How to Approach Behavioral Interview Questions With Limited Work Experience

John Krautzel
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Intimidating interviews can crush any excitement you have about entering the workforce, especially when the questions focus on how you leveraged your skills in past jobs. Try not to view limited work experience as a major disadvantage. Unlike traditional interviews, behavioral models give you more opportunities to showcase the practical soft skills you gained from real-world scenarios. Learn to use storytelling to promote your skills, so you can compete with candidates who have stronger qualifications on paper.

What Are Behavioral Interviews?

In traditional interviews, hiring managers generally ask opinion-based questions. They may ask about your career goals and weaknesses or the steps you take to solve a problem. You can easily respond with biased or hypothetical answers that present you in a positive light without confirming your ability to perform well on the job.

Behavioral interviews challenge you to provide in-depth examples of how you approached a problem or task and made smart choices to achieve beneficial results. Behavioral "questions" are often statements that invite you to share a story. The following are examples.

1. Describe a time when you had difficulty convincing a group to work together.

2. Tell me about a time when you dealt with a change of deadline on short notice.

3. Give an example of how your leadership and judgement had a positive impact.

Hiring managers use these questions to evaluate your communication skills, decision-making process and ability to navigate complex relationships in a workplace. Employers view behavioral questions as more accurate indicators of future performance, as they require you to demonstrate a pattern of constructive behavior.

Standing Out With a Short Work History

As a recent graduate or novice professional, you can use alternative experiences to convince employers that you have potential and are prepared to take responsibility. Instead of trying to inflate your qualifications, shape your professional story around the ideal candidate each company desires.

Make a list of the most important soft skills in the job posting, and research the values and culture of the company. For example, in the Job Outlook 2016 report, 80.1 percent of the surveyed employers identified leadership as the top skill they look for in new grads. Roughly 70.2 percent of employers prioritize written communication skills and problem-solving skills, 65.8 are most attracted to initiative, and 62.7 percent highly value analytical/quantitative skills.

Think about your accomplishments in school, teams and clubs, part-time jobs, internships, and volunteering activities. Study common behavioral questions, and make a list of five to 10 scenarios in which you demonstrated qualities that fit the company's ideal candidate. For example, if you organized a technology fundraiser in high school and won new computers by writing grant letters, use that experience to demonstrate your initiative, leadership and written communication skills.

Preparing for Behavioral Interviews

Your ability to convey your value to hiring managers is just as important as your skills. In fact, 68.9 percent of the surveyed employers view verbal communication skills as the most important attribute for new grads. Create a structured example by identifying the problem, action and outcome. Make sure the outcome explains how your actions improved the situation, and include statistical data whenever possible. Write out each story, and practice speaking it aloud so that you feel comfortable presenting the information in an interview. Consider this example.

Question: Describe a time when you made an unpopular decision, and explain how you resolved it.

Problem: As president of my school's newspaper, I chose a new student to be a feature columnist, and several members believed the appointment was unfair.

Action: The classmates who complained were frequently late with their current workloads, while the new student was an enthusiastic contributor who presented fresh story ideas and often stayed late to help the editors finish up. I wanted my classmates to feel valued, and I wanted everyone to have an equal opportunity. I organized a special Saturday competition. The students did research in advance and had two hours to submit a short feature story.

Outcome: The faculty adviser handed out anonymous copies of the submissions. The club voted, and the new student had the winning story. The other students felt the competition was fair and were motivated to improve their participation in the future.

Treat behavioral interviews as opportunities to overcome weaknesses in your employment history. Avoid sounding wooden and rehearsed, but speak confidently about yourself and your ability to adapt your skills to a new work environment. Don't rush through your stories. Emphasize your decision-making process to show employers that you have the maturity and emotional intelligence to tackle any challenge.

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  • Maxine J.
    Maxine J.


  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    Thanks @Erica! It's so great to hear a real live story to know that this type of interview really does work.

  • Erica  T.
    Erica T.

    A few years ago, I hired a recent college grad to write copy for one of my websites. I didn't hire him because of his stellar resume or his academic background. I had interviewed four other people - two had Internet writing experience, the other two had experience working with non-profit organizations. I choose him because of the stories he told about his volunteer experiences - not just the stories themselves, but the relaxed way in which he told them. I wanted to hire someone who was passionate about the topic - I could teach him to become a better writer. I made the right decision - the non-profit organizations I work with really liked him and he took direction well. He became a storyteller for these organizations, which is what I wanted, and what I wouldn't have gotten if I hadn't asked some behavioral interview questions.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    Thanks for the comments. @Tara certainly being genuine is at the top of the list. I would think that it could backfire, too, because - you are nervous and when nervous we tend to talk more. So you take a risk of prattling on and never really saying much of what you wanted to say. @Jay for some folks having a prepared story takes some of the stress off but for most of us, it could add more stress because now you have to remember all of the important parts of the story as well as all of the other information that you crammed into your brain prior to the interview. Story telling is not for everyone.

  • Tara Avery
    Tara Avery

    Although I think the idea of storytelling is a compelling one, at what point does it become too much? Especially in cases where hiring managers are performing many interviews, can a prepared "story" appear too rehearsed? I would think that, above all, a sense of the genuine is key to really engaging with the interviewer.

  • Jay Bowyer
    Jay Bowyer

    I love the advice about storytelling in this article. Even if you're really green and incredibly new to the workforce, you've probably grown up hearing stories. Now, it's time to tell your own story. When we think of behavioral interviews as storytelling opportunities, they somehow seem more exciting than intimidating!

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    Thanks for the comments. Storytelling is not for everyone and certainly not applicable for every interview. But, if you are going to use storytelling - tell it like it is - the truth. You are not writing a short story here but telling a prospective employer about yourself and what you bring to the table. Only you know, based upon the position and the way you are during an interview, what the best approach is for you. There is not a one size fits all way of approaching an interview other than being true and being yourself.

  • Katharine M.
    Katharine M.

    I agree with Kellen that telling the truth in these situations is important, as tempting/easy as it may seem to embellish. Another reason you should tell the truth is that exaggerations/embellishments are harder to keep track of, and you don't want to lose credibility. While the questions may be designed to look for soft skills, they can also be an opportunity to show that you understand what the job requires of you.

  • Kellen P.
    Kellen P.

    I don't think "storytelling" is always the best approach in a behavioral interview. I have seen interviews get a little out of hand when the "storyteller" is clearly embellishing the truth, but there's no way for the employer to know for sure. I think both parties need to make sure they are making honesty a priority. This means the interviewer keeping the interviewee "in check" with targeted questions that are hard to lie about. For the interviewee, they simply have to remember to tell the truth at all times. As corny as that sounds, it's what is best for everyone at the end of the day. You don't want to include any details that you might get "called out" about down the line.

  • Andrew  S.
    Andrew S.

    Like Shannon has mentioned below, the idea of using storytelling as a way to showcase your skills is a good one. However, here's what I'm concerned about: How do you anticipate the kind of questions that will be asked? Maybe you should analyze the job description and identify the soft skills required? For example, if the job description requires "leadership skills," you can be certain that you'll be asked to describe a situation where you were able to take the lead. So, besides the job description, where do you look for clues as to what you might be asked, so you can prepare your stories accordingly?

  • Lydia K.
    Lydia K.

    @William, if your project(s) had tangible output, for example if you were part of a team that published or built something, then include that in your portfolio. Build your questions to behavioral questions around those projects. This approach worked for me when I was a new grad with very limited “real world” experience and I got positive responses on most interviews. I think the focus is not about proving the truth – your references and background check will take care of that. I think the point is in showing potential employers how you approach problem solving in general.

  • William Browning
    William Browning

    How do you prove to an employer that the story you tell is true? Perhaps one suggestion is to contact one of your former teachers, professors or supervisors to gain some insight as to how to answer a behavioral question. A career center in a college can also help you in this regard.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Abbey thanks for that; well said.

  • Abbey Boyd
    Abbey Boyd

    The key to answering these behavioral questions when you have very little or no work experience to draw on is creativity. You have to think outside the box. Let the interviewer know that you understand the question, and that you know what skills the answer should prove. Draw on any experience you can without divulging too much personal information about yourself. Have you been in an emergency situation where you took charge? Were you the captain of your high school sports team? Given enough thought, there are many situations that you could turn into an opportunity to show off your skills, even when you have never held a professional position.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    Thanks for your comments. @Shaday I would tend to agree with you not to include any information that is going to come back and bite you. @Jacob so very true. If you do some research on the internet, you will probably find more behavioral questions than you ever wanted to see. Go through some of them and see how you fare - just by yourself or have a friend ask them. The more you do, the more comfortable you will be. The typical questions will include things like "tell me about a time when" or "what would you do in this scenario?"

  • Jacob T.
    Jacob T.

    Regardless of your level of past experience, I think it is a great approach to have thought through your answers to these types of behavioral questions prior to an interview. As the article points out, you don't want to sound rehearsed, or give an answer to a question that wasn't really given, but having your thoughts lined out before the pressure of the interview is a great way to sound confident and prepared.

  • Shaday Stewart
    Shaday Stewart

    When you're answering behavioral interview questions and have little or no traditional experience, many of your answers will have to involve non-work-related examples. That's especially true if you don't have internships under your belt. Doesn't it make more sense to say, don't offer any information that could lead to discrimination or includes details employers aren't allowed to ask about?

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Shannon thanks for the comment. How can you tell if you have gone too far? Check out the interviewer. What is his/her body language. Are they leaning forward anxious to hear the rest of your story or are they sitting back in their chair fidgeting and just kind of looking around the room. Maybe they are looking at their computer screen and have already tuned you out. That's when you know that it's time to move on. And @Shannon - never give out personal details. Any story that you weave should be work related only.

  • Shannon Philpott
    Shannon Philpott

    I love the idea of answering difficult questions with stories. Clear examples are often more engaging and show personality. However, how do you know if you are going too far? Can you provide examples of responses that may give the interviewer too much information about yourself or your personal life?

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