The Secret to Behavioral Interview Questions: What’s Your Story?

It is common for recruiters to ask behavioral interview questions during a job interview. These are questions that uncover more about your skills, abilities, and personality by focusing on how you handled various work situations in the past. Employers ask these questions, because the idea is that past behavior may be an indicator of how you are likely to behave in the future.

It is usually easy to recognize behavioral-type questions because they generally call for a story. They may begin with phrases such as, “Tell me about a time when,” “Give me an example of,” or “Describe a situation when…” Your answer should be in the form of a brief narrative or anecdote that illustrates your strengths and skills. To do this, your answer should provide a brief background of the situation or challenge, the specific action taken, and the outcome.

Common behavioral questions include:

  • Tell me about a mistake you’ve made. How did you handle it?
  • Tell me about a time when you had to work with someone who was difficult to get along with or you didn’t like. 
  • Sometimes we’re faced with dishonesty in the workplace. Tell me about a time you encountered dishonesty and how you handled it. 
  • Give me an example of a difficult problem and how you solved it.
  • What motivates you?
  • Did you ever not meet your goals? Why?
  • Are you a team player?

While the last couple of questions on this list are not as easily identifiable as behavioral questions, they are still best answered with a short story or anecdote.

The best way to be successful with behavioral interview questions is to prepare and have some stories ready. Read through common behavioral interview questions ahead of time so you know what might be asked. Then, carefully think through your experiences – consider your greatest successes, your biggest challenges, unique situations, special projects, and the like. Select four or five instances that could be adapted to answer a range of behavior questions. Think them through in full detail, focusing specifically on the situation or challenge and the actions you took. By having a variety of adaptable stories fresh in your mind, you will be able to answer with confidence and ease, avoiding any awkward pauses.

Although some behavioral questions may require you to recount a problem or failure, do your best to remain positive by explaining how you effectively addressed the situation. In telling your stories, do not dwell on your shortcomings, or badmouth former employers or coworkers. Instead, share any necessary information, then shift focus to how you resolved it, what you contributed, or lessons you learned.  

Interviewing is a skill, and like any other skill you can increase your performance with practice and preparation. For more information on interviewing, watch a recording of my most recent webinar “15 Things Never to Do or Say at an Interview.”

For additional guidance throughout your career journey, UMUC’s Career Services is here to support you. Visit CareerQuest to access our tools, advice, and job board, or to connect with a career advisor.

Ann Martin is a career services advisor at University of Maryland University College where she has worked for more than five years. She holds a master’s in mental health counseling from Bowie State University. As a mid-life career changer, she feels uniquely qualified to assist adult students in transforming their lives and finding their place in the workforce.