Editor’s note: All of the behavioral interview questions listed in this article are actual examples from an employers’ guide to behavioral interviewing by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).
Looking for a job is stressful. Between updating your resume, searching for suitable positions and writing cover letters, the job hunt itself can feel like a full-time job. An unexpected layoff, months-long search or tight job market are all things that compound that pressure.
Then, there’s the dreaded interview.
If it feels like you’re stumbling over your words and tanking interviews, don’t despair. It likely has less to do with your communication skills or your qualifications and more to do with the questions you’re being asked—specifically behavioral interview questions.
Traditional Versus Behavioral Interviewing
In this or a previous job search, you probably prepared for and might have been asked traditional interview questions:
- What is your biggest strength (or weakness)?
- Why are you the best candidate for this job?
- Where do you see yourself in five years?
Many job seekers are far less prepared for—or even stumped by—more commonly used behavioral interview questions like: Describe a situation in which you used persuasion to convince someone to see things your way.
A lot of organizations favor behavioral interviewing over the traditional sort because it’s a more effective way to select the candidate that best matches a job posting and fits into the company culture.
Understanding Behavioral Interview Questions
The goal of behavioral interview questions is to get you to talk about past experiences where you used the specific skills needed for a particular job or displayed the values that are important to the hiring company. Your answers help interviewers determine if you have the right skills and predict how you’ll perform if you’re hired.
Depending on the position and the company, the skills and values covered in the questions can include things like ethics, leadership, communication, business acumen, problem solving, conflict resolution, teamwork and time management. Here are a few examples:
- Ethics: Tell me about a time when you made a mistake at work. How did you deal with this situation and what was the outcome?
- Leadership: Tell me about a time when an employee approached you with concerns. How did you handle the situation?
- Communication: Describe a time when you had to use discretion in communicating sensitive information. How did you handle the situation?
Keys to Acing a Behavioral Interview
When a company uses behavioral interviewing, all candidates are typically asked the same questions so that managers can compare apples to apples in making their hiring decisions. The edge goes to the candidate who most successfully provides specific examples to the interviewer’s situational questions. With some preparation, you can be that candidate.
Study the Job Posting.
It’s fairly easy to figure out the key skills for a job—it’s right there in black and white in the job posting. For example, if it calls for the ability to multi-task or deal with ambiguity, you might be asked to: Give an example of a time when you had to quickly change project priorities. What steps did you take to initiate change?
Know the Company Culture.
Most job postings also provide a sense of the hiring company’s values. If not, check the company website. If integrity is a key company value, you might be asked to demonstrate your own with a question like: Describe a time when you encountered a conflict of interest. What was the scenario? What did you do?
Give Them What They Want.
In answering behavioral interview questions, the interviewer is looking for a STAR description of the following:
- S: Specific situation
- T: Tasks required
- A: Actions you took
- R: Results
If your answer is vague, they’ll nudge you with follow-up questions for more concrete details, so be prepared to provide them.
Tell a Good Story.
Before interviewing, think about roles you’ve had, projects you’ve worked on, accomplishments you’ve achieved, difficult situations or people you’ve encountered. Within your experience, look for examples of times when you demonstrated the exact skills described in the job posting. Now, turn them into stories using the STAR format to give yourself lots of ready material for the interview.
If your work experience is limited or you can’t think of a professional example, it’s okay to pull from your volunteer experience, school projects or organization memberships.
Focus on Me Not Us.
If the situation you’re describing involved a team or your department, it’s okay to introduce it that way. But then focus on the specific role that you played, what was expected of you, how you accomplished your part and how it turned out. Otherwise, the interviewer can only guess at how instrumental you were in achieving the end results.
Be Ready to Close.
All interviews wrap up the same way, but don’t check out before you have to. Take the opportunity to provide other pertinent information about yourself, reiterate your interest, discuss your availability and ask about next steps.
And of course, thank your interviewer.