You’re pretty sure you’re acing your interview. You made some friendly small talk. You knocked your introduction out of the park. You’ve even cracked a few jokes.
And then it happens: “Can you tell me about a time when…?”
Gulp. Suddenly your stomach is in your shoes. Your mind goes blank. You can hardly remember your own name, let alone a time when you solved a problem. Or spearheaded change. Or achieved a goal.
Behavioral interview questions and situational interview questions are enough to trip up even the most poised and confident candidates. But, that doesn’t mean you need to sit there in a panic while the menacing melody of the “Jeopardy” theme song echoes through your empty brain.
We’re here to get you through these anxiety-inducing interview questions—maybe even without sweating through your shirt.
You’ll often hear these terms used interchangeably, but there’s a difference between these two types of interview questions.
Behavioral-based interview questions ask about what you have done. You’ll need to recall a specific experience or anecdote that actually happened.
In contrast, situational interview questions ask about what you would do. They set up a hypothetical situation (hence the “situational” name) and require you to explain how you’d react and respond.
How can you spot the difference? You’ll hear it in the different prompts:
These questions won’t always start with those exact words. For example, when asking a behavioral question, the interview might kick it off with something like, “Give me an example of…” or “Describe a time when….” For situational questions, they might start with, “How would you…” or “Imagine that…”.
While the specific phrasing might vary, the difference between situational and behavioral interview questions remains the same: Behavioral questions ask you to look at the past while situational questions ask you to look toward the future.
Alright, we’ll admit it: Saying any interview questions are the “most common” is sort of a misnomer. In reality, interview questions run the gamut—there are a lot of nuances here and there’s really no way to know with certainty what questions they’ll ask.
Are you applying for a leadership role? An entry-level role? Are you in the first round of the interview process? The third round? Are you applying as a software developer? Or a human resources manager?
All of those things matter, as the hiring manager or interviewer will use that information to pick out more tailored questions that help them determine how qualified you are for the specific position you’re applying for.
But, generally speaking, there are some questions that a lot of employers like to lean on—especially when it comes to sussing out your soft skills (that is, non-technical skills related to interpersonal communication). Here are a few of the most popular ones.
Again, this isn’t an exhaustive list. But, it’s a good place to start if you feel totally lost about what you might be asked.
Now to the part you really want to know: How on earth are you supposed to answer these questions?
The good news is that there’s a framework you can use to make sure you hit all of the important points, without getting too lost in unnecessary details. It’s called the STAR method.
While it’s frequently talked about in the context of behavioral interview questions, you can use it for situational questions too—you’ll just explain a hypothetical example instead of a real one.
Let’s quickly break down the STAR method. It stands for:
Often, people spend far too much time setting up their anecdotes. However, the most important parts of the acronym are the action and the result, as they place the emphasis on what you did and what you achieved. So, make sure you dedicate enough time and detail to those pieces—you don’t want to bury the lede.
Scratching your head about how to use the STAR framework in an actual interview? Let’s clear it up with a couple of behavioral interview questions and answers:
Example Behavioral Interview Question: “Can you tell me about a time when you failed at something?”
Example Behavioral Interview Question: “Describe a time when you had to work under pressure.”
What about situational interview questions? We have a couple of examples of those to guide you too.
Example Situational Interview Question: “How would you respond if you received negative feedback on something you worked hard on?”
Example Situational Interview Question: “What would you do if you made a mistake and nobody noticed?”
The STAR method will set you on the right path to answer these types of questions in an effective and organized way. But, there are a few other best practices to help you deliver impressive answers—without all of the panic.
One of the biggest struggles that people deal with when answering behavioral interview questions in particular is drawing a blank when it comes to finding an actual anecdote.
When the pressure is on, it’s increasingly difficult to comb through the mental files of your professional history and find fitting examples and experiences.
That’s why it’s so helpful to do some reflection on your career prior to your interview. Sit down with a notebook and a pen and scribble down some of your most notable projects, achievements, interactions, and pieces of feedback. That will naturally highlight some key moments throughout your career journey.
You still might not know exactly what you’ll be asked, but you can repurpose those examples and tweak them to fit specific questions.
For instance, that time that you and a colleague worked through your differences and completed an incredible project together? You could use that story to answer a question about resolving a conflict. Or solving a problem. Or working successfully as part of a team. Or handling a difficult conversation… You get the idea.
Silence feels daunting—especially during an interview—so, we try to avoid it at all costs, jumping right in before we’ve even had a moment to think about what we actually want to say.
As awkward as it can feel, asking for a minute to pause and collect your thoughts is far better than charging ahead and hoping that you find an adequate example amongst all of your rambling. Practice saying this:
“That’s a great question. Do you mind if I take a minute to think about it?”
It gives you some space to actually think through your answer. Plus, the interviewer will likely be impressed that you want to give the question the thorough consideration it deserves.
Despite the fact that your nerves will likely be on hyperdrive when answering these types of questions (seriously, they feel like the essay questions on an exam when you’d much prefer multiple choice), you still need to be mindful of all of the other interview best practices.
One of the big ones? Paying attention to your body language, facial expressions, and other nonverbal cues. Try your best to:
The last thing you want is for your incessant shuffling and shifty eye contact to undermine your confidence when you finally come up with the perfect anecdote.
Most of us know that we’re going to be asked behavioral and situational interview questions—yet, they still manage to catch us off guard and send our hearts skyrocketing straight to our throats.
Rest assured that you can answer these questions in a way that’s cool, confident, and professional. Like any other part of the job search, it just requires a little planning and strategy.
Use this as your guide and you’ll be ready to nail those dreaded interview questions—even if you feel like the only one you’re capable of answering is, “Tell me about a time when you wanted to run out of a job interview.”
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