• Bryan Wang

An Introduction to Behavioral Interviews

The behavioral interview is one of the fundamental building blocks of the recruiting and interviewing process. The behavioral interview will take place regardless of industry or job, and it's one thing every candidate - regardless of college, major, or background - absolutely must prepare for. Today's guide will therefore help you uncover the best practices - and tips and tricks - for crushing your behavioral interview and standing out.


In the behavioral interview, interviewers are trying to learn three things:

  1. How you behaved in a real-world situation

  2. The measurable value + impact you added to that situation

  3. How you handle stress, pressure, and other life obstacles

Success in a behavioral interview is all about preparation.


Unlike technical or even cultural-fit interviews, there aren’t [necessarily] wrong answers. And if there are, it isn't always clear cut.


That's because behavioral interview questions are aimed at getting to know the ‘real’ you.


Be honest and genuine, and practice structuring your answers that best tell your story and your qualifications. These are the keys to success in this particular type of interview.


Types of Behavioral Questions


Teamwork

  • Tell me about a time you worked in a team.

  • Give me an example of a time you faced conflict while in a team / with a co-worker / with a boss / with a subordinate? How did you handle it?

  • Tell me about a time you needed help from someone who wasn’t responsive.

Challenges

  • How do you handle challenges? Give a recent example.

  • How you do you manage your time and balance your academic, professional, social, and/or familial obligations?

  • Tell me about a time when you worked effectively under pressure. How did you manage it? What was the end result?

Leadership

  • Tell me about a time you lead a team.

  • Have you handled a difficult situation? How did you manage to solve  it?

  • What do you do if you disagree with your boss? Your co-worker? Subordinate?

Values

  • What would you say is your proudest accomplishment?

  • Tell me about a time when you took the initiative in a project.

  • How do you handle ambiguity when working with a team on a project?

  • Give me an example of when you had to get creative.

As you can see, there are thousands of possible questions interviewers can throw your way when asking ‘behavioral’ interview questions.


While you may want to prep some answers for the most commonly asked ones (re: see above), the most efficient use of your time is to develop 3-5 core stories that can be used to answer any number of potential behavioral interview questions.


To that effect, in the next section we will go over how we can best develop such stories and truly elevate our interview game by applying consistency and structure.


The STAR Interviewing Framework


Every question demands A STORY - not a highlight reel, not an off-tangent ten second remark or ten minute monologue. Preferably, for every question thrown your way, you will be able to respond with a one to two minute story that has a defined beginning, middle, and end that showcases your accomplishments, yes, but also demonstrates HOW you solve problems and execute upon key, specific goals.


The STAR (Situation-Task-Action-Result) framework can thus be used to structure your thoughts and general approach to behavioral questions. You should basically tell a STORY, and a good story usually always follows an easy-to-follow, memorable, consistent structure


First, I recommend developing your core 3-5 stories. Each story should center on a specific and unique project and/or experience. For instance, develop one story - ideally centering on your main accomplishment and/or achievement in a given role - for a particular summer internship, and create another for that time you were a counselor in a summer camp or worked as a cashier at Taco Bell (true story: I talked about my semester working at the Taco Bell on Durant, customer service truly is the ultimate test of strength). Look back to your experiences, and pick the most memorable.


Ideally, your story should encompass one - or more - of the following qualities:

  1. Initiative / Entrepreneurial: In any job, you must be prepared to not only survive, but thrive, under ambiguity and adversity. More often than not, there will be no clear solutions and a whole lot of uncertainty. Firms value candidates who can show they have the ability to take initiative and navigate through murky times, all the while knowing how to prioritize their work to conceptualize and implement meaningful ideas, strategies, and solutions. Here, you demonstrate your innate curiosity and ability to drive and execute novel ideas.

  2. Impact: Firms want candidates who prove they can drive and inspire change even within challenging environments. You may be expected to produce results effectively and demonstrate a track record of handling high expectations under high pressure. Here, you demonstrate your ability to execute under pressure and past examples of concrete achievements under your professional belt.

  3. Leadership: You must be self-sufficient and able to take charge, regardless of experience, title, and position. Even if you have just joined the company, you may still be expected to quickly lead important work-streams, communicate with clients, and meaningfully contribute to high-impact, firm-transforming projects. You are expected to hit the ground running, and the firm is always assessing you not only as a present employee but also as a future leader.

  4. Passion: Here, you demonstrate your energy and interest for the job, team, and/or company. This is not always applicable, but passion demonstrates a number of things. Are you fun to work with? Can you brighten up the team’s day? Can you uplift, inspire, and empower fellow co-workers? Do you have the energy and vigor to withstand long work days, weeks, and months? Do you have the stamina to not just survive, but thrive, in a highly demanding and taxing environment? Or will you grind yourself out of the equation and burn out?

  5. Problem-Solving: At the end of the day, in any job your task is to solve problems. In general, your ability to collaborate with others to achieve goals is a critical quality most firm look for, and your own aptitude for analytically and/or creatively solving problems is a huge indicator of your potential success on the job, as well as fit in the team and wider company.

If you are an incoming freshman or sophomore, chances are you won’t have had too many formative experiences just yet. For y’all, stick to three. As you grow into juniors and seniors, you will have more stories to tell.


And if you are an incoming junior or senior, I would recommend you have 5 stories at your disposal. If you are applying for jobs or internships that have multiple rounds of interviewing, you do NOT want to repeat a story/anecdote you told in the first round in the final round/superday, even if the interviewer is different. Interviewers take and share notes, so if you’re found repeating yourself it demonstrates that you lack the experience and history needed to succeed on the job.


Second, review each story with a friend and/or mentor. Have others critique and provide feedback. Does the story highlight the five qualities above?


As long as they do, you can adjust your stories to fit any possible range of behavioral questions that will be thrown your way.


In case you’re still stuck on building your stories, I’ve outlined some examples of how one could structure a story through a series of both good and bad examples.


Bad Example


Question: Tell me about a time when you were a leader.


Answer: Last year, I was nominated Marketing Manager for my school newspaper. I lead a lot of students, and together we worked on a great number of initiatives. We revolutionized how we used data to adapt content strategy and posting times, and we were able to make more money by doing so. I also lead the development of our first-ever mobile app, and created the Experiential Marketing team that launches, organizes, and executes on-campus events. I learned a lot as manager, and my time as leader has shown me how important it is to imbue innovation and data into executive decision-making processes. It has also taught me how to lead with empathy, and I learned a lot by leading an entire department of 15 associates and 4 assistant managers.


What’s Wrong: There’s no story! Not only is there no cohesive message (re: am I trying to focus on initiative or leadership or problem-solving, or something entirely different?) but there is also no specific mention of a specific anecdote that details my time as Marketing Manager. Behavioral interviews demand specificity and concrete details. Pick one thing - data and content strategy, mobile app, or Experiential Marketing - and then drill deeper into the stories behind each accomplishment. Look to your own story, and see how you can go deeper in the story, away from the broader experience, and towards a single, specific accomplishment you can lay claim to.


Good Example [I]


Question 1: Tell me about a time when you were a leader.


Answer 1: I was leading the organizational transformation of my college newspaper’s marketing ecosystem, where our paper’s revenues were down 15% year-over-year and our business was approaching financial insolvency. I was tasked by our board to revitalize our marketing strategy and operations, and I aimed to do so in three ways: diversify revenue streams, revamp our analytics to understand content performance and accordingly adjust editorial strategy, and improve on-campus presence and brand power. To go a bit more in-depth on my second strategy, I lead my team in recruiting 4 new associates. We then leveraged Google Analytics to pinpoint valuable data on optimal posting times - across web but also in Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter - as well as identify and segment our most active and loyal readers’ demographics and psychographics. We discovered that our readers were mostly juniors and seniors - not freshman and sophomores like we initially believed. After interviewing our target market to understand their pain points and product preferences, we began developing analytic reports and presenting our work to the board and to Editorial, where our strategies were ultimately incorporated into our actual newspaper. By adjusting our content strategy and better serving our readers, we have consequently increased web reach by 15% and social media impressions by 25%, generating +$15,000 in Adsense revenues year-over-year.


Good Example [II]


Question 2: Tell me about a time you handled conflict. How did you resolve it?


Answer 2: I was leading the organizational transformation of my college newspaper’s marketing ecosystem, where our paper’s revenues were down 15% year-over-year and our business was approaching financial insolvency. I was tasked by our board to revitalize marketing strategy and operations, and I aimed to do so in three ways: diversify revenue streams, revamp our analytics to understand content performance and accordingly adjust editorial strategy, and improve on-campus presence and brand power. As per my second strategy, we leveraged Google Analytics to pinpoint valuable data on optimal posting times - across web but also in Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter - as well as identify and segment our most active and loyal readers’ demographics and psychographics. However, we soon ran into a major roadblock. After interviewing target readers, developing our strategy, and presenting to the board and to Editorial, even though the board was pleased, Editorial refused to incorporate our suggestions. At the time, I was extremely hurt and confused. But I wanted to understand why this was the case. And after organizing several 1:1 meetings with editors, I realized that there was a huge issue of Business telling Editorial what to do, a history I had not done my due diligence to fully understand and contextualize. Editorial must remain independent, and it is essential that it remains free from any possible conflict of interest. After vocalizing my pride for our paper and our commitment to free press, I was able to make lasting friendships and help guide content strategy in a way that was respectful of our traditions but also mindful of evolving consumer trends. By adjusting content strategy and better serving our readers, we have increased web reach by 15% and social media impressions by 25%, generating +$15,000 in Adsense revenues year-over-year.


NOTE: Notice that in both ‘good’ examples, even though different questions were asked, I used the same ‘story’ and adjusted key elements to better answer what was specifically asked. You may notice that, within STAR, the ‘situation’, ‘task’, and ‘result’ stayed the same. Only the ‘action’ changed. This is the general approach you want to take with your behavioral interview approach. Develop 3-5 stories, rigorously test them using the STAR interviewing framework, and adjust accordingly based on what is asked of you.


Best Behavioral Interviewing Practices


With the STAR framework in hand as you prepare for behavioral questions well in advance, you will be more than ready for your interviews.


That being said, here are some best practices to keep in mind as you practice and prepare for the behavioral section of your upcoming interviews:

  • Read the job description carefully. Make sure your stories align with what the job is asking for. In general, the six key qualities (initiative, impact, leadership, etc.) are universally desirable attributes. If you are applying to a unique role - say, UI/UX or Architecture, where they inherently are looking for more creative and artistic individuals - make sure to highlight these qualities in your stories as well.

  • Prepare 3-5 core stories. If you have less than 3, you will seem unprepared and/or lacking in experience. If you have more than 5, you may find it tough to remember and communicate all the critical details you need to convey your experience and value.

  • One story can answer many questions. Don’t worry about not being able to answer all the kinds of questions that could be asked. Interviewers tend to stick to common behavioral questions. But even if you confront one you’ve never heard of, by falling back on your 3-5 experiences you can consistently structure and communicate your stories without fail.

  • But remember: there is no one-size-fits-all approach. You can’t always rely on the same story, and you will need to be able to communicate a diverse range of experiences unto your interviewers to demonstrate your professional history and expertise. This is especially true if you have to undergo multiple rounds of interviews with the same company.

I hope you enjoyed today's guide on behavioral interviewing, and if you want more don't worry -- every week we'll be posting popularly asked interview questions, strong (and weak) sample answers, and best practices for going about responding to said questions!

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