I’ve never met anyone who loves participating in job interviews. I’m sure there are people out there who enjoy them. I’m not sure what to think about those people, though. We need all the motivation we can get heading into an interview for the rest of us. It’s as if searching for a job isn’t stressful enough. So now they’re going to stick you in front of a panel of business professionals that will grill you for an hour or more with any question they want.
Over the years, I’ve screened thousands of resumes and have interviewed hundreds of candidates (okay, maybe not hundreds, but more than a single hundred). Before becoming a hiring manager in my day job, I spent two years freelance recruiting with a friend who owned a small recruiting business. Like most things, getting good at something typically requires a lot of practice. Being interviewed is a great way to get reps, but so is being on the other side of the table.
While I’ve worked for the same company for almost 13 years, I’ve had the opportunity to interview for internal positions multiple times. Behavioral interview questions have been part of every process. The better prepared you are, the less nervous and more personal you’ll be during your interview.
This post is being written in April 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are a lot of unknowns right now in the job market. However, we know that companies will continue to hire, and many people out of work may be looking for new roles. Open positions may have more competition, so it will be more important than ever to stand out during the interview process.
What is a Behavioral Interview?
Behavioral interviews are designed to get insight into how a candidate has previously behaved in a particular situation. It’s by no means a perfect way of assessing past performance, but it does seem to do a better job than standard interview questions such as the good old “what is your greatest strength/weakness.”
Behavioral interview questions generally start with “tell me about a time when.” A few examples of behavioral interview questions include:
- Tell me about a time a customer got upset with you.
- Describe a significant mistake you made and what you did to correct it.
- Tell me about a time when you were right, and others were wrong.
- Describe a time when you had to adapt to big changes at work.
To answer a behavioral interview question, you generally want to start by describing the situation, then lay out the problem, followed by going into detail about the action you took to solve the problem, and finishing with the result or any lessons learned.
As you can see, it can be tough to anticipate answers to these questions. Behavioral interviews can span a wide variety of situations and circumstances. So they are designed to catch you off guard a bit. Not to trick you, but to get you to describe the situation as if you were reliving your past.
During the remainder of this post, we will outline the step-by-step process that I’ve used in the past to prepare for behavioral interviews. Follow these steps, and you’ll be sure to dominate your next interview.
Preparing for a Behavioral Interview
What is one of the best ways to reduce anxiety in any situation, especially a job interview?
Most of us don’t know how to prepare for a behavioral interview. If you don’t know what questions the interviewer will ask, how can you ever feel confident that you are ready? Well, hopefully, this step-by-step preparation process will allow you to feel more confident when you walk through those doors.
Step 1: Gather Your Stories
How do most people prepare for interviews? They usually find practice questions online and then run through several examples. This isn’t a terrible approach. At least it’s something. The problem is that it’s a reactive approach instead of a proactive one.
We can summarize the key to mastering the behavioral interview in one-word – stories. Well-organized and compelling stories are the key to nailing your behavioral interview. So how do you do this? Keep on reading.
Your goal is to develop eight to ten stories you want to tell during your interview. Great stories get people hired.
Your first step is to narrow down eight to ten stories by brainstorming dozens of potential situations. Then, sit down and start writing out topics. Go through old performance reviews, emails, or task lists to jog your memory about possible stories. Write down anything that comes to mind, no matter how good or bad.
Next, step away for a few hours. When you come back, review your brain dump of potential stories and narrow the list down to eight to ten stories that you feel compelled to share during your interview.
Step 2: Write Out Your Stories
Once you narrow your list of stories, it’s now time to start writing them out in detail. First, of course, you will want to ensure your stories follow the process outlined below.
- Describe the situation
- Layout the problem
- Detail the action you took to solve the problem
- Finish with the result and any lessons learned
Again, don’t cheat yourself here. The key is to take the time to write out each of your stories in detail.
Here’s an example.
Two years ago, I was asked to lead a project to determine cost efficiencies in our business line. This project required me to collaborate with peers and senior team members and sell our ideas to senior leadership. This project was incredibly challenging because I relied on several pay grades from busy individuals above me. Thankfully, I had invested in relationships with these individuals before this project, so there was a level of trust established when I needed assistance. Selling the team on the “why” of the project was the most critical factor in getting others on board.
Upon completion, the project received positive feedback from senior leadership, and two measures were implemented to reduce costs by 10%. More than anything, this initiative taught me to lead a team of peers and with seniority through relationships and influence.
Easy enough, right? Do this eight to ten times with different stories from your past. The job description of the position you’re interviewing for will help you determine the focus of your stories. For example, if communication is mentioned several times in the job description, ensure you have several related examples. In general, your stories should be more heavily weighted to more recent experiences.
Step 3: Rehearse Your Stories
When you have a list of eight to ten detailed stories, you should apply them to most any behavioral interview question. If you go to your favorite search engine and search “behavioral interview questions,” you’ll find thousands of practice questions.
Even better, sites such as Glassdoor may provide examples of questions candidates were asked during the interview process. This is especially true for larger companies as there will be more data points. In addition, there is a section dedicated to the actual interview questions from candidates.
Spend an hour or two reading through sample interview questions and think about what story applies to each. Maybe run through a few examples in detail, talking through exactly how you would answer the question. Of course, there is such thing as over-preparing as well. Rehearse too much, and you may appear robotic during the interview. You want the interview to be more conversational than overly rehearsed.
Step 4: Ace Your Interview
Now that you’ve prepared your stories and have rehearsed, it’s time for your interview! Below are a few suggestions to help you ace your interview.
- Research the organization to show interest in the company where you’re interviewing.
- Be prepared to share about the position or organization that interested you. Also, be ready to share why you left or are leaving your most recent organization.
- Ensure you know the parking or mass transportation situation. There’s nothing more stressful than circling a downtown area trying to find parking last minute. Instead, take a drive to the organization a few days before if time allows, and if not, use Google street view to get a feel for the location.
- Unless explicitly stated, always dress in business professional attire for an interview. Even if via video conference.
- Nothing will help you better prepare than a great night’s sleep. Don’t stay up all night preparing at the risk of losing sleep.
- Plan to arrive at least 15-30 minutes early. Many large companies have a time-consuming sign-in or security process that you may need to go through.
- Being prepared is the best way to show up relaxed. During the interview, be polite, positive, and confident. Never say anything wrong about a previous employer or boss.
- Prepare two or three questions about the position for the end of the interview. Questions such as “what do you like most about this company?” are generally well-received as it shows that you are interested in learning more about what it’s like to work at the company.
- Be flexible and agile, as there will almost always be at least one question that catches you off-guard. Also, be prepared for other personality, cognitive, or technical testing if you advance through the process.
Mark is the founder of Financial Pilgrimage, a blog dedicated to helping young families pay down debt and live financially free. Mark has a Bachelor’s degree in financial management and a Master’s degree in economics and finance. He is a husband of one and father of two and calls St. Louis, MO, home. He also loves playing in old man baseball leagues, working out, and being anywhere near the water. Mark has been featured in Yahoo! Finance, NerdWallet, and the Plutus Awards Showcase.