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Success in a behavioral interview relies on preparation. Start by reading the job description and company website carefully. Make a list of the skills, qualifications, or past experiences it calls for, and then try to think of specific situations where you've demonstrated your ability in each area.
Once you've found examples of past behavior that map to the company's needs, it's a good idea to use the STAR method to structure your answers.
You won't be able to anticipate every behavioral question, but with a robust set of anecdotes, you'll be able to answer anything in a job interview.
What is a behavioral interview?
A behavioral interview focuses on a candidate's experience by asking them to provide specific examples of how they've demonstrated certain behaviors, knowledge, skills, and abilities in the past. For example, instead of asking hypothetical questions like, "How would you react if you made a mistake at work?" they would ask situational questions like "Tell me about a time you made a mistake."
Behavioral interviews contrast to traditional interviews that focus on open-ended questions that allow job seekers to share what they think the interviewer wants to hear rather than specific examples from their experience. An example of a traditional interview question would be, "Where do you see yourself in five years?"
Hiring managers and interviewers use behavioral interviews to assess three things:
- How you behaved in a real-world situation
- The measurable value you added to the situation
- How you define a difficult situation at work, as different people can interpret it differently
If you can hit these three points during the interview process, you'll be sure to stand out as the best candidate for the job.
How to use the STAR method to structure answers to behavioral interview questions
The STAR method is an approach to answering behavioral interview questions that creates a story arc that is easy to follow by outlining the situation, task, action, and result. Here's how it works:
- Tell them the situation you were in where you demonstrated the desired skills or strength. What was the problem, need, or concern? Include any obstacles you had to overcome.
- Explain your task, typically by outlining goals or projects.
- Outline the actions you took to address the situation. Keep the focus on your work. Interviewers want to hear what you did, so assume ownership for your accomplishments.
- Describe the results and positive outcomes you achieved. Always quantify the results and relate your skills, action, and results to potential employers' needs.
Now that you know the steps of the STAR method, let's look at an example answer to the question, "What's the most difficult problem you had to solve?":
- Situation: "I was working as an SEO on a website with 1 million organic visitors per month."
- Task: "My task was to increase organic traffic by 50% in 12 months."
- Actions: "We had a large body of content, so I decided to refresh our old content that was no longer performing rather than paying for and producing new content. I looked at the organic traffic of each post for the past 12 months versus the prior period. Anything that had dropped by more than 20% was due for a refresh."
- Results: "My team and I ended up refreshing 50 pieces of content and growing organic traffic by 80%, resulting in 1.8 million monthly organic visitors at the end of the 12 months. It was gratifying, and I learned time management and leadership skills while managing a team of ten freelance writers."
Following the STAR interview method is guaranteed to produce a good answer, but you still need practice. Keep in mind your answer should only take a minute or two, so keep each element succinct.
Common behavioral interview questions and sample answers
Here are several behavioral interview questions interviewers may ask. Invest time preparing sample answers to stand out from other job candidates.
If you need more common behavioral questions, we've compiled a list of 90+ behavioral interview questions.
Tell me about a time when you overcame a conflict at work
Example answer: "At my last role, a colleague and I disagreed about how we should handle technical interviews. I thought we should allow candidates to use their laptops and Google when answering questions. My colleague wanted to continue testing candidates on a whiteboard with no access to the Internet.
After going back and forth, I asked him if we could set aside time to weigh the pros and cons of each option and ask candidates what they would prefer. In the end, we ended up understanding each other better.
We decided to let candidates know what questions we would be asking ahead of the interview because we were testing problem-solving skills rather than memory. While it did result in more candidates passing the technical interview, the candidates appreciated having a heads up, and it helped us attract more people over time. My colleague and I recognized each other for our work, and we're now close friends outside of work."
Why it works: The candidate outlined used the STAR method ideally and outlined the situation, task, action, and result.
Tell me about a mistake that you've made. How did you handle it?
Example answer: "When I first became an engineering manager, I tried to do everything myself, from the day-to-day operations of the team to coding all of the core features.
I quickly learned that this wasn't realistic. I read management books like High Output Management and discovered that the best managers delegate to their team. Since then, I've focused on learning how to manage a remote team by running effective one-on-ones and staff meetings rather than coding."
Why it works: The answer demonstrates how the candidate reevaluated their core responsibilities after moving from individual contributor to manager. It also shows that they were able to self-teach and adjust as necessary. It's a great example of turning a mistake (inability to delegate) into a positive.
Related: How to answer "tell me about a time you made a mistake"
Can you tell me about a challenging situation you overcame at work?
Example answer: "There was a situation where my previous company let my manager go. I was promoted into their position and let a colleague go soon after. I had never let someone go before, and it was challenging.
I told them it was my first doing it. My colleague understood, appreciated the honesty, and recognized it as a layoff and not a termination. I then helped them in their job search by providing a great reference and even sent them a few job opportunities that I thought were great fits. They ended up landing one of the jobs I sent them, and it turned into an excellent experience for both of us."
Why it works: The candidate showed how they turned a challenging situation out of their control into a win-win for both parties.
Tell me about a time when you had to learn something new within a short deadline
Example answer: "When I joined my last company as a content marketer, my task was to grow our organic traffic. The blog had a lot of content, but it wasn't producing results.
I had no experience in SEO. I'm a journalist by background. I was against SEO as I thought it was writing for computers rather than people. With that said, I always complete tasks given to me, so I dove in and learned everything I could about SEO. I taught myself how to use Ahrefs and Dashword and rewrote our posts to match the search intent for each target keyword.
I ended up growing traffic by 40% in a quarter and learned to love SEO once I realized that it was about answering questions that real people asked and not serving Google's computers!"
Why it works: The candidate outlined the situation and task perfectly. Bonus points for highlighting that while they weren't initially excited about the job, they still did it.
Give me a specific example of a time when you sold your supervisor on an idea or concept
Example answer: "In my previous product manager role, I had the idea of dedicating one day of our two-week sprints to design improvements. The engineering team was excellent at implementing new features and bug fixes. Still, we weren't doing an excellent job of keeping the visual design of the platform up-to-date with industry standards.
I showed my manager an article from Mixpanel that outlined how UX improvements improved their core metrics, and he understood the value. I worked with the design team to make improvements in each sprint.
After a quarter of this work, the UX and UI of the platform looked much better, and we heard from 20 customers that it had positively impacted their desire to use the product."
Why it works: The candidate has outlined a specific example of an idea that they sold to their previous manager, how they sold it, and the impact. They get added points because they quantified the result of their work.
Explain a situation in which you would have handled things differently
Example answer: "Early in my career, I had the opportunity to lead the growth function. I felt I was unprepared in terms of my management skills and declined.
I wish I had been open to challenging myself more and learning on the job. To ensure I never felt this way again, I've always made sure to put my hand up for any initiatives that need a lead. I've also invested time developing my managerial skills by reading books like High Output Management and Good to Great."
Why it works: The response is candid, which is always good. However, the interviewee has made sure to emphasize that it happened earlier in their career and that they've grown from it.
Describe a stressful situation and how you handled it
Example answer: "In my previous marketing manager role, I was solely responsible for a 7 figure ad spend on Facebook's ad platform. My role included coming up with creative ideas and working with our in-house creative team to shoot them.
Our Facebook spend was 85% of our overall marketing spend, so I felt pressure to perform for the business. My task was to get the best ROI on the amount paid, and I thought putting all our eggs in one basket was a bad idea long-term.
When TikTok released its ad platform, I saw an opportunity for us to double down on the new platform. So I worked with our founders to get them comfortable allocating 100k per month to learn how the platform worked.
While this resulted in slower growth for two months, we were able to get 50% better CPM and reduce our blended CAC by 20% after those two months of learning. While we weren't able to scale much past the 100k spend, we benefited from learning about the platform and continue to develop both paid and organic content on TikTok to great success."
Why it works: The interviewee outlined a stressful situation, explained how they handled it and emphasized how it resulted in better outcomes for the business.
Give me an example of a time when you created a goal and achieved it
Example answer: "When I first started as a software engineer, I had a lot of technical knowledge but struggled to implement the designs our product designers did. The poorly executed design resulted in many back-and-forths and slowed our time to release.
I thought that I'd pick it up while working in the industry, but after about two years in the field, I realized I needed to invest real time into learning design if I wanted to fix the issue. I decided to learn the basics of product design.
I spoke to some of the designers at my last company and asked them how to learn it. They suggested that I recreate five of my favorite products in Figma screen-by-screen over a few months. I set up a schedule and dedicated an hour a day thanks to this goal.
Once I finished a design, I asked the designers to critique it and see what I missed. Over six months, I completed the five projects and now feel like I have an excellent grasp of the process and miss far fewer details when implementing design at work.
Understanding the design process made our feature release cadence faster. It also made the designers respect the engineering team more. They could see we were putting in the effort to get their designs into production."
Why it works: The candidate outlined a goal at work, outlined how they went about fixing it and shared the results of their actions.
What is your greatest achievement?
Example answer: "My most outstanding professional achievement is the volunteer work I did. When I joined the non-profit, it was struggling and failing to hit its quarterly donation goals.
I volunteered to create a marketing plan, which I designed and implemented without any guidance. Within six months, we were getting 20-25% more than our goal, and my marketing plan brought in an additional $1 million in donations for the non-profit through the second half of last year.
These additional donations meant that the non-profit could continue operating, and more importantly, that the community continued to benefit from its existence."
Why it works: The candidate followed the STAR method perfectly and outlined an awe-inspiring achievement. Even though they based their answer on volunteer work, the hiring manager can easily translate it to on-the-job performance.
Behavioral interview tips
Follow these tips to ace your next behavioral interview:
- Study the job description to determine the hard and soft skills required
- Research the company
- Understand the company culture
- Revisit previous performance reviews
- Make a list of your professional accomplishments
- Use the STAR method to explain your thought process and structure your answer
- Be honest and open
- Keep your answers under two minutes
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