Job interviews are filled with all types of questions. The easiest are usually closed-ended ones that require you to answer a specific question directly. An example of a closed-ended question is, “Are you willing to relocate?” Your answer to this question would be brief and direct.
Open-ended questions require you to answer using an explanation. Such questions are more difficult and require some preparation on your part. Questions like, “Why do you want to work for our organization?” or “What are your long-term career goals?” need a more detailed answer than standard closed-ended questions.
Behavioral interview questions are typically the most challenging. These questions have become a favorite of interviewers because it is believed that your past behavior is a predictor of your future behavior. Behavioral questions require you to draw a response from your experiences. The questions will be phrased like, “Tell me about a time …” or “Give me an example of how …”
Responses such as “If I were in that situation” or “I would do this if” are not acceptable. You must respond with a specific event or situation that you have experienced. If you haven’t had the particular experience that the interviewer is asking about, then be honest and tell him or her that.
A few of the more common behavioral interview questions that you might be asked to answer during an interview include:
- Describe a situation where you showed initiative and the result of that initiative.
- Tell me about a time when you were part of a team and there was conflict among the team members. What role did you play and why?
- Describe a time when you were under a lot of pressure and how you handled that situation.
- Explain when you encountered one of your biggest challenges and what you did to overcome that challenge.
- Tell me about a time when you did not agree with feedback you were given and how you handled that situation.
While behavioral interview questions are usually the most difficult to answer, they are also your best opportunity to shine. Weave your response into a story by using the STAR method, a four-step process to answer those challenging behavioral interview questions:
- Situation -- Describe the situation, project or event that you were involved in.
- Task -- Explain what you needed to do to analyze, adjust and/or rework the situation.
- Actions -- Describe the actions you took to make the changes.
- Result -- Explain the specific results of your actions.
Here is an example of the STAR method in action.
Charlie was interviewing for his dream job at a great organization when his interviewer said, “Tell me about a time when a project you were working on did not meet its goals or was delivered late.” The U R Involved project immediately came to Charlie’s mind. He began to describe the U R Involved project as his big idea when he was president of Supergreat University’s Graduate Student Association. The association was having difficulty recruiting committee members and future leaders. Charlie felt that was because graduate students who only went to the campus for classes, and often lived off it, felt detached from campus life. His theory was that graduate students needed to see that they were already involved in campus life just by being students. He believe that if they understood this concept, he could get some of them directly involved in the Graduate Student Association and begin to build a bench of future leaders.
Charlie described how he developed and implemented the U R Involved project. He personally created a social media blitz by posting news and information about the association. He did this actively for about two months and had nothing to show for his efforts. No one had responded to any of his posts; no one had personally approached him or even emailed him about the association. His efforts had failed.
After some thought and seeking more input, Charlie decided his approach had been too impersonal. Some of his friends suggested trying a friend-get-a-friend campaign next. Charlie asked each member of the association to identify and talk with five to 10 people whom they could invite to get involved in campus leadership. Each person spent time finding and holding conversations among friends, fellow class members and lab mates about the student association. After two weeks, seven new people joined an association committee, and two individuals asked Charlie how to become an officer of the group.
In the job interview, Charlie summarized his response by saying he learned from his experience that he needed to take input from others and delegate responsibilities to get the job done effectively. Using the STAR method, he described the following:
- Situation -- The lack of committee membership and future leaders for the Graduate Student Association.
- Task -- He had to identify how to recruit new members and build a leadership bench.
- Action -- How he personally implemented the entire U R Involved campaign.
- Result -- When the U R Involved campaign failed, he switched gears and asked for help from officers to recruit others; that personal contact approach produced seven new committee members and two potential officers.
Here’s how you can make STAR stories work for you during interviews. Start by collecting a list of 15 common behavioral interview questions. Begin brainstorming how you could answer those questions. Think about challenging situations, tough projects, tight deadlines, difficult personalities and intense team activities. Consider things that happened at work, in graduate school, in the lab or when volunteering. Your experience in each of those arenas can be used to create your interview answers.
Choose the situation that fits the behavioral question and outline your response with the STAR method. As you practice responding to those questions, you can fill in the details around the bullet points to create a strong response for your interview. You may need to practice your STAR stories several times in order to have a clear and fluid delivery.
Don’t avoid preparing for questions that bring up uncomfortable situations where you missed a desired outcome, made a mistake or misjudged an event. Such situations have happened to all of us, so be honest. Use your responses to explain what you learned from your actions and the situation. Explaining how you have grown from a negative situation -- such as developing a stronger attention to detail or improved negotiation skills -- are important concepts to express in your interview.
Behavioral interview questions can be a great way to sell your skills and experience. Develop STAR stories directly from your life experiences. Then use those stories to answer interview questions, sell yourself as a candidate for that job and shine in future interviews.
Saundra Loffredo is director of student and alumni affairs in the educational affairs department at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.
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