E-mail and search functions

  • University of Illinois
  • E-mail
  • A-Z Index

Answering Interview Questions

Behavioral-based Interviewing

Many organizations now use behavioral-based interviewing techniques, which require the job applicant to describe past situations that relate to situations they might encounter in the new position. This approach is based on the belief that past performance is the best predictor of future behavior. Even if you don't have a great deal of work experience, companies expect you to be able to relate past experiences to this position. This interviewing format is less common for faculty jobs.
Behavioral-based interview questions generally start with any one of the following phrases:
  • Tell me about a time when you...
  • Describe a circumstance when you were faced with a problem related to...
  • Think about an instance in which you...
  • Tell me how you approached a situation where...
When your interview is behavioral-based, you should expect a structured interview with set questions, as opposed to a more conversational style. The interviewer is probably evaluating you against a profile of desired behaviors considered necessary for success. You may receive follow-up questions that probe for more details and attempt to evaluate the consistency of your answers. Many of the questions will have multiple parts, and the interviewer will generally take notes during your answers.

Illegal Questions

Certain interview questions are legally out-of-bounds, as defined by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is illegal (and inappropriate) for employers to consider an applicant's race, color, religion, sex, age, or national origin when making an employment decision. A few questions that you should not be asked include:
  • Are you a U.S. citizen? (It is acceptable for an interviewer to ask if you are authorized to work in the U.S.).
  • Where were you born? What is your native language?
  • How old are you?
  • Are you married? How many children do you have?
  • Do you have any disabilities? (It is acceptable to ask if an applicant is able to perform the essential functions of the job).
That said, you may be asked illegal questions, particularly in social situations by well-meaning (but ignorant) interviewers. For example, during a campus visit lunch, a committee member might mention something about her children, then inquire if you also have children. When responding to such questions, assess the situation and do your best to understand the concern or reason for the question. Sometimes you may determine that you are comfortable answering the question. Other times, you may want to try to deflect the inquiry. In general, avoid responding with a combative tone. It is acceptable to volunteer information that would be illegal for interviewers to ask.

Questions about Salary Requirements

It is not uncommon to be asked about your salary requirements during at the time of application or interview. You may need to answer questions about your salary requirements at this time, but avoid negotiating. Here are a few tactics that might help:
  • Research salary ranges before the interview so your responses are appropriate.
  • Provide a range instead of a single dollar amount to give more options in the negotiation.
  • Avoid committing to a specific dollar amount, if asked.
The following sample phrases may be useful:
  • “I applied for this position because I am very interested in this position, and I know I can make an positive impact once on the job, but I’d like to postpone discussing salary until we are both sure I’m right for the job."
  • “I expect to be compensated at a rate that is commensurate with my education and experience.”
  • “My requirements are negotiable.”
  • “What would you hope to pay someone in this position?”

Structuring Your Responses

Often the best way to answer an interview question is to give an example of an experience where you demonstrated a skill. 
Use the acronym “CAR” to help structure your response by describing the context, action and result of your example:
  • Context: Provide a brief overview of the situation and explain what the goal was. Include any necessary background, but be specific and succinct.
  • Action: Describe the action you took to address the situation. This is likely the most detailed part of your answer. What specific steps did you take? If you were part of a team, what was your particular contribution?
  • Result: Share the outcome of your actions—don’t be shy about taking credit for your success. 
For more tips, see the virtual workshop on "Answering Interview Questions".
Here are two examples:
Question: Tell me about a time when you had to cope with strict deadlines or time demands.
Answer One:
  • Context:
    • I had to establish and adhere to strict deadlines in order to complete my doctoral dissertation.
    • Few deadlines were externally imposed, and, as a result, I had to create my own strict deadlines for completion.
  • Action:
    • I drafted a project plan in which I defined the tasks, milestones, and deadlines associated with degree completion.
    • After I had drafted my project plan, I distributed a copy of my plan to my adviser as well as the other members of my committee, asking for "sign-off" on my plan.
    • Members of my committee appreciated my initiative, motivation, and organization and supported my efforts, and I followed my project plan carefully, and I regularly met my self-imposed deadlines.
    • Meeting my goals was difficult and required great self-discipline and hard work, but I responded by placing a moratorium on most hobbies and social activities, and I worked most weekends and many late nights.
    • Of course, as my writing progressed, it was sometimes necessary to adjust deadlines, and I kept the timeline up-to-date, and notified my committee of changes.
    • However, while milestone dates sometimes changed, the ultimate deadline—completion—did not.
  • Result:
    • As the result of my project management and adherence to deadlines, I was able to defend, deposit, and graduate on schedule.
 Answer Two:
  • Context:
    • I had a two-month internship with a large international company.
    • During my internship, I was given a project to complete in which I had to evaluate the content and usability of various online learning programs.
    • In order to do this, I had to distribute the programs that met my initial criteria to an international team of reviewers to get their input and perspective.
    • After I did this, I had to compile all of their data and opinions, synthesize this data, and create a report and presentation for my managers.
  • Action:
    • Since each part of the project had to be completed in a specific order, I created a project plan in with structured deadlines for each phase of the project.
    • I built in a bit of extra time for unexpected problems or delays since I knew I had to depend on other people for data. I sent this schedule to my team so they knew my time constraints, and sent them reminders before the due date.
    • I made certain that I consistently adhered to the schedule that I designed.
  • Result:
    • I was able to complete the project, although I had to build a few additional days into my timeline since some of the reviewers were slow to send me their data.
    • But I learned to be flexible, figured out how to motivate my team, worked efficiently on the portions of the project that depended only upon me, and was able to give an effective report and presentation to my managers on schedule.
    • Plus I got a great evaluation at the end of my internship!