How to Answer Behavioral Interview Questions

Give me an example of a time you faced a conflict while working on a team. How did you handle it?

Tell me about a time you made a mistake and learned from it.

Behavioral questions crop up in most interviews. Interviewers ask this kind of question on the theory that your past behavior is the best predictor of your future behavior. How you’ve dealt with challenges in the past should provide a good indication of you’ll deal with difficulties in your new job. Follow these tips for great answers to behavioral questions.

1. Tell one specific story. A common mistake when people first try their hand at this type of question is to speak in very general terms. When I ask behavioral questions in mock interviews, students often jump among a bunch of different examples, not pausing long enough to fully explain any of them. Remember, the question asks for a specific example. Focus in on just one story.

2. Spot behavioral questions. Listen out for behavioral questions during your interview. This subset of questions requires a specific strategy, so the first step is to recognize them. Behavioral questions usually begin with a phrase like, “Tell me about a time when…” or “Give me an example…” Any question that asks you to discuss how you’ve handled a particular scenario in the past is a behavioral question.

3. Use the STAR method. The STAR method is a simple formula for answering behavioral questions. It works like this:

Situation: What was going on?
Task: What had to be done?
Action: What steps did you take?
Result: What was the outcome?

An effective answer hits each of these points. This format also helps to keep your answer organized and focused on your role.

4. Write out stories in advance. The STAR method helps keep your answer organized and focused, but it won’t help much if you don’t have a story to tell! Take the time to write out a few stories from your professional, educational and volunteer experiences before the interview. All you need are short answers—no more than a couple sentences—for each piece of the STAR method. By preparing these in advance, you’ll be able to choose a great example and explain it clearly in the interview.

5. Relate the example back to the position. In an interview, everything should relate back to the position you’re seeking. After you tell a great story from your work experience, turn back to the current position. How did this experience prepare you to succeed now?

6. Be ready to talk about success, teamwork, and things going wrong. You never know exactly what questions you’ll get in an interview. But behavioral questions tend to address certain areas, and by preparing a few types of stories, you’ll be ready with an example for any question they throw at you. Make sure you have at least one example of a time you were successful in your work, a time you worked well as a member of a team, and a time when you overcame challenges or setbacks. It’s also a good idea to prepare stories related to conflict resolution, problem solving, time management, and working under pressure. You may also want to consider any issues or values that are very important in your field and prepare examples related to those topics. Depending on your field, you might get behavioral questions related to ethics, diversity, customer service, technical skill, creativity, or other issues.

If this sounds like a lot, don’t worry—most examples can work for more than one kind of question. A story about conflict resolution might also be a story about teamwork, and a story about time management might also be a story about working under pressure as well as a good example of a time you were successful in your work.

7. Present yourself in a positive light. It’s up to you to choose examples that show you’re a great candidate for the job. Don’t miss this opportunity to make yourself look good! We’ve all had moments of excellence and moments of not-so-excellence in our professional and academic careers. This is not the time to talk about when you completely forgot to study for your midterm or got in a huge argument with a coworker. Talk about times that you were successful. When answering questions that ask you to talk about difficulties—a time you made a mistake or faced a serious setback, say—don’t shy away from the negatives, but be sure emphasize how you overcame challenges and end on a positive note.


Here are a couple of examples of answers to common behavioral questions, using the STAR method.

Give me an example of a time you faced a conflict while working on a team. How did you handle it?

Situation: When I was a research assistant, I worked closely with the research team, especially the other students. Midway through the semester, a conflict came up among my fellow graduate students about how we were dividing responsibilities. One of my teammates felt he was doing more than his share of the work, and another teammate was frustrated with him because she felt we had divided the work evenly.

Task: We needed to come to agreement so we could work together and keep our project on schedule.

Action: I decided to address the situation directly by asking my teammates if they would be willing to meet to discuss the situation. In our meeting, I asked each teammate to tell their side of the story.

Result: It turned out that my teammate who felt he was doing too much actually wasn’t unhappy with the amount of work, but rather with the type of work we had assigned him. I volunteered to trade some responsibilities with him so that his tasks would have more variety. We were able to work well together for the rest of the term and completed our project on time.

Tell me about a time you made a mistake and learned from it.

Situation: During in internship ABC Company, one of my responsibilities was giving presentations. After working with another intern on a presentation for two weeks, the big day came. I arrived at the venue that morning, and my coworker asked if I had brought the hard drive with our slides and documents on it. I thought she was going to bring the files. My copy was sitting on my desk at home!

Task: The presentation was supposed to start in 20 minutes, and we needed that hard drive.

Action: I rushed home and got the hard drive.

Result: I got back just in time and the presentation went on as planned. I learned the importance of clear communication and never making the assumption that I if don’t do something, someone else will take care of it. Now, I know that I am the bottom line when it comes to my work.

Need help developing your own success stories? Come visit us at Career Services!

Shalom Leo Bond
Career Development Facilitator
UNM Career Services