Graduates ask: what are behavioural interview questions

Be prepared for your graduate job interview by understanding what behavioural interview questions are and knowing the best way to answer.
Jaymes Carr
Jaymes Carr
Team GradAustralia
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Preparing for an interview can feel a bit like going on a date: the stakes are high, you don’t know exactly what to expect, and the more interested you are, the more painful becomes the thought of possible rejection. But relax: there’s much more you can do to prepare for an interview, and we’re here to make it as easy as possible for you to do so. In this article, we’re going to focus on one of the most common types of interview techniques: the behavioural question. Read on to learn what they are, why you should expect a few, and, most importantly, how you can respond in a way that convinces potential employers to look favourably upon your application.

What is a behavioural interview question?

There are three main types of interview questions: technical questions, which focus on the skills and knowledge specific to a given role; situational questions, which seek to uncover how you might respond to a variety of hypothetical scenarios; and behavioural questions, which require you to explain how you’ve handled challenging situations in the past.

Most behavioural questions will begin with some variation of: ‘Tell us about a time when…’ or ‘Have you ever had to…?’ or ‘Can you think of a situation in which you’ve had to…?’. You’ll note that there is some overlap between behavioural and situational questions, so it’s important to make a very clear distinction between them: situational questions deal with possible events in the future, while behavioural questions deal with actual experiences in the past.

Why do interviewers ask behavioural questions?

The assumption underpinning all behavioural interview questions would appear to be that your past actions are a reliable predictor of your future actions. While that’s true, it’s not the full story: imagine, for example, that you’re asked to describe a time when you’ve made a mistake on an important project—interviewers don’t ask because they believe that candidates who have made critical mistakes before will make them again and should, therefore, be disqualified. If that were the case, there would be no candidates left!

Instead, interviewers ask behavioural questions because they offer an indirect way to address other, unspoken concerns. These implicit questions might include:

  • Do you take responsibility in difficult situations?
  • If you’ve made mistakes in the past, what did you learn from them?
  • Do your past actions suggests that you might be a good cultural fit for their organisation?
  • Do you exhibit a degree of self-awareness when discussing past experiences?
  • Are you able to answer the interviewer’s specific question with a relevant example that demonstrates your understanding of the issues at hand?
  • How can you prepare for behavioural questions?

Behavioural questions can seem like a daunting prospect: interviewers could ask you to think back to various kinds of past experiences, from successes to failures, and you’ll need to come up with a relevant example on the spot. Thankfully, there is a technique that will help you to shine when answering behavioural questions. However, before diving into the details of how to craft a winning response, let’s take a closer look at six examples of typical behavioural interview questions:

  • Can you provide an example of a time when you’ve used logic to solve a difficult problem?
  • Can you tell us about a time when you felt defeated because, say, you were struggling to meet an employer’s expectations? How did you manage the situation?
  • Can you describe a past situation in which you’ve had to work alongside a difficult colleague? What did you do?
  • Can you describe a time when you were asked to perform a task that went against your values? What did you do? What was the outcome?
  • Give an example of a time when you’ve worked with a team on a difficult project. How did you manage your priorities and resolve any disagreements?
  • Have you ever had to deal with an unhappy customer? If so, how did you handle the situation?

As you can see, behavioural questions share a few common features: they demand self-reflection (by asking you to describe your own behaviour); they focus on how you react to situations; and they’re open-ended: as specific as the situation described might be, you get to choose the most relevant example from your own past. We can, therefore, deduce the basic structure of an effective response: the best answers will take the form of brief anecdotes that highlight your strengths and skills. The challenge then is to structure your anecdotes in a convincing way.

Using the STAR technique to tackle behavioural questions

At GradAustralia, we frequently ask graduates who were successful at entering competitive graduate programs for advice that might help current students follow in their footsteps. One tip comes up over and over again, ‘Make sure you practice the STAR technique of answering interview questions,’ says one graduate now employed by the Victorian State Government.  ‘Ensure you have a wide variety of experiences and situations ready to discuss, ideally in a STAR format,’ says another graduate, now working in Perth for Woodside.

What is this STAR technique? Essentially, it’s a way of preparing your anecdotes in a way that makes it easy to adapt them to various behavioural questions. It’s also a tool that will allow you to bring up fresh anecdotes as needed and present them in a structured way that makes sense to interviewers.

STAR stands for situation, task, action, and result. These should be the basic components of any anecdote with which you choose to answer a behavioural question. To use the STAR technique:

  • Explain the situation. What were the circumstances in which you found yourself?
  • Identify the task. What were you expected to do? Was there a problem you needed to solve? Why was it important?
  • Describe the actions you took to complete the task before you. Focus on the soft skills you employed—did you rely on your communication skills, initiative, teamwork abilities, or something similar?
  • Share the results. What happened? Did things go as planned or were you surprised by the outcome? Either way, what did you learn from the experience?

Note that the STAR technique is useful for both positive situations (for example, that time you saved the day by meeting the last-minute expectations of an important client) and less enjoyable memories (for example, that time you hit ‘reply all’ by accident and offended a colleague).  

Prepare a few relevant anecdotes using the STAR technique

It’s true that behavioural questions come in many forms, and you may find yourself applying the STAR technique on the fly. However, it’s still possible to get ahead by preparing some choice anecdotes.

Here’s how: first, read over the job description carefully and highlight any skills that are listed among the ‘essential’ or ‘desirable’ criteria. Are you going for an accounting job? Perhaps you’ll see that ‘attention to detail’ is highly regarded by your potential employer. What about a mining engineering role? You may have heard from a friend already employed at your target company that mining engineers often have to work alone for long stretches of time.

You can then prepare two or three anecdotes that describe situations in which you exhibited the same skills that are highly valued by your target employers. These anecdotes may serve you well during the interview with minor adjustments. Even if you do need to draw on an alternative experience, you’ll benefit from having practised the application of the STAR technique.

To conclude, here are some examples of what the STAR technique might look like when used during an interview:

  • Question: Can you describe a time when you had to confront something at work that went against your values. What did you do?
  • Answer: When I was intern at [insert company], I learned that one of my senior colleagues was improperly deleting data that they had a legal obligation to preserve for five years. I knew it wasn’t acceptable conduct, but I felt that I was in a difficult situation as an intern: it didn’t seem like my place to criticise anybody! Ultimately, I decided to raise the issue with my manager, who confirmed that I had done the right thing by telling her and asked me to forward her the evidence I’d stumbled across. From that point on, things were dealt with at a senior level—the company even updated its data storage policies. Ultimately, while I didn’t enjoy being in that position, I’m glad that I acted in accordance with the value I place on integrity and accountability.
  • Question: Have you ever had to deal with a difficult client? If so, how did you handle the situation?
  • Answer: I’m afraid so! Some customers are more difficult to satisfy than others. When I was employed as a junior coder at [insert company], I was asked to complete a project that normally would have taken five days in just two days. Thankfully, the client was willing to listen when I explained the complexity of the task and shared my concern that, given the rush, it might be difficult to meet their expectations with a quality piece of work. They agreed to give me one and a half weeks—I then made sure to complete the task in five days anyway, so it still seemed to them that I’d beaten the deadline. They were very pleased and gave my supervisor a great recommendation.
  • Question: Can you describe a time when you were under a lot of pressure? How did you cope?
  • Answer: When I was completing my penultimate year of law, I was also working part-time at a bookstore and preparing for a summer clerkship. There were times when I felt overwhelmed, but, when that happened, I found it very helpful to create documents in which I clarified my priorities, allowing me to focus only on the most important things, one at a time. I also benefited from talking with my employers and one of my lecturers: they understood my situations and granted me a degree of flexibility that made everything much easier. Eventually, I completed the year with a distinction average and went on to clerk for a district court judge.

Some final tips

Using the STAR technique, you should find it a breeze to respond to most behavioural questions. However, if you do feel stuck, it’s important to emphasise that, while interviewers are interested in the content of your answer, they’re just as keen to learn more about how you approach tricky situations.

So take a deep breath: let them know if you really can’t think of a time when you had to work with somebody you didn’t like. Some people get lucky! Maybe you can instead tell them why you get along with people: is it your communication skills? Your focus on the work itself? Can you use the STAR technique to describe a situation in which you got along surprisingly well with a client or colleague?

Whatever happens, remember that the key to answering a behavioural interview question effectively is to demonstrate a commitment to honesty, self-awareness, and positivity. So relax—you’ve got this!

For more interview tips and insider advice, visit our interview advice page at GradAustralia