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Behavioral-Based Interviewing: Tips from an Expert

Scott Weighart
Senior Coordinator of Cooperative Education
Northeastern University

For the last 14 years, I have helped thousands of Northeastern University co-op students strategize in preparation for interviews.  One major change over that time has been the increasing emphasis that employers have placed on behavioral-based interviewing (BBI).  When I started here in 1995, none of our employers asked BBI questions.  Within a few years, though, we started seeing some major firms adopt this approach.

All of these years later, many more organizations ask at least some BBI questions in an interview.  Many, though, still don’t ask any such questions.  Regardless, I now require my students to prepare five behavioral-based “stories” to use as part of their work in my co-op preparation class.  I tell them that while it’s important to be ready for a possible BBI question, it’s even more critical to understand that BBI stories can be used in any job interview to great advantage.

Why is this the case?  Let’s say an interviewer starts off with the typical “tell me about yourself” question.  The candidate needs to answer this vague, fuzzy question with a sharp, specific answer in which she highlights her strengths as they relate to that employer’s need for the job at hand.  But what if the next question is another open-ended question—perhaps asking the candidates to identify strengths.  Consider a rather sarcastically positioned answer to that question: “From your job description, I see that you are seeking a quick learner who can multitask and work at a fast pace.  By amazing coincidence, those happen to be my biggest strengths!  Voila, here I am, the perfect job candidate!”

In contrast, a vivid, specific behavioral-based story can highlight that you really have a competency that the employer seeks.  You would have to be a pathological liar to be able to fabricate a detailed story packed with your emotions, thoughts, and actions throughout a specific chain of events.  And if you think through your range of experiences in advance, you can weigh which of your stories is going to show you at your best.  So let’s consider the principles of what makes for a good BBI story.

Choosing Your Best Experiences
It’s important to understand how to develop a small arsenal of stories to use in your interviews.  Here are some key principles to bear in mind as you sift through the possibilities.

1.  Conflict is interesting. Whether you’re reading a Harry Potter book or a Charles Dickens novel, whether you’re watching a Hollywood blockbuster or an intellectual French film, all good stories start with a conflict or problem.  Conflict is interesting, and any good story presents us with some sort of dilemma and intensifies it before we see how the protagonist resolves the conflict.

The same is true with a good BBI story.  The interviewee is the protagonist, so we want to keep the focus on him.  We want to follow him through some sort of crisis that shows an “extreme close-up” on his actions toward resolving it favorably.  And we want to root for the hero of the story, so we need enough details to care about him.  Pondering different conflicts or challenges you’ve experienced and handled effectively is a great place to start.

2.  BBI stories don’t have to come from previous job experiences. If you have great stories that are from directly relevant job experience, that’s ideal.  But don’t lament if you lack related experience.  Pick stories that show you at your best, whether they are from retail jobs, classroom experiences, extracurricular activities, volunteer jobs, high school sports, whatever.

I have seen many terrific stories from students who worked hard to make a sports team or to play a key role on a team.  Outward Bound is a great experience, as is, say, working for Habitat for Humanity.  Succeeding in a tough class can make for a good story, as can just about any menial job.  Inexperienced job candidates are too quick to think that such experiences don’t count, but these stories will give employers an insight into your personality and character.  And while they can change your level of skill and experience, they know that can’t change your personality or character very much.

3.  Pick out a specific day or week or incident to focus on… and watch out for the warning signs that indicate you’re failing to do that. If you find yourself repeatedly using words like always, usually, generally, and sometimes, there’s a good chance that your story is too general.  If you’re asked a BBI question in an interview, and you respond with a general overview of a job or classroom experience, the interviewer often will follow up by saying, “Okay, but can you tell me about a specific time when you [had to handle conflict, overcome adversity in a team, etc.]?”  Often the interviewer will keep pushing until you do…. Or they will give up if you can’t deliver what they want within a reasonable amount of time.

Here are some good questions to ask yourself when attempting to come up with the best possible stories:
–What was my very best day in that job or activity? What was hardest day or week?
–What was my most challenging task?
–What was the biggest crisis I faced?  What “moment of truth” did I face?

4.  Make sure to walk us through the story step by step. After you’ve identified a pretty specific day or week or job task, then walk us through it step by step:
A.  Give us a quick, brief overview of the job or situation.
B.  Pick a specific moment in time when something caused a problem or conflict.
C.  Walk us through the situation step by step: What did you do in response?  What were you thinking as you dealt with it? What were you feeling?  What was the final outcome?

That’s a good rule of thumb if you feel like your stories lack depth or meat.  Remember the ABC rule of BBI stories.  You want your stories to have affective, behavioral, and cognitive details.  So dig deeper into describing your emotions (affective), actions (behavioral), and thoughts (cognitive) to help us understand HOW you got through this situation.  All too often, job candidates focus too much on the actions without getting us inside of their heads by incorporating their thoughts and emotions.  Some interviewers will pull your thoughts and feelings and specific actions out of you, but it’s much easier if you can just lay them out without being asked.

5.    Focus on YOUR role in the situation. There’s an old cliché that “There is no ‘I’ in TEAM.”  Well, the letter “I” appears THREE times in the phrase “behavioral-based interviewing”!  When you’re telling a story about a work or school team, make sure to describe YOUR individual role on the team—not just the team as a collective.  There are many ways to contribute to a team: describe what KIND of team player you are by spelling out roles in a team situation.

You don’t have to be the leader of the team.  Maybe you were the “glue” of the team—someone who was a peacemaker or liaison between two conflicting teammates.  Perhaps you were more of the outstanding individual contributor—the person who tirelessly worked to make the project error-free.  That’s good, right?   So be sure to avoid excessive use of the word “we” in your BBI stories; make sure you use “I” and highlight your role on the team—whatever it was.

6.  Don’t “use up” a job in just one story! Another problem with the more general stories is that you can use up a job in just one story… and you may need more stories later in the interview.  If it’s a job you’ve done well, there should be MANY stories from various days, customers, tasks, projects, and so forth.  Odds are that these stories can be used to highlight many, many transferable skills: ability to work under pressure; organization skills; ability to overcome adversity, and so on.

7.  Pick stories that show you at your best. One common mistake is to write a story as follows: “I was in a team in my Finance class at school, and we were procrastinating and not getting work done.  I finally said, ‘Hey, guys, we have to get this done.’  And then we started working and ended up doing a good job.”

While this is not a TERRIBLE story, it’s pretty mediocre.  Try to think about the experiences in your life that make you really proud when you consider how you overcame adversity, earned praise and recognition, or improbably exceeded expectations.  A few years ago, a Fortune 100 interviewer asked our students this question: “Tell me about a specific time when you failed at something and how you responded to that failure.”  A couple of students talked about getting a D or F on a first paper and then responding by working harder and getting, say, a C+ in the course.  Yawn…. Not impressive!  In contrast, another candidate talked about failing accounting despite going to office hours, getting tutoring, working harder, and so on.  The interviewers were impressed because it was obvious to them how much this failure upset him.  They were even more impressed when he talked about taking his accounting textbook to work every day the following summer so he could study during breaks.  He wrapped up by telling them that he finally retook the class and got a B+.  That was a great story: He showed that he DOES care about his grades, and he also showed the soft skills of persistence, initiative, overcoming adversity.

8.  Go beyond the specific story to describe lessons learned or “takeaways” from the experience. While your story needs to be grounded in a specific moment in time, one nice touch is to go beyond the ending of that story to describe what you learned from the experience.  For example, if you have a great story about how you calmed down an irate customer and sent them away satisfied, it would be even better if you described how you then went on to take steps to prevent such customer dissatisfaction in the future.  If your story showed how you knocked yourself out to meet a deadline, it would be great to describe how you went on to develop a process that would make such last-minute heroics unnecessary in the future.  Then you end up with a sharp, specific story that also shows some reflection and awareness of the big picture.

Great Student Examples of Successful Stories
Here are some great examples of stories from students I have worked with over the last few years.  My hope is that reading these stories will show you a couple of things: First, you can see that it’s possible to come up with great stories despite lacking sophisticated professional experience.  Second, notice how these individuals always get into specifics.  One good sign in these stories is when you don’t see usually and always and instead see “I remember one day when…” or “The toughest customer I ever had came in one Monday…” or other tipoffs that were talking about something that really happened at one “moment of truth.”

When I give a BBI assignment, I ask my students to list at least three transferable skills that each BBI story can demonstrate.  The goal is to understand that any rich, vivid story can be plugged in to prove any number of transferable skills, and it’s important to capitalize on the versatility of these stories.  I will comment on each story below so you can see how these individuals could use these stories to prove many different great qualities or soft skills in a real interview.

1.  With this story, one first-time co-op candidate, Rachel, wanted to show a Big Four accounting firm that she has demonstrated leadership skills.  Here’s what she used:

“Throughout my four years of high school I was the Class President.  Along with this title came many responsibilities such as fund raising and planning our sophomore semi dance, our senior prom, and homecoming dances, along with budgeting the money we raised for graduation caps
and gowns, yearbooks, and much more.

“It was hard to get other people besides class officers to help and dedicate their time for the class.  As our junior and senior year approached, we had many tasks to take care of and we needed as much help as we could get from class officers and other representatives of the class.  Our vice president for the class is a very good friend of mine.  However, he didn’t put more effort towards our projects than regular representatives of the class did.  This left me with much more work to do, and other people in the class angry that he was getting this Vice President title, yet they cared more about doing the work than he did.

“I was confused about what to do.  I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but I had to tell him to step it up, and try to work harder.  During the fall of our senior year, when we were trying to figure out a few fund raisers that we were holding, our homecoming dance, our prom, and graduation, we needed everyone’s hard work and effort to get all of it done.  I was completely stressed out, trying to get college applications out, do my school work, and focus on the class’s activities.  A few weeks before the fall homecoming dance I took Will, our vice president, aside and told him that I didn’t mean to hurt his feelings, but I thought he could put much more effort into helping us and that I needed him to step it up as a class officer.  Luckily, he didn’t take it to heart, and really stepped it up to help out our other class officers, representatives, and myself especially.  I had always felt like I was the only one in charge, where he should’ve dealt with some of the responsibility as well.  I was glad to have solved this problem, which made my life—along with many others—much easier.  The lesson I learned from this is that sometimes you need to confront issues directly and in a solution-oriented manner as opposed to getting emotional or playing the blame game.”

Rachel chooses to give a little more overview to the situation before she gets to the “moment of truth” in which she has to confront a friend about his shortcomings.  Does she show good leadership skills?  Absolutely—much more than she would have by simply mentioning that she was class president and leaving at that.  What other transferable skills could Rachel prove with this story?  One is definitely problem-solving skills, which happens to be another soft skill Deloitte and Touche wants to see!  So that’s a nice double-dip story.  Additionally, this story could be used to show a results orientation, ability to handle conflict, and interpersonal skills.  When you have good stories, you look for opportunities to bring them up in any interview.

2.  Jared’s story below proves a useful point: Many first-time job seekers take their retail experiences for granted.  If you reflect on them, you’re bound to come up with an impressive incident.  Note how he jumps right in the phrase “One time…”—a good hint that we’re about to get a story of one especially challenging or interesting day or incident.

“One time at BJ’s Wholesale club where I worked, it was incredibly busy.  All the lines at the registers were filled almost to the middle of the store.  My supervisors were busy helping customers and the managers were too busy to assist customers.  My supervisor told me to take over some of her responsibilities.  She told me one of the freezers with dairy products was broken and that I needed to find one of the managers to fix the problem.  She told me afterwards to help a customer with a problem she was having.  I went to the produce section but the manager was busy.  He told me to get another manager to handle the situation.  This manager however, was unavailable to fix the freezer.

“I realized that the freezer would not get fixed for possibly hours.  I took matters in to my own hands.  I got three carriages from the parking lot, filled them with all the dairy products from the broken freezer, and brought them into the storage section of a nearby freezer.  After that solution was resolved, I found the very frustrated customer who was trying to buy a computer and was in a rush because she had to pick up her daughter.  The computer she wanted was not on the shelf but she wanted the one on display.  I had dealt with a situation like this before but with a supervisor’s help.  However, due to the chaos within the store I was told to handle the situation on my own.  I wrote down the codes of the computer she wanted, being unable to look it up on the system’s computer because it was being used.  I then went to the storage room and looked for the empty display box with the same code.  I found it, went back down to the display shelf, and packed it along with all its parts in the box.  I then assisted the customer bringing the computer to my register line, since all the others were filled and she was in a rush.  The manager said this was alright to do because she had been waiting for a long time.  After ringing up the customer’s computer, she thanked me and said that I had “saved her from a terrible day.  That was great, but I still recognized that we needed to revamp our system.  After talking to my manager, we decided to keep a ready supply of boxes nearby so we could package any displayed item quickly if necessary.”

Jared picked this story because he wanted to show the ability to handle multiple projects at one time—a qualification for a specific job that he was seeking.  However, that employer also wanted an excellent team player who is highly organized—two other qualities that this story captures.  It also could be used to show an ability to work independently, perseverance, and customer service—to name just a few qualities! That’s the power of a rich story—you show so much about yourself.

3.  This next story is one that Isabelle used to prove that she has outstanding customer-service skills.  Notice how injects plenty of emotion and descriptive detail to make the story really come alive.

“While I was working at The Beechvale Maple Syrup Co., a small family-owned farm and store, I had to deal with a lot of customers over the phone about regarding their orders.  This was mostly due to the fact that 80 percent of Beechvale’s business was mail and during the busy holiday season.  On one of these busy nights in December, the 20th to be exact, I received a phone call from a customer in California.  She was desperate to place a last minute order for a family member also in California.  Now, being located in New York and doing our order shipments through UPS, five days is necessary to guarantee a shipment to California.  Needless to say, the woman wanted the package delivered by Christmas.  I had to tell her truthfully that our last pick-up for that day had already left and if I sent her order out tomorrow (the 21st) I couldn’t guarantee it to arrive there by Christmas.  She sounded completely crushed when I told her this news, then suddenly I thought of a plan!  I asked her politely if I could call her back within the hour as I was going to speak to UPS regarding her situation.  I promptly phoned UPS explaining the situation.  I told them the name of our driver who normally came to pick-up our shipments and they actually gave me his cell phone number after hearing my situation!  Without delay, I called him up and it turned out he was only about ten minutes away finishing his route and was happy to stop back quickly!  I was so excited to be able to tell the customer her order could now guarantee delivery by Christmas!  Better still, I was able to tell my fellow employees how they could handle a similar crisis again in the future.”

This is a good customer service story, but it also shows out of the box thinking, communication skills, and problem-solving skills.  That’s a lot of mileage for a story that could be told within 90 seconds during an interview.

These are just a few great examples; I have heard dozens of them.  One Supply Chain Management employer still marvels at a student’s interview from a few years ago, when he took his job making sandwiches on campus and showed his amazingly logistical approach to doing the job to the best of his ability.  Two months ago, that same employer hired another student who had a few terrific stories from working in a bagel shop.  In the best one, she described how the shop’s soda supplier consistently provided them with too much stock.  She assumed responsibility for ordering the sodas, determining order size by assessing current inventory, previous sales patterns, and—my favorite—the weather forecast.  She was able to order just enough soda for their store each week, eliminating space issues caused by overstock as well as excessive accounts payable charges.  Best of all, she taught her system to the manager before she finished this summer job.

Stories like these are guaranteed to ensure that you will be remembered.  One final note, though: In my experience, nine out of ten interviewees are not very good at spontaneously producing great BBI stories off the top of their head.  So don’t try to wing it: Write out several stories in advance and think about how you might use them to prove various points in a given interview.  You may only use one or two stories in a conventional interview, but even one carefully planned and judiciously placed story can differentiate you for other candidates who are merely “good enough” to do the job.

Scott Weighart is a Senior Coordinator of Cooperative Education at Northeastern University and author of Find Your First Professional Job, Exceeding Expectations: Mastering The Seven Keys To Professional Success, and Learning From Experience: A Resource Book for Co-op/Internship Professionals. To learn more about these books, visit www.mosaiceyepublishing.com.

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