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K-State Today

March 28, 2012

The hot seat: Career expert says questions about behavior can be toughest to answer in job interviews

Submitted by Communications and Marketing

Many soon-to-be college graduates are in the thick of the job hunt and a Kansas State University career expert has advice for them and other job seekers: When interviewing for a job, beware of behavioral interview questions.

"Behavioral-style interview questions are very common and can be quite challenging if you aren't anticipating them or haven't prepared in advance, because the employer is asking you to give specific examples," said Mary Ellen Barkley, assistant director of the university's career and employment services.

Barkley says behavioral-style questions typically begin with phrases such as, "tell me about a time when," "give me an example of" or "describe a situation when."

In preparation of these kinds of questions, applicants should consider the skills the employer is seeking for the specific position and think of specific stories that demonstrate that he or she has those skills. Barkley recommends using the STAR model as a strategy in answering these questions.

"Once you've come up with the example, it's best to describe it fully, including these aspects: Tell what happened, what action you took and describe how it turned out," Barkley said. "This is called the STAR model: Situation/Task, Action and Result.

"The other key to success when preparing for behavioral interviews is to think of examples where things turned out well, but also think of examples where you may have faced a challenge and overcame it. This is a common theme for behavioral-style questions. For example, 'Tell me about a time when you had to work with a challenging team member and how did you handle that?'"

Outside of this behavioral style, three tough questions applicants should anticipate include: What's your greatest weakness, why should we hire you and tell me about yourself.

"The 'tell me about yourself' question is a very common opening interview question," Barkley said. "This isn't a time to tell your life history since birth, but some people choose to include information about where they grew up, such as saying 'I grew up in a small town' or 'I'm from Kansas City,' if relevant.

"Beyond that, candidates should be able to briefly summarize the following in about 30 seconds: their major, year in school and relevant skills and experience," she said. "Don't go into too much detail here -- save that for the rest of the interview."

When discussing weaknesses, employers are not looking to hear the applicant's darkest secret. Rather, they want to hear how the person's limitations have affected them and how he or she has made improvements in this area.

Additionally, Barkley said most people aren't comfortable talking about their strengths, so providing the employer with reasons to be hired can be a challenging task. She suggests applicants practice talking about their strong points to ensure comfort when discussing them in an interview situation.

Anticipating every interview question that may be asked is impossible, Barkley said, which means it's OK to allow some time to pass before instinctively responding to a question.

"If you get a tough question, give yourself time to answer," she said. "When you are the one being interviewed it can seem like minutes have gone by since the question was asked, when in reality it was only a few seconds. Take time to form your thoughts."

It is also important for candidates to have a few questions of their own at the conclusion of an interview because it communicates interest in the position. Barkley suggests asking the following questions: When will you be making a decision about this position? What is a typical day like for this position? What makes someone successful in this role?

Any additional questions that a candidate genuinely wants answered could also be asked during this portion of the interview. This is a good time to demonstrate that the applicant has researched the organization and allows him or her the opportunity to ask a genuine question based on that information, Barkley said.

Kansas State University graduates have had success in the job market. The latest postgraduation statistics from career and employment services, for the 2010-2011 school year, show 92 percent of graduates responding to a survey reported they were employed or were furthering their education within six months of their graduation from the university.

Interview resources can be found in the career and employment services' Resume/Interview Guide or at http://www.k-state.edu/ces/students/prepareforinterviews.htm.