Behavioral Interviews

Most companies expect you to have the technical skills for the job, so the behavioral component of the interview is what can help set you apart
A very BIG disclaimer is that the behavioral component of interviews is a very individual process. The techniques and advice that I give here are what have worked best for me, but it may not suit your personality/goals. So take my advice with a pinch of salt! Also note that this advice is focused on internship applications.
For this section, I will be focusing on two kinds of behavioral interviews: technical-behavioral and pure-behavioral. Before diving into how I prepare for both types of interview, I would like to provide some general advice that can be applied to both types.

General advice

About you

Most interviews start out with "Tell me about yourself", so it is good to prepare a short blurb describing the following:
  1. 1.
    Your name
  2. 2.
    Where do you attend school and what do you study
  3. 3.
    (If you have had internship experience) What you did during your most internship, focusing on your contributions
  4. 4.
    (If you do not have internship experience) What is a project that you are currently working on, focusing on the key challenges you have faced and how you tackled them
  5. 5.
    (If you have neither internship experience or project experience) What are some of the interesting modules you have taken in school thus far
  6. 6.
    (If you are in any technical clubs) What are some extracurricular things you do
This blurb should be at most three minutes long. This was (an abbreviated version of) mine:
My name is Jia Hao (1). I am a computer science undergraduate at the National University of Singapore (2).
Over the past summer, I was interning at a software startup called Betafi where I worked on full-stack development, using Elixir and Phoenix. At Betafi, we are trying to build a centralized user research platform, moving the entire process of user interviewing... I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to contribute key features used in the production system. For instance, ... (3)
Outside of my time during summer, I am also a coreteam member of NUS Hackers, a student group that aims to spread hacking culture. As a coreteam member, I ... (4)
You should practice this blurb as often as you can as this something that you will constantly be repeating so it's good to make it a natural part of your presentation.

Going with the flow

Apart from the "About me" blurb, I do not commit most answers to memory. Rather than focusing on memorizing a script for every possible question, I try to focus on keeping a mental signpost of "key points" that I will recall when I am asked a question.
This is achieved by doing reflection on my personal experiences. For each experience, I would think about the following:
  1. 1.
    What is a project I had spent a lot of time on?
  2. 2.
    What was challenging about that project?
  3. 3.
    Why was it so challenging?
  4. 4.
    Was it a soft skill or hard skill challenge?
  5. 5.
    How did I overcome it?
Then, I make a note of the experiences that I have thought about and the key points from these experiences. So when I am asked a question, I try to adjust my answers to suit the question AND company best. The reason why each answer differs between companies is not because I am lying about my experiences, but rather, because each company has different core values and focuses. So, it is better to match the experience with the company to ensure that I am able to align with their values.
For a longer list of questions that can be asked, refer to this page in the Tech Interview Handbook.

Research

Before every interview, I try to research and read up on the following:
  1. 1.
    What is the company's core values?
  2. 2.
    What is the company's primary product?
  3. 3.
    What does the company's technology division look like?
  4. 4.
    What are some key projects that the company has worked out?
  5. 5.
    Does the company contribute to open source?
  6. 6.
    What are some things that the company does outside of work? Such as volunteer programs
  7. 7.
    What does the role entail?
  8. 8.
    (If the role is SWE-adjacent) How does the role differ from SWE?
  9. 9.
    What are the core competencies that applicants for the role should display?
I compile all of this information into a dedicate Notion page and focus on key points that I think will be important and good to talk about during the interview. Then, I start reflecting on my experiences to try matching the experience to the company.
Doing this has allowed me to talk about things that really interest me, rather than regurgitating basic information about the company.

Being enthusiastic

This is a relatively personal piece of advice since everyone's personality can differ. But since I tend to get really excited when talking about tech with others, this is something I have managed to use to my advantage during interviews
Because I get really excited when talking about tech with others, I often try to focus on talking about things that I find exciting and this often comes off as having a strong genuine passion about both tech and the company.
This is why I highly recommend you carefully research the company before the interview to find projects that the company does that excite you the most. By doing so, I am able to excitedly share about what I had learnt or ask questions about it.

Having standards

This should only be done when you can afford to be picky about the roles you get. If you are scrambling to find an internship, then I would say that any experience is better than none. However, do not stoop to lying about your experiences!!
It's important to keep your personal expectations and standards in the back of your mind at all times during the entire process. If you have a salary expectation or project expectation AND can afford to be slightly picky, do not lower these standards.
Do not apply to companies that do not align with your interests. Do not accept offers that are not what you enjoy.
This also means that you should not be disingenuous when you are answering questions. If the interviewer asks if you are interesting in working on something you do not find interesting, do not lie. It is easy to notice when someone is lying about their interests and it also does a disservice to the company should you intern for them as you would not be giving it your all.

Technical-behavioral

Technical-behavioral tend to happen alongside technical challenges where the structure might look like:
  1. 1.
    Introductions
  2. 2.
    Technical-behavioral questions
  3. 3.
    Technical challenge
  4. 4.
    Reverse interview
Goal of technical-behavioral: The goal of these questions are to try placing your technical competencies with your past experiences. They are also a way for interviewers to assess your interest/awareness of the company and its tech division.
Some common questions can include:
  1. 1.
    Tell me about a past project
  2. 2.
    What were some technical challenges when working on it?
  3. 3.
    Why do you want to work at Company Y?
  4. 4.
    If given a choice between project A and project B, how would you decide between the two?
The best way to prepare for such questions is to do self-reflection (as described in Going with the flow) and researching about the company (as described in Research). It is important to keep in the back of your mind that you should always focus on trying to tie your experiences back to the role/company and painting everything in a positive light.
Try not to have an overly negative tone when talking about experiences. If you realize that you are speaking very poorly about the experience, you should either pivot away or stop talking about it entirely.

Pure-behavioral

These are the more standard interview questions you might hear about. For most pure-behavioral interviews, they will be a separate interview with a senior hiring manager or engineering manager of the company.
Goal of pure-behavioral: The goal of this type of interview is to understand your interest in/awareness of the company (not just the tech division). It is also a way to show off your soft skills and prove to them why you are a good fit for their culture.
You can expect to find the more conventional questions like:
  1. 1.
    What are your strengths?
  2. 2.
    What are your weaknesses?
  3. 3.
    Tell me about a time you faced conflict and how did you resolve it?
  4. 4.
    How would you describe yourself in three words?
  5. 5.
    What is something that hinders your productivity?
Much like Technical-behavioral, the best way to prepare for these questions are to do self-reflection and research about the company.
However, due to the goal of this interview, you should focus on trying to connect with the company's core values and showing that you are someone that they would love to work with.

Reverse interviewing

A key component of the interview that most underestimate is the reverse interview component, or the "Do you have any questions for me?" section towards the end of the interview.
In my personal experience, it is an opportunity for you to learn more about the company but to also share more about yourself if you felt like you failed to do so during the start of the interview.
You should NOT be spending most of the time talking about yourself. That is not the goal. Instead, let your interviewer share about their experiences/work/company life. If you are interested in it or have had experiences with it, then you can use it as an opportunity to talk more about the topic and change it more to a conversation.
An example could look like:
You: What are some opportunities you have working in Company X? Interviewer: Oh, I got to try out GPT-4 before it was launched! You: Wow! That's so cool. I never got to try GPT-4 before its public launch but I did use it for a while during my previous internship and was so mind blown by its capabilities. Did you compare it with GPT-3.5?
Let me re-iterate, do NOT talk all about yourself. Just use your own experiences to turn this into a conversation. This helps to improve the interviewer's impression of you and ends the interview on a good note.
These are some questions I typically use:
  1. 1.
    What does your day to day look like?
  2. 2.
    What does working in Company X mean?
  3. 3.
    What are some interesting engineering challenges you face?
  4. 4.
    What is the team structure like?
For more reverse interview questions, refer to this GitHub repository.​