Forming Your Responses

Behavioral Questions

Behavioral interviewing is based on the idea that past behavior and performance is a good predictor of future behavior and performance. The interviewer will typically ask questions that begin with "tell me about a time when you...?" or "describe a..." or "give me an example of when..." Because this is the most common interview format used by employers, you will need to develop a strategic approach. Your goal in responding to behavioral interview questions is to share specific experiences as they relate to the position for which you are applying. Every experience can provide a potential answer to these types of questions.

Prepare for a behavioral interview by identifying the skills, knowledge, and experience required for the position. Analyze your background and identify times when you demonstrated these requirements. One way to approach this task is to create three categories labeled: (1) skills, (2) knowledge, and (3) experience. Then analyze and identify themes within the job posting. The next step is to select examples or instances from your résumé where you have shown evidence of such work within your education, experience, leadership activities, and skills sections.

The STAR Approach

The STAR approach is used to structure and organize responses to behavioral interview questions. This approach will help you succinctly communicate the important parts of your unique situation and avoid rambling or adding unnecessary information. Each letter of STAR represents a part of your dialogue in describing the event.

Situation          Describe the general situation

Task                 Describe the task at hand and your specific role within it

Action             Describe the actions you took

Result               Describe the outcome of your actions

Read the following example to see how the STAR approach comes together:

Question: Please describe a time when you employed problem-solving skills.

Answer: In my internship last summer at the National Relief Fund, I was asked to devise a better system for tracking donations earmarked for hurricane disaster relief (Situation). Because the American Relief Fund is such a large organization, I needed to understand the various ways donations were being tracked (Task). By surveying regional offices I found that only 78% of these offices had database tracking systems that were upgraded to the level of those at the national office. I included this information in a report that recommended an upgrade in these databases for all regional offices (Action). As a result, the CEO made the decision to move forward with upgrading systems by August 2010 (Result).

Preference Questions

Can be used to reveal preferences, rationale for decision making, or to determine your level of motivation.

  • Why are you interested in our organization?
  • Why did you attend Northwestern University?
  • Why did you decide to major in this program?
  • Why did you leave your last job?

Closed-Ended Questions

Most commonly used to confirm or verify information. Although these questions can be answered with a yes or no, it is often better to expand upon your answer and provide an appropriate level of detail.

  • Are you able to use Excel or Access?
  • Have you led a team through a project to completion?
  • Are you interested in being a manager in the future?

Follow-up Questions

Interviewers use follow-up questions to probe for details that prove consistency in your story.
Some employers may employ follow-up questions to your response as a stress test, while others will genuinely be interested in additional details. Regardless of their motivation, consider the purpose of the question and provide a complete response. Avoid saying phrases like "As I had mentioned earlier."  As an example of a follow-up question in response to you mentioning that you recently worked in a team to develop a robot for an engineering competition, the employer might ask:

  • What was your role, and how did you feel about that role?
  • What was the result of your work?
  • What would you do differently if you had the opportunity?

Illegal Interview Questions

As an interviewer, you have rights.  Various state and federal laws make discrimination on certain protected catagories, such as national origin, citizenship, age, marital status, disabilities, arrest and conviction record, military discharge status, race, gender, or pregnancy status, illegal.  Any question that asks a candidate to reveal information about such topics is a violation of the various laws. If employers can state questions so they directly relate to specific occupational qualifications, then the questions may be legitimate ones.