Prepping for behavioral interview questions

Amy Potthast served as Idealist’s Director of Service and Graduate Education Programs until 2011. Read more of her work at


You've got this. (Photo: Steven Depolo, Flickr/Creative Commons)

In a recent post on our nonprofit HR blog, we encourage hiring managers to ask behavioral questions:

Behavioral interviewing enables you to deeply evaluate candidates’ past work experiences, their knowledge, and their behaviors in order to accurately predict how they will perform in your organization. This type of system … focuses on their behaviors and results in various situations. It’s more about how they’ve used their knowledge – which often gives you a better understanding of how they will react and apply what they know in your environment. [Read more….]

But as a job seeker, how do you prepare to answer behavioral questions?

For many job candidates, thinking about specific past experiences can be challenging under high pressure situations. Below is a method to get ready for the interview. Download the full exercise here (PDF).

  • Looking at the job description, identify about 5-10 qualities, skills, and experiences the prospective employer wants.
  • Circle the qualities, skills, or experiences on your list that you possess.
  • For each of these, think of one or two anecdotes that illustrate your expression of the quality, your use of the skill, or your experience.
  • Write up a summary of each anecdote and practice telling each one orally for the interview.
  • Prepare to name the competency or skill, give an example of a time when you used the skill, and identify ways the skill applies to the job you want.

By the way, the “practice” part doesn’t just mean reciting your anecdote once or twice. You want it to sound natural, have an economical use of words, and be as captivating as possible while also clearly conveying your point. Practicing these anecdotes is akin to practicing an elevator pitch during networking situations. See the section on elevator pitches in Chapter Four of The Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers for First-time Job Seekers.

And how do you remember these anecdotes?

That’s easy! Type up your list of skills, and give yourself a few key words to jog your memory about the experience you plan to share.

Turn the tables at your interview

Finally, remember that any interview is and should be a two-way street. Pose behavioral questions to your hiring team to understand the work environment, culture, and leadership styles of the people you’d be working with, if hired. Here are our tips for presenting yourself in person, including when to ask the most important questions (hint: don’t wait ’til the second interview).

Good luck!

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Comments (7)

  1. Cynthia Dettman writes:
    December 3, 2011 at 1:20 am

    Thanks for such a fabulous website and blog! And this is great advice to prepare for interviews!

    It can also be helpful to meet with a career coach to practice your answers. Telling your mini-stories out loud and getting feedback can help you build confidence and be better prepared.

    Need affordable Portland-area career coaching services? I can help! I’m a retired community college counselor, former legal aid attorney, and domestic violence advocate. I grew up in India and have worked extensively with minority and immigrant college students, many of whom have launched nonprofit careers. I believe strongly in “make a difference” careers! I can help folks select a career, target networking, land high quality volunteer and internship positions, and conduct an effective job search as well. Only $40 per session with sliding scale available. $10 for groups. Taking names now for a women’s career transitions group in NE Portland that starts in January. You don’t have to do this alone!

    Cynthia Dettman, J.D., M.S.W. Life and Career Coach 503 754 0972

  2. Stephany writes:
    December 3, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    Hey , im looking for a very simple job for my first job im 16 year old Im still in high school so must likely the job have to be part time. I speak two languages spanish and english for anymore information please contact me at my email.

  3. HB writes:
    December 8, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    Good guidance.
    I was recently the recipient of a very structured behavioral interview for which I was unprepared. It was quite trying so I made certain to be ready for the next possibility. I went through a number of old work related documents to refresh my memory and developed something similar to the grid recommended above. Of course, at the next interview there were no behavioral interview questions. But.. I was ready.

  4. Pacis writes:
    December 8, 2011 at 7:08 pm

    I’m a decent public speaker but found that I had the hardest time organizing my thoughts and preparing for an interview. Here’s a solution that I found that works:

    In PowerPoint, I created a page/slide for each possible question and each anecdote. I put the question as a header and added brief text for the answer. I inserted PICTURES (found online) to represent key points of the answer. This helped immensely! I just had to visualize the page and I knew where to go with my response. This helped me to improvise and not repeat myself!

    I also created simple charts to symbolize my relationships within the workplace. Doing this created a visual for me and helped me to describe the complex duties I had as a global marketing coordinator for a major corporation.

  5. WorkINprogress writes:
    November 20, 2012 at 3:17 am

    Great tips! From personal experience, I know behavioural questions are pretty tough and can get stressful if you’re not prepared. I am going to check out the rest of your posts too!


  6. Josh H. writes:
    December 20, 2012 at 10:00 am

    Behavioral based questions are very common in the public sector especially when applying for senior / management level positions. Preparation for these interviews is essential and it is like preparing for an exam in school. I have on occasion put my notes on paper and brought them to an interview as sort of a cheat sheet.


  7. Mary Anna writes:
    December 3, 2013 at 10:28 am

    Could you re-post the pdf of the “Download the full exercise here” link? The link is broken. Thank you.

    As a high school college and career counselor, I appreciate your resources very much!

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