How to answer open-ended interview questions

27 Jan 2022

Interviews are full of questions that start with the words ‘Tell me about a time when…’ and ‘Give me an example of…’. These open-ended questions are a great chance to demonstrate your experience with a powerful example. Unfortunately, they also cause problems. Problems like long, rambling, unclear answers. How do you get to the point while also giving enough background for the other person to understand the topic?

We know our interview answers should be short. But it’s one thing to know an answer should be short, and quite another to know how to make it short.

If you want to give short, impactful interview answers, keep reading. Because in this article I’ll show you exactly how to answer open ended interview questions.

Answer open-ended questions with a structured summary

The solution to the problem of how to answer open ended interview questions is to create a summary. Specifically, a structured summary using the goal-problem-solution method.

The three parts of the structured summary are:

  • Goal: The goal you were trying to achieve
  • Problem: The problem that prevented you from reaching your goal
  • Solution: What you did to solve the problem

Answering open-ended questions with a good summary provides a complete answer in just a few lines. The interviewer will understand the example and have a good idea of what happened and what you did.

How to answer open-ended interview questions with a summary

Goal: State the goal for the situation

This can be your goal, a company goal, or someone else’s goal that you helped them achieve. The goal statement expands on what you said as the context and intent in the framing section. This goal must be substantial enough to show the value of your solution.

  • Don’t describe why the goal exists. That is less important than what you did to achieve the goal.
  • Don’t worry if the goal is simple, as long as the problem is significant the simplicity of the goal doesn’t matter.
  • Do use a goal that is relevant to the job, or sets up an example that shows your skills and abilities.
  • Do include basic information about the timeframe for achieving the goal if it is relevant to answer the question.

 Problem: State the problem that stopped you achieving the goal

The problem is the villain of your story. It is the situation, obstacle, person or disaster that stops you easily achieving the goal. The problem should be big enough to show it tested your skills and abilities.

  • Don’t describe what caused the problem. You don’t want to spend time talking about what led up to an issue when you could spend the time talking about the amazing things you did to overcome the issue.
  • Do state the problem that prevented you completing your intended action.

If your example is how you helped someone else, state the problem blocking their goal. Or state how their goal created a problem for you. This sets you up to talk about how your solution solved the problem for both them and for you.

Solution: Describe what you did to overcome the difficult problem

Describe, briefly, what you did to overcome the problem and achieve your intended goal. If you describe a problem that someone else faced, the solution is what you did to help them solve it.

  • Don’t describe every step you took — summarize the actions.
  • Don’t introduce more problems in your answer — your answer should focus on a single primary problem and how you overcame it. If you describe more than one problem you are likely to confuse the interviewer.
  • Do state what you did and how it helped.
  • Do state the result — did you achieve the goal fully?
  • Do state any additional benefits in addition to achieving the goal. Did you learn a new skill, strengthen a relationship, improve a company process, etc.?

Note: Of the three parts, the solution statement should be the longest part of the summary. The First Minute stresses the importance of the solution being given as a single statement. That works when summarizing a topic at the start of a conversation. But, a single sentence is not usually enough to answer an interview question. When answering interview questions, it is good to describe what you did in a bit more detail. It is still a summary, but it is OK to use more than one sentence.

Keep the summary short

As with any interview answer, you should make the answer as short as possible. [LINK] Only give relevant information and stop when you’ve said enough to answer the question. Start with a one minute summary, even if your example is large. Then, having given an overview of the whole example, you can expand your answer to provide more detail.


Knowing how to answer open ended interview questions is critical to a good interview result. The interviewer won’t understand you if your answers are long, rambling, or unstructured. One of the best ways to give short, clear answers is to summarise your examples using GPS — goal, problem, solution.

To find out more about giving great answers in interviews, check out my book, The First Minute — Interview Answer Workbook. This 30-page workbook shows you the step-by-step process for creating clear, concise answers to tough interview questions.

Learn more with my book

The First Minute Interview Answer Workbook

The First Minute Interview Answer Workbook by Chris Fenning

Communication is listed as a top-five skill for almost all companies. There is no better time to show you have clear and concise communication than when answering interview questions.

This instructional guide and workbook shows you the step-by-step process for creating clear, concise answers to tough interview questions. The guidance and activities in this book will improve the quality of your interview answers.

  • Section 1 of this workbook covers the theory behind creating great interview answers. Examples are given to demonstrate the methods.
  • Section 2 provides activities and exercises for identifying the topics and problems you can use as examples in your interview. Activities then guide you through the creation of examples and answers you can use in your next interview. The result will be shorter, more organised examples that you can take with you to your next interview.