This episode is different than most others. I don’t have a guest. So it’s not really a conversation, but it is based on the conversations I’ve had with many students preparing for behavioral job interviews. What follows is pretty close to a transcript, so you can choose to read, or listen, or both!
Students often come me and the other coaches at Foster to work on their “Tell me About Yourself” or TMAY answer. It’s important to recognize that there are different contexts for answering this question. Students are often preparing for information sessions or networking activities before they start preparing for interviews. The way you answer the question in a networking setting is going to be a little different than in an interview.
In either situation, this is your opportunity to explain your career and highlight your interests and the skills and talents that have contributed to your success along the way. Another way to think about the answer is: where have you been, where are you now, where do you want to go, connecting the dots along the way.
In an interview, you usually do not need to start with your name, or that you are a first-year student in an MBA program. The interviewer should know these two things at least, and you’ve probably already had some rapport building chit-chat.
I like to say that this first answer is your opportunity to lay a foundation for the interview and the other stories you will share. That foundation should include the talents or strengths that have contributed to your success and that you believe are applicable to the role you are applying for. During each of the subsequent behavioral questions you have the opportunity to stack bricks on that foundation. By the end of the interview, the interviewer should be able to recognize what you’ve built, rather than see a muddy lot strewn with bricks and stones.
Another question I often hear is, “How should I end the TMAY?” This is another aspect in which context is important. In a networking setting, you should end the TMAY with a clear direction of where you hope to go with your MBA. That way the person you are speaking with has an idea of how they can help you. In the context of an internship or job interview, you don’t want to end it with a statement like, “and that is why I want to work for your company in this role.” The reason being: those were the next two questions the interviewer was likely to ask you!
- “Why do you want to work for my company?”
- “Why are you interested in this role?”
For each question, you have 90 seconds to three minutes for your answer. The shot clock resets with each question. If you spend 5 minutes answering the TMAY question and touching on the role and company, the interviewer may skip those two questions. It’s awkward to follow up a statement like, “and that’s why I want to work for your company.” with the question, “Why do you want to work for my company?”
I advise students to end the TMAY in a way that invites the next question. “And that’s one of the main reasons I decided to get my MBA” or “just one of the reasons why I’m interested in working for ACME co.” or “and that’s one of the reasons why I am pursuing a career in consulting.”
The key part of all of these examples is “one of the” that makes the natural next question, “what are some of the other reasons?”
Now this is, of course, not the only way to bring your answer in for a landing, but I think it is a particularly effective way.
For the next two common questions in a behavioral interview, “Why this role” and “why this company” one of the mistakes I see people make is telling the interviewer things they already know about the role. You may think by sharing these things you know about the role or company you are answering the question, but you haven’t. You need to explain why these things you have shared are important to you.
It can also be helpful to use sign posting in these answers, for example, “There are three main reasons I’m interested in consulting” and then enumerating those reasons.
After these first three questions are out of the way, the interviewer moves to behavioral questions that start like, “Can you give me an example of a time when” or something similar to that.
You may have prepared a half dozen to a dozen stories, and hopefully your will have a number of “direct hits” where the story that you’ve prepared exactly answers the question that was asked. But the same question can be asked different ways and you want to demonstration that you listened and understand the question by making adjustments to the story you use in your answer. It might also take you a few moments to sort through your mental catalogue of stories for the right one. For both reasons, it’s a good idea to have some time-buying phrases like, “That’s a good question, let me think of the best example to share” or just, “Let me think of an experience that answers your question” Each of these will serve to acknowledge the question, and give you a few extra moments to prepare your answer. Now, you can’t say, that’s a good question” for obvious and predictable questions, like “tell me about a time you led a team”.
In your answers you will want to highlight particular talents or strengths that contributed to your success, these should match with the foundation you laid in your TMAY. Of course, you will want to use a structure like STAR — situation task actions result, or “CAR–context, actions, results, or Lewis Lin’s DIGS method, Dramatize the situation, Introduce the alternatives, Go through what you did, summarize the results.
Whichever you use, you want to make sure you have a balance, between each part of your answer. Often I see students spend too much time on the situation or context, rush through a very procedural set of actions, and sometimes leave off the result.
I like starting with the CAR structure and aiming for spending about 1/3rd of the time on each part, or moving to a 25%, 50, 25% distribution. In the actions section it is important to not only explain WHAT you did but also the why and the how, in other words, the strengths or competencies that lead you to take those actions or contributed to your success. This is especially important for career changers because the tasks you performed in your previous roles may have little to do with the responsibilities of the role you are applying for. Be sure to explain the strengths and talents that contributed to your previous successes.
Some stories do require a good bit of context, if you know you’ve got a story like that, you may want to provide a summary statement at the outset, “I’d like to tell you about a time when I used a strong relationship to influence a decision on a team.”
If you get to the end of your story and realize that you didn’t highlight a strength, you can use what I call a summarize and generalize statement that sounds something like this, “so I think this is a really good example of how my ability to build strong relationships helps me influence decisions on a team.” You can’t use this at the end of every answer, though. That would just be weird.
Let me leave you with a few concrete next steps to improve your stories for behavioral interviews:
- First, figure out what your listener truly needs to know about the situation or context to understand the actions you took and the strengths or talents you demonstrated in the situation.
- Next, be sure you’ve identified those strengths, talents or competencies in each story and you’ve laid the foundation for them in your TMAY.
- Prepare a summary statement for each story that could be used before the story, sort of like a results first, or a Bottom Line On Top statement. Last, prepare a summarize and generalize statement that can be used at the end. It is not that you will use these two statements in every question, but they will help you think through the key messages of the stories.
- Lastly, spend more time talking through your stories than writing and wordsmithing them on the page. The way we speak and listen to spoken word is different than the way we write and read. Kristin Graham and I discussed this a bit on an earlier episode of the podcast. If you spend too much time on the page with your stories you may get caught up trying to remember an exact script, and that will make it even more difficult to adapt stories to the specific questions you are asked in an interview.
For more tips on behavioral interviewing, check out my conversation with Career Coach Elaine Newtson!