to see what went well and what I could improve next time."

3. What is the most innovative idea you implemented in your previous position?

An interviewer asks this question for several reasons. They want to know how you've positively contributed to your previous employer. The question also requires you to show your problem-solving and analytical skills. Developing an innovative idea and then implementing it takes resourcefulness, initiative, analytical skills, and creativity. When answering this question, focus on how you identified a problem, challenge, or gap in your previous position. Then recall how you analyzed the various solutions and implemented the best idea. Focusing on how your concept improved your last company will show the interviewer that you're ready to make a difference in your new position.

Example answer: "In my previous position, I took care of gathering and analyzing sales data from our sales representatives for a monthly review. I saw that putting this information manually together was taking so much extra time. So, I developed an Excel spreadsheet with formulas and pivot tables that would create graphs and charts with a click of a button. I downloaded the sales information directly into the spreadsheet every week and could compile results quickly and save time."

4. Describe when you faced an unexpected problem in your job and how you handled the situation.

Handling unexpected problems effectively is a valuable skill that employers seek in potential team members. When asking this question, an interviewer evaluates your ability to remain flexible and creative while solving a problem independently in your position. In answering this question, use the STAR method to focus on a specific example with a positive outcome. Outline the situation and task involved and then describe the action you took to resolve the issue and the corresponding result.

Example answer: "When I was working as a customer service manager, I had a customer call to say that they hadn't received their order, even though the item was showing as shipped and received. After looking into their order, I determined that the best service I could provide would be to courier them a new order free of charge. After getting off the phone with the customer, I coordinated everything with the shipping department and had them rush the order out. The customer called back a few days later to confirm they received the package and to express their thanks."

Related: 7 Adaptability Interview Questions

Tips for answering problem-solving interview questions

When preparing for your interview and during your meeting, follow these tips for creating the most significant impact with your responses to problem-solving and analytical interview questions:

  • Remember the five-step process of problem-solving when developing your response.

  • Use the STAR method to create a well-formed answer, including the situation and task, as well as the action you took and the result.

  • Focus on examples that highlight your professional strengths and personality characteristics.

  • Be specific in the examples you provide. Include details that focus on the various qualities of problem-solving, such as creativity, innovation, and resourcefulness.

  • Prepare for your interview by writing down several examples of situations you can use when asked a problem-solving or analytical question.

  • Share examples that are relevant to the position you are applying for, the company, or the industry.

Now that we have discussed the use of problem-solving questions during the interviewing process, you can better prepare for when they come up in a job interview.

Related: Answering "Describe a Challenge You Face and How You Overcame It"

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