When you’re in a job interview, you’re likely to get asked questions that require you walk your interviewer through past experiences. “Describe a time you had to make a difficult decision,” for example, asks you to do this in a way that provides them a bit of insight into how you handle tough choices and how you work overall. Like all interview questions, it gives you a chance to show the interviewer you’re the right person for the job—as long as you’re well prepared.
Why interviewers ask this question
Interviewers ask behavioral questions—these questions that prompt you to describe past experiences—to give them real-life examples of how you use your skills. Anyone can state they have a certain skill needed for a job, but that doesn’t tell the interviewer how you’ve used it or how well.
“Every job has conflict and challenges” that require you to make choices big and small, says Muse career coach Tara Goodfellow, owner of Athena Consultants. So asking you to describe a time you had to make a difficult decision can “help an interviewer understand a bit about how you process and solve dilemmas,” Goodfellow says. “It’s not so much about the actual situation, but the resolution and how a situation is handled.” Basically, your interviewer wants to see that you not only can approach decisions thoughtfully and make choices in a clear, logical way, but also explain your considerations and ultimate call.
Interviewers also will be on the lookout for red flags in your answer. “It also can be telling when an interviewee blames others or doesn’t hold herself accountable,” Goodfellow says.
Here are some steps to follow as you prepare and construct your answer:
1. Consider the job description
Your answer to this—and every—interview question should be relevant to the position you’re applying to, Goodfellow says. The best way to do this is to carefully study the job description and figure out the types of decisions you might have to make in this role. You should also think about what problems you’re being hired to solve. “You want the answer to resonate with your interviewers,” Goodfellow says, and you want to show them that you can “solve potential pain points they have.”
For example, if you’re hoping to get hired for an event-planning position that involves a lot of budgeting, you might want your answer to involve a tough choice you had to make about how to allocate funds. If you’ll have to make a lot of choices about directions for future marketing campaigns, you might talk about how you decided between two great, but very different, campaign ideas at your last job.
2. Choose the right situation
Once you know what type of experience you want your answer to convey, you need to choose the right story to tell. A good story for “Describe a time you had to make a difficult decision” will:
- Be about a professional experience. Your interviewer is not asking about a difficult decision you had to make in your personal or social life. If you’re an entry-level candidate, “You can pull from an internship, team, volunteer, and/or project experience,” rather than previous jobs, Goodfellow says.
- Actually be a difficult decision. So something like choosing which email to respond to first on a normal Monday won’t cut it. “It doesn’t have to be that you came in and identified a million dollar error,” Goodfellow says, but it should have some significance or impact, even if it feels “small.” Think about the types of choices you personally find challenging and why.
- Show off your decision-making and problem-solving skills. It might seem obvious, but you should choose a story that allows you to demonstrate how you made a decision. Don’t choose a time that you picked which new client to pursue first by flipping a coin. “You want to convey that you thought through the options,” Goodfellow says. Did you research each choice? Consult your manager or someone with more experience in this area? Make a pros and cons list?
- Not imply that you can’t do the job. Don’t make it sound like a routine part of the role you’re interviewing for will be excruciating for you on a daily basis. “If you’re going to have to engage with customers and you state you get nervous every time a customer asks you a question, that is a red flag (and I’m not kidding, I’ve had this as an answer),” Goodfellow says. One exception to this is if you choose a story from further back in your career about a decision that was difficult at the time, but now that you’ve had more experience, you’re an expert or “go-to” person in these kinds of decisions, Goodfellow says.
3. Explain which kinds of decisions are difficult for you and why
Once you’ve chosen an appropriate situation, you’ll want to articulate why it was a difficult decision for you, so your interviewer can glean more insight into who you are as an employee and what matters to you. Interviewers are “interested in what you deem challenging and how you resolve it,” Goodfellow says. “Both pieces need to be shared with some detail.”
So for example, if interviewing for a client-facing job you might say something like:
“For me, any decision that has the potential to negatively affect a client’s trust in our business relationship is difficult because as an account manager, I know that that trust is paramount. But unfortunately, sometimes things change on our end or, for some reason I didn’t know about earlier, I can’t deliver on everything promised.”
4. Tell your story in a clear, concise way
Walk an interviewer through your experience in an organized way. One of the most common ways to do this is the STAR method. STAR stands for: Situation, Task, Action, Result. Here’s how it works:
Situation: Lay out the situation for the interviewer, with just enough specific detail that they understand. To continue our example from the previous section:
“My company offers complimentary in-office training on our software in the first month after you sign up for one of our enterprise-level packages. However, one time, I was informed that there was only availability for one of my two new clients to receive this in-office training within the first 30 days after signing.
Task: Say what your role in the story was. In this case, explicitly state which decision you had to make. For example:
I had to decide which of my clients would get the training in the promised time period.
Action: What did you do to help you make your choice? For this question, interviewers are most interested in your decision-making process, so that should be emphasized the most.
I wanted to know everything I could about each client so that I could try to predict which would benefit most from the earlier training. I looked back at my communication with both clients. One of the clients was a newer tech startup that rarely emailed me unless I contacted them first and didn’t ask any questions. Meanwhile the other client was a more established marketing agency that often contacted me with questions from their employees about how to use our software.
Since they were both such new clients, I also set up a meeting with the account executive who’d closed each deal to get more insight. The AE who’d signed the tech startup said they’d been a quick and easy sale until it came time to actually sign the deal and suddenly they had a lot of questions about what was actually included in the level they’d agreed to. The AE had realized that their contact hadn’t been speaking with the team members who would actually be using our software until just before they signed the deal. Meanwhile, the AE who’d signed the marketing agency said that selling to them had been a longer process where they’d asked a lot of detailed questions along the way, but by the time they agreed to sign they were enthusiastic.
I realized that the lack of questions from the tech startup may have been because they hadn’t run into any problems, but given what had happened during the deal signing, it also could indicate that there was no firm avenue for the employees using our software to ask questions—and these employees may have been waiting for the training to get help and start using the program in earnest. However, the marketing agency was always passing questions along to me—indicating that they were willing and able to get their employees the answers they needed before the training took place.
Result: What choice did you make and what was the outcome of your decision? If you have specific numbers or examples to back up how you made the right choice, be sure to include them.
I decided that the tech startup would get the first training because I had no indication that the contact we had at that company was passing on employee inquiries. And I knew the marketing agency’s employees were already using and getting comfortable with our software and had a way to get their questions answered in the meantime. I approached the marketing agency first, let them know the issue, and offered to book them the first available date in their second month. They appreciated how forthcoming I was. They’re still a client two years later—at a higher package level than their first year with us. The tech startup reported back that their employees loved the training and they’re also still with us, but now even more forthcoming with questions because the employees felt they connected with us at the training.
Keep in mind that the action and result are where the meat of your answer should be. You might have a tendency to spend more time setting up the situation and task “because let’s face it, it’s easier to share the objective components,” Goodfellow says. However, interviewers are “more interested in the A and the R.”
Here’s another example answer for a candidate without professional experience.
“When I first started college, I used to have difficulty making choices about what to prioritize because I tend to want to learn and do everything. And as a computer science major, a lot of my classes involved group projects. During one semester, I had two large projects that I was working on simultaneously for my cybersecurity and web development courses. Each project had sections to them that would have been more challenging for me and required me to learn new things, along with one or two sections that wouldn’t be as much of a time commitment for me since I’d be honing skills I already had. My natural urge is to try to learn something new whenever possible. However, that just wasn’t possible to do with both projects at once and I needed to decide which project I should volunteer to do a more challenging section of (and spend more time on) and which one I should take on a more familiar section of.
I first checked both syllabi and found that each project was worth the same percentage of my grade and confirmed I was on track to get roughly the same grade in both classes.
So at my first meeting with each group, I asked my teammates what aspects they were interested in and most skilled at and what else they had going. I found that each group had someone who could dedicate more time than I’d be able to if I chose to take on a more challenging part of the other project. Plus, there were group members on each team who had more experience and familiarity with the portions of the projects that were new to me and who might be able to complete them without a lot of strain.
So I had to ask myself which project was going to be the most useful for my education and career goals, and the answer there was definitely the web development class—as you can probably tell from me applying to this job—so I took on the section of that project that I considered most challenging and that would allow me to learn something new. For my cybersecurity class, I volunteered to take on a portion of the project that was similar to things I’d done in the past.
Both projects turned out well—we got As for both. But the knowledge I gained from the web development project really solidified my desire to focus on front-end web dev for the long term. I also learned that I can’t do it all and applied similar methods for prioritizing future projects, and I can now make these choices much more quickly.”