Your response to behavioral questions can make or break your next job interview. These are questions interviewers ask to reveal how candidates act in specific situations. They usually aren’t even questions but rather prompts that begin with “Tell me about a time when…” or “Give me an example of when you…”
“They are not focused on a candidate’s intentions or philosophical approach but on their actions,” wrote psychologist Ron Friedman in his book “The Best Place to Work.” “Past behavior is a strong predictor of future behavior, which is why learning how a candidate handled a particular situation can be useful.”
Another reason why employers love behavioral questions is because they steer the conversation away from subjective, identity-based descriptions, like “I’m motivated and organized,” toward evidence of a candidate’s performance. Remember, identity follows behavior, not the other way around. This goes for personal habits and professional competences.
And while presenting metrics and other measurable outcomes can provide you credibility, stories and anecdotal evidence that are shared in your responses to behavioral questions will have a greater influence on the interviewer.
The tough part is predicting what they will ask and having enough relevant stories to share. You can make assumptions from the job description about what a search committee might ask. You should also be prepared to talk at length about anything that appears on your resume or CV, because you never know what an interviewer might find interesting.
Steve Dalton, author of “The Job Closer,” recommends having about a dozen, two-minute stories to tell that can be used in response to behavioral questions. Twelve might not seem like enough, but you’re not a mnemonist chessmaster trying to memorize the perfect sequence of moves for a given situation. Also, your best stories are not simply pawns.
“First, each story has the potential to answer many different possible questions,” Dalton wrote, “and second, there are only so many positive qualities, skills, and traits employers can ask you about.”
According to Dalton, interviewers have come to expect that behavioral questions are answered using the popular CAR method, which describes a Challenge that you faced, the Actions you (not your team) took, and the Results that you and your team achieved.
Practice fitting these responses into two-minute responses by removing superfluous details, limiting jargon, and letting the interviewer, if they know anything about academia, fill in the gaps, especially when describing the Challenge. As you rehearse your stories, use what Dalton calls “guidepost phrases,” which are ways to reduce complex ideas into just a few words to help you know that you are headed in the right direction in the middle of your response. An example would be something like “helping our students get ahead and stay ahead” when addressing a challenge related to retention or persistence.
As you prepare for your interview, write down a CAR matrix on an index card for possible behavioral questions with your Challenge, Action, and Results in three columns or rows. You won’t bring these cards to the interview, unless you are doing a virtual interview. Then, by all means, keep them by your computer (and use a purple card from this cue card method mentioned in a previous HigherEdJobs article). But you can jot a few words on one card or your resume to cue your response during your interview: something like “CAR – leadership – accreditation committee” or “CAR – conflict – English 101 student.”
Here are 12 behavioral questions to anticipate (or some variant):
- Tell me about a time when you experienced conflict with a student or coworker and how you handled it.
- When were you most satisfied/dissatisfied with your work and why?
- Tell me about a time when you led a group. Describe what you did and how that reflects your leadership style (Friedman’s book).
- Describe a time when you turned a stranger into an advocate to complete a project (Dalton’s book).
- Have you ever taught a class outside of your specialty or done anything outside your comfort zone?
- Tell me about a time when you made a mistake and regret how you handled a situation.
- How do you motivate students who are disengaged with your class or campus life?
- You seem to have accomplished a lot based on the 100-page dossier you submitted. Give me an example of a time when you felt conflicted between your obligations of teaching, scholarship, and service.
- You’ve worked at many different institutions. How do you adapt to a job on a new campus?
- Tell me about your work on the curriculum committee. How did you make sure everything was running smoothly?
- Describe a time when you had to change… your teaching style, research methods, approach to your work, etc.
- What is one of your goals you’ve reached, and how did you achieve it?
According to Dalton, you should not try to improvise a CAR story if you’re asked an unexpected question during an interview. Your timing will be off or you’ll get lost in the details. Instead of “passing” on the question, ask for a moment to think for 5-10 seconds and choose the CAR story that you rehearsed that closest answers the question.
Also, make sure your stories about negative situations (when you were dissatisfied or made a mistake) have a corrective outcome. If not, turn it into a positive situational response, such as “Based on what I learned, I will do (insert action) in the future.”
Finally, remember to keep the institution’s interests in mind. You’re not being interviewed by behavioral scientists or biographers. The interviewers want to know if you’re the best person to hire. Your stories should lead them to think that you will make money for their department, increase enrollment, improve student outcomes, solve problems, or just be a good citizen.
Behavioral questions are useful to interviewers, but even more useful are the opportunities they present for candidates to tell stories that will lead to them being hired. That is, if they come prepared.