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Use Previous Examples to Fuel Your Hypothetical Answers

interview tips Nov 10, 2022

Do you find it difficult in the moment to come up with the right solutions? What if you could implement one simple trick that would really help you in the solution portion of your hypothetical answers?

One of the key tricks is to use past examples as fuel for your solutions. A secondary definition of “fuel” is “to support or stimulate.” This is exactly what we are going to focus on today. You are interviewing for a specific position for a reason. There is a strong likelihood that you’ve already been through something similar in the past.

You’ll want to correlate the solution back to your actual experience. It will make solving these tough open-ended questions much easier. A good cheat sheet will also help, and we will talk about how to prepare that later on in this article. 

Item #1—Take Your Time

This approach will only work well if you slow down. The instant you hear a hypothetical question, think about if you’ve been through something similar in the past. After writing the question down (and restating, if necessary), simply tell your interviewer you are going to take a minute to gather your thoughts. 

During this minute, you will take your time to reference your cheat sheet and determine how you can utilize past experience as fuel for your solution.

Item #2—The C.F.A.S. Method

Now that you have a previous example in mind and you are utilizing your cheat sheet, you will go through each step using the C.F.A.S. (Clarification. Framework. Assumptions. Solution.) method. Specifically, you want to focus on the clarification, framework and assumptions first, and then this will allow you to dive deeper into the solution. Use your previous example to fuel these specific items:

Clarifying Questions—Draw from your previous experience and ask clarifying questions similar to those you asked during that specific initiative. You can utilize the pre-planned clarifying questions you have already included on your cheat sheet. And you might also want to create a nuanced question or two that will help you uncover a critical data point or two.

Framework—When reviewing your cheat sheet and determining the best framework concepts to use in your answer, ask yourself, when you had this experience in the past, what concept was the most challenging and important for you to solve. This will help you understand not only the overall concepts, but also where to get started.

Assumptions—There are a few key items to keep in mind when it comes to assumptions. When you transition into your assumptions, you need to say “let’s assume…” You’ve already had this experience, but you still have to set up your answer as a hypothetical response to the specific open-ended question you are being asked. You also want to tie your assumptions back to the original question and the role. It can be very easy to get caught up on your past example and forget to relate it back to the actual hypothetical question. You also have to make sure your assumptions aren’t so specific that it’s clear you are using a past example.

Solution—When you solve, remember the following key items. First, you must solve wearing the hat of the role. Then, you can use your past experience as fuel and make it nuanced to the position and organization. This will help you differentiate from sounding like you are just giving a past example and making it feel like a hypothetical problem-solving answer.  

Item #3—Cheat Sheet (Video)

Having a good cheat sheet prepared is critical. It will help you easily reference past examples and organize your thoughts within the C.F.A.S. method. In my full video, I walk you through the full cheat sheet screen share so you can model your own cheat sheet using this sample. If you want to skip straight to the cheat sheet, click on the subsection starting at 3:45.

Item #4—They Call You Out!

If you present your hypothetical answer well, it is highly unlikely your interviewer will call you out for using a past example. However, it can happen and you should be prepared just in case. Here’s what your response should be:

“Absolutely, I did have the opportunity to do something similar in the past. I really wanted to draw from my experience and provide an example on how to do it at this company.”

You are not trying to hide the fact that you have actually done something similar. Just remember you are using your past example as fuel. You should always tailor it as much as possible to the specific hypothetical question being asked, as well as the role and organization.

For more helpful interview prep resources and tips, check out my YouTube channel, follow my blog or visit the Practice Interviews website.


Jeff H. Sipe

Jeff has interviewed over 1000 people in his career and previously spent five years working at Google headquarters in Silicon Valley. You likely found Jeff through YouTube and you will find the same level of dedication in his one on one practice interview sessions.

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