Behavioral Interviews: how to prepare and ace interview questions

Mar 31, 2020 - 20 min read
Amanda Fawcett
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As a software engineer, when you think of interviewing, you probably only conjure up images of solving technical coding problems on a whiteboard. Turns out, there’s a lot more to interviewing than your technical skills alone. Behavioral and cultural interviews are now an essential part of your hireability as a candidate.

Many talented candidates can get overwhelmed by behavioral interviews since they seem far less straightforward than technical questions. But have no fear! Today, we want to walk you through all the need-to-know information about behavioral interviews to dispel the fears and empower you as a candidate.

Here’s what we’ll cover today:


Prepare for your behavioral interview in one place

In this unique course, you’ll be able to use Educative’s video recording widget to record yourself answering questions. By the end, you’ll be able to answer any behavioral question.

Grokking the Behavioral Interview


What are behavioral interviews?

If technical interviews gauge your programming skills, behavioral interviews attempt to discover how you act in employment-related situations or conflicts, both positive and negative. Behavioral interviews help an employer decide if you’re someone they want to work with.

Remember that an interviewer knows more about the company and the position than you, so they are hunting for parts of your character that may reveal themselves as a problem down the line.

An interviewer may be wondering,

  • Is this person calm under pressure?
  • Can I rely on this person in a team?
  • Will this person treat their peers with respect?

Behavioral interviewing differs from company to company depending on their company values and culture. A company that highly praises independent work won’t be as focused on your capacity for teamwork, for example. Companies will prioritize different values and attributes, so keep in mind that there isn’t only one way to prepare and succeed at behavioral interviews. Later, we will discuss how to research company values.

Want to learn more about company culture at big tech companies? Check out codinginterview.com for detailed analyses of behavioral interviews at companies like Amazon, Netflix, Google, Facebook, and more.


Why do behavioral interviews matter?

Acing the technical interview is obviously important, but the behavioral interview is just as critical if you want to stand out as a desirable candidate. Technical skills are replaceable, after all. What really makes you hireable must go beyond those skills to something else. This insight into your behavior and capacity for self-reflection may be the thing that makes or breaks you in the job hunt.

A hiring team wants to bring someone on board who will make their lives easier and who will fit in with the company. Behavioral interviews are a vital determining factor. They are even used for reducing legal risks, implementing policies of equality, and building fulfilling work environments.

It’s a common misconception in the tech world that soft skills are less important than technical skills. The reality is quite the opposite: soft skills are often the determining factor for hiring a candidate. Soft skills will make or break you as a potential hire.

They demonstrate longevity, problem-solving skills, and the ability to work on a team. In fact, soft skills are one of the only ways to stand out to non-developers on the hiring committee, who may not be familiar with the technical skills you bring to the table. Behavioral interviews matter just as much as your coding interviews, so, it’s time to prepare!


How to prepare for behavioral interviews

Many job seekers underestimate the behavioral interviews, and most of them do little to no preparation for them! Some people assume that they will have no problem talking on the fly, but this is rarely a good idea. Remember that interviews are stressful! Stress can produce negative side effects that will make you look unprepared, and your brain won’t be working at full capacity.

Without preparation, you may ramble, miss the mark on your personal stories, or focus on strengths that the company doesn’t favor. Let’s walk through four easy steps guaranteed to make you confident, focused, and prepped for behavioral interviews ahead.

For a list of the top behavioral interview questions, see the resource list at the end of the article.

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Step 1: Familiarize yourself with types of questions


Prior Experience Questions

Prior experience questions gauge your past behavior as predictors of future behavior. Interviewers want to get a pulse on your instincts, tendencies, and influences. You can use stories from previous jobs you’ve held, volunteer work, and even interpersonal relationships. The main focus should be on professional experiences. A prior work experience question will almost always ask you to reflect on your past. You can recognize these questions by listening for cues such as past tense verbs and story-based responses.

Common prior experience questions are:

  • Give me a specific example of a time when you failed at something.
  • Tell me about a time when you experienced blockers at work.
  • Tell me about a difficult problem you had to solve at work.
  • Tell me about a time when you asked for help.

The key is to make sure that everything in your response is relevant to the question posed. All anecdotes and reflections should come back to the crux of the question. Your answers should focus primarily on your actions, accomplishments, and thought processes. Avoid describing decisions made as a team or answers that did not directly require your effort. This means you should use the “I” pronoun as much as you can.

Look at the difference between these two responses.

  • I learned that it’s important to take responsibility for my actions.
  • We learned that it’s important for everyone to take responsibility on the team.

Protip: Curate your answers towards the company’s values and core principles. To learn more on this, check out CodingInterview.com.


Hypotheticals

Hypothetical questions deal with the “what if”. They gauge your ability to apply past experiences to potential challenges as well as your instincts when faced with company-specific issues. An interviewer will listen for your creativity and personal biases. You can recognize these questions by listening for cues like these:

  • “If…”
  • “Imagine…”
  • “You’re asked to…”
  • “Put yourself in the position of…”

The key to answering these questions is to avoid too much detail. Any specifics to your answer should be framed as assumptions. This is also where your company-specific research comes in handy. If you know upfront what an organization values, you can tailor your hypothetical responses to match their needs.

It’s also good to use these questions for thinking aloud, so long as your responses are thoughtful and rational. There is a difference between rambling and actively processing information. Let the interviewer see how your brain works when posed with different challenges.


Values-Based Questions

Values-based questions offer the opportunity to assess if you are a good match for the organization and role. This includes the personal values that you bring to the table. Interviewers don’t just want to hire talented individuals; they also want to build effective teams that fit with their goals. This is where your research on company values and the position comes in handy, which we will discuss later.

Many of these questions might be phrased as hypotheticals, or they may ask you to describe your ideal work environment. Listen for cues such as,

  • Describe your ideal…
  • What would you like to see…
  • How do you implement (insert value) in your practice?
  • What matters to you…

Leadership also plays an important role in values-based questions. Interviewers want to hire potential leaders who fit with their culture and vibe. For example, a hierarchical organization will be less attracted to a candidate who loves democratic decision-making.

Take note that these questions are also an opportunity for you to assess your interest in the role. You are also interviewing the company! As they pose questions about your values, you can reflect on how fulfilled you would be in that culture and role.

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Keep the learning going.

Practice behavioral interviews without scrubbing through videos or scattered articles. Educative’s Grokking the Behavioral Interview is a free text-based course that is easy to skim and features video widgets - making learning quick and efficient.

Grokking the Behavioral Interview



Step 2: Research the company

As I have mentioned, a lot of preparation comes down to doing your homework on the company and job description. This includes the roles of the position, the culture of the company, the brand, and the questions they are likely to ask you. Studying the values of an organization will hone your answers and make you a more invested interviewer. So, where can you do this homework on the company?

  • Company website
  • Social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
  • Company review sites (LinkedIn, Glassdoor, etc.)
  • Lists of services and products
  • Customer reviews
  • News articles
  • Observing the on-site location (if possible)
  • Codinginterview.com
  • And more

As you research, take notes on the brand, vibe, and culture of the services/products associated with the organization. Most of the research you need to do can be done on the organization’s website. Larger companies will usually provide detailed declarations on their values, which you can memorize and implement in your answers authentically. You can also investigate articles with the company’s leaders, social media accounts, or company review websites to see what non-employees are saying about the company.

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When it comes to social media, you might think, “but what can Tweets really teach me?” Turns out, quite a lot! Social media voice and vibe speak for the culture of the company overall.

Once you have a good sense of company values and brand, you can start brainstorming your answers to common questions that strike a balance between being authentic and tailored to their expectations. For example, let’s say a company’s top priority is creating a culture of warmth. Which of the following values do you think you should focus on?

  • Independence and efficiency
  • Professional growth and determination
  • Respectful communication

Respectful communication would likely be an implicit value for that organization. As you are speaking, introducing yourself, and answering questions, you would want to come across respectful and communicative. Take a look at the difference between these two responses:

  • I am very timely, so I work best when I can set daily schedules through my calendar to keep me on track.
  • I value my time and the time of others, so I work well when I can clearly communicate my schedule to meet the needs of the team overall.

Though both of these convey the same information about time management, the second response is oriented towards respecting others and communication.


Step 3: Recognize your weakness, hone your strengths

Once you have a strong sense of the questions ahead of you and the company values, you need to assess your strengths and weaknesses. Which questions will you be ready to answer clearly? Which questions have you done little thinking on? This step requires some self-reflection and self-investigation. Here are some tips for this step:


Take a personality assessment

Personality assessments are not a clear-cut science, but they can offer some interesting insights. A personality test can help you understand your values, fears, communication style, and intuition. On the most basic level, the questions can be very thought-provoking.

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Write it out on paper

One easy way to assess your strengths and weaknesses is to write them out. Consider making a chart. On the left, write out the company values in bullet points. On the right, write out potential speaking points for each value. This will help you determine where you need to focus. If you leave any blank, consider doing some self-reflection to generate potential answers. You can even ask friends, loved ones, or previous employers for guidance on specific values. They may bring an external perspective that sparks new ways of thinking.

Take a look at an example below:

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Step 4: Practice

Once you have done your homework and self-reflection, it’s time to actually practice for the interview. Practicing your interview answers may feel awkward at first, but it will help you structure your answers and build confidence overall. If you have already practiced an interview answer, you’re less likely to ramble or miss the mark when it is actually posed to you in an interview. Here are some tips for practicing your answers in advance:


Use the STAR Method

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The STAR method helps you create structured responses to behavioral interview questions. You can implement this acronym with any answer.

  • Situation. Describe the circumstances of a specific situation relevant to the question.
  • Task. Describe the tasks and responsibilities that were expected of you.
  • Action. Describe what you did to resolve those tasks.
  • Result. Describe the outcome of your actions specifically.

Write out answers

Writing things out activates a different part of the brain than speaking or typing. Writing requires a slower, more intentional form of communication that can offer great insight into your answers. As you practice, try writing out your answers first. Slow down and carefully select words that trigger company values. When you are actually answering aloud, you’re far more likely to remain structured and focused.


Record yourself

When we speak aloud, we cannot necessarily hear what we are actually saying or how we might come across. Recording yourself empowers you to take the position of the interviewer and listen to your responses more directly. You can even just do this on your phone, either with a video or a voice recording. Play it back to yourself, and pay attention to the strengths and weaknesses of your response. You can even play it for a family member or previous employer to get outside advice on the success of your answer.

A great resource for the preparation stage is Educative’s “Grokking Behavioral Interviews” course. Not only does it teach through real-world examples, quizzes, and pro tips from hiring managers, it also offers a unique embedded video widget, where you can record answers and play them back for assessment.

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Practice with another person

Mock interviews are a very helpful tool for you during the practice stage. They force you to bring all your hard work and research together into a real-world environment. You can do this with anyone who is willing to take your responses seriously and offer constructive criticism. There are also online companies who offer mock interviews. Once you go through a mock interview, be sure to ask good questions for improvement, such as:

  • Were there any specific answers that stood out to you? Why?
  • Which questions came across strongest or most prepared?
  • Which questions came across weakest or unprepared?
  • Describe me as a candidate in a few sentences based on this interview.
  • If you could change anything about my interview, what would it be?
  • What “vibe” did you get from me as an interviewee?

To summarize this section:

  1. Familiarize yourself with the types of interview questions
  2. Research the company and job position
  3. Learn more about your strengths and weaknesses
  4. Practice practice practice

Guide to video interviews: things you might forget to prepare

Video and phone interviews are popular right now. Currently, due to the worldwide pandemic, all tech companies are relying on video interviews for behavioral assessment, and industry leaders predict that this trend will continue after the pandemic concludes.

Let’s discuss some of the common questions that arise for video/phone interviews that you might not think to prepare for.


Phone/video etiquette and tricks

Doing a phone or video interview can be tricky at first since we are used to in-person etiquette. Here are some things to remember in your virtual interviews.


1. Have a proper setup

Just because your interview can’t see you over the phone, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put yourself together for a call or video chat.

  • Clothes. Even for a phone interview, getting dressed in nice work clothes can set expectations for yourself. Come prepared with the same clothes you would wear to an in-person interview.

  • Tech. Come prepared with fully charged devices and good internet speed. For a video interview, familiarize yourself with the video platform beforehand. Check that your audio and speaker are working in advance. If you’re using Zoom or Skype, try a test call with a friend to check all the tech.

  • Desk. Sitting at a proper work desk will better prepare you for the interview. Sitting in a proper environment will not only trigger you to be more professional, but it also signals to the interviewer that you are intentional and prepared. You’ll want to be in a quiet, well-lit space.

  • Environment. Be sure to tell anyone you live with about the interview in advance to avoid disruptions. You may even consider putting a sign on your door to deter unwanted visitors. Clear any clutter or overly-personal items from the backdrop.


2. Introduce yourself

With a phone or video interview, you can’t introduce yourself with a handshake or bow. A video interviewer will likely introduce themselves first or even just say “I am ready when you are.” Read the cues for the appropriate time to speak, and introduce yourself with a simple greeting. You may consider saying, “Good morning, thank you for having me today. My name is ____.” A simple introduction is all you need to express gratitude and excitement to continue.


3. Establish a human connection

Since you don’t have the benefit of one-on-one chats, it’s important to establish some form of human connection over the phone/video. This can be done with an appropriate joke at the right time, a comment about your investment in the company, or by making a connection on shared values. If the interviewer provides any information about themselves or their role, you may consider making a connection to them remains professional.

For example, you may ask a question about the interviewer’s role or create a bond over a mutual hobby if it emerges naturally. Don’t hesitate to establish those human connections in a phone or video interview. These are a natural part of human communication and can make you more memorable.


4. Body language and posture

Since you have the ability to control your surroundings, make yourself comfortable, but be sure to sit with good posture. This will help you feel more professional, and your voice will be clearer. Even for a phone interview, sitting properly can trigger your brain and set the expectations to speak professionally.

  • For phone interviews, it’s important not to move around too much. Avoid shuffling your body or pacing as it might cause audio distortions or even suggest nervousness on the receiving end.

  • For video interviews, body posture and body language are very important. The interviewer will notice if you are slouching, bouncing your leg, or fixing your hair frequently. In your video, sit tall and avoid shuffling.

Just as you would in a one-on-one interview, make eye contact with the interviewer. Try to keep your hands above the desk, as it communicates trustworthiness, and feel free to use your hands as you talk. You will come across far more natural and comfortable.


To summarize this section

  • Have a proper, clean desk
  • Check your tech
  • Dress nicely
  • Establish a human connection
  • Sit up properly
  • Use natural body language


Behavioral interview question list: 30 common questions


Prior Experience Questions

  • Describe a time when you did more work than was expected of you to accomplish a project. Were your efforts acknowledged? How did that make you feel?
  • Tell me about a time when you were the leader of a project. What did you do in that position? How did you feel as an owner of the project?
  • Describe a situation where you observed a process or project that needed improvements. Did you speak up? What was the outcome?
  • Tell me about a time when you made a mistake at work. What happened, and what did you do to improve the situation?
  • Tell me about a time when you had to manage multiple projects simultaneously. How did you handle this?
  • Describe a time when you had to adjust to significant changes in a project or leadership. How did you feel? How did you handle that change?
  • Have you encountered any miscommunication with co-workers or managers? How did you deal with that?
  • Give me an example of a time when you disagreed with a co-worker or another programmer. What were your actions in this situation?
  • Describe a team experience that you either enjoyed or found disappointing. What worked well? What did not go well?
  • Give me an example of a time when you had to face a complex project that required creative problem-solving. Walk me through your decision-making process.

Values-Based Questions

  • Describe your ideal working environment. What is important to you in that environment?
  • Do you prefer to work alone or on teams?
  • Describe your ideal teammate. What is important to you in this person?
  • How would you describe your communication style?
  • Can you describe your five-year plan? What is your career aspiration?
  • Please define ‘integrity’. What does that mean to you in a professional environment?
  • What is professionalism to you?
  • What are your priorities in life? How do you rank your responsibilities?
  • What kinds of things do you feel most confident doing?
  • What things frustrate you most at work? How do you cope with frustrations?

Hypothetical Questions

  • Pretend I am your supervisor, and I ask you to do something that you disagreed with. What would you do?
  • What would you do if your teammates were not meeting standard expectations?
  • Within a 5-minute time span, the following people come to you asking for help: a V.P. whom you do not regularly interact with, your manager, and a dev team member. How do you prioritize them?
  • How would you feel if you made a strong recommendation in a meeting, but your team decided against it? How would you proceed?
  • Your team is giving a presentation in two hours and one member just called in sick. What do you do?
  • Imagine you are told to work on a project with a tool you are not familiar with. How do you handle this?
  • Imagine you are working on a project you find disorganized, and the documentation is poor. What steps do you take?
  • Imagine you are hired for this position. Describe the actions you would take on your first day in the office.
  • You realize that you made a mistake in your project, but you are behind deadline. How do you proceed?
  • How would you handle working closely with a manager or co-worker who was very different from you?

More resources and next steps

Acing your behavioral interview comes down to the effort you put into preparation. Luckily, there are many excellent resources out there to aid you in this journey.

The definitive resource for behavioral interviews is Educative’s Grokking the Behavioral Interview, designed specifically for developers. It is a comprehensive guide to behavioral interviews, organized into one, consolidated source.


WRITTEN BYAmanda Fawcett

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