What is a behavioral interview? Behavioral interview questions often start with: “tell me about a time,” “describe a time” or “provide me with an example.” The idea behind behavioral interviews is well founded research that past behavior is a reliable predictor of future behavior, that is what you’ve done in the past, will predict what you do in the future.
If the behavioral interview is well constructed, the questions you are asked will come from some solid on the job research. A recruiter “benchmarks” top performers in a role, isolates in detail the competencies required to perform that role, then writes questions to allow the interviewee to demonstrate those competencies.
How are you assessed in a behavioral interview?
You are judged on the “quality” of the example you provide. In general under each competency is a a set of behaviors that the recruiter will physically or mentally tick off as you answer each question. You may be asked the same question in different ways to check that your skills are well developed and that you’ve used them consistently. You’ll be assessed highly if you demonstrate all the behaviors required in each competency. Recruiters like this method of assessing people because it’s structured and clear and a good answer is obvious to all.
The challenge for interviewers in this scenario is for them to elicit the best answer out of you to enable you to demonstrate your skills. Your challenge is to understand and clarify the intent of the question properly.
STAR interviewing technique
So how do you answer STAR questions: “tell me about a time” or “describe a time” in a behavioral interview?
Describe the situation you faced or the task ahead. Describe how you handled that situation and describe how it turned out. Think of it like a story. At the very least, the interviewer wants you to give an introduction, describe what you did and what happened in the end.
You need to be specific in answering these questions. Not what you would do. Not what you usually do. Not what you do every day. But something you have actually done, and preferably an example from your work environment.
Why such specifics? If you can provide recent examples that you can easily recall, you are actually demonstrating, rather than just claiming, you have the skills the interviewer is looking for. The more easily you recall these examples the more convincing you’ll be.
How much detail should you give?
As you tell the story you need to provide detail about how you achieved something, but don’t provide so much detail that you lose track of what you are talking about. Give enough to be credible which will reassure the interviewer you have the skills they are looking for. If you are confused, remember interviewing does not need to be a one way interaction. You can always ask the interviewer if they need more detail or how much detail they need.
If you think you are providing too much detail, check with the interviewer. Or use your cue from the body language of the interviewer. If they stop writing, then it’s a good idea for you to stop talking, and check back in.
What if you can’t think of an example?
It’s not a great idea to pass on too many questions. However it is easy to freeze up under the stare of an interviewer. Don’t put pressure on yourself by trying to think of your best scenario. If you can’t think of your best example, then think of your most recent. Many people take for granted the skills they use every day, yet if you are doing these things every day, you may under rate your competency.
Can you use a general example instead?
For a behavioral interview the short answer is no. Try not to. It’s too text book, and just not convincing. You could have made it all up and you will sound just like the next person in line.
What if you can’t provide relevant examples at all?
One of the beautiful things about behavioral interviews is that they allow you to showcase competencies. You may have developed these skills in a role unrelated to the position for which you are applying. So listen carefully to the question and provide an example that answers that question, regardless of where you have gained that experience. Again if you are not sure whether you can present an answer from another context, ask the interviewer.
Further reading at 10 Killer Interview Tactics You Ought To Know.