Preparing for an interview can feel a bit like going on a date: the stakes are high, you don’t know exactly what to expect, and the more interested you are, the more painful becomes the thought of possible rejection. But relax: there’s much more you can do to prepare for an interview, and we’re here to make it as easy as possible for you to do so. In this article, we’re going to focus on one of the most common types of interview techniques: the behavioural question. Read on to learn what they are, why you should expect a few, and, most importantly, how you can respond in a way that convinces potential employers to look favourably upon your application.
There are three main types of interview questions: technical questions, which focus on the skills and knowledge specific to a given role; situational questions, which seek to uncover how you might respond to a variety of hypothetical scenarios; and behavioural questions, which require you to explain how you’ve handled challenging situations in the past.
Most behavioural questions will begin with some variation of: ‘Tell us about a time when…’ or ‘Have you ever had to…?’ or ‘Can you think of a situation in which you’ve had to…?’. You’ll note that there is some overlap between behavioural and situational questions, so it’s important to make a very clear distinction between them: situational questions deal with possible events in the future, while behavioural questions deal with actual experiences in the past.
The assumption underpinning all behavioural interview questions would appear to be that your past actions are a reliable predictor of your future actions. While that’s true, it’s not the full story: imagine, for example, that you’re asked to describe a time when you’ve made a mistake on an important project—interviewers don’t ask because they believe that candidates who have made critical mistakes before will make them again and should, therefore, be disqualified. If that were the case, there would be no candidates left!
Instead, interviewers ask behavioural questions because they offer an indirect way to address other, unspoken concerns. These implicit questions might include:
Behavioural questions can seem like a daunting prospect: interviewers could ask you to think back to various kinds of past experiences, from successes to failures, and you’ll need to come up with a relevant example on the spot. Thankfully, there is a technique that will help you to shine when answering behavioural questions. However, before diving into the details of how to craft a winning response, let’s take a closer look at six examples of typical behavioural interview questions:
As you can see, behavioural questions share a few common features: they demand self-reflection (by asking you to describe your own behaviour); they focus on how you react to situations; and they’re open-ended: as specific as the situation described might be, you get to choose the most relevant example from your own past. We can, therefore, deduce the basic structure of an effective response: the best answers will take the form of brief anecdotes that highlight your strengths and skills. The challenge then is to structure your anecdotes in a convincing way.
At GradAustralia, we frequently ask graduates who were successful at entering competitive graduate programs for advice that might help current students follow in their footsteps. One tip comes up over and over again, ‘Make sure you practice the STAR technique of answering interview questions,’ says one graduate now employed by the Victorian State Government. ‘Ensure you have a wide variety of experiences and situations ready to discuss, ideally in a STAR format,’ says another graduate, now working in Perth for Woodside.
What is this STAR technique? Essentially, it’s a way of preparing your anecdotes in a way that makes it easy to adapt them to various behavioural questions. It’s also a tool that will allow you to bring up fresh anecdotes as needed and present them in a structured way that makes sense to interviewers.
STAR stands for situation, task, action, and result. These should be the basic components of any anecdote with which you choose to answer a behavioural question. To use the STAR technique:
Note that the STAR technique is useful for both positive situations (for example, that time you saved the day by meeting the last-minute expectations of an important client) and less enjoyable memories (for example, that time you hit ‘reply all’ by accident and offended a colleague).
It’s true that behavioural questions come in many forms, and you may find yourself applying the STAR technique on the fly. However, it’s still possible to get ahead by preparing some choice anecdotes.
Here’s how: first, read over the job description carefully and highlight any skills that are listed among the ‘essential’ or ‘desirable’ criteria. Are you going for an accounting job? Perhaps you’ll see that ‘attention to detail’ is highly regarded by your potential employer. What about a mining engineering role? You may have heard from a friend already employed at your target company that mining engineers often have to work alone for long stretches of time.
You can then prepare two or three anecdotes that describe situations in which you exhibited the same skills that are highly valued by your target employers. These anecdotes may serve you well during the interview with minor adjustments. Even if you do need to draw on an alternative experience, you’ll benefit from having practised the application of the STAR technique.
To conclude, here are some examples of what the STAR technique might look like when used during an interview:
Using the STAR technique, you should find it a breeze to respond to most behavioural questions. However, if you do feel stuck, it’s important to emphasise that, while interviewers are interested in the content of your answer, they’re just as keen to learn more about how you approach tricky situations.
So take a deep breath: let them know if you really can’t think of a time when you had to work with somebody you didn’t like. Some people get lucky! Maybe you can instead tell them why you get along with people: is it your communication skills? Your focus on the work itself? Can you use the STAR technique to describe a situation in which you got along surprisingly well with a client or colleague?
Whatever happens, remember that the key to answering a behavioural interview question effectively is to demonstrate a commitment to honesty, self-awareness, and positivity. So relax—you’ve got this!