Behavioral Interviews

It's Not What You Know, It's What You Did

Businesswoman conducting a job interview
Businesswoman conducting a job interview. Stuart O'Sullivan/The Image Bank/Getty Images

What is a Behavioral Interview?

In a behavioral interview, you will have to demonstrate your knowledge, skills, and abilities, collectively known as competencies, by giving specific examples from your past experiences. The interviewer wants to know, not that you can do something, but that you have done it. He or she, prior to the interview, determines what competencies are required for the position.

Then the interviewer develops a series of questions that will allow him or her to find out if you, the job candidate, possess the necessary competencies to perform the job. The basic premise of the behavioral interview is that past performance is a good predictor of future performance.

While many candidates are intimidated by this method, a behavioral interview gives you the opportunity to demonstrate to a prospective employer why you are well suited for the job. Rather then merely telling the interviewer what you would do in a situation, as in a regular interview, in a behavioral interview you must describe, in detail, how you handled a situation in the past. What better way to "strut your stuff?"

On a behavioral interview, you can expect questions like "Tell me about a time when..." or "Give me an example of when..." Fill in the blanks with one of any number of skills, knowledge, or abilities the interviewer is trying to ascertain you have.

For example, if conflict resolution is a required competency, the question may be "Tell me about a time two people you had to work with weren't getting along." If you have work experience you can talk about two of your co-workers. If you're interviewing for your first job you can select an experience that occurred during a time you worked on a group project, or participated in a team sport.

As long as you clearly state the problem, demonstrate the steps you took to resolve it, and discuss the results, it doesn't matter what experience you draw upon.

Why Would an Employer Use This Technique?

When asked simple yes or no questions, a job candidate can easily tell an interviewer what he or she wants to hear. For example, if you're asked what you would do if a client suddenly moved up the deadline on a project, you could reply that you would put in overtime as necessary. However, if the interviewer asks what you have done in the past to complete a project on a tight deadline, you would have to give a real-life example, detailing how you handled the situation. Then the interviewer could ask some probing questions to verify that what you are saying actually happened. For example, she might ask how many hours you spent on the project and whether the client was happy with the results, or what grade you got if you're talking about a school project.

Preparing for the Behavioral Interview

The difficult part of the behavioral interview is preparing for it.

First you must determine what competencies the employer is looking for. Read through the job description. If you're working with a recruiter talk to him or her. Research the company to learn more about it. Here are some of the competencies the employer may be seeking:

Next you need to come up with examples of how you've demonstrated those competencies. You can start by listing questions an interviewer might ask you. Here are some articles to help you get started. They all contain sample questions and some of them even categorize the questions according to the competency they demonstrate:

Next, looking back at your past jobs, try to answer the questions related to the competencies the job requires. Your time in school is also a good place to look. Like many new graduates, you may not have much experience in the paid work-force when you begin your job search. However, your group projects provide excellent opportunities to demonstrate skills that employers are seeking.

Write down your stories. Be as specific as you can. In talking about the event, talk about who was involved, what problem occurred, and what you did to help resolve it. Also discuss the outcome. Think not only of examples with positive outcomes, but those with negative outcomes as well. Interviewers will ask you about situations that you could not resolve favorably and what you learned from those experiences.

You may not be facing a behavioral interview right now, but you may have one in the future. How can you start preparing now? You'll also find some resources to help you learn more about this method.

For the Future

While we're currently employed most of us don't think about interviewing for our next jobs. And students generally don't put much thought into interviews they may go on in the future. You should. When you do something at work, or in school, that will demonstrate a competency to a prospective employer, now's the time to write it down. Time has a funny way of clouding our memories. If you write down the details of an event right after it happens you'll be able to be more specific. You might even consider keeping a journal.

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