Behavioral interview questions are a staple of modern tech interviews.
Despite being much less technical than coding or system design questions, they are just as influential on who gets a job offer at the end of the hiring process.
A behavioral interview question, as the name suggests, is a question focused on your past performances or behaviors in your professional career.
What is the STAR Method?
The STAR method is a structured approach to answering behavioral interview questions. It helps candidates provide clear and concise responses that demonstrate their skills and experience.
The acronym stands for Situation, Task, Action, and Result.
You may also know them as the "tell me about a time..." or the "give me an example of..." interview question. Some companies may also refer to them as situational interview questions.
Companies ask these questions because they can help predict your future job performance.
Even though you did the work, you may have difficulty discussing it efficiently in your interviews. Sound familiar?
Let's discuss how the STAR method can help you structure great interview answers.
The STAR Method
The STAR method is one of the best-known ways to plan an interview answer.
In fact, Amazon recommends that their candidates use this framework when answering behavioral questions about their Leadership Principles.
Even though you shouldn't rely solely on this or other frameworks when going through your interviews, they can be helpful when used correctly.
Situation, Task, Action, and Result are the four parts of the STAR.
Using this framework, you can divide your answer to a job interview question into these four parts. This will help you give a clear, concise answer and tell a compelling story without sacrificing quality.
Sample Answer: As a product manager at Apple, I worked on a new product launch for Apple Maps and their 3D city experiences. One of our key stakeholders, a senior PM, was skeptical about the impact of a change to this product. They expressed concerns about the budget and timeline for the launch.
My task was to address the senior PM's concerns and find a way to move forward with the product launch as planned. Launching these updates was also on the engineering and marketing roadmaps.
I listened carefully to their concerns and asked clarifying questions to fully understand their perspective. I then pulled new data and research we had from more recent quarters to identify the true KPIs we wanted to achieve. From here, I helped to reprioritize our goals. I presented this information clearly and concisely during our weekly 1:1. We discussed the impact of moving forward with this project.
My presentation convinced the senior PM, and they agreed to move forward with the launch as planned. The update to Apple Maps was a success and provided better navigation time estimates. We met and exceeded customer satisfaction targets too. This experience taught me the importance of actively listening to and addressing the concerns of key stakeholders and effectively communicating data-driven solutions.
First and foremost, you'll need to flesh out the situation, the S of the STAR method.
Explain the context behind the situation and why your role in it was crucial. This sets the stage for the rest of your answer.
Provide enough detail to demonstrate why this situation you chose is worth discussing in the first place. Why did you choose it to show off your skills?
Explain the Situation
"When I was a lead TPM, some members of my team and other stakeholders were pushing to update marketing landing pages before Cyber Monday.
One team member, an engineering manager I was working with, wanted to wait.
They were trying to implement new technical infrastructure that would allow marketing team members to make their own updates more quickly in the future.
Pushing these marketing landing pages was important because Cyber Monday was only a few days away, and the company needed to hit revenue targets.
Unfortunately, this back-and-forth between engineering and marketing had cost the team countless hours in the past through similar inefficiencies."
Depending on the situation, the Task portion of STAR may be redundant.
If you feel you already covered the task while describing the situation, feel free to skip this rather than repeat yourself.
Interview frameworks like STAR aim to help you be succinct while still being comprehensive. Repeating yourself defeats that purpose.
The Task portion clarifies what your role in a particular situation was and, specifically, what you needed to do about it.
Explain the Task
"Our goal was to ship marketing landing pages to help marketing hit revenue targets. I was in charge of helping to make that happen.
But over the last few months, last-minute changes to marketing landing pages have cost engineers countless hours.
I had to find a way to help the engineering team spend less time making front-end design changes and back to other engineering work. I needed to bridge the gap between the company's KPIs and frustrations from my team's engineers."
The Action portion of the STAR method is the meat and potatoes of your interview answer.
This is where you explain how you handled the problem or completed the task using concrete examples.
Spotlight and emphasize the specific relevant skills that this situation (and the actions you took) demonstrate.
Also, make sure during this section you talk about your team as well.
Many candidates think they're only supposed to highlight their own particular role, and rightfully so; it is their interview, after all.
Still, giving credit where credit is due and speaking about your teammates' or coworkers' contributions to the solution or to your success demonstrates humility and leadership skills.
As you can imagine, hiring managers love to see tech candidates with such qualities.
Describe the Action You Took
"Initially, given our tight timeline, I tried to get the engineer to agree to the marketing changes and postpone the infrastructure changes. Unfortunately, I was shot down.
During an evening meeting, one of the junior PMs on our team mentioned pre-built landing pages they saw on social media that utilize Ghost's CMS.
These landing pages would have allowed us to launch a temporary landing page for our Cyber Monday sale while only taking about three hours to launch and test.
I proposed this solution to the senior engineer, who agreed this would be a good workaround given our time constraints. Engineering continued work on building better infrastructure for future marketing needs. They were able to launch these updates just a few days after the Cyber Monday sale too.
Although using Ghost as a landing page for a big holiday sale wasn't ideal, and we lost out on some nice-to-have functionality, it still helped us hit our revenue targets.
And with the work engineering did on marketing infrastructure, we could deliver on Q1 revenue goals faster than expected."
Finally, you'll need to explain the results of your actions.
Detail how the initial situation was ultimately resolved and how your actions, in particular, helped make this resolution happen.
Don't forget to mention your teammates or coworkers and the results of their efforts, as well.
This portion of STAR is also the best place for you to talk about the lessons you learned along the way.
What was the Result?
"Despite the usually collaborative nature of our team, tensions felt high going into a holiday weekend.
Our engineering manager wanted to improve our marketing infrastructure to reduce the engineering load down the line.
However, we had revenue targets to hit for the quarter, and a Cyber Monday sale was a good way to accomplish that. Marketing needed engineering help to build new landing pages for the sale in just a few days.
I worked with junior product managers on the team to discover and implement a solution that reduced our time to launch. It freed up engineering's time to still accomplish their goals of building long-term solutions and still drove enough revenue to hit our goals."
Most Common Behavioral Interview Questions
Behavioral questions may come in many different forms in your next interview. They could be about any situation demonstrating something about your character, performance, or professional behavior.
Looking for another example of the STAR interview response technique in action?
In this example, our co-founder, Stephen, answered the following question:
Interview Question: "Give me an example of a calculated risk you took where speed was critical."Watch Google PM answer.
Sample Answer: "When I launched Exponent, I remember working it as a side job with my co-founder. We were working on the side, and we only had a little time or resources to really focus on Exponent.
I knew my co-founder also was going to take a big vacation soon, and we had periods of losing motivation.
So, in my perspective, it was critical that we at least did something to launch before my co-founder went on vacation.
At first, I was still determining what exactly we should do because, realistically, we were not going to launch our interview courses in time for that tight deadline.
So speed is critical, and I wanted to find out something we could do. I tried to think about an MVP, something smaller and easier to launch that would motivate us and validate the project but still provide value to users.
So the first thing that I did with Exponent was actually write up a set of 20 PDF documents for people to help them prepare for their interviews.
I wrote that document, sent an e-mail, and posted on social media, "hey, I wrote up this packet. Does anybody want it for $5?" We had many no's or people not really interested, but we got three to four people to say, "yeah, I'm interested in that."
I didn't know if people would like this PDF; I didn't know if it was good; I hadn't tested it.
So we sent this PDF; a few people loved it and wanted more. We then realized this could be so much more. This is the whole book's worth of content, which was super validating and motivating.
So our entire team is energized around that initial litmus test like, hey, there is something here that we can do. So you see, it seemed kind of crazy at the time. It seemed like a risk. It may not work out. Still, I knew the time was critical, and I wanted to try something.
Ultimately it generated a lot of enthusiasm and incitement that turned into the company it is today. So overall, I'm thrilled that we made that decision. Still, it felt stressful and nerve-wracking to do that at the time.
However, you should not rehearse or read through a prepared answer. Otherwise, your answers won't sound natural or authentic.
This is a framework, not a script.
What you should do, though, is have some example situations in mind going into the interview. Then, when the interviewer asks you a behavioral interview question like few examples in this article, you can tailor them to the specific question.
In other words, the best way to effectively answer interview questions using the STAR method is to prepare a story bank ahead of time.
Create a collection of 5 - 10 stories or situations that you can easily speak about, that you know well, and that demonstrate some of your best strengths as a tech candidate.
Hopefully, depending on the behavioral interview question, you'll have something in the story bank that you can use to answer the question thoughtfully.
Be sure that your story bank enjoys enough diversity. It ultimately won't do you much good if every story in the bank is very similar. This, too, will threaten to make your interview answers sound inauthentic.
Instead, try to find stories from different companies, roles, teams, etc.
No matter what, though, be sure that, when telling your stories, you feel confident, knowledgeable, and professional, as these qualities will inevitably translate into your interview performance.
Also, you'll want to have a couple of stories in your story bank that explicitly showcase some of the skills specific to the role you're applying to. In virtually all cases, the job description or the job listing will directly list particular skills necessary or preferred of the candidates.
Ask yourself some of these questions to test yourself:
What's my best strength?
What's my biggest weakness?
Explain a time I managed conflict.
Explain a time I learned a valuable lesson.
Tell me about a time I had to adapt.
Tell me about a time when I made the wrong decision.
Tell me about a time I failed.
At the end of the day, there's no way to know exactly what questions your interviewer will ask on the big day.
Check-in With Your Interviewer
A common mistake by many candidates during behavioral interviews is failing to check in with their interviewers.
Given the structure of an interview, it's natural for candidates to treat the interaction like a one-sided conversation. After all, they asked you the question, then you provide an answer.
However, this isn't how the most effective behavioral interviews go. Ideally, you should strive for your interview to be a two-way street, less like an interview and more like a conversation between coworkers.
Therefore, if you don't allow the interviewer any space or opportunity to ask questions or chime in during your answer, it's possible to veer off course and not even realize it.
The easiest way to prevent this from happening is periodically checking in with the interviewer while delivering your answer.
While it's true that you should refrain from rehearsing your answers to behavioral interview questions, you should rehearse the process of completing a behavioral interview.
Of course, mock interviews are the most effective ways to do that. Ideally, you complete a mock with an interview coach who can provide expert feedback and simulate, as much as possible, an authentic behavioral interview experience.
Behavioral interviews are some of the most significant aspects of contemporary tech interviews, especially at companies like Amazon, which place a huge emphasis on them regarding their Leadership Principles. They often can make the difference between an offer and a rejection.
So, be sure to check out the many interview resources we have at Exponent to give yourself the best chances of success: