Telling effective stories about your professional achievements and goals is important to succeed in the job interview process.  Many interviewers ask candidates behavioral-type questions as a way to evaluate their competencies such as teamwork, adaptability, creativity, communication and managing projects under pressure.  If you are able to answer these questions directly, while telling a compelling and relevant story, it can make all the difference in the interview.

Behavioral questions center around how you have handled past work situations so the interviewer can gauge how you would act in their job setting or environment.  Sample questions include:

  • Tell us about a situation when you faced conflict on a team—how did you handle that?
  • Describe a time you demonstrated initiative at work; what did you do?
  • Describe a time when you had to interact with a difficult client. What was the situation and how did you manage it?
  • Tell me when you had to solve a challenging problem on a project—how did you go about addressing it?

In answering these and similar types of questions, you should follow the STAR (Situation-Task- Action- Result) or PAR (Problem-Action-Result) format to answer them.  My advice is to prepare for these interview questions by using a STAR or PAR template to fill in each section, ensuring you have all the pieces of your story.  Here are some additional tips on using this structure in interviews:

  • Problem: Provide some context to the problem or situation you were facing—where you were working, what the project entailed or what the challenge was.  The key is to provide enough background to paint the picture for the interviewer and give some “color” to the situation, but not get into the weeds of your role, use jargon or be too detailed.
  • Action: Present what you did to manage the situation; what resources you used, advice you sought; data you examined, etc.  Be specific about your steps and processes and use this part to showcase your skills.
  • Results: Describe the results and use metrics if possible.  Often people are reluctant to describe their results as it seems like boasting, but it’s important for the interviewer to understand what happened as a result of your actions and your achievements.

When considering stories to tell, make sure there is a clear result—one that reflects either positive results or a learning—and one that clearly addresses the question.  It doesn’t always have to be positive but you did need to explain what insights you gained from the experience.

Here’s an example of a PAR-based response to the question: “Tell me about a time that you failed and what you learned from the situation.”

When I started my first job as an account manager at ABC Company, one of our clients asked me to provide her with a deliverable within a week.  I knew at the time that there was no way I could research and write the report, answering all of her questions within just a few days given the sources I would have to consult.  But, rather than tell the client that, I just said “yes.” I worked hard on the report that week, but a lot of the data I needed to examine was complex, and I needed more time to complete a full analysis.  I ended up submitting an incomplete report and frankly, I wasn’t happy with the result.  The client responded within a few days and told me she was disappointed that I hadn’t addressed all her questions; she asked that I rework it. While ultimately the updated report I submitted met my client’s expectations, I definitely learned from that experience:  first, always be direct with clients, second, be sure to set realistic expectations and deadlines upfront, and three, if things go array during the course of a project, make sure to communicate proactively with your client.  Those lessons have stayed with me throughout my career and I continue to adhere to them in all of my client work today.

When I work with MBA students to prepare them for behavioral interviews, their most common mistake is being wordy and providing too many details about the situation or their actions, so that the listener/interviewer loses track or interest.  Another mistake is providing an example that doesn’t actually address the question at hand, which suggests you aren’t a good listener.

Similar to other story-telling, you need to keep a good pace, makes sure your points are clear and relevant, and importantly, close with a strong ending or result in an interview. By using templates or just writing down your stories in PAR or STAR format for a number of potential questions (and reviewing these with friends or family), you will be better prepared for the interview and feel more confident tackling behavioral questions.  And that all should translate into nailing the interview and getting the job offer.


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