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How to Answer Behavioral Based Interview Questions

ECS Graduate Advisor, Meg Flood, is lending her extensive interview training experience to today's blog...

Interviewer: "Tell me about a time when you took initiative."

You (sweating, nervous, breaking out in hives): "Umm. Well. You know…..I do that all the time!"

If the above has ever happened to you, you're not alone. Interviewing is a scary thing especially when you don’t feel prepared to talk about a time you persuaded someone to see your way. Or you can’t remember a time when you handled a difficult situation. The key to answer these types of questions (and avoid the sweating, filler words, and hives) is to prepare and know the right formula.

Preparation is the key to answering behavioral based questions. Be sure to begin preparing for your interview in advance (the night before is not in advance). Go through experiences on your resume including projects, past work experience, and activities--and brainstorm examples you can use. Once you have thought of experiences, plug these stories using the STAR formula (this is the standard format an employer will expect from you when answering behavioral based interviewing questions):


  • Situation: Here is where you set the stage for your story. Remember that the person hearing your story will not know any background information about your story so it's important to provide the interviewer with some relevant details.

  • Task: The task is where you describe what you had to do, what problem you had to solve, or what objective you had to complete. It's often very closely tied into your situation and details are still very important.

  • Action: This is a crucial piece of the formula! The action describes to an employer the process you took to address the situation. It’s not a great story about leadership unless you actually describe what you DID as a leader. Be sure to outline 2-3 steps or actions you took for each story.

  • Result: Every great story has a happy ending and your stories ALWAYS need to have a happy ending. Positive results are key (i.e. "The program was successfully implemented" or "I earned an A on the project"). If there is no natural happy ending (when talking about a time you failed or a weakness), then the positive result is what you learned from that experience.


The STAR format acts as a guide to ensure you are telling a complete story. Details are key--avoid generalizations (i.e. "I always..."). Once you arrange all of your examples into the STAR format, it's time to practice. Practice these stories out loud without using notes. See if you can practice with a friend. If you want to, you can record your answers and listen back to them to see if you are telling a complete story (you can do this in your ECS job search account using Big Interview--located in the right-hand column of your "Home" page).

By preparing in advance, brainstorming examples, following the STAR format, and practicing your interviews can go something more like this:

Interviewer: "Tell me about a time when you took initiative."

You (smiling and confident): "Of course. There was this one time last year…."

“When you are not practicing, remember, someone somewhere is practicing, and when you meet him he will win.”
–Ed Macauley


Authored by Meg Flood.