behavioral interview questions, demystified

Behavioral interview questions: Do you dread them? Do you seize up with anxiety when an interviewer starts a question with, “Tell me about a time when you…”?

I am here to tell you that behavioral interview questions are your friend. They’re a chance to actually show the interviewer how and why you are awesome. But the catch is that you really need to prepare for them in advance, so that you have a bunch of stories at the ready and aren’t searching your brain fruitlessly for an answer.

But let’s start at the beginning: What are behavioral interview questions and why are employers using them?

Behavioral interview questions probe into what you’ve done in the past, not what you say you’d do in the future. More traditional interviews tend to rely heavily on hypothetical questions: How would you handle it if a customer did X? How do you think we should approach Y? What would you do if you were in danger of missing a deadline? It’s not too hard to come up with good answers to these sorts of questions, even for people who don’t perform well when they’re actually on the job–which means that they’re not of much real benefit to employers.

In contrast, behavioral interview questions don’t ask you to speculate on how you might approach something. Instead, they ask you to describe how you really did approach something. They tend to start out with “tell me about a time when…” or “give me an example of how you…” For instance:

  • Tell me about a time when you had to take initiative.
  • Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult customer.
  • Give me an example of a challenge you faced in your current job and how you solved it.
  • Tell me about a time you faced an unreasonable deadline and how you handled it.

Give me an example of a new approach you developed for tackling a problem.

These types of questions are often followed by probing follow-ups to dig more deeply. Your interview might ask: What did you do then? What happened after that? What was the result? How did you handle X?

In other words, the interviewer doesn’t want to hear about what you claim you’ll do in the future, or your thoughts on how you’d approach an abstract situation. They want to hear about what you’ve done already. This makes sense, since how you operated in the past can give a lot of insight into how you’re likely to operate in the future. After all, if you can’t come up with one example of how you solved a problem or juggled a high workload, what reason do they have to think you’ll excel at those things when working for them?

Of course, it’s a lot harder to bluff your way through an interview like this–and that’s the idea.

But no matter how much your past experiences line up with the job, it can be tough to come up with some of those examples on the spot, so it’s key to prepare in advance. Here are four key steps to before your next interview:

1. First, go through the job description line by line, and picture yourself doing the job. What will the person in the role be responsible for? What are the likely challenges?

2. For each responsibility or challenge, think about what examples from your past you can point to as “supporting evidence” that you’d excel at the job, and write them down.

Keep in mind that don’t need to be direct one-for-one matches. For instance, if you’re applying for a sales job without any actual sales experience, you might talk about how you made fundraising calls to alumni when you were in college. Or if you’re applying for a manager job and haven’t formally managed anyone, you might talk about how you were the go-to person for training new employees in your last job, managed numerous group projects, and were known as a diplomatic problem-solver. And if you don’t have a lot of work experience to draw on, you can use examples from school, volunteering, and hobbies.

3. Once you’ve written out your examples, turn them into answers that have this structure:   problem/response/ outcome. In other words, start by talking about why the situation was challenging. Then express what you did in response, and finally, explain what the outcome was.

4. Now, make yourself practice your answers out loud. You might feel foolish talking to yourself, but doing this will make these answers more easily retrievable to you when you’re sitting in that interview chair.

And lastly, don’t look at these questions as something to dread. Look at them as a chance to really show why you’re a strong candidate who would be great at the job. That’s what they’re designed to ferret out, in the end.

{ 56 comments… read them below }

  1. Ask an Advisor*

    This is pretty much what I tell all of my students. Similar to your “problem/response/outcome” approach, I tell my students to answer these types of questions by “driving the interview C.A.R.” where C.A.R. stands for context/actions/results. Cheesy, sure, but students remember it.

  2. Perfectshinist*

    What about the weird questions? For example, I was once asked if I knew how to cook. I said “yes, cereal”, got a good laugh but I didn’t get the job. What is the reasoning behind these types of questions?

    1. Elizabeth*

      Was cooking part of the job, or a skill they might occasionally draw on? For example, as a teacher, I’ve coordinated meals on outdoor education trips, which used my cooking ability – even though you’d think “teacher” wouldn’t be a job description that would require cooking.

      Of course, it’s possible (and maybe even likely) that you didn’t get the job for reasons unrelated to cooking. Maybe the interviewer was just making small talk because he loves to cook and just found a great new cookbook.

      I think if it’d been me getting that question, I would have answered it and said, “Why do you ask? Is cooking a part of this role?” Well… to be fair, I probably would have just wondered about it in my head, and later realized I could have asked.

      1. Perfectshinist*

        Rebecca-No, cooking was not at all part of the job, it was for a financial analyst position at a logistics company. I also didn’t mean to imply that it was the reason I didn’t get the job, I was dangerously underqualified at the time.

        AAM-thanks for the link. Some of the repsonses were great! You should make it annual thing.

      1. Jamie*

        I HATE those! I was asked once if I were a novelist what kind of fiction would I write.

        I tried to move it along by saying that while I have never had an interest in writing fiction I have written reams of technical documentation in my career and find that very interesting.

        I thought it was a nice segue but he didn’t. He reiterated the question and clarified by adding “you know – romance, mystery, crime…”

        It was all I could do not to explain that I didn’t need help in the genres…I did understand the question, I just thought it was stupid.

        I’ve been in IT for a while now and have yet to be asked to write a novel.

  3. Chris Walker*

    It’s also a good idea to prepare some stories about situations that did not turn out so well. Many interviewers love to give candidates the opportunity to go negative. I think they want to see if the candidate takes ownership of the negative outcome (that’s the right answer, of course), makes excuses or blames others.

  4. Elizabeth*

    This reminds me of how my high school English teacher told us to prepare for the AP exam. The long essay questions could be about a wide variety of topics, and there was no way to know ahead of time if you’d have to write about imagery that symbolized evil, a pair of characters that acted as foils for each other, an example of a character undergoing a rite of passage, or what. Rather than having a super-broad base of books to draw on and trying to pick the “perfect” one to match the question, though, my teacher suggested that we focus on getting to know just a couple books inside-out so we could use one of those. I went into that exam ready to use _The Great Gatsby_, _Huckleberry Finn_, or _The Brothers Karamazov_ no matter what the question was.

      1. Scot Herrick*

        This is why I advocate having 3-4 “stories” about your work and the accomplishments you have had. One story on working with a team. One story on overcoming difficult situations. That kind of stuff.

        You can practice the stories to get them down cold in terms of your work (see CAR above; that’s what I advocate) – helping you do better in the interview. You can also make sure to have numbers to support the story from your business results — most people won’t.

        Stories are the Great Gatsby of face-to-face interviews… ;)

        1. Diane*

          Heh. Now my next example of managing a delicate situation will be about the time I moved in next to a billionaire who was in love with my cousin across the way, and while I tried to help bring them together, it didn’t end the way either hoped.

            1. Anon.*

              oh wow.. still sleeping here. that IS the plot to a novel! hehe.. I was thinking more modern day – it COULD be reworked for this day and age…

  5. Steve*

    This is a very good summary of behavior based interviewing. There is one additional point however – following outcome, if necessary or possible, I also like to hear “what I learned from this” as well.

    It is the icing on the cake however, most interviewees are not all that well prepared for behavior based questions.

    1. Nyxalinth*

      I have no problem with these most of the time, but sometimes it’s hard to translate what I’ve done in call centers over to the sorts of admin jobs I’m trying for now. It goes back to the whole team thing and not being given real responsibility or impressive projects or what have you.

      I am also very easygoing and get along well with all types, so I really have to scrape the bottom of the barrel to answer those questions about dealing with conflicts with other employees. worst thing that ever happened was me and a co-worker both wanted the same day off. Mine had been approved, and he thought it was unfair, we worked it out, the end. In the end I decided his need had outweighed my own, and so I asked our supervisor to approve him instead.

      besides, it’s hard to get into co-worker conflicts when you’re on the phone all day. any advice about all of this/

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I am very easygoing and get along well with all types, so I really have to scrape the bottom of the barrel to answer those questions about dealing with conflicts with other employees. worst thing that ever happened was me and a co-worker both wanted the same day off. Mine had been approved, and he thought it was unfair, we worked it out, the end. In the end I decided his need had outweighed my own, and so I asked our supervisor to approve him instead.

        Exactly like that, including the beginning part!

    2. Vicki*

      My fear is that most interview_ers_ aren;t really prepared either. They ask, because yiou’re “supposed to” ask, just as they ask “How do they make M&Ms” or “How many barber shops are there in Maine?” but they don;t know how to properly handle the response.

  6. Christine*

    Here’s another acronym I’ve seen used – PAR, for problem/action/result.

    I DREAD behavioral interview questions because I can never come up with examples, and I end up flubbing it right then and there. Even if I prepared ahead of time, I just can’t remember enough specific details to come up with any solid stories. I would have to keep a daily journal to capture everything! Anyone have any advice for this kind of prep?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’ll tell you my secret: Have a bigger ego. I’m not kidding.

      You don’t remember the stories of awesome things you did because you’re not impressed enough with yourself.

      You have to get more impressed with yourself. Convince yourself that these various stories demonstrate your true awesomeness, bask in that awesomeness, and sit around marveling over how competent you are — how perfectly you handled X situation, how amazing you were when you needed to do Y, how you came up with the most impressively perfect response to Z. If you’re downplaying in your own head how great you are, those stories are harder to grab when you need them. But if you actually have a strong ego and aren’t shy about feeling fantastic about these sorts of details, they’re more accessible when you need to talk about them.

      So that’s my advice: ego. Seriously!

      1. Joey*

        Better yet tell those stories to your SO, your buds, or a colleague first. It’s great practice. And if your inner circle is like mine they won’t be afraid to put you in check. Just make sure your story produced some impressive result. You don’t want to act like a big shot in the interview unless it’s well deserved.

      2. Christine*

        Wow, you sure hit the nail on the head about my level of self-confidence. It is something I am working on and will definitely give your advice serious thought. Thank you!

      3. Jamie*

        This is really great advice. I’m one of those people who is wicked impressed with skills I don’t have, and then as soon as I a quire the skill I’m proud of myself for about a minute and then instantly downgrade it to something anyone can do.

        Feedback from someone else is great here – what do you do which is no big deal to you is really impressive to other people? Great place to start.

      4. Dan Ruiz*

        Awesome! This is exactly what I needed to hear. In my last interview I had a heck of a time coming up with examples of stuff that I’ve been doing for years.

        I was really disappointed with myself for having such a mental block. I really just blamed it on nervousness, but in reality it’s due to the fact that I’m not so impressed with stuff I do really well.

        Need to work on that.


  7. NikkiN*

    I completely love this post. I am a hiring manager and I am OFTEN disappointed in the inability of interviewees to cough up a life experience. I’m sure it can be chalked up as nerves, but they will never have another chance to impress me. I work in the healthcare field and I have recently done some research on which behavioral attributes lend themselves to success in my area. One important one is resilience. My job is not to increase the resilience in my employees, but to find employees who already possess it. One of the questions I am going to start asking candidates is to describe a past hardship, and their response to it. I hope this will help me screen for employees with high preexisting resilience. Oh and by the way the captchas you get never work right for me either!

    1. Anonymous*

      “Describe a past hardship”? I wouldn’t know what you were trying to get to with that and wouldn’t know how to answer.

      I would come across really badly here as what do I ‘cough up’? Do I talk about when I had to go without funds due to a change in jobs and had to buckle down to ensure I didn’t run out of funds during a 6 week gap during paydays? Do I talk about the time a major job came in an hour before post time and HAD to go out that day? Do I talk about having to concentrate on serious matters at work whilst waiting for news of my father who was in the hospital?

      Nothing I can think of that would be a suitable response to “dealing with hardship” would come across as suitable for discussion or proving resilience.

      1. Chris Walker*

        First, it’s always about work unless the interviewer specifically asks about non-work related subjects. Second, it is perfectly OK to ask for clarification from the interviewer if it is not apparent to you what they are after.

      2. just another hiring manager...*

        “Do I talk about the time a major job came in an hour before post time and HAD to go out that day?”

        Yes, talk about this in response to a question like this.

      3. NikkiN*

        Coughing up is simply sharing an experience with me. We use expressions like that in the south. Ha. The hardship question is a new one I am going to start trying out. Historically I have asked- tell me about a time you made a mistake what happened- or a time when you went above and beyond to get a job done. I am not only looking at the content of your answer, but the way you interact with me, and your self confidence level. All of these are important.
        As far as the hardship question- I would allow the applicant to take it in which ever direction they would like- work or personal. Employees are real people with experience that happens outside of our workplace.
        I think the examples you came up with were all spot on if elaborated on…

    2. Student*

      This sounds like a terrible, horrible question to ask people on an interview. You’ll get something fairly mundane out of most people, but then occasionally you’ll get something really traumatic out of someone – either because they’ve taken you too seriously, or because that’s all they can come up with on the spot. Keep in mind, not everyone has lived a rosy, happy life.

      For example, the first thing that comes to my mind when I see this question is the time I got assaulted at work by a co-worker. It turned out very badly, and I know darn well that’s not what you want to hear about. But my brain literally freezes there, because it’s the worst job-related experience I ever had and it was so terrible.

      After that, if I think about it calmly and after quite a bit of time, I have the following experiences to draw on: fire at work, flood at work, tires slashed while at work during snow storm, co-workers drinking on the job (in a spot where that’s illegal, as opposed to just a bad idea) and calling the cops on themselves. Still probably not what you want. Next, I could talk about being assigned to a project with not enough resources to succeed – three times. No good outcome to that story, so it’s still not what you want – the best lesson I got out of that was “turn down stupid projects early” and that’s a horrible thing to say to a prospective employer.

      Thinking about it for quite some time, I can’t come up with one with a good outcome at all. I’m bottom of the totem pole at my job, so I get run over by higher ups a lot and there’s not much I can realistically do about it except seek employment elsewhere.

  8. Jamie*

    When I was interviewing the one thing I would get asked quite often is “what was the last book you’ve read.”

    I answered honestly once that it was a Cat Who book (a series about a man who solves crimes with the help of his two cats, Koko and Yum Yum…stop judging me!!)

    After that I made sure I re-read a couple of paragraphs in Code Complete so I could honestly answer I was re-reading that. It doesn’t derail an IT interview nearly as much as mystery solving Siamese cats.

    Seriously though, for light reading when you just want pure escapism it’s a great series – Lilian Jackson Braun.

      1. Jamie*

        Yay! I love meeting people who know that Qwilleran is spelled Qw :).

        I’ll try to stop being a dork now…but those books are the comfort food of literature. A rainy day and a pile of Cat Who books is my happy place – I go there in my head way too often and in real life not often enough.

        Alison – you have the highest quality readers ever!

        1. Christine*

          Completely agree – I see other message boards and blogs, and I’m in awe of what I read sometimes, and not in a good way.

    1. KellyK*

      I think anyone who asks “what was the last book you read?” should expect answers about anything from light brain candy to how-to manuals to Shakespeare unless they’re asking specifically about books in your field.

      If someone asked me today, my honest reply would be “Carmilla,” a little-known gothic vampire story.

      When I was in high school, I interviewed at one highly regarded (:: cough:: pretentious) college and was asked what I was currently reading. I started talking enthusiastically about the really entertaining fantasy novel I was currently engrossed in, and the interviewer broke in with “Is that pleasure reading?” in a very negative tone, as though reading for fun is beneath them and I should’ve been reading nothing but classics.

      That attitude was a large part of why I didn’t apply. (So, at least pretentious questions might show you where you’re not a good fit!)

    2. Vicki*

      I love Koko! Any books with smart kitties is a good book.

      I had a friend of a friend once tell me that I was wasting my time reading “escapist fiction”. I said that I get real life in Real Life and that’s why fiction was invented.

      This is like the puzzle questions (How many barbers are there in Maine?) that have crept into tech industry interviewsa. They presuppose that programmers love puzzles; I don’t. They presuppose a good reason for asking the question beyond it being this year’s fad. They presuppose that the interviewer can somehow interpret the response in a way that is relevant to the job.

  9. Catherine Saar*

    Your post and some of the follow-on comments are so right on, I just had to write to thank you. I love taking behavioral tests. Just think, you get to talk about yourself for hours to an interested audience! Typically, you don’t get to do that for free and if you do, the other person often stops listening after a while. When you relax, prepare and get in the groove, it can really be a creative way to communicate how your experience is a great fit for the open position.

  10. Anonymous*

    I am one of the few who enjoys behavioral questions. I’m not so good at saying what I would do theoretically because I hear a theoretical and I want to ask a million questions about how do you see this and I wouldn’t know how I would actually handle that until I was in the situation etc. I get bogged down in details.

    But if you ask about the time I handled conflict on a team oh do I have stories. You want to know when a project I led faced a difficulty and how I manuvered around it? Done it.
    After all, I actually did those things. Much easier to talk about. It is just a matter of recalling those situations.

    The only issue is I’m still trying to cure myself of my We habit. I did this task, and I still say we.

    1. Scot Herrick*

      The “We” habit is deadly. In previous work lives, I didn’t hire people who constantly said “we” because I could never figure out if you were the person who did the work/made the decision or if you were the person who basked in the glory of what the group accomplished.

      I know it’s a team thing, but you have to show what YOU did.

      1. Jamie*

        Too funny, I JUST did this.

        I was answering a question on tech forum about video cards for CAD software and my whole post was about the builds *we* use and what *we* deploy.

        I re-read it and thought who the heck am I talking about? There’s no we – I may be the only one in the company who can identify a video card on sight, definitely the only one specing out builds for CAD software and engineering workstations. No one has input into those purchasing decisions but me – yet it’s all about the *we*.

        I am a department of one and I use we so often it’s kind of a joke…people ask me about my imaginary staff.

        We update the ERP software, we do database maintenance, we configure VPNs…so why am I the only one doing those things?

        My imaginary staff are a bunch of slackers and need to pick it up or I’ll start taking credit for all this stuff myself!

        1. Vicki*

          But then, there are the people who will decide that if you only say “I” all the time, you’re not a team player…

          Oh the minefields of the interview process and the need to read the other person’s mind. :-(

      2. Anonymous*

        It is a killer. For me it was largely a nonprofit thing. I would do all the work and still defer all credit. Apparently that’s not so good for a career. At one point I thought that actually doing a great job was enough, oh how young and naive I was.

        And I think a bit a gender thing, I certainly know of far more women (regardless of industry) who “we” rather than “I”.

        1. Jamie*

          I was wonder that, too, if it’s a gender thing. Something about using we softens it, doesn’t make it sound as bossy or like bragging (depending on context) in my head.

          And reading that I can see it’s crazy.

          I have noticed more women having trouble with the “I” “me” thing than men.

          1. Student*

            I’m a woman, and I’ve actually been scolded for using “I” instead of “we” to describe work that I (myself, alone) did. This has happened on more than one occasion.

            On one such occasion, I went out of my way to solicit input from a few team members, too, and I got… nothing. No comments, no suggestions, no input. But they wanted credit for offering no input, so the boss told me that I had better say “we” to include them.

            Never seen a guy get scolded over the same thing.

      3. just another hiring manager...*

        A good interviewer will ask follow up questions to parse out the “we” stuff from the “I” stuff.

          1. Scot Herrick*

            As well, people who have a “we” syndrome rarely get past “we” even if you do the follow-up questions. I remember one candidate where I specifically said, “You said ‘we.’ Tell me what you did versus what the group did.”

            Answer? “What we did was….”

            Another follow-up: “So did you make the decision to do this or did someone tell you to do this?”

            Answer? “What we did was…”

            After three follow-up questions asking for that clarification and not getting it, I conclude I’ll never get a straight answer on much of anything if you worked for me. So I won’t hire you. Don’t want to spend all day trying to divine accountability on the job.

            And I’m pretty persistent compared to most interviewers (in my humble opinion), so the “we” syndrome is something that needs to get broken.

      4. Dan Ruiz*

        I’m tellin’ ya, I learn something every time I come here. I think it’s the focus on teamwork and not wanting to take too much credit or something, but I use “we” all the time. As Jamie was saying, even for stuff that only I can do, “we did it” is how I would describe it.

        Gotta work on that…


  11. Nyxalinth*

    I think a lot of the “We we we” is because depending on what industry they may have been in at some point (call center and retail especially) there’s a huge focus on teamwork to the point where you put your own identity aside.

    Recently someone on Livejournal told me “Tell them ‘I did xyz’. Even if you were part of a team. They aren’t hiring the team; they’re hiring YOU.”

    I think this is great advice, because really, you aren’t a Borg collective doing this as a single entity. You are doing things that contribute to the greater whole, but you are not the whole. so never be afraid to say “I”.

    1. Sean*

      Great advice here on using “I”, I think we often forget that by saying we, our individual accomplishments are watered down, saying I makes it clear that you were the one responsible for the sucess of the team.

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