Once upon a time, in an ivory tower on a chestnut hill, a fair maiden lost her way. She couldn’t remember why she chose this place. Suddenly, the cry of an eagle was heard from the dome of the tower, and she knew she had to climb to the top . . .
It’s part of my practice as a college career counselor to teach my advisees how to tell an authentic and compelling story. Interviews, personal statements for graduate school, and even cover letters will more accurately and creatively convey your personal brand if a well-crafted story is included.
Introduction to the Behavioral Interview
Behavioral interview questions usually begin with “tell me about a time when . . .” or “describe a situation in which . . .” The interviewer’s goal is to ask you to discuss how you behaved in a past event in order to predict how you will act in a future event in the job or internship at hand.
Here are some examples of behavioral interview questions:
1. Tell me about a time when you had to make a difficult decision.
2. Describe a situation in which you went above and beyond the call of duty to complete a project.
3. Give me an example of a time when you resolved a conflict.
4. Tell me about a time when you successfully pitched an idea to someone.
5. Have you ever made an unpopular decision?
The interviewer wants an answer that is honest, organized and memorable. In fact, the best way to answer a behavioral interview question is with a story. This style of interviewing is popular because it also tests your ability to cope with ambiguity. Career counselors offer the STAR Model to students and alumni who are preparing and practicing for interviews.
The STAR Model: Situation-Task-Action-Result
Situation: Start at the beginning instead of jumping into the middle of the story. Organize your answer by providing context for the situation. Clearly identify the conflict or problem. Where did this happen? In an internship or a class? When? Last summer or last month? Who was involved? Classmates, an internship supervisor, or a professor?
Task: What was your assignment or role in this situation? Focus on your responsibilities. It’s OK to discuss others’ roles, but remember that this story is about you.
Action: How did you act in this situation? What steps did you take to accomplish your goal? How did you prioritize your tasks? What challenges did you encounter?
Result: In the end, what was the final result? Most candidates forget to tell “the rest of the story”. An “A” on a paper? Creation of a new database that will improve workflow? And what if it was not a positive result? Behavioral interview questions are designed to test your coping skills and will often reveal your experience with trial and error, as well as failure. They allow you to demonstrate why you struggled, what you learned from the experience, and what you would do differently in the future.
Fair Answers vs. Great Answers
Having done research about the company and the position, you should arm yourself with five or six personal experiences – academic, work-related or extra-curricular – that you will shape into stories in order to answer behavioral questions.
Question: How have you handled a personality conflict with someone?
I’m a really easy-going person, and so whenever I encounter someone whose personality conflicts with mine, I can usually diffuse any awkwardness or disagreement. I’m not very confrontational, and I think this helps. I realize that I am often put in situations where team members or partners have different personalities, and this brings a lot to the table. So, I embrace it instead of challenging it.
Last semester I was paired up with a sophomore named Lucy for a project in my Entrepreneurial Leadership class. The project required building a business plan for a fictional start-up company, and we had six weeks to work on the project. I knew from the beginning that Lucy and I had different ways of thinking when we disagreed over how to start.
I wanted to dig in and tackle the research, while she wanted to set up a work schedule which included weekly meetings, email check-ins and a biweekly review of our work. We spent almost a week disagreeing about a schedule and where to begin. During this time we both started our own research, and it became clear to me that I couldn’t go any further without discussing things with her.
I proposed a meeting through email. As soon as we sat down, she mentioned that we could have had this meeting a week prior if I hadn’t squelched her plan for weekly meetings and check-ins. I explained to her that, as a senior, I knew I wouldn’t have the time to commit to this schedule. This aggravated her even more. She pulled out her daily planner and showed me how she color-coded her classes, projects, club meetings, work study job, etc. And then it hit me! I’d never seen anyone so organized, almost obsessively so. I have a weekly planner, but I like to go with the flow.
I realized then and there that this wasn’t a disagreement so much as a personality conflict. And with this realization came the appreciation for Lucy’s desire for organization, communication and time management. I proposed that we spend about a half hour coming up with a schedule loosely based on her original plan. During this short meeting I asked the simple question “How do you like to work?”, and we discussed our work styles.
I assumed that Lucy’s proposal was impossible, and I didn’t take the time to realize that this was a personality conflict. When we discussed our work preferences, we were then able to appreciate each others’ styles. In the end, we met biweekly and emailed each other often. Lucy was happy to spend time with a senior, and I came to respect her diligence. We received an A- on our business plan.
Storytelling Makes You Memorable
Throughout an interview, you will be tested on certain competencies. Demonstrating that you have the necessary skills and experience may not be enough. This is where the art of telling a good story is crucial. The difference between the two answers above is dramatic. The second answer is better because it is a story complete with characters, a plot, and a happy ending. It demonstrates what the candidate was thinking as she approached the situation as well as how she acted to resolve the conflict. The story also reveals the candidate’s culpability at first and her desire to get along with her partner as well as successfully complete the project. The interviewer will remember this candidate and consider the personal brand that the candidate is conveying through the story.
Nicole M. Anderson is an Assistant Director/Career Counselor at Tufts University Career Services.