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Behavioral Interviewing Questions and Training

Behavioral Interviewing, also referred to as Structured Behavioral Interviewing, is by design a more systematic and standardized process of evaluating job candidates than is typical of the “traditional” interview process. Its primary intent is to increase the success rate of an organization’s “good” hires and is, therefore, the form of interview being used more often by a wide variety of recruiting organizations. Behavioral interviewing is based on the “Behavioral Consistency Principle” which essentially states that the best predictor of future performance is past performance in a similar circumstance. Therefore, the questions that are asked of you will tend to focus on behavior, and attempt to evoke how you responded to a variety of specific personal and interpersonal situations and what results occurred from your actions.

“How do I Know When I'm Being Given a Behavioral Interview?”

It is quite possible that the interviewer may make you aware prior to the interview that you should expect a structured or competency-based interview. However, you shouldn’t have much trouble identifying whether or not you’re being given a behavioral interview even without prior information. If you hear questions that are asking you to describe or recount specific situations in which you carried out a job-relevant action, and are then asked to describe the consequence or result of your action, you know you’re being behaviorally interviewed.

“So What Kinds of Questions Should I Expect?”

Behavioral interviews are designed to assess your “real” ability or skill level in functioning in any number of work related activities by delving into how you functioned in your past jobs or extracurricular activities. As with any sort of interview, there are a number of common behavioral “themes” or “performance dimensions” that most recruiters are likely to be interested in. These include (but are not limited to) leadership, interpersonal, communication, multi-tasking, management and cognitive skills, transition ability (e.g., personal flexibility, tolerance for ambiguity), motivation, decisiveness and commitment. The kinds of inquiries you’d hear from a recruiter might resemble the following:

  • What do you estimate to be your biggest academic achievement at this point?
  • What did you do to contribute to that achievement?
  • Cite an example of when you were faced with an unpleasant task. How did you go about facing it?
  • Give me the most recent example of a conflict you had with a coworker or a supervisor. How did you handle it?
  • Describe a situation in which you had to use your communication skills in order to make an important point.
  • Tell me about a time when you had to use a persuasive argument to help someone see things your way. How did you do it?
  • Share with me an example of an important personal goal which you set, and tell me about how you accomplished it.
  • Have you ever had too many different tasks given to you to complete at the same time? What was your style in managing these?
  • We’ve all had times when we felt overwhelmed by a project. Give me an example of when this happened to you. How did you react to the situation?
  • Describe a situation in which you showed determination. How did you go about it?

Note that each of the above examples integrates three universal components of a good behavioral inquiry: a particular performance situation or task, an action on your part, and the consequences of your action.

“What's the Best Way to Answer Those Questions?”

Obviously, you’ll have to be able to reflect on specific situations that you encountered while working (including volunteering and studying), then describe how you handled them and what positive results became of your efforts. With that said, it is highly critical that you first do some preparation. For any given job interview, this should begin with an analysis on your part of what you believe to be the most important skills, abilities, and personal qualities needed to successfully fulfill the various responsibilities of the job. Once identified, think carefully about any kind of “working” experience that you’ve ever had that required you to use these skills, what courses of action or strategies you used to accomplish the tasks, and what positive results came about from your diligence. It is often the case that an interviewer will seek a relatively high level of detail in your responses (e.g., the conversation you had, the mood of the person you were talking to, your specific thought processes at the time of action, etc.). Some behavioral questions are complex and require a multifaceted response, so take your time in constructing your answers. Don’t worry about pausing during the interview to do so, as recruiters will expect you to give adequate thought to your responses. And don’t be put off by the fact that the interviewer may be taking voluminous notes as you talk. It is common for recruiters to have to objectively rate you based on exacting measures of your specific responses.

“What Else Should I Keep in Mind?”

Although some recent research has demonstrated that structured, behaviorally based interviewing can improve the likelihood of an appropriate hire by more than three times the success rate of a traditional, less structured interview, this does not mean that all organizations are using or plan to use this method in making hiring decisions. Assessing a job candidate’s capability for any given position is a complex task, with a great many intangible factors involved in the process. A company’s decision to use one kind of interviewing format over another is due to a variety of factors which include how successful its recruiting efforts have been in the past, what kinds of recruiting strategies recruiters feel most comfortable with, organizational tradition, etc. There seems to be, however, little equivocation that when administered properly structured behavioral interviews work effectively for the companies and organizations using them. Keep in mind as well that preparing for one kind of interviewing strategy should not supplant your preparation for another kind. Traditional interviewing and behavioral interviewing do share common goals and processes (see our handout titled Traditional Interviews), so knowing how to perform in an unstructured interview is important in its own right, but is also of assistance in preparing you for a more structured behavioral interview, and vice versa.

It may also be the case that an organization will give you a “hybrid” interview of sorts, with a mixture of structured and unstructured questions. Others may do a preliminary unstructured screening interview, and follow this up with a behavioral interview if you advance past the initial interview. In any case, given the current milieu in recruiting, it is wise that you become fully literate in the language and substance of both the behavioral and traditional interview formats.

As with any interview performance, the likelihood is great that your first formal job interview will not go as well or as smoothly as your second, the second not as well or as polished as the third, etc. Play it safe and smart by practicing your interviewing skills and technique well before your first real interview. The Career Planning Center can assist you in doing this through a mock interview. This an opportunity for you to be formally interviewed by a career planning professional who will ask you a series of interview questions as they relate to the job you’re applying for, and then assist you in both critiquing and enhancing your performance.

Next: Informational Interviewing


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