The definitive guide to behavioral interview questions

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Interview Formula

What if I told you most students forget to prepare for one of the most important parts of the interview process: the behavioral interview.

When I was recruiting for internships and full-time jobs as an undergraduate, I remember many students discussing their favorite tips and tricks for case interviews, finance/accounting technicals, coding problems, and other challenging interview formats.

But “technical” interview questions are only half the battle. If you’re a regular 2 by 22 reader, you’ve seen this chart:

How to land an internship/job offer

Interview Formula

For the purposes of this article, we are going to ignore the first bucket entitled “Get the interview.” I wrote an extensive guide on that here. We are also going to ignore the technical (40%) and luck (20%) aspects of killing a first or final round interview. Look out for future articles on those topics. For this article, we are going to look very closely at the behavioral portion of an interview. The part of the interview process that most students overlook -- despite it being worth roughly 40% of your interview.

Why are behavioral interview questions so important?

The answer is surprisingly simple -- these questions signal fit and belongingness to the company. Nobody wants to work with someone who is tedious to be around, even if they are the smartest person in the room. You need both behavioral and technical competency to pass an interview. It’s nearly impossible to get away with one and not the other. While the technical format of an interview can vary dramatically across finance, marketing, strategy, or engineering, the behavioral portion remains largely similar. Because of this, investing in your ability to answer behavioral questions will help you in each and every interview (of course you need to tailor each behavioral response to the company you are interviewing with and its specific culture -- more on this later). It is an investment worth making. I cannot stress this enough.

How to prepare for behavioral interview questions

Unfortunately, you aren’t going to be able to prepare for every question thrown your way… each company or interviewer can ask almost anything they want. That being said, I’ve found that 80% of all my interviewers asked the same 5 categories of questions below (or variations of these 5 categories). I can guarantee you will be asked some -- if not all -- of these questions at some point during an interview process. The 5 Behavioral Interview Questions That Matter

  1. Tell me about yourself
  2. Why this company
  3. Resume deep dives
  4. Personal experience and leadership questions
  5. Questions & answers

Behavioral Interview Question 1: Tell Me About Yourself

This unassuming question is relatively easy to answer, but hard to master. It’s the first question most interviewers will ask you, and therefore your first chance to make a strong impression. When an interviewer asks you...

  • “Tell me about yourself”
  • “Walk me through your resume”
  • “What’s your story”

...or any variation of these questions, they want to know the concise, 2 minute pitch on your professional history. Your job is to deliver a succinct story that explains just enough about who you are and your experiences to draw a strong connection to this job. Nothing more, nothing less.   Here’s a checklist of guidelines for how to craft a strong “tell me about yourself” response

  • Keep your story concise and around 2 minutes
  • After explaining the basics of who you are/where you are from, start your story at the point in your life when you had your first relevant experience or inspiration for this job/industry (can be anything from your childhood to last month)
  • Next, craft the rest of your story around your most relevant experiences (Major in university, classes you took, internships/organizations/nonprofits/sports etc.)
  • Focus on the takeaways of each relevant experience and how that led to the next experience -- do not get bogged down in details or explaining all the context
  • Conclude your story with “...and that’s why I’m here today”, and proceed to give a concise 2 sentence pitch on why you are a strong fit for this job

And that’s the recipe for a strong “tell me about yourself” response -- nailing this formula will put your response in the top 10%!

You’ll notice there’s a lot of emphasis on showcasing relevant experiences. This is because you only have 2 minutes to make your pitch.

Most students make the mistake of explaining their whole life story and getting bogged down in every little detail. Unfortunately the interviewer does not care. They want to know what you’re about and why you’re a good fit for this job.

After you write down the main experiences that you will use as the cornerstone of your response, focus on crafting the narrative to make your story engaging.

Here is the outline of my 2 minute pitch from senior year when I was interviewing for strategy and management consulting positions.

  1. I start my story by mentioning where I grew up (Silicon Valley) and the influence of technology from an early age
  2. Then I talk about choosing to attend UC Berkeley (Cal) because of its renowned business program and diverse student clubs
  3. The clubs/student organizations I was involved with, what my role what, and how that shaped my early interests
  4. My first big summer internship in strategy at Levi’s and what I learned from that experience
  5. My second big summer internship in strategy and M&A (CSBD = corporate strategy & business development) at Disney and what I learned from that experience
  6. Wrapping it all up -- my pitch for why I’m here today

When concluding my story, I like to use the phrase “and that’s why I’m here today…” to transition from my past experiences to my pitch for why you should hire me. Always end your response by making it relevant to the interviewer and company.

Lastly, some students claim to not have relevant experiences. If you’re in this position, take whatever experience you have and try to make it relevant to the job at hand! This is your chance to spin your experiences and showcase that you’re a strong fit for the job.

For example, one big criteria for management consulting firms is “client-readiness.” They want to know if a candidate can positively represent the firm when talking to clients.

A friend of mine was able to use this to her advantage when interviewing for a management consulting role by crafting her story partially around her experience in a retail job. She was able to connect the two very different jobs by touching on the customer/client-facing similarity.  

By investing time into shaping your story, you can control the narrative of your professional experiences and overcome a disjointed resume. This is the one question you know you will get in every interview -- use it to your advantage.

Behavioral Interview Question 2: Why this company

Here’s a made up statistic that is probably true: 80% of people use the same response for the question “why do you want to work for [insert company name]” across the different companies they interview with.

Think about your previous responses to this behavioral question. If I were to interchange the company name with one of their competitors, would your response still make sense?

That’s how you know you are not being specific enough. So what makes for a great response to this question? Here’s my checklist:

Very clear and concise (1-1.5 mins): Strive to be as crisp as possible in all behavioral responses. You and I both think the reason for why you want to work for [insert company name] is fascinating and deserves an hour long conversation. Unfortunately the interviewer does not have the patience. Even if you are interviewing for your dream job/internship -- condense your response to “why this company” as much as possible.

Quick story: I wrote an article last week about how to deal with rejection. In it, I told you about a management consulting offer I really wanted my junior year. Unfortunately, I knew my chances were slim as soon as I walked out of the final round interview -- I just didn’t click with the interviewer.

Here’s part of the reason for why it didn’t go so well: when the interviewer asked me “why do you want to work for [management consulting firm],” I went off on a 4 minute long spiel about all the things I knew about the firm and how it was a fantastic fit for me.

I could tell the interviewer was put off by my monologue and it tainted the rest of the interview. I never made that mistake again.

Brief explanation of why this particular industry, company, and role is the best next step for your career: Secondly, you want to make sure you end your response with a reason for why this position makes sense as the next step for your career. This is very similar to the previous behavioral question “tell me about yourself,” where you end your response with “and that’s why I’m here today…”

The interviewer needs to walk out of this interview thinking “that person is a perfect fit”. Take any opportunity you can to connect the dots for them by explaining why your past experiences lead naturally to this next opportunity.

If you already explained this to your interviewer in a previous behavioral question, just recap what you said with 1 sentence and move on. Don’t waste their time.

Use 2nd level insights and details about the company/position in your response: Avoid using only basic information that everybody else will use in their pitch. Your goal is to stand out (in a subtle and positive way). You can do this by using deeper insights about the company and position as the foundation for why you want to work there.

What are these deeper insights and how do you find them? I wrote a guide on how to understand a company culture here.

In short, use informational interviews and coffee chats with current/previous employees of the company and ask them detailed questions after doing some basic research online. This is one tangible way that networking really helps!  

Quick Story #2: I had an interview during my senior year with a management consulting firm. When asked about “why [this consulting firm],” I had a clear, 1.5 minute pitch for why I thought this particular firm was a better fit for me than any other consulting firm. My pitch was structured around 3 key insights that I uncovered in my research and networking:

Insight 1 -- Strategy focus with a broad range of clients: Everyone interviewing for consulting says they are excited by the idea of building strategies for clients across industries. I wasn’t bring up a novel idea. However, I had 2 prior strategy internships with different large companies. This was an important insight for my story -- I had to explain why I no longer wanted to work in a strategic function in industry. My pitch was along the lines of “strategy is great and I enjoyed my last 2 corporate strategy internships, but after working in industry I realized I want to take a step back and apply strategic thinking to a broader range of clients and industries.”

Insight 2 -- Operational and Private Equity practice areas adds more context to pure strategy: This is where I started to pull insights from my conversations into my response. This particular firm had 2 strong practices (operations and private equity). While this is also information you could easily find on the firm’s website, I leveraged my conversations with former employees to make a strong case for why these practice areas are important for my development. I explained how I realized the importance of operations and strategy execution through my prior internships in pure strategic roles, and gave a specific example from my experience.

On top of this, I paraphrased what one of the consultants from this firm told me (informational chat) about the value of being involved with operations and private equity consulting cases. By using his specific ideas, I showed the interviewer that I have a strong understanding of the firm’s unique value proposition to prospective employees.

Insight 3 -- Strong culture of co-workers and personal development through 1 on 1 feedback sessions, formal mentorship, and tight-knit analyst class: Similar to my first insight, this is not particularly complicated. However, this firm is well-known for its strong corporate culture. I knew everyone interviewing would make the pitch for why they were a great culture fit. To prove that I deeply understood the company culture, I outlined 3 specific aspects of the “analyst experience” at this firm and why I felt they were important to me based off personal experiences.

You don’t have to come up with the most groundbreaking reason for working at a company. However, I’ve found that second-level, specific insights in combination with personal experiences are a winning combo to prove you're truly fit for the company.

Behavioral Internship Interview Question 3: Resume Deep Dives

This is when your interviewer asks detailed questions about bullets or experiences on your resume. Some interviewers (especially for competitive jobs) will drill down into one of your experiences and hammer you with questions.

They are testing to see if you were truthful on your resume and really know what you’re talking about.

This is also why it is a bad idea to make unreasonable claims on your resume such as “Increased revenue by $100 million...”

To prepare, make sure you know every single bullet on your resume inside and out. You should be able to share each experience on your resume without ever looking at it during an interview.

In fact, when I start my interviews I slide a copy of my resume to the interviewer across the table and close my portfolio. If I ever look down, all I see is the black leather cover of the portfolio. Either I know my resume or I don’t.

Once you familiarize yourself with every experience on your resume, this portion of the interview can actually be fun!

It’s one of the few times where you are somewhat in control -- you are the master of your past experiences. This is also a great opportunity to showcase your knowledge by thoroughly explaining an experience on your resume, thoughtfully answering questions, and holding your ground if the interviewer challenges you (or not if they offer a strong alternative perspective).

Behavioral Interview Question 4: Personal Experience and Leadership Questions

The infamous behavioral question: “Tell me about a time when…"

These questions test your leadership and interpersonal people skills by asking you to describe a specific situation in which you were able to overcome a challenge.

Personal experience questions can be the trickiest part of the entire behavioral interview. Nearly all interviews will have some form of these questions. However, some companies take these significantly more seriously than others. As a result, they will push you hard to stress test your leadership and interpersonal skills.

There are many variations of this type of question and it is impossible to prepare for all of them. However, the vast majority of these questions are similar to the 5 variations(1) below (themes are bolded):

  1. Tell me about a time you led a team through a difficult obstacle
  2. Tell me about a time you worked in a team and had to manage a conflict
  3. Tell me about a time you had a disagreement with a colleague or your boss
  4. Tell me about a time you persuaded a group of people and changed their minds
  5. Tell me about a challenge you had to push yourself to overcome  

Again, you’ve likely seen these questions before but never thought much about them. If you want blow away your interviewer with in-depth examples of your leadership and interpersonal skills, you need to prepare.

The general rule of thumb is to reflect on your experiences (sports, clubs, work, etc.) and come up with 3-5 general stories that could answer one or more of the prior questions.

Firstly, you need a handful of stories because some interviewers will ask you multiple personal experience questions (or you may have multiple interviews in one round). Each time I’m asked a personal experience question, I cycle through the 5 stories in my head and choose the one that best fits the question.

You should avoid using the same stories in a given round of interviews. This is because after a round of interviews, your interviewers will discuss your performance and collectively decide if you should move on. By giving your interviewers multiple stories (instead of the same one), you are giving them multiple data points to better understand your personality and potential with the company.

Secondly, you may wonder how one story can answer multiple questions. It’s all about how you frame your response. One of my favorite personal experience stories was about how I increased the number of applications to my student organization by 75% in one semester.

This one story can easily answer any questions related to leading a team, persuading a group of people, and pushing myself to overcome a challenge. All of these were embedded in my experience -- it is just a matter of how I frame my response.

So once you think of 5 stories, you need to practice structuring your response. I highly recommend using a framework to do this.

A framework is used to structure your story into a series of buckets. When you answer the interviewer according to the buckets of a framework, you are likely to paint the full picture of your story in a robust way. The following are popular frameworks used for personal experience questions:

  1. PAR/CAR: Problem/Context, Action, Result
  2. STAR: Situation, Task, Action, Result
  3. PARADE (by Victor Cheng): Problem, Anticipated Consequence, Role, Action, Decision Rational, End Result

You probably noticed that all 3 frameworks follow the general pattern of explaining the situation, your actions, and the end result. If you are new to these types of questions, it may be easiest to start with a simple framework like PAR.

However, I found Victor Cheng’s PARADE framework to be the most helpful in thoroughly explaining a story during my interviews. Here is a link to his PARADE article where you can learn more about his framework.

Once you choose a framework, write out each of your stories into the specified buckets. Here are a few guidelines to follow:

  1. Each story should take less than 3 minutes to tell (regardless of framework). Practice with a timer and record yourself. The first few times I prepared stories they ran between 4-5 minutes. Once you get a sense of how long it takes to explain the story, ruthlessly cut the details to fit the 3 minute rule.
  2. Spend less than 30 seconds explaining the situation/problem. This is by far the biggest mistake students make on these questions. I know it’s tempting to explain all the context of the story, but realize that your interviewer is not actually interested in the story -- rather they are interested in your role in the story. The story is just a medium to showcase your abilities. Strive to provide the minimal amount of context needed to understand your actions and results.
  3. Focus your story on actions and results. You want to blow your interviewer away with your ability to get shit done
  4. Do not be humble -- Use “I” and stay away from “we”. These questions are about understanding your accomplishments and ability to overcome challenge. The interviewer is not interested in what the team did to overcome adversity, they are interested in what you did. I know it’s hard, but stay away from “we”.
  5. Make sure your story ending (result) is worded so that it directly answers the question the interviewer asked. It is easy to get caught up in your story and forget what the original question was. Demonstrate that you are actively listening to your interviewer by ending your answer with some of the same words that the interviewer used in asking their question.

Personal experience questions become more important as you interview for more competitive positions. These frameworks are used to answer personal experience questions for the top (and most exclusive) management consulting firms. Regardless of your interest in management consulting, I strongly recommend preparing to this high standard to blow your interviewers away.

Behavioral Interview Question 5: Q&A

Typically the last 5-10 minutes of the interview is reserved for questions. So when the interviewer asks “Do you have any questions for me?

The number 1 rule is to always say “YES.”

Do not be one of those people who ends the interview and doesn’t have any questions. For many interviewers this is a huge red flag that you are not invested in this interview process, intellectually curious, comfortable taking control of the interview, etc.

I’m not saying you have to ask questions you already know the answers to just to get credit, but at the very least spend a few minutes learning about your interviewer -- they just spent 45 minutes learning about you. This is also the perfect time to ask any clarification questions about the position or company.

Use the Q&A to showcase your ability to have a stimulating conversation (which is especially important when you interview with senior employees). This gets to the million dollar question: how do you have a stimulating conversation with someone?

Here are some guidelines for a conversationally interesting Q&A:

Always try to elicit positive emotions from your questions: Ideally you want to leave the interview with your interviewer in a more positive and upbeat mood than when you started. By asking questions with neutral or positive emotional responses, the interviewer will naturally like you more.

Refrain from questions that could elicit a negative emotional response such as “Do you feel like you missed out on learning data science given that you now work in finance?” Suppose this interviewer studied data science in college. By asking this question you are giving the interviewer a reason to think about decisions he/she may regret.

Ask open ended questions -- stay away from questions with a “yes” or “no” response: It’s difficult to have a conversation when the other person replies “Yes”.. “No”... “Yes”...  Frame your questions so that you can further explore the interviewer’s response with follow up questions.

Follow up to a response with a spontaneous question to demonstrate deep listening:

This is the tricky part of building a stimulating conversation. After asking an open ended question, listen intently to the interviewer’s response and ask a follow up question. For bonus points, paraphrase what they said then ask the follow up question. This is a popular conversational technique to signal to the other person that you are genuinely listening and engaging with what they have to say.

For example: “Oh that’s interesting, it sounds like you got involved with the Aerospace industry quite early in your career -- what draws you to Aerospace? That’s a unique interest!”

Lastly, below are a few questions that I found helpful during my interviews. Not all of these are appropriate for every interview, but it should give you a start as you brainstorm your own questions.

  1. Can you tell me a bit about your career path and how you got here? I saw you worked at [xyz] then went to Business School -- would be great to learn more about that transition?
  2. You mentioned you grew up on the east coast -- how do you like San Francisco? What do you like to do on weekends?
  3. Is there anything you’re passionate about outside of work?
  4. From your perspective, why do clients pick this firm over its competitors?
  5. Where do you see [xyz] industry in 5 years given [abc] trend? What is this company doing to stay in the forefront of [abc] trend?
  6. What is your process to learn new things quickly?
  7. Do you have any favorite books you’ve read in the past year? Anything you’d recommend to someone who’s graduating college soon?
  8. Is there a story behind that? (point to an interesting object in the office)

At the end of the day there are some interviewers who you just can’t click with. It’s okay -- try your best and move on. You don’t need to walk out of every interview feeling like best friends.

A last note -- often times when you make it to the final round you get the opportunity to interview with very impressive and senior employees of the company. In consulting or finance, this would often be a Partner or Managing Director -- people who are so knowledgeable about their domain that clients pay thousands of dollars an hour to learn from them.

Thousands of dollars an hour… and you just got 45 minutes for free. Make the most of it!

Pick their brain, learn from their experiences, be genuinely curious about their career and role at the company, and most importantly -- have fun!

Final Round Interview Questions - On that last point...

Your attitude matters a lot -- be upbeat and positive. Even 20% more than usual will go a long way in leaving a great impression on the interviewer.

I’ve noticed when I have fun during an interview, it’s much easier to engage with the other person and do well. You can get hired because of your personality, fit, and attitude, but will rarely get hired purely because of your technical abilities.

Especially with business-related internships and jobs, technical abilities are often seen as either pass or no pass -- you need it to progress through the rounds. However, what really makes a candidate shine is their behaviorals.

While behavioral interview questions drive 40% of what it takes to pass an interview, most people spend <5% of their time preparing for it. Don’t be most people.

You now have all the tools you need to crush the behavioral interview!

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