How to Answer Behavioral Interview Questions

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So you’ve got a big job interview coming up, and you really, really want the job. You need to walk in there and ace that interview and wow the hiring manager.

While you’re getting ready for the big day, it’s important to keep in mind that your interviewers are going to be asking you two different kinds of questions: situational interview questions and behavioral interview questions.

What’s the difference? 

Situational interview questions deal with hypothetical situations that might happen in the future, and how you would handle them. Behavioral interview questions, on the other hand, are about your past behavior at work. Hiring managers want to hear examples of how you dealt with various workplace problems and challenges in the past.

The thought process here is that learning what you’ve done in the past is the best way to predict how you’ll handle yourself in the future. That’s what behavioral interview questions are all about.

So, very soon, you’re going to be sitting across a table from an interviewer who’s going to ask behavioral interview questions like, Tell us about a time you had to deal with a challenging problem, or Give us an example of a time you had to be flexible and adapt to change, or Tell us about a time you succeeded while under a lot of pressure.

You’ve got to be ready for these, and we’ll tell you how.

How to Get an Interview in the First Place

Of course, in order to deal with behavioral interview questions, you have to land a job interview in the first place. 

The job hunt can be tricky and frustrating. Your best bet might be to explore a massive, popular online jobs board like ZipRecruiter, which is free to use for job seekers. You can search for job posts based on factors like desired salary, location or various keywords.

You can post a profile on the site that potential employers can see. You can post your resume, references, social network handles or a profile picture, among other things. If a company likes your profile, they can invite you to apply for their job. And if you’re interested, you can apply with a click.

An online job marketplace like this is the most efficient way to launch a job search. At the very least, this will give you an idea of what the job market is like out there for workers with your skills and experience.

Using the STAR Method

What’s the best way to answer behavioral job interview questions? You’ve got to come prepared to tell your interviewers a story.

Answer behavioral interview questions using the STAR method — “situation, task, action, result.” When you’re asked for an example of your work, describe the situation, explain the task you had to complete, go over the specific actions you took and sum up the result of your work.

Situation: Describe the situation that you were in or the task that you needed to accomplish. You must describe a specific event or situation, not a generalized description of what you have done in the past. Be sure to give enough detail for the interviewer to understand. This situation can be from a previous job, from a volunteer experience or any relevant event. 

Task: What goal were you working toward? 

Action: Describe the actions you took to address the situation with an appropriate amount of detail and keep the focus on YOU. What specific steps did you take, and what was your particular contribution? Be careful that you don’t describe what the team or group did when talking about a project, but what you actually did. Use the word “I,” not “we” when describing actions. 

Result: Describe the outcome of your actions, and don’t be shy about taking credit for your behavior. What happened? How did the event end? What did you accomplish? What did you learn? Make sure your answer contains multiple positive results. 

An Example of the STAR Method 

Here’s one of the most common behavioral interview questions you’ll hear: 

“Tell me about a time you were successful in turning around a potentially damaging business situation.”

Looking for sample answers? A STAR response to that behavioral interview question would go something like this:

Situation: Advertising revenue was falling off for the website I work for, and large numbers of long-term advertisers were not renewing contracts. 

Task: My goal was to generate new ideas, materials and incentives that would result in at least a 15% increase in advertisers from the year before. 

Action: I designed a new promotional packet to go with the rate sheet and compared our website’s reach with that of our competitors. I also set up a special training session for our account executives about competitive selling strategies. 

Result: We signed new contracts with 15 former advertisers for daily ads on the website. We increased our new advertisers by 20% over the same period last year. 

Whenever you’re answering behavioral interview questions like this one, the key is to describe the specific actions you took to achieve the result. Be sure to explain the steps you took. 

The hiring manager is judging your job performance, so the ability to give specific, real-life examples will help you stand out from the other applicants. 

Common Behavioral Interview Questions

Seven is a lucky number, and job seekers need all the luck they can get. So let’s look at seven common behavioral interview questions. Let’s also look at why interviewers are really asking you these questions, and what your strategy should be when you answer them.

1. “Tell us about a time you succeeded while working under a lot of pressure.”

Why they’re asking: They want to know how you handle pressure, because lots and lots of jobs involve working under pressure and juggling multiple projects at once. The bigger and better and more high-paying the job is, the more responsibility you’ll have, and the more likely you’ll encounter a challenging situation.

What to say: This is important: Study the job description of the position that you’re applying for. Try and think of examples and anecdotes that match up with that job description, demonstrating that you’re the best choice for the job. 

2. “Give us an example of a time you had to be flexible and adapt to change.”

Why they’re asking: Nowadays, things change rapidly in nearly every industry. In fact, the only constant is that things change. 

What to say: You can probably come up with a COVID-related example. Nearly every industry has gone through some kind of significant change in the past two years because of COVID, and your field is probably no exception.

3. “Tell us about a mistake you made, and how you handled it.”

Why they’re asking: Everyone makes mistakes. What they really want to know is what you did after the mistake. 

What to say: Be honest about your mistake, and be ready with a good story about how you overcame it.

4. “What’s your biggest weakness?”

Why they’re asking: Everyone hates this question, but it’s an effective way for the interviewer to learn more about you.

What to say: Don’t say, “I’m just too much of a perfectionist, I care too much.” Yawn, everyone says that. It’s boring and cliché. Your best bet is to describe a relatively minor weakness and talk about specific steps that you’re taking to overcome this problem.

5. “What do you do when you disagree with a co-worker about something?”

Why they’re asking: They want to know how you handle conflict with another team member, because there will be disagreements in your new workplace, because there are disputes in every workplace. That’s life.

What to say: Be ready with a story about how you compromised or worked with others to resolve the dispute in a productive and professional way.

6. “Tell us about a time you worked with someone different than you.”

Why they’re asking: Your prospective employers want to know you can play well with others — because not everyone can. They also want to know about your communication skills.

What to say: Again, be ready with a specific example. Especially if you can describe how you reached out to this other person in some way.

7. “What’s your greatest professional accomplishment?”

Why they’re asking: By asking what you’re most proud of, the interviewer is trying to get a sense of what your professional priorities really are.

What to say: We cannot stress this enough: Study the job description of the position you’re applying for. Come up with an example that relates directly to that job description.

Using Concrete Examples

Remember, the best way to get a job interview and answer all these behavioral interview questions in the first place is to explore a massive, popular online jobs board like ZipRecruiter, which is free to use for job seekers. You can search for job posts based on factors like desired salary, location or various keywords.

Once you land that interview, the key is to be prepared with specific examples. That way, when you’re asked behavioral interview questions, you’re ready to tell your interviewers a compelling story about why you’re the one they need to hire for this job.

Don’t forget to use the STAR method. Set up the situation and follow through with the actions you took and the results you achieved. 

Now you’re prepared for behavioral interview questions. Go get that job!

Mike Brassfield ([email protected]) is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. He dreads job interviews, although not as much as he used to.