What Are Open-Ended Interview Questions?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 14 September 2022

Published 30 August 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.

When you're applying for a job, your interviewer may ask you some open-ended interview questions. Your answers to these questions can introduce a lot of context and background information to the information on your CV and cover letter. These questions are also a good way of getting a conversation going, so having good answers can help your interview go more smoothly. In this article, we explain the purpose of these questions, what form they can take and show you some examples.

What are open-ended interview questions?

Whereas your CV and cover letter generally contain facts and information in a concise format, the interviewing process allows you to provide additional context and detail for some of this information. To encourage this, the interviewer asks open-ended questions that allow you to choose how much additional information to give. They might be situational, behavioural, anecdotal or competency-based in nature.

Open-ended interview questions offer you an opportunity to include as much detail, context and opinion as you want. You also have the option of choosing how to answer it. Conversely, a closed-ended question usually only has one answer, which is factual in nature. Given that there are so many ways of answering them, it's much more important to prepare for these in advance. This allows you to select an appropriate example in advance and structure your answer to be clear and concise.

Related: Interview Question: "Tell Me About Yourself"

The different types of open-ended questions

Generally speaking, there are four categories of open-ended interview questions. Each of these is explained in detail below, along with some examples:

Situational questions

Interviewers use situational questions very often because they can show your decision-making skills and work ethic. These generally involve the interviewer presenting you with a hypothetical situation and asking you how you would handle it. This means they can be used even when interviewing someone who's had no work experience yet. Very often, these hypothetical scenarios are common in the role you're interviewing for, and how you answer can be vital to your chances of securing the job. Some examples of situational interview questions are:

  • If a customer you'd tried to help started to become disagreeable and accused you of behaving unethically, how would you handle the situation?

  • How would you work to help develop a workplace culture of safety and inclusivity? How would you deal with resistance to this from your colleagues?

  • If you suspect a colleague of behaving in an unethical manner, what would you do about it?

  • How would you handle a disagreement with your employer?

Read more: 5 Situational Interview Questions and How To Answer Them

Behavioural questions

Unlike a situational question, a behavioural question seeks to determine your attitude and work ethic through a situation that actually happened to you before. Generally, the situation happened in a previous workplace, but it could also be an example from your time in education or elsewhere, such as volunteering. These questions help your interviewer assess your skills and ability to handle certain situations.

When you answer a behavioural question, it's usually best to do so in a narrative manner. This means talking about your motivations for acting as you did, in addition to describing the scenario and the actions you took. These questions are an opportunity to show how you're capable of handling potentially difficult situations and deriving positive results. Your answer ought to show good judgement, tact and any skills relevant to the role you're interviewing for. Some examples of behavioural interview questions could be:

  • Have you ever had to tell a superior that they're doing something wrong? How did you approach them?

  • Can you tell me about an ethical dilemma that you faced in the workplace? How did you handle it?

  • Have you ever received critical feedback that you disagreed with? What was your reaction?

  • Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a dissatisfied customer.

  • Have you ever been asked to do something that wasn't in your skill set? What did you do?

  • Can you tell me about a time where you handled a disagreement in the workplace?

Read more: Behavioural Interview Questions (With Example Answers)

Anecdotal questions

An anecdotal question is quite similar to a behavioural one but is designed to assess your ability to accurately recall and explain information or scenarios. This is a test of your communication skills, in addition to testing how organised you are and how well you can impart information in a concise manner. Your motivation is irrelevant to an anecdotal question, unlike a behavioural one. Instead, you must be able to describe a story accurately, briefly and clearly.

An interviewer might ask you to do this by requesting a lot of detail regarding something on your CV. This might include asking for a detailed account of your specific responsibilities, how you achieved certain goals or the processes involved in carrying out a particular task. For example, an interviewer might ask you something like this:

  • On your CV, you say that you were responsible for a team of contractors. Can you tell me what this entailed on a daily basis?

  • Can you tell me how you used to develop a comprehensive marketing strategy from start to finish?

  • You mentioned that you previously increased customer satisfaction by 20%. Could you tell me how you achieved that?

  • Could you tell me more about the safety procedures involved in your last position? What sorts of steps or measures were you required to take?

Competency-based questions

When an interviewer wants to ascertain your level of skill, knowledge or experience performing a particular task, they may ask a competency-based question. This sort of question is designed to determine your abilities, which can include role-specific and technical skills or general soft skills. Like anecdotal or behavioural questions, you might find it best to use a real example from past experience. It's best practice to use examples wherever possible, but you can also answer a competency-based question without needing an example.

The goal of this question is to reassure your potential employer that you're going to know what you're doing and how to do it. The interviewer might ask you about how certain processes work, technical information regarding the hardware used in the role, codes of conduct for your profession or the best approaches for workplace conflict resolution. For example, the interviewer might ask you one of the following questions:

  • What is the most effective leadership style, in your opinion?

  • How do you ensure that you're sufficiently well-informed when overseeing a large number of members of staff?

  • What are the first steps in website design?

  • How do you ensure quality assurance at the end of the production line?

Read more: What Are Competency-Based Interview Questions?

Tips for answering open-ended interview questions

Due to their nature, open-ended questions can easily lead to answers that are very long, somewhat vague or unclear. Preparation for these sorts of questions is very important, as the answers can be quite detailed and multifaceted. Below are some good tips to remember when preparing for and answering open-ended questions:

Identify what type of question it is

The four categories of open-ended questions described above do overlap to a certain degree. It's therefore important to identify which of these categories the question primarily fits into. This can help you to ensure that your answer is relevant and delivered confidently. To help you identify which category a given question falls under, associate each one with a question word:

  • Situational questi**ons:** These ask an 'if' question. They're hypothetical questions that ask you how you'd react if something specific happened.

  • Behavioural questi**ons:** These ask a 'why' question. Describe your motivations, work ethic and guiding principles.

  • Anecdotal questio**ns:** These ask a 'what' question. Tell the interviewer what happened in detail, with a focus on an accurate description.

  • Competency-based questions: These ask a 'how' question. For example, how to do something, how something works or how you're expected to behave.

Research the company

Even answers to open-ended questions ought to be relevant to the company you're interviewing at. Go to their website and social media pages and get a good understanding of what they do, what their goals are and what values and principles guide the organisation. This helps you choose examples and give answers that are going to appeal to that company in particular.

Use the STAR method

The STAR method for answering interview questions is very good for breaking down open-ended questions into manageable sections. The acronym stands for situation, task, action and result. Following this method can help you ensure your answer is brief while also containing all of the necessary information.

Read more: How To Use the STAR Interview Technique in Competency-Based Interviews

Be positive

When you answer any open-ended question, being positive is almost always preferable to being negative. If your answer includes a description of a negative situation that you had to deal with, concentrate primarily on how you proactively handled it, rather than how bad things were or who was at fault. This shows the interviewer that you have a positive attitude and like to get things done.

Related: 'Where Do You See Yourself In 10 Years?'

Explore more articles