Behavioral-based interviews are designed to help employers understand how you'll react in certain situations. Your future employer wants to see a track record of how you've handled situations in the past.
Questions in behavioral based interviews might start with these common phrases:
- "Tell me about a time..."
- "Give me an example of..."
- "Describe a situation where..."
These questions might catch you a bit off guard. The worst-case scenario is that you'll be unable to think of a situation that fits the question. But, with a bit of preparation, that can be avoided.
In this tutorial, I'll share my guide to preparing for behavioral-based interviews. These techniques helped me land my first internships and eventually, a career. I'll even share an interview preparation tool that I use before every interview to help ensure I have answers. You can use it to properly prepare too.
What's a Behavioral-Based Interview?
Behavioral-based interview questions are open ended and conversational. Employers love this format to understand how a potential employee will handle a difficult situation.
I firmly believe that interviewing is a skill that you can build. If you prepare for the questions, you'll have an answer ready that conveys why you're the right candidate for the job.
Here's the good news: behavioral-based interviews feature many of the same questions. Sometimes, it seems as if many employers receive exactly the same handbook of questions to ask.
As a candidate, this works in your favor. If you study up on the common questions, you'll have responses ready for a behavioral-based interview. Also, by using the STAR matrix tool (that I'll share later in this tutorial), you'll put your best responses in your short term memory.
Here are examples of questions I've encountered while interviewing in behavioral-based situations:
- Tell me about a time you led a project and what the outcomes were.
- Describe a situation where you had to have a difficult conversation with an employee who worked for you.
- Give me an example of a mistake you made in your work, and what you did to correct the problem.
- When was a time that you were asked to do something unethical in your job, and how did you deal with it?
- How do you prioritize your workload? What do you do when your work feels like it's just too much to get done?
One of the common things you'll notice is that these questions are situational, or designed to understand how the potential employee handles a situation.
To be successful with responding to these types of questions, we need a helpful framework to approach it with. This is where the STAR method comes into play.
The STAR Response Method Explained
The perfect way to respond to behavioral-based questions is with the STAR method. This is a structured way of forming a response. STAR stands for situation, task, action, result.
The STAR format is a great way to think about forming your answers. Here's what I mean:
- Situation - Start off by framing the situations that you've experienced. This could be something that your supervisor has asked you to do, or a situation you recognized needed a fix.
Task - What was your role in the situation?
Action - What did you do? How did you handle the situation and what were the specific steps you took?
- Results - What was the outcome?
These four simple ingredients are all that you need to give the interviewer a solid response. Let's move on to some examples of STAR-driven responses.
Example of a STAR Format Response
Now, that we've looked at the STAR format, let's walk through an example of a response to a behavioral-based question:
"Tell me about a time that you led a challenging project."
Here's a good sample answer:
"Last year, I was tasked with growing our latest SaaS app's sales. The company had just released a new version of the product and we needed to get media coverage and drive more sales. I worked with some of our largest clients to make sure that they had a smooth transition to the new version. I also put together a branding guide and increased media coverage of the software. We really had a spike in sales of 25% and added over a hundred new customers during the launch week."
To review, here's how this answer maps to the STAR framework:
- Situation - The company launched a new version of their software.
Task - The interviewee was tasked with increasing the media coverage for the piece of software.
Action - The interviewee mentions reaching out to current customers as well as media outlets to increase coverage and attention.
- Result - Increased sales of the product.
This response has free-flowing, conversational tones, but all of the elements of the STAR framework are there. In many cases, the interviewer will even log your responses on a piece of paper in this format.
Most importantly, make sure that you link your answers to the job that you're interviewing for. Think about the skills needed in the job you're interviewing for, and link your past experiences to the job at hand.
When to Prepare
How will you know if you're preparing for a behavioral-based interview? There's no way to know for certain, but here are a few cues:
- Behavioral-based interviews are often preferred by larger companies, such as Fortune 500 type companies.
- Check out sites like Glassdoor that feature user-submitted interview questions. Look for questions that
- As always, check with your own professional network or career services at your university to find out about past interview experiences with your potential employer.
Even if your interview isn't entirely behavioral-based, it's a great idea to prepare with this process. Here's how to do it.
Meet The STAR Matrix
The STAR Matrix is my secret weapon for preparing for interviews, and I'm making it available to download for free as a part of this tutorial.
The key to success with a behavioral-based interview is in the preparation. It's true of any type of interview, but because behavioral-based interviews use common questions, it's easier to prepare.
I use what I call the STAR Matrix that I've developed while preparing for interviews. The STAR matrix has a column for each pillar of the STAR method (situation, task, action, and result) and common questions along the left side of the spreadsheet.
Here's an example:
I've attached a blank STAR matrix to this tutorial with 15 of the most common behavioral interview questions, which you can download for free here: Star Matrix Download (PDF + Excel file).
I've also filled out answers for all 15 questions of the example STAR Matrix, on the tab titled "Star Matrix - Full Examples." These answers are very similar to ones I've given in interviews for jobs that I was offered and in some cases, accepted.
The killer feature of the STAR Matrix is this: it forces you to think about your experiences. Completing the matrix puts these experiences into your short term memory. When you get asked behavioral-based questions, you'll have a response ready for the interviewer.
Work With the Star Matrix to Prepare For Your Interview
About a week before your interview, print out the STAR Matrix or work on screen. Go through the example questions on the left side of the grid and fill out a situation, task, action, and a result from your history.
Don't think of your answers as a script. This tool is more for jotting notes and reminding you of your past experiences, instead of writing a script that you need to memorize and recite back.
If you fill out the spreadsheet, you've done the hard work: you've put the answers at the forefront of your mind and you'll have the answers ready when the interviewer asks.
How to Use the STAR Matrix (By Category)
Here are suggestions for how to handle each category of the STAR Matrix:
If this is your first job, don't worry: everyone has to start somewhere. Your situations don't have to draw upon a job.
When you're choosing situations, use variety when possible. Because I'm still early in my career, I like to involve a combination of stories from my job, my school experience, and freelance work.
Here are ideas for situations to invoke when answering questions:
- Academic projects are perfect when you're short on experience. Focus on major projects or case studies.
- Past job experiences are a great example to use—even if it's just a part time job. Just remember to speak positively of your past job opportunities.
- Freelance projects unrelated to the job you're applying to are great as well, as they show initiative, entrepreneurial spirit, and an angle that can set you apart from other candidates.
Keep the task short and sweet. Basically, it's your role in the situation, and how it became your problem or situation to begin with.
Actions are the steps you take in a situation. This is what your potential employer is focused on: when you're faced with a difficult situation, how do you handle it? What steps do you take to resolve it?
Here are a few key traits that employers judge potential employees on:
- Initiative - How does the potential employee know that there is a problem to begin with?
- Approach - What's your approach to solving a problem? Do you make a decision about how to handle things instantly, or do you gather opinions and data on how to proceed?
Goal-setting - When you start taking actions, are you thinking about what the end result should look like?
Make sure that you put your best foot forward when describing your actions. Paint a portrait of what it's like to work with you, or for you.
Results are the most important part of the STAR framework. You can frame the perfect situation and explain how smooth your actions are, but it barely matters if you don't focus on the results. Frame the results you achieved versus the situation at the beginning.
Here are a few tips for conveying your results during the interview process:
- If you're in a revenue-driving part of a company like sales, put your results in terms of the financial impact: focus on revenue generated, new business won, and future value of clients you added.
- Working in operations for a company is usually about reducing costs or waste in your area. Focus on cost saving projects or how you improved safety for your part of the operation.
- If you implemented a new report or analysis, focus on the time savings that it creates for the members of your team.
Remember: Your goal is to show a track record of success so that the company interviewing you wishes to hire you. Connect those past successes to the questions at hand.
Recap and Keep Learning
Success in interviewing isn't luck of the draw. If you're willing to go through the steps of completing the STAR matrix and review your answers, you're going to succeed in behavioral-based interview scenarios.
Here are my three key takeaways as you're preparing for a behavioral interview:
- Many companies utilize the behavioral-based interview format to understand how potential employees will handle situations.
- Following the STAR (situation, task, action, and result) framework in answering questions helps to keep your answers concise and frame how you handle situations.
- It's essential to complete the STAR matrix to put answers in your short term memory and craft the narrative that your future employer should hear.
Finally, here are some more tutorials to read as you're preparing for your interview:
- Tuts+ Business instructor Charley Mendoza has a great tutorial on How to Answer Difficult Behavioral Interview questions. You could put these same questions in the STAR Matrix and fill it out for them.
- Charley also has a great article on how to answer the 20 Most Common Interview Questions, which includes some common non-behavioral questions.
Have you ever been the interviewer or interviewee in a behavioral-based interview? I'm always interested to find out how everyone handles these questions. Leave a comment if you have something to share.