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How to answer behavioral interview questions

Behavioral interview questions are a standard tool used by employers to get to know the real you. Explore our guide on how to approach them.
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Written by Matthew Sweeney, Contributing Writer on
A woman interviews a female job candidate outside.
Shutterstock/Anton Gvozdikov

Did you freeze up the last time an interviewer opened a question with "Tell me about a time when…"?  That's a behavioral interview question, and many interviewees find them tricky to handle. 

Job interviewers commonly use behavioral interview questions to assess your people, or soft, skills.  Behavioral questions require thoughtfulness and focus to properly answer, and there is an art to answering them effectively. We can help with that.

Read on to learn what kinds of behavioral interview questions to expect, how to answer them, and what tips to keep in mind.

What are behavioral interview questions?

Behavioral interview questions ask you to describe how you have dealt with real-life work situations you've experienced. They help interviewers assess what kind of worker you are and how you respond to difficult scenarios you're likely to encounter on the job.

You'll typically encounter behavioral questions in the second interview for a position. The initial  screening phone interview usually asks for more general information about your work history. 


SEE: Your ultimate guide to preparing for a tech job interview


How to know you're being asked a behavioral interview question

It's generally easy to tell when you are being asked behavioral interview questions. They start with phrases like:

  • "Tell me about a time when…"
  • "Describe a time when…"
  • "Have you ever been in a situation where…"
  • "How do you handle situations where…"
  • "Can you provide an example of…"

When your interviewer asks for an example that demonstrates a particular soft skill, that's a behavioral interview question.

Common behavioral interview questions to expect

These questions have common themes, such as:

  • Adapting to organizational change
  • Delegating tasks
  • Managing conflict
  • Self-motivating or motivating others
  • Handling failure
  • Teamwork and group collaboration skills
  • Leadership skills

You'll get different questions depending on the role you're applying to and the company culture. For instance, an interview for an HR role may involve behavioral questions about how you handle conflict. Prepare accordingly.

Don't be surprised if your interviewer uses one of the following commonly-asked questions:

  • Tell me about your greatest professional achievement.
  • Give me an example of a time when you had to adapt to change.
  • Tell me about a time when you dealt with failure.
  • Describe a time when you had to handle a difficult situation.
  • Have you ever had to resolve a major workplace conflict?
  • Describe a situation where you successfully motivated someone else.
  • Tell me about a time when written communication skills made a difference.
  • Give an example of a time when you had to prioritize multiple projects.
  • Describe a time when you acted like a leader.
  • Tell me about a time when your critical-thinking skills came in handy.
Tori Rubloff/ZDNet

Step-by-step: How to answer using the STAR method

The STAR method is the standard for answering behavioral interview questions. STAR stands for:

  • Situation: Describe the context of the situation: Who, what, when, where, and why.
  • Task: Explain your responsibility in the situation. What did you have to do?
  • Action: Explain how you responded to, solved, or completed the task.
  • Result: Explain the outcome. What did you accomplish? What impact did you make?

The method provides a framework for telling a compelling story about how you behave in different work-related situations.

Rather than tell interviewers how you aspire to behave, it shows them what they can expect from you based on past behavior.

How to nail your answers to behavioral interview questions

Make a list of your "greatest hit" stories.

Before you begin interviewing, make a list of times when you demonstrated professional skills or made a positive impact at work. It's easier to have a roster of stories to draw upon than it is to memorize the many possible behavioral questions plus an answer for each.

You can adapt your stories to fit multiple types of questions. For example, a story you thought would fit well with a question about adapting to change could also demonstrate leadership.

Review your list regularly. You'll want to call stories to mind quickly during the interview.

Stick to examples from your professional life, rather than personal.

Limit your stories to your professional life, and leave out the personal. The interviewer wants to know how you behave at work. Our professional life calls for different kinds of behavior than we show at home.

It will come across as awkward and inappropriate to bring up personal stories.

Gather your thoughts before answering.

Pause for a moment to collect your thoughts prior to answering questions. Though a long pause isn't ideal, it's better than losing track of your story or the question you're answering while talking.

Outline your response in your mind before you start talking so you're not squirming mid-answer.

If you do flub an answer, try not to let it shake your confidence. You still have the rest of the interview, plus your interview thank-you email, to improve the interviewer's impression of you.

Practice.

Practice for the interview well ahead of time. Even better, record yourself in mock interview sessions.

You can not only get face-to-face feedback from your mock interviewer but you can go back and revisit your performance to figure out how to improve.

Quantify and provide specifics.

Give concrete answers that emphasize the measurable results of your actions. In other words, focus on the bottom line. 

Did your ability to adapt to change lead to increased revenue or productivity? Perhaps your commitment to innovation led to several new partnerships. Your interviewer wants the quantifiable over the abstract.

Stay positive in your answers.

Try above all to remain positive. If you sound unsure of yourself or overly self-critical, you'll all but ensure your interviewer gets a bad impression.

Even when discussing failures, you need to find a positive takeaway from the experience. No one is perfect but focus on your strengths anyways.

Don't try to memorize.

If you memorize answers word-for-word, you'll sound stilted and unnatural. Instead, outline your stories using the STAR and focus on internalizing those outlines. Use the outline as a structure when answering, but stay loose and be yourself. A little humor is okay, provided it's appropriate in the context of the question.

Be honest.

Give honest answers. If you embellish or lie, your insincerity will likely be noticed. 

Also, don't be a blowhard who makes themselves out to be the hero in every situation. You'll just make your interviewer doubt your real abilities. Own both your mistakes and progress.

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