Behavioral interview questions are a widely used method of assessing a candidate’s suitability for a position. By asking behavioral questions, the employer goes further then just looking at the candidate's work and educational background to decide whether or not they are the right fit for the organisation and, further to this, the role itself.
Behavioral interview questions are based on the premise that a candidate’s past behavior will reflect how he or she is likely to think and act in the future. The interviewer will ask the candidate for specific examples of previous behavior to determine whether these match the requirements of the current role.
Why employers use behavioral interview questions
Interview questions based on a behavioral method can help employers to make better informed employment decisions.
A traditional interview question such as “Why should we hire you?” allows a candidate to tailor their response directly to what they think the interviewer wants to hear, while even more testing questions such as ‘”What would you do if xxx happened?” are quite impersonal, revealing relatively little about the candidate’s personality and skill set. This kind of questioning style allows the interviewee to distance themselves a little, avoiding having to draw on past experience or give real-life examples to back up their response.
A well-structured behavioral interview question makes it tricky to respond without revealing something of your personality or making some reference to previous experience. It gives the interviewer more to work with and a deeper insight into your thought processes and behavior. This style of questioning relies on the candidate giving truthful or at least semi-truthful answers.
It's OK to let your personality shine through a little when facing behavioral questions.
Typical structure of a behavioral interview
While each will differ depending on the organisation and the person asking the questions, a typical behavioural interview will be structured as follows:
- Opening (5%)
- Job / Organisational culture (10%)
- Questioning / Information gathering (75%)
- Candidate questions (5%)
- Wrapping up (5%)
Categories of question and model answers
Leadership skills come in many different forms, as do the questions that test for this particular attribute.
Your employer may look for evidence of personal traits such as patience and open-mindedness, as well as clear examples of how you work and interact with others in a professional setting.
A sample leadership-focused question may ask you to describe a situation where you had to delegate a task to someone else. In answering this, you could mention a situation where you evaluated the individual strengths of the people you were working with, before matching different aspects of the task to the person with the requisite skill set.
You may face questions regarding what you didn’t like about a previous experience, role or individual. Tread carefully: demonstrating bitterness or a negative approach may reflect badly on you and your attitude, so look to emphasise the positives by shifting the focus to how you successfully dealt with the situation.
For example, when answering the question “Tell me about a time when you were unhappy with a classmate or colleague?”, seek to highlight how you managed to resolve a potentially difficult situation between the two of you, rather than attributing blame to the other person.
Both positive and negative decision-making questions are commonly asked in behavioural interviews. Here, the employer is looking to assess the interviewee’s ability to stick to a decision, be fair and demonstrate critical thinking, reasoning and logic.
An example of when you handled a tough decision well could include describing how you had to choose between two potential partners to work with on a joint university assignment. Again, it’s crucial to highlight your thought process and how you came to a logical conclusion.
Problem solving is a sought-after skill by employers who may be evaluating your ability to identify issues and challenges and then work independently and logically to resolve them. In this case the most important thing is not the solution itself but how you went about reaching it.
A sample problem-solving behavioural question could be: “Explain a time where you had to make best use of your decision-making skills.”
A typical answer to which might go as follows:
“The clothes store I was working at two summers ago was having problems with late deliveries of some products. After a little investigation, I discovered that some of the invoices we had received from our suppliers were not being paid on time, which was causing the delays. From there it was just a question of making sure bills were paid on time.”
The ability to work within a team is vital for most graduate roles and will continue to be an important skill throughout your career. To be seen as an effective team player, you can expect to be judged on your people skills, interactions with others and evidence of strong relationships during your work and/or studies.
A typical question could ask to describe a situation where you had to resolve an issue between a group of friends or colleagues. An effective answer to this might be:
“I made sure not to rush in immediately in the hope that the issue would resolve itself. When this wasn’t the case, my next step was to talk with each of the group members to get their perspective. From here I was able to put across the opposing views to each of the other members. The most important thing was to maintain an objective stance and to avoid taking sides.”
Your ability to communicate effectively is important for any graduate role, particularly in situations where you are likely to be dealing with clients or customers on a regular basis.
You may be asked by your interviewer to describe a time where your communication skills were tested. A strong answer might be:
“I was given responsibility for running a company’s social media presence during my internship. The target audience was people with an interest in financial markets, so it was crucial to tailor my style and tone to reflect this. This meant having to read up on financial terminology. My manager was very impressed with the level of interaction I achieved.”
Employers naturally want to hire people who can organise their workload effectively and possibly those of others. The interviewer will want to see evidence of being able to put together a plan or strategy and work towards this in a methodical way. You should also look to explain how you fit others into your planning and organisation processes.
If asked the question, a good example you could give of organising or planning could be a recent event for a student society or club, again making sure to emphasise your thought processes and the different steps involved, as well as how you worked effectively alongside others.
The CAR and STAR approaches
Two popular and extremely useful techniques for preparing an answer to a behavioural-style question are CAR and STAR.
The CAR approach
The CAR approach helps you to structure your answer as if it were a short essay.
Context is your introduction, where you describe the scenario you are confronted with. The Action forms the main body and should be the longest part of your answer. The Result is the conclusion and, like the introduction, should be relatively short and succinct.
Context: Begin by detailing the challenge that you were dealing with. A typical challenge may relate to your team, technology, or timing.
Action: What action did you take? What were the different steps involved?
Result: What was the final outcome? While ideally the result will be positive, there is no harm in admitting the difficulties you encountered, so long as you still achieved a satisfactory result. Ideally your answer will be quantifiable eg you managed to achieve x times as many sales.
The STAR approach
The STAR approach involves being positive about your actions throughout your response. Be careful not to stray too far from the truth, as your interviewer may choose to delve deeper into your story by asking for specific details.
Situation: What was the situation facing you or your team?
Task: What tasks were involved in that situation?
Action: What actions did you take?
Result: What result did you achieve?
How to prepare for behavioral interview questions
The best preparation for a behavioral-style interview is to research the role in-depth beforehand, identifying what character traits or skills the employer is likely to deem important for that role. Having selected those behaviors you feel to be most relevant, spend time building up a bank of examples from your recent experience that provide evidence of each trait.
Make sure the examples you give are varied and come from different areas of your experience. For example, you could give examples of situations you encountered during a recent internship or part-time job; a number from your studies, and so on. In selecting your examples and composing your ‘story’, try to make sure that each has a positive outcome.
Also give some thought to the structure of your story and how you plan on explaining the different thought processes involved. Use the CAR and STAR techniques to guide you. While it might help to write some brief notes on your examples to help you remember them, try not to learn your answers verbatim, which is likely to undermine the authenticity of your response when it comes to the interview.
Read more about other types of interview questions: