Case-based and Behavioral Interviews

Case-Based Interviewing

In the world of business, you will be asked to solve complex, multifaceted problems and propose solutions that are tailor-made to a particular client. Case-based interviewing is designed to predict your ability to be successful in this realm of providing business solutions. These can also be referred to as "case interviews" or "interactive interviews."

A case-based interview starts with a problem for you to solve: How many ping pong balls will fit in this room? How much does a 747 jet airplane weigh? Your job is to provide a logical thought process, not necessarily come up with the right answer. It is important for you to verbally solve a problem step-by-step and not leap directly to an answer.

How can you succeed at a case-based interview? Remember that you are being viewed as a consultant working with a client. What information do you need to help solve the problem?

  1. Listen to what is being asked. Paraphrase and summarize the question to insure you know what you are being asked to do.
  2. Be silent. Take a moment or two to collect your thoughts. Think of a number of questions to which you will need the answers to carry out your thought process. Take notes (ask first if that would be appropriate). Diagram your thought process to keep you on track.
  3. Ask those clarifying questions to understand the concepts. Do not make assumptions. If you do make an assumption, verify with the interviewer that the assumption is reasonable. As an example: If the question is related to a particular industry, a good clarifying question to ask would be, “What are the best practices in that industry?” If you are presented with a case about an entertainment corporation wanting to build a home video distribution network, you could ask, “What other entertainment companies doing?”
  4. Propose a thoughtful approach to solving the problem. Watch for cues from your interviewer – follow their lead. Take any suggestions that are offered and incorporate them into your solution.
  5. Stay organized. Remember where things fit into your solution.
  6. Think out loud. How do you solve the problem step-by-step? And if you find your logic is not sound, admit your errors and ask if they would like you to start over or continue with the assumptions you have made.
  7. Step back every once in a while to get a big picture of the issue. Ask for additional information as you notice it missing. Estimate to insure your calculations are reasonable.
  8. Use business judgment and common sense, and show integrity and professionalism throughout.
  9. Summarize your conclusions and provide an answer.

For example, for the question of how many ping pong balls will fit in this room, you might approach the answer in this way:

  • Paraphrase: You would like to know how many standard ping pong balls will completely fill this room that we are sitting in right now?
  • Take a moment or two to think about what you know about dimensions, sizes, mathematical equations, etc.
  • Clarify: "I haven't played ping pong in a while, but from what I remember, a ping pong ball is roughly two inches in diameter. Would that be consistent with your model?" Or "I am roughly 6 feet tall, and I expect that I could fit my frame three times across this floor, making the width (or height or length) roughly 18 feet across."
  • "I would calculate the area of this room to be close to X square feet. Would the furniture be present or would the room be empty?" (Incorporate that answer into your conclusion.)
  • Assuming a standard ping pong ball is two inches across at its widest/highest point, Y number of ping pong balls would fit in a square foot. My calculations of the area of the room are X without the furniture, based on my height and assumptions of the length/width/height based on that measurement.
  • I would calculate that Z number of ping pong balls would fill this room, but there would be air space around them in the areas where they do not touch each other because of their shape.

Maintain eye contact. Take paper and a writing utensil to take notes, make drawings, and/or run calculations. Listen. Incorporate any information that is given in response to your questions. It’s really about what steps you utilize to analyze and solve the problem, not necessarily getting the right answer. Some common mistakes:

  1. Not clarifying the initial question and answering the wrong one.
  2. Failing to identify a major issue or responding haphazardly.
  3. Asking for what appears to be random information and not letting your interviewer know how you will utilize it in your solution.
  4. Not asking for assistance or help when you get stuck.
  5. Blurting out an answer without a step-by-step walk through of your logic.

How can you best prepare for a case-based interview? Review the following Web sites and others you find along the way to help you hone your skills. Practice out loud with others or make an appointment to visit a career counselor who will provide a problem and help you structure your answer. Remember that there are no correct answers – it’s really about how you might interact with a potential client to help them resolve an issue.

Helpful Links

Books that may also be helpful

Management Consulting by Biswas and Twitchell has an excellent chapter and appendix of questions on case-based interviewing.

An e-book or paperback on the subject is also available from Ace the Case.

With sincere thanks to Dr. Mark Nelson '91, for his expertise and examples in this area.

Behavioral Interviewing

Behavioral Interviewing (also known as Behavior-based or Critical Behavior Interviewing) was developed in the early 1990's to elicit experiences, behaviors, knowledge, skills and abilities from an applicant that directly relate to a given job opportunity. It is based on the premise that past performance is indicative of future behavior and will give you, the interviewee, the opportunity to share stories about your experiences in response to specific questions. You may use recent (in the last 3-4 years) experiences from your work, classes, volunteer activities, and completed projects to illustrate your qualities. This type of interviewing is used exclusively or woven into traditional interviews in almost every industry today.

Behavioral interview questions are designed to elucidate specific qualities that make an employee successful in a given position. Those qualities are determined through interviews with top level executives who have worked with the company. A list of skills is developed along with questions to elicit responses to verify that a potential job candidate has those qualities.

A behavioral interviewer will be trained to encourage responses from an interviewee through the use of an initial question, followed by a series of open-ended questions designed to get you, the interviewee, to talk. In most cases, the interviewer will be taking extensive notes to document evidence that a candidate exhibits particular qualities that will lead to a job offer and subsequent success in the workplace.

An extensive list of qualities/skills that employers are looking for, along with possible interview questions, can be found below. Once an initial question is asked, an interviewer is trained to follow up with very open-ended questions, including:

  • What did you say? Take me back to that conversation.
  • What did you do? Walk me through your actions.
  • What were you thinking?
  • How did that make you feel?
  • Would you clarify your role in that project?

The purpose of this technique is to get more information about a job candidate than what is presented on the resumé. For example, if a candidate has achieved the rank of Eagle Scout, an interviewer might assume he has exhibited extensive organizational and communication skills, attention to detail, the ability to meet deadlines, and recruit and motivate volunteers. Upon questioning, an interviewer may determine that the candidate does exhibit those implied skills, or perhaps has delegated roles to others, leaving the interviewee lacking those skills needed for success within an organization.

Here are two examples of answers to a behavioral interview question aimed at getting more information about the Eagle Scout:

Tell me about a major accomplishment

  1. "As part of my Eagle Scout designation, I was required to complete a community service project. On my way to school every day, I noticed that the local softball field was in deteriorating condition. I developed a plan to refurbish the field area and approached our town's mayor with the idea to gather volunteers to contribute time and materials to improve the bleachers, mend the fences, and upgrade the dugouts and field conditions. She was hesitant, not really believing that this project could be completed, but gave me permission to try. I advertised the weekend-long event through flyers and social networking, and approached local businesses for donations of materials. Since the field is heavily used by teams of all ages, I attended team meetings to recruit volunteers. I approached local restaurants and cafes to donate food and beverages. Over the course of the weekend, more than 100 volunteers came together with a wide variety of skills and materials, and our ball field is in amazing shape."
  2. "As part of my Eagle Scout designation, I was required to complete a community service project. On my way to school every day, I noticed that the local softball field was in deteriorating condition. I developed a plan to refurbish the field area and approached our town's mayor with the idea to gather volunteers to contribute time and materials to improve the bleachers, mend the fences, and upgrade the dugouts and field conditions. She was hesitant, not really believing that this project could be completed, but gave me permission to try. I advertised the weekend-long event through flyers and social networking, and approached local businesses for donations of materials. Since the field is heavily used by teams of all ages, I attended team meetings to recruit volunteers. I approached local restaurants and cafes to donate food and beverages. Over the course of the weekend, more than 100 volunteers came together with a wide variety of skills and materials, and our ball field is in amazing shape."

In the first example, our candidate has shown initiative, entrepreneurial spirit, persistence, and planning, organizational and marketing skills. In the second example, we'd like to hire the candidate's mother. These examples show that making assumptions based on a written resumé can be misleading, and illustrate why behavioral interviewing is an effective way to determine the strongest candidate.

Preparation for Behavoral Interviewing

To prepare for a behavioral interview, read the job description and review experiences you have had that mirror the qualities needed for the position. Think about your background and make the connection between your experiences and the skills listed. Identify examples you can use to demonstrate that you have those skills. Learn to tell a story about your knowledge and strong qualities.

Utilize the STAR technique when giving answers: Situation or Task; Action; Result. Tell a story from the beginning, through the middle, to the end. Always get to the conclusion. Quantify, if you can, your results (i.e., completed 10 press releases and distributed them to 25 media outlets). Think about group projects and endeavors that didn't turn out as planned, frustrating people and situations you've dealt with that show your self control and ability to negotiate, and opportunities you created for yourself. Determine 3 or 4 major accomplishments that speak to these qualities, and think about the points you'd like to get across in an interview. Behavioral interviewing will get into details, so don't try to make up examples - a well-trained interviewer will know it's not true.

STAR Example:

  • Situation or Task: Our volunteer group was planning an international service trip to Mother Theresa’s orphanages in Kolkata, India. The orphanages are in desperate need of daily living supplies, bedding, and toys for the children. We had collected some of these supplies, but it was hard to pack everything into suitcases, given the cost of flying with additional luggage and the weight restrictions for each suitcase. What we really needed to do was to raise money.
  • Action: Each member of our group developed her own fundraising project. I brainstormed the idea of an international cook-off competition to be held on campus and solicited food donations from our faculty, staff, and students – “provide your favorite main dish, side dish, or dessert for a luncheon.” I encouraged the entire campus community to attend the event and collected a nominal donation of $5 per person.
  • Result: Over 125 people donated food and we were able to raise over $800 to donate to the orphanages in Kolkata.

Here is a list of several qualities employers are looking for and related interview questions:

  • INITIATIVE
    Tell me about a major accomplishment you have had during your college career.
    What have you participated in during the last 2 or 3 years that you have been proud to be part of?
  • TEAM WORK/LEADERSHIP/TAKING OWNERSHIP OF PROJECTS
    Tell me about a group you worked with and define your role in the group.
  • SELF CONTROL
    Choose a situation where you’ve worked with a difficult person or situation and tell me about it.
    Tell me about the most difficult customer/client you’ve run into lately.
    Give me a specific example of when you had to address an angry person. What was the problem and what was the outcome?
  • ADAPTABILITY/ABILITY TO COPE
    By providing examples, convince me that you can adapt to a wide variety of people (situations, environments).
    Describe a time on any job you held in which you were faced with problems or stresses that tested your coping skills. **
    Tell me about a situation where things changed at the last minute. **
    Tell me about the last time you thought you handled a crisis well. **
    Describe an instance when you had to think on your feet to extricate yourself from a difficult situation.

    **TIP: Try to stay away from utilizing personal experiences (instead of work experiences) to answer these questions (the breakup of a relationship, death of a family member, etc.) Talking about these times may be emotional for you and may not highlight your ability to deal with stress and change in the best possible manner.
  • DECISION MAKING
    Give me an example of a time when you had to keep from speaking or making a decision because you did not have enough information.
    Give me an example of a time when you had to be relatively quick in coming to a decision.
  • LEADERSHIP
    What is the toughest group that you have had to get cooperation from?
    Have you ever had difficulty getting others to accept your ideas? What was your approach? Did it work?
  • MOTIVATION (SELF OR OTHERS)
    Give me an example of a time when you went above and beyond the call of duty.
    Describe for me a situation when you were able to have a positive influence on the actions of others.
    Tell me about a situation when you had to speak up/be assertive in order to get a point across that was important to you.
    Have you ever had to “sell” an idea to your co-workers or group? How did you do it? Did they “buy” it?
  • PROBLEM SOLVING
    Give me a specific example of a time when you used good judgment and logic in solving a problem.
  • INTERPERSONAL/WRITTEN/VERBAL SKILLS
    What have you done in the past to contribute toward a teamwork environment?
    Describe a recent unpopular decision you made and what the result was.
    Tell me about a time in which you had to use your written (verbal) communication skills to get your point across.
    Give me an example of a time when you were able to successfully communicate with another person even though that individual may not have personally liked you (or vice versa).
  • PLANNING AND ORGANIZATION
    How do you decide what gets top priority when scheduling your time?
    What do you do when your schedule is suddenly interrupted? Give an example.
  • NEGOTIATION/INFLUENCE SKILLS
    Describe a situation in which you were able to use persuasion to successfully convince someone to see things your way.
  • GOAL ORIENTATION
    Give me an example of an important goal which you had set in the past and tell me about your success in reaching it.
  • CREATIVITY
    Describe the most significant or creative presentation which you have had to complete.

A comprehensive list of qualities and questions can be found here.