Behavioral Job Interviews for College Students: Sample Questions, Answers, and Examples
Ace Your Behavioral Job Interview
No one said launching your career would be easy. Traditional "tell me about yourself" interviews are being replaced by panel interviews and drill-down questions.
What is a Behavioral Job Interview?
The behavioral job interview is a widely used selection tool. The technique is centered on the notion that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. Fortune 500 companies and government agencies, for example, often use the behavioral interview to predict future success in jobs they are hiring for.
Behavioral interviews follow a more structured format, they're hard to fudge your way through, and they are more predictive of on-the-job performance. To do well, you need to prepare.
If your heart just skipped a beat, relax. I'm an industrial/organizational psychologist who has designed and conducted these interviews professionally, and I've worked in corporate HR for two Fortune 500 companies. Let me help.
Reader Experience Poll:
Have you ever had a behavioral job interview?
How to Identify a Behavior-Based Interview Question
In a behavioral interview, the interviewer asks you questions about skills or competencies that are necessary for successful on-the-job performance. All candidates typically receive the same questions.
The following phrases often accompany behavior-based interview questions:
- "Tell me about a time when you ..."
- "Describe a situation when you faced a problem related to ..."
- "Tell me how you approached a situation where ..."
- "Think of a circumstance in which you ..."
Describe a Situation When You Demonstrated the Competency Well
In answering behavioral interview questions, use your educational, work-related, and extracurricular experiences to respond. Companies understand that you may not have professional work experience, but they expect college students to draw on other parts of their background to answer the interview questions.
In doing so, consider examples from your
- campus clubs
- volunteer activities
- involvement in sports
- part-time job, or
- other experience.
Try to avoid religious or overly personal examples and those that occurred more than two years ago. Also avoid describing situations that involve mention of drugs, alcohol, sex, legal problems, etc. (While it seems to be a no-brainer, believe me—college students have used these examples.)
Red Flag Topics
Use discretion in generating your situational examples. Tread carefully if your example involves one of these topics: sex; drugs/alcohol; legal problems; bankruptcy; politics; religion; and controversial "hot button" issues.
Behavioral Interviews Are More Difficult to Fake
Answer the interviewer's question by describing a specific situation that illustrates how you successfully displayed that competency. Your answer should be two to three minutes long and follow the S.T.A.R. format that is described below. Avoid generalizing or hypothesizing, and offer specific information such as first names of the people involved, amount of money saved, time frame of when this took place, etc.
To evaluate you, the interviewer may need to ask follow-up questions, such as:
- "Tell me what you were thinking at that point ..."
- "Walk me through your decision process ..."
As a result, behavioral interviews are more difficult to fake. Answering vaguely also won't work. The interviewer uses your description to rate how well you demonstrated that skill or competency.
Your Future Is Looking Up!
The S.T.A.R. Method: Describing Situation, Task, Action, and Results
Situation: Think of a specific situation in the past in which you successfully demonstrated the skill or competency in question. The situation can come from a previous job, class project, internship, leadership position, sports or volunteer activity.
Task: Describe what goal you were trying to accomplish.
Action(s): Describe the specific steps that you took to complete the task and achieve success. What did you actually do?
Result(s): Describe the outcomes of your actions. (Ideally, provide multiple positive outcomes.) How did it end? What did you achieve or learn?
Bonus Points: The Fifth Step of the S.T.A.R. Method
Although job applicants commonly don't use it, there is a bonus fifth step to the S.T.A.R. method of answering behavior interview questions. (Thus, it becomes the S.T.A.R.T. method, doesn't it?)
You may not always be able to use it, but for especially critical competencies it is an important part of selling the company on why you are right for this job.
Translate: Describe why your results are applicable to the job you are interviewing for. (You'll know this because you've read the job description and researched the company.) How can the company use your experience and achievements on this competency? What is the value for them?
Reach for the S.T.A.R.s
Competencies That Are Commonly Assessed Using Behavioral Job Interviews
problem solving skills
Look at Yourself from an Employer's Viewpoint
22 Sample Behavioral Interview Questions
- Describe a situation in which you led a team of people who had diverse interests and objectives. (leadership)
- Describe a leadership challenge that involved making an unpopular decision. (leadership)
- Tell me about a time when you delegated effectively. (delegation)
- Tell me about a situation when you took the initiative to achieve a difficult goal. (initiative)
- Describe a time when you set a goal and were able to achieve it. (planning)
- Think of an example of when you anticipated problems and developed prevention measures. (planning)
- Describe a time when you went over and above what was required. (conscientiousness)
- Tell me about a time when you felt you needed to act in the greater good even though it was personally detrimental for you. (conscientiousness)
- Think of a time when you had to deal with an irate customer. (customer service)
- Describe a time when you did not meet a customer's expectations. (customer service)
- Tell me about an example of when you missed important details. (conscientiousness)
- Think of a situation where you had to work closely with someone who may not have liked you. (interpersonal skills)
- Tell me about a situation in which you had to communicate with someone who did not clearly understand your message (communication skills).
- Describe a situation that involved persuading someone else to change their mind. (persuasion/influence skills)
- Tell me about a time you had to solve a difficult problem. (problem solving skills)
- Describe a situation where you used your fact-finding skills to reach a solution. (problem solving skills)
- Give me an example of a time when you missed an obvious solution to a problem. (problem solving skills)
- Tell me about a time when you disagreed with someone in an authority position. (conflict management)
- Describe a situation when you disagreed with a coworker or fellow student (conflict management).
- Give me an example of a time when you had to adapt to an important change. (adaptability)
- Tell me about a time when you didn't have the resources you needed to complete a task. (overcoming adversity)
- Describe a time when you struggled with something but overcame the challenge. (overcoming adversity)
How Should You Handle Questions That Ask About Failures?
For many behavioral interview questions, you can generate an example where you succeed, thus demonstrating that you have high levels of the competency being evaluated. However, the interviewer may throw a trick question in there -- one that specifically asks you to identify an example of failure. (For example, #17 above: "Give me an example of a time when you missed an obvious solution to a problem.)
For these questions, select an example that doesn't involve large failure but then after you describe your Situation, Task, Action(s), and Result(s), make sure you add a statement about what you learned from the situation. Everyone fails at some point, but not everyone learns from their failure. Show the interviewer that you have.
Examples of Behavior Interview Questions and Answers
Behavioral Interview Question: Tell me about a situation that required both big picture thinking and detail orientation.
- Situation - I was elected to the Campus Visiting Speakers Bureau for the 2016-2017 school year and was responsible for generating a slate of three to five speakers using a total budget of $56,000.
- Task - My objective was to generate a list of speakers for the Planning Committee that would make the final decision. The speakers needed to 1) appeal to the entire college community, 2) be available within our budget on a date when the auditorium was available, and 3) convey a motivational message consistent with our theme, "Social Responsibility In An Era of Change and Uncertainty."
- Action(s) - I solicited ideas for speakers from the rest of the Planning committee, students in my dorm, and my Marketing class. Then, I used their suggestions to help identify 15 speakers who would fit within our budget. I researched the speakers' career profiles, reviews of past speaking events, and their blogs. This narrowed my list to nine speakers who were appropriate for our theme and audience. I led three focus groups of a cross-section of 10 university students to generate a prioritized list of the nine speakers. I then reached out to the speakers' agents to check for scheduling availability and to verify fees, travel, and other requirements. From that, I had six names. I submitted the top five to the committee for their decision.
- Result - The Planning Committee was "wowed" by the slate of speakers I submitted as well as my attention to detail. From my list, they selected motivational speaker Cindy Jones to appear on September 15. We sold all 2,500 tickets, and Channel 9 did a story on her appearance at our event.
Behavioral Interview Question: Give me an example on when you disagreed with someone at work.
- Situation - I work at Smart-Mart during the summer and holidays. Last Christmas season another associate (James) and I were assigned the monumental task of assembling 35 bikes during our 8-hour shift. James told me right up front he did not intend to help put together all of those bikes. He said it wasn't "his thing" and it was too much work.
- Task - Managers were working the floor because the store was so busy, and it was up to James and I to get the task done. I needed to figure out a way to get him to help me correctly assemble 35 bikes within our 8-hour shift.
- Action(s) - I appealed first to reason by trying to convince James that it was much easier to work together. I then just asked him to help me out. When he refused, I told him that was okay. As I worked alone on the first few bikes, I cracked some jokes with James and started talking with him. As he loosened up, I asked him to time me as I tried to beat my previous record of how long it took to put one bike together. Then, I'd make small requests such as, "Could you pass me that wrench?" Without me requesting it, James then took the bikes out of the boxes and laid out the pieces in assembly line fashion. I involved him so much that eventually he was working alongside me.
- Result - James went from a resistant co-worker to a partner. Together, we correctly assembled the 35 bikes during the shift. Management was surprised we were actually able to accomplish the assigned task, and James and I were assigned to work together frequently after that. James and I became good work friends, and I still tease him about the bad attitude he had when I met him.
Tips For Preparing For A Behavioral Interview
Read the job description. It typically tells you exactly what the company is looking for in a successful candidate. Pick out key competencies or skills.
Review the company website, looking for statements on corporate mission and values. Look for themes, especially when it comes to "soft skills." Companies frequently proclaim what they find most important in their employees and what sets their employees apart (e.g., innovativeness, integrity, a passion to succeed). For example, a company I worked with based their interviews on their five corporate values.
For each key competency, jog your memory for a situation in which you displayed the competency favorably. Recall key details so you can offer these. Use different parts of your life (e.g., team sports, class projects, leadership positions, part-time job). It's okay if you use one scenario to exemplify two different competencies (e.g., leadership skills and conflict management skills)
Traditional Interview Questions: You Still Need To Prepare For Them
Traditional interviews use a conversational approach and involve general questions (e.g., "Why do you want to work for this Company?")
Although they allow an interviewer and candidate to build rapport, traditional interviews often involve no pre-set questions.
It is common to see traditional interview questions as warm-ups, followed by behavior-based interview questions during the remainder of the interview.
As a result, there are some traditional questions that you should always be prepared for:
- What attracted you to our company?
- What do you know about this company (or this position)?
- Why are you interested in this job?
- What are your strengths/weaknesses?
- Where do you see yourself in five years?
Common Mistakes College Students Make During Job Interviews
Hovercraft: Leave Your Helicopter Parents At Home
Common Mistakes College Students Make with Corporate Recruiting & Interviewing
TRY THIS INSTEAD
Practicing the wrong interview skills
Learn the S.T.A.R. format. Be able to translate your personal education and experience using Situations, Tasks, Actions, and Results.
Providing examples that are vague, dishonest, minimally relevant, or highlight failure
Focus on giving specific examples, as well as those that produced success (e.g., won the game, project was on-time, came in under budget). If providing a failure example, recover by describing lessons learned. Don't make examples up or embellish. Avoid using personal or religious examples.
Listen. Take a moment to process the question before responding. Ask for repetion of the question, if needed.
Forgetting that it's likely a buyer's employment market
Sell the interviewer on why you are right for this job. Ask specific questions about the company and the job that show you have done your research.
Failing to research the company
Review the job description, the company website, and other materials to understand more about the job's requirements; the company's products/services, competitors and values; challenges of the industry, etc.
Being bashful about your role in achieving results
Don't be afraid to brag some. If giving a team-based Situation and Task, describe what Actions YOU performed that achieved the Result.
Overinvolving parents during the recruiting process
Parents can help you practice for interviews and help with advice, but all communication with the company needs to be directly from you. Parents should not contact the company for you or attend your interview, information session, or company site visit.
Leaving an outgoing voicemail message that is immature, lengthy, or just plain rude
Potential employers may be calling you to set up next-phase interviews. Eliminate music and rude humor and leave just a simple, succinct outgoing message.
Helicopter Parents: Their Hovering Does Not Help You
Reader Opinion Poll
If you were an employer, would you hire a college student whose helicopter parent tried to become involved in the interview process?
Do You Have Helicopter Parents?
"Helicopter parents" is a term that's been around for about 40 years. It describes parents who become over-involved in their child's development and education right up through college and into the workforce.
These parents "hover" closely in the background, awaiting any sign of trouble or confusion from their adult child. At a moment's notice, they "swoop down" and try to make everything alright.
Helicopter parenting has been linked to creating anxiety and depression in young adult children who are trying to build their competence and confidence in the world of work. It undermines their growth, as young people learn that they are not trusted to make their own mistakes and explore their own options.
Signs You May Have A Helicopter Parent:
- Mom or Dad calls you to remind you to go to class (Where's your alarm clock?)
- Mom or Dad contacts your professor to discuss your performance in their class and/or your class grade.
- You're required to call, email, text, and/or FaceTime Mom or Dad daily to report progress you've made on that big project or on getting a job.
- Mom or Dad surprises you with an unannounced dorm room visit to help you clean up and stock you back up on snacks.
- Mom or Dad inquires about embarrassing details in your social and sexual activities. (You are an adult!)
Helicopter Parenting in the Career Marketplace
Don't let Mom or Dad helicopter parent you into the world of work. It's all about boundaries. Set some limits on their behavior well before you leave college.
I have worked in the corporate HR world that included extensive campus recruiting. Companies are appalled at some of the behavior of over-involved parents. Yet, it is the college student who suffers. The student is perceived as being dependent, less competent, and lacking in initiative and leadership. (This isn't anyone a company would want to hire, is it?)
Here are some of the ways that I've seen parents getting over-involved in college recruiting and their child's career:
- writing their child's resume and cover letters
- attending college information sessions or job fairs alongside their children to directly meet recruiters
- showing up at the interview with their children
- calling the interviewer to either check on the status of the job or to ask for feedback on how their child performed
- requesting to tour the company that has offered their child a job, as well as the city where their child will be living
- attempting to negotiate employment offers on their child's behalf
- offering explanations as to why the child did not pass the pre-employment drug test
- joining their children on house hunting trips (or even requesting relocation for themselves as well)
- calling the child's boss once the child is on the job to discuss a performance issue, vacation request, disciplinary incident, or reason for absence.
If you have a helicopter parent, it is important that you attempt to dial back their over-involvement. (If not now, when?) In the end, helicopter parenting hurts your struggle to become the competent adult you are meant to be.
Make Your Own Luck Using Preparation and a Confident Attitude
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