So you’re a college student who has landed your first interview for a college internship or full time job. Now if you’ve given it much thought, you’ve probably asked yourself “Self, What exactly are those recruiters looking for as an ideal answer to their questions?”
The first thing you should have probably asked is “Self, What are they going to ask me in that interview?” For that, please refer to my article Questions recruiters are likely to ask in an interview. After you’ve read through that, read on in this article!
Now that you know recruiters are very likely to ask you behavioral questions, the next thing to do is to figure out what they are looking for in an ideal response. And the wonderful thing is that there is a systematic response you can give to every single question they can throw at you! You just have to know how to formulate it. That’s where I come in.
In my very first interview freshman year (with General Electric), I thought I was providing great answers, had some great experiences to share, etc. I look at it now, and it’s no surprise I didn’t hear back from them. I even wonder how fast it took the recruiter to throw away my resume.
Here’s an example of mine of what not to do… The interviewer asked me “Tell me about a time you demonstrated leadership.” To which I responded fairly plainly “Well…I was Senior Patrol Leader in Boy Scouts for several years, that’s probably my best example of leadership.”
The interviewer was nice and tried to help me through the rest of the interview, but honestly, it was a train-wreck. I hope you can see why. Now I know you won’t ever do anything quite that bad, and I wrote this article to make sure of it.
Recruiters who use behavioral questions are looking for responses in what’s called the STAR format. That breaks down into:
As long as you answer behavioral questions in that format, you cannot go wrong! And the cool part about it is that it flows in a logical order that keeps you on track. By practicing this format, you are guaranteed to answer questions fully and concisely.
So let’s get down to the details of the Situation component. The Situation is basically setting the stage for your response with the relevant background information. This includes where and when you were working (company, how old/what year in school), and maybe a bit of info on the problem you faced.
The Task blends slightly with the Situation, and is just as simple. This is something along the lines of “I was assigned to do x.” Plain and simple, it may be the most straight forward part of your response. Keep in mind that it also sets up the measuring stick for your results, so be sure that it is actually what you were assigned to do!
The Actions portion of your response should be where the meat of your answer is. You need to take this opportunity to say “I performed xyz analysis and used abc tools to do so.” or “I led the group by doing abc.” You also need to consider how technically savvy your interviewer is. If she/he is an engineer, then you can feel free to go into a few (but not too many!) details about what you did. If you get an HR person doing the interview, don’t even try to go into details, it probably won’t help!
The Results should also be very easy, but is without question the most important part of your response. As interviewers and companies are looking for candidates who have been extremely effective in their past jobs and experiences, this is where they look to determine if you are someone they want to hire. Use this opportunity to highlight your results, and their impact on the company: awards, cost savings, sales made, production improvement, etc. Don’t short change yourself on this section, its critical that you highlight every positive impact that you made!
I also must warn you not to exaggerate or lie about your accomplishments! This doesn’t ever help anyone in the process, especially if a company does their homework by calling your provided references to ask about you!
Finally, your response should take approximately 3-5 minutes total. Any longer, and you’ve lost the attention of your interviewer. Any shorter, and you probably haven’t gotten your message across either.
A good interviewer will also probe you with questions like “Tell me more about that” or will guide you along with “So what was the result of that?” All I can say is don’t rely on them to help you along. Ace it the first time through!
Here is an example of one of my responses all put together. See if you can pick out each section. I used this response typically for a question along the lines of “Tell me about a time you faced a difficult technical challenge.”
“While working at NASA, Kennedy Space Center, I was in an organization that was doing preliminary design work for the Launch Pad systems of new rockets we are using to go to the Moon and Mars. We received Flight Vehicle Commodity Loading requirements from Johnson Space Center and Marshall Space Center, and then designed the Launch Pad accordingly.”
“My boss had originally given an assignment to a Contractor and was not happy with their progress. I was assigned to take over the project, lead the contractor, and come up with multiple conceptual solutions for providing a specified amount of liquid helium to the vehicle on the launch pad and cost estimates for each method within 2 weeks.”
“To do this, I learned as much as I could about liquid helium, utilizing in-house resources such as reference books, other people in the department knowledgeable on the subject, etc. I considered multiple options: starting with atmospheric liquid helium, or with pressurized gaseous ambient helium, the use of expansion valves, compressors, heat exchangers, etc. I learned about heat exchanger design, heat exchanger fluids, efficiency/effectiveness, etc. I worked with heat exchanger companies to get details, and had the contractor do detail work here.”
“I also knew very little about cost estimating, so I worked with the contractor (who had experience here) to learn broad strokes and details here. I also worked back and forth with the contractor to ensure that technical details were correct.”
“In the end, I wrote a technical report to summarize all data, assumptions, and everything so that it could be easily reviewed by peers, and easily applied in the future after I had left for school. The concept study and cost estimate were turned in on time to my boss, who was pleased. In the end, we created a detailed 35 page study report, which was sent to people at Marshall Space Flight Center and Johnson Space Center who gave it their thumbs up. The format I used for the report was standardized as “Boilerplate” for the organization reports, and I was awarded a NASA On The Spot Award.”
This response fit neatly into about 3-4 minutes, and covers all of the components of the STAR format. Interviewers loved it (and told me that they did) because it flowed so well and I had demonstrated fantastic results. I encourage you to write out your examples too, as this can make them clearer and simpler. Good Luck!