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Breaking Down the Behavioral Interview

Breaking Down the Behavioral Interview

I was back on campus for recruiting this past week (on the other side!), yet I still vividly remember the often-painful recruiting process and wanted to offer a few tips on making an impression and acing interviews. Most companies, even consulting firms, have a pretty hefty behavioral component in addition to the case interview. Stuffy suits, sweaty palms that accompany the dreaded “tell me about yourself,” and the puzzle of how to be cool, intelligent, and normal all at once – sound familiar? This process can be awkward, often impersonal, and had me wanting to crawl under a rock. While I’m certainly no pro, by the time senior year and full-time recruiting rolled around, there were some tidbits we picked up that I’d love to share.

If you’re not familiar, the idea behind the behavioral interview is to use past experiences to predict future behaviors. These include questions like “tell me about a time you worked in a diverse team”;  “describe a time you used analytical reasoning”; and “have you ever faced team conflict, and how did you handle that?”. Here’s a fairly exhaustive list of typical behavioral questions, grouped by category. While it may read like a daunting list, these questions are really open-ended, meaning you can reinterpret them so they fit certain stories you really want to share. Basically, you’ll want to have solid examples for each category but not necessarily each question. For example, you can use the same story to talk about working in a diverse team, group conflict, or leading a team and just slightly tweak the way you tell the story so it fits the exact question asked.

Prep: organize your experiences to fit into question categories

Instead of going through a whole list of questions and thinking of examples for each question in isolation, we found that it was more effective to think through all the “experiences” we’ve had (i.e. each position or job that has a major spot on your resume), and fit as many behavioral questions as we could under each experience. Generally, your experiences will be robust and will easily lend themselves to doing this. For example, I was in a year-long leadership position at Uni and all of the following topics fit under this one experience: leading a team, managing team conflict, taking initiative, failure, influencing people, and balancing several tasks. I literally typed up 16 pages of word vomit, answering each sample behavioral question with different scenarios and the way I wanted to frame my responses. Obviously you never want to memorize canned answers, but personally, I found it easier to approach these questions when I had everything written out. The night before an interview, I’d just quickly skim my word doc to refresh, which made prepping a lot simpler.

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Communicating content: talk about your kickass actions, from your point of view

I remember that before the first interviews I did, I thought I had to have really impressive experiences and huge accomplishments in order to have a successful interview, and that is absolutely not the case. Crushing the behavioral interview all lies in how you convey the experiences that will vouch for your character. A common and helpful format of answering questions is STAR, which stands for situation, task, action, and response. Your answers don’t need to (and shouldn’t) be rigid in this structure, but it is a great general way of organizing your thoughts.

Focus most heavily on your Action and your Results and to keep the background information brief. It’s also easy to fall into the “too humble” trap – if you’re talking about a team experience, it’s natural to lead with a “we did this” point of view, but the interview is about hiring YOU and not your team. Hone in on actions that you specifically took that made the team as a whole successful.

In the room: just be a normal person, not the formal pls-hire-me person (somehow harder said than done)

I think a lot of people don’t realize that the behavioral portion of the interview extends beyond the answers themselves. You are being evaluated from the moment you walk in the door, so give yourself a pep talk, put a smile on, and walk into the room as if you already have the job and it’s the most natural thing in the world. It can be tough, but strive to make the behavioral interview as conversational as it can be. These interviewers are talking to upwards of 10 people in a day, and just being a normal person can and will differentiate you. Sounds silly to even mention, but I’ve definitely walked in to an interview where I let my nerves get the best of me and totally tensed up and let the power distance between interviewer and interviewee turn me into a robot. Leading with a simple, friendly “how’s your day been?”, asking if it’s their first time in your college’s city or when they got into town are all super simple ways of setting the tone for the rest of the time. Amy was actually once asked what she would do if she could wake up tomorrow and do anything. She could’ve been a robot and answered the question in a way that related to the job or company, but instead, she responded by talking about her dream of going back to Thailand and working in an elephant camp. And in case you’re wondering, she got the job 🙂

To nail it: verbalize it (over and over again)

Lastly, practice, practice, practice!!! It’s shocking how many people will only internalize their responses. Creating a word doc or crafting your stories will only be effective if you practice verbalizing your responses. In our apartment, we would set aside time to talk through behavioral responses together, getting feedback from each other and taking that back to our word docs and editing our responses right then and there.

These are just a few tried and true crowd-sourced tips, but I’d love to hear comments about what works for you and other tips you think will be helpful to fellow readers. Good luck and go kick some corporate ass this fall recruiting season – the Cubicholia community is rooting for you!


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