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How to Prepare for and Rock a Behavioral Job Interview

vintage job interview mid 20th century

Job interviews can be nerve-racking. You have one shot to convince a potential employer that they should hire you instead of dozens (and maybe hundreds) of other qualified candidates. In this tough job market, a man has to be on top of his game during interviews if he wants a chance to land the job.

A few months ago, I interviewed for a job I had been hoping to get since I was a student in law school.  I got through the first round of interviews fine. It was the kind of straightforward and traditional interview that most of us have probably experienced. I was asked questions about my strengths, my weaknesses, and why I wanted to work for this particular company. Basically, they were the kind of questions you can prepare for and have some go-to answers you can use with confidence.

I got the call-back and scheduled an interview with a company executive. Before I flew out to my interview, a friend of mine who knew this person tipped me off on the executive’s interview style. The executive liked to use behavioral interviewing to weed out candidates for positions. I had never heard of this interview style before, so I set out to research as much as I could about it, aiming to be as prepared as possible.

Here’s what I learned on the way to landing the job.

What Is Behavioral Interviewing?

Behavioral interviewing is a relatively new method of job screening. In the 1970s, industrial psychologists found that traditional job interviewing was a pretty crappy way of predicting whether a candidate would succeed at a job. And when you look at traditional job interview questions, it’s easy to see why.

In a traditional job interview an employer might ask questions like:

These types of questions are pretty easy to answer. You just have to give the interviewer a vague reply filled with the right buzz words. These answers don’t reveal if the candidate really has the skill set needed to succeed in the job because they don’t require a candidate to give specific examples from their past when they demonstrated said skills. What these types of questions usually reveal is that a job candidate is good at telling a boss what they want to hear.

Behavioral interviewing cuts through the banalities of traditional interviewing and requires candidates to give concrete examples of when they demonstrated the skills needed for the job. Instead of asking what your strengths are, an employer using the behavioral interview process will ask a question like this:

“This job requires the ability to make quick decisions in pressure-filled situations. Can you give me an example from your past when you had to make a quick decision under lots of pressure?”

Yikes. It’s a lot harder to B.S. an answer to this question than the “What are your strengths?” question.

But the questioning doesn’t stop there. The employer using the behavioral interview method will often follow-up your initial response with probing questions to elicit more details from you.  Going back to our example question on decision-making, as you tell a story of when you made a quick decision, the interviewer might stop you and ask, “What were you thinking at this point?” These types of probing questions serve two purposes: 1) they give the employer more insight about your personality and character, and 2) they serve as B.S. filters. If you’re telling a totally fabricated story, the probing questions will usually trip you up.

Behavioral Interview Question Examples

The possible number of unique behavioral interview questions is only limited by the imagination of the interviewer. You’ll face questions that focus on a large variety of skills and behavior. An employer can then multiply the number of questions he or she asks you about those skill sets by inquiring about different projects or situations you’ve experienced in the past where you demonstrated those skills. Below we’ve included a few sample behavioral interview questions to give you an idea of what you’re up against:

That’s just a sampling. I recommend that you print off this mega list of behavioral interview questions [1]. There are over 100 questions on the list. When I was preparing for my job interview, I printed them off and had my wife give me a mock interview. It forced me to think of different examples from my past that I could use when answering the questions. It was tough, but well worth the effort. During the interview, I had a stockpile of examples fresh in my mind, ready to be drawn from.

And don’t forget that your interviewer will ask you follow-up questions! As you come up with examples to use for your answers, put together as many details as you can so you’re ready for the probes of your potential employer.

How to Answer a Behavioral Interview Question

Alright, we know a behavioral interview can be a real son of a gun. What’s the best way to answer a behavioral interview question so you impress the boss and get the job?

Most guides on behavioral interviewing suggest using the three step STAR process when giving an answer to a behavioral job interview:

1. The Situation or Task you were in
2. Action that you took
3. Result of that action

Let’s take a look at the STAR process in action.

Question: Describe a situation where you had a conflict with another individual, and how you dealt with it. What was the outcome?

Answer: During college I worked on a four person team that was researching the effects of plastics on male rats. I got along with everyone quite well, except for one fellow. We disagreed strongly on the method we should use to conduct the experiments. My other teammates and I agreed on one way, but this guy wanted to do it his way. He didn’t budge at all on his position and even took passive-aggressive steps to prevent us from completing the project. (Situation or Task)

I set up an informal meeting at the local coffee shop with the guy. I simply asked him to explain his reasons for wanting to do the experiment his way. I just listened and asked questions to clarify. Some of his assumptions were clearly erroneous, but I knew pointing them out right away would just make him get defensive, so I bit my tongue. After hearing him out, I had a better idea of where he was coming from and realized that he might have some misunderstandings on some basic concepts. I didn’t think he would take too kindly to a peer correcting him, so I suggested that maybe we should set up a meeting with the professor to discuss our different ideas and to see if he had any feedback or advice. (Action that you took)

So we met with the professor. We both presented our different reasons for wanting to do the experiment in a certain way. As predicted, the professor brought up the faulty assumptions our stubborn teammate had and that his method wouldn’t be the best to use. The guy was sort of deflated, but he accepted the feedback and agreed to start the experiment using our method. (Result of the action)

There are no right or wrong answers. An important note to remember when answering behavioral interview questions is that there are no right or wrong answers. It’s often hard to tell what employers are looking for when they ask behavioral interview questions. Take our example about conflict resolution. You might think the interviewer is looking for a certain textbook method of conflict resolution. But maybe the employer’s own managerial philosophy doesn’t line up with the typical conflict resolution technique. I enjoy reading a weekly feature in the New York Times called “The Corner Office [2].” They ask CEO’s about leadership and what they’re looking for when interviewing a candidate for a job. Each CEO has a different rubric for what makes a good employee. So just concentrate on coming up with a concrete, truthful example that answers the question and presents you in a good light. And let the chips fall where they may.

Be honest. Don’t try to B.S. your way through a behavioral interview. If you don’t have an example for a question you’re asked, don’t try to make something up. For starters, you’ll probably get called on it with follow-up questions. But more importantly, the questions are designed to see if your skill set and personality fit with the position. If your answers aren’t what the interviewer is looking for, this position may not be the best job for you anyway, and you’d be miserable at work if you did get the job. That’s not good for anyone.

Use all your life experiences as examples for your answers. Behavioral interview questions often require you to give examples from your past work experience to answer a question. This can pose a problem for younger job candidates who haven’t held many, if any, prior jobs. To get around your lack of work experience, call on all your life experiences. Take examples from college or any volunteer organizations that you may have been a part of to answer the question.

What’s your experience with behavioral interviews? Any other advice on how to prepare for them? Share your tips with us in the comments.