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During my last 2 years of college, I’ve done behavioral-specific interviews for software engineering (SWE) roles with over 30 companies of varying sizes and disciplines (including Amazon, Apple, Netflix, LinkedIn, Neuralink, McKinsey & Company, Roblox, Gusto, Merge API, The Boring Company, Niantic, Capital One, Robinhood, etc. etc.). Regardless of the outcome (lots of rejections and a couple of offers), each interview provided valuable insights that helped me develop a formulaic and reliable approach to preparing for the nebulous “behavioral interview.”

In this article, I will go into detail about exactly what I prepared for in behavioral interviews as a college student trying to land software engineering roles.

I’ll start by discussing how to prepare for essential behavioral questions that are The Obvious Necessities, and emphasize why it’s important to Know Everything On Your Résumé. Following this is a comprehensive list covering ~90% of questions I’ve been asked in Preparing and Answering Behavioral Questions. Finally, I’ll wrap up with a discussion on Asking Effective Questions at the end of an interview.

While I aim to cover a wide range of topics and scenarios, every interview experience is unique and this guide has been constructed based exclusively on my own interview experiences and observations of peers’ experiences. That being said, I’ve found this general formula to be thorough and adaptable, serving as a solid foundation for preparing for any behavioral SWE interview from initial recruiter screens to in-depth hiring manager calls.

The Obvious Necessities

We’ll start off with the questions that show up in almost every interview (including technical interviews, recruiter screens, etc.). Walking into an interview, you should have solid answers prepared for all three of the following questions.

1. Tell Me About Yourself.

Your “Elevator Pitch” is a 30 to 60-second opportunity to introduce yourself and leave a lasting first impression on the interviewer. Numerous resources offer guidance on crafting an effective elevator pitch that can teach it better than me, so I’ll point to pages from Indeed and Tech Interview Handbook for reference.

Based on my personal experience, here are two additional tips:

Soften the mood. Begin with a friendly introduction to set a positive tone. For instance, “Hello, my name is Kevin. I’m sure you’ve gathered that already, but I’m a student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville studying CS…[rest of elevator pitch].”Highlight Overlooked Résumé Items. Use this moment to bring up any important aspects of your résumé that might not be immediately obvious, such as a student organization you’re heavily involved in. This can guide the interviewer to ask about experiences you care about and avoid time-wasting discussions on less significant topics (e.g., that one scrappy hackathon project you made which barely works).

2. Why Are You Interested In Our Company?

Have you used the product? Do the challenges they face interest you and are these challenges unique to the company? Do you read their engineering blogs or have you seen them recently on the news?

Regardless of how you answer this question, make sure that your answer is uniquely yours. Ask yourself: What specific aspect of this company’s mission, culture, or product deeply resonates with my personal values, experiences, and career goals?

For Business-to-Consumer companies (e.g., social media apps, e-commerce platforms, streaming services), it might be easier to relate your answer to personal experiences. For Business-to-Business companies (e.g., logistics, consulting, finance firms), more research may be required to better understand their unique industry contributions. If you have connections, such as friends or university alumni working at a company you’re interested in, consider reaching out for a coffee chat on LinkedIn. Learning about the company’s culture and what employees love about it can provide valuable insights regarding challenges and opportunities specific to software engineering at that company. Their experiences can help you determine which aspects of the company resonate the most with you, and guide your answer to this question.

Below is an example of a concise message that requires as little back-and-forth as possible, asking to schedule a quick coffee chat at a time that is outside of business hours:

Hello __,I’m Kevin Jin, a sophomore at Vandy studying CS and Math. I am curious to learn more about being a Software Engineer at Microsoft, and was wondering if you were free for a quick 15-minute phone call sometime on Thursday, October 13th. I am available anytime before 10 AM or after 4 PM CT, and this applies to the following Tuesday and Thursday as well. Please let me know if you are available at any of these times. I have attached my résumé below for reference, and hope to hear from you soon!Best,Kevin Jin

Always express gratitude to those who take the time to share their experiences with you, and be sure to pay this favor forward in the future!

Additional note: The question “What are you looking for in your next role?” should be answered similarly. An interviewer wants to ensure that your career goals align with the role and the company.

3. Why Are You Interested In Software Engineering?

I hope you have a good answer for this :).

This is a question that is rarely directly asked, but you’ll need your own unique answer to. Reflect on your journey into software engineering and the aspects of the field that excite you the most. Whether the question is explicitly asked or not, your enthusiasm for the role, eagerness to learn, and passion for software engineering should be evident throughout the interview.

Know Everything On Your Résumé

If your interviewer asks about a specific technology, college course, or work experience on your résumé in the time-constrained environment of an interview, it’s usually not for casual conversation. Rather, they are gauging how much you know or care about that specific skill set, as it may be critical for the role you’re applying for.

As a new college student writing their first résumé, it can be challenging to fill a whole page with your experiences. That being said, I strongly discourage listing technologies or skills that you’ve only used once or encountered briefly in a course. When putting something like Assembly or Redux in your résumé “skills” section, be prepared to answer general questions about the topic during an interview.

If you don’t know the answer to a question, that’s okay! Always be forthcoming when you don’t know the answer to something. Considering the wide array of skill sets and constantly evolving landscape of technologies in software engineering, it’s highly commendable to recognize when you need to learn something new and take proactive steps to address them. A very precarious trait and “red flag” in an interview is someone who bluffs through skills, as it can lead to complications down the line. That’s why it’s crucial to prioritize real learning and growth over the temptation to merely “appear” knowledgeable.

Moreover, you should be able to thoroughly discuss each of your work experiences. Interviewers will often hone into one experience that is either your most recent or most closely aligns with their role. They may ask thoughtful questions such as “What would you have done differently if you could do this internship over again?” or “Why are you no longer involved in this student organization?” These questions are designed to probe your critical thinking and self-awareness, so be prepared for deeper inquiries.

By knowing your résumé inside and out, you can confidently navigate these questions and demonstrate your genuine interest and qualifications for the role.

Preparing and Answering Behavioral Questions

During a behavioral interview, you might be asked two or three questions (not including follow-ups) that reflect your dynamics within a team.

Creating a “Prep Document”

Below is a list of questions that covers about 90% of the behavioral questions I’ve been asked. I’ve prepared specific personal experiences for each of these questions by jotting down answers in a single “master” Google Doc.

Most Common Behavioral Questions I’ve Been Asked

Tell me about a time you had a disagreement with a teammate.What is your biggest weakness as a software engineer?Tell me about a time you had to meet a tight deadline.Tell me about a time you failed to deliver on a deadline.Tell me about a time you went above and beyond what was expected of you.What was your favorite college course and why?Tell me about a time you received feedback from a teammate. How did you handle it?Tell me about a time you made a difficult technical decision.Explain a technical concept to a non-technical person (e.g., a recruiter, your history major classmate, etc.).

There are other lists that are more thorough (see Tech Interview Handbook or Turing) so use mine at your own risk. However, I’ve personally found this list to cover a broad enough range of experiences, and feel adequately prepared for questions that evaluate similar values.

When preparing answers for each question, never write down paragraphs of full sentences. Trying to “memorize” an answer can make interview preparation overwhelming and prevent you from understanding which points are important to get across. Additionally, it’s unbearably drab for an interviewer to sit through a long, monotone, rehearsed answer. When answering each question, write 2 to 4 concise bullet points regarding the scenario and the lessons you learned, practice answering the question a couple of times out loud, then move on. This approach keeps your answers fresh, engaging, and ensures you cover the essential points without getting bogged down.

Using The STAR Format

The STAR Format (Situation, Task, Action, Result) is the most widely adopted format for answering behavioral questions. There’s a lot of information online about this method, so I’ll point to this article from MIT’s career center for further reading.

This interview technique is a great guideline to cover all the key points in an answer, and interviewers often expect responses in this format. However, if you find it a bit formulaic and repetitive, it’s okay to deviate from this format. As long as you effectively communicate your experiences and skills, feel free to adapt the format to best showcase your personality and engage better with the interviewer.

Addressing Weaknesses

For questions that ask you to speak about weaknesses, it’s important not to be cliché (e.g., “My biggest weakness is I care too much”) and to be honest about a genuine weakness you have (e.g., difficulty in building foundational knowledge, indecisiveness with small decisions). However, always discuss how you are improving on and mitigating this weakness. Recognizing and working to address your weaknesses is essential to showing your capacity to grow.

Reusing and Updating Experiences

It’s okay to reuse experiences for similar questions. If you come up with an experience that better reflects your capabilities later on, replace the bullet points in your behavioral prep document. Remove questions that are less relevant to you, and add questions that you’ve been asked in an interview where your answer wasn’t satisfactory. Ideally, this document will prepare you for behavioral interviews now and in the future.

Culture & Company Values Questions

If your recruiter provides a link to their company’s culture page, you should certainly expect to be asked questions about that company’s values. Not every company has these values or prioritizes them excessively, but those that do often make them a core component of how the company functions and how engineers are assessed (see Amazon, Netflix). Culture/company value questions are generally not asked until the final round or onsite interview and can include the following:

Which company value resonates with you the most?Tell me about a time you displayed [company value]?Which company value do you want to improve on?

As you prepare for these questions and familiarize yourself with the company’s values, your responses should reflect not only your understanding of the company but also your genuine alignment with its ethos and aspirations.

Asking Effective Questions

If time allows, the interviewer will give you an opportunity to ask questions about the role and the company. When presented with this opportunity, always ask at least one question to demonstrate your continued curiosity and interest in the role.

I always like to prepare two insightful questions prior to an interview. Given the ever-rising hiring bar for software engineering roles, asking questions is not only a time to determine whether your interests align well with the company, but also a chance to leave a lasting final impression on the interviewer. Below are a couple of questions I’ve asked that interviewers have responded positively to:

What brought you to [interviewer’s specific team] in the first place? Most interviewers will give you a brief introduction of what team they currently work on at the beginning of the interview. Asking this question shows that you’ve been attentive and retained that information, and are curious to learn more about what the interviewer is passionate about.When I was at [my previous company], we experienced a lot of growing pains from using a variety of internal tools such as Confluence, Splunk, Grafana, and Elasticsearch. I was curious if you could tell me about some of the third-party tools [company] uses. For startups and mid-sized companies, this shows that you’ve experienced growing pains similar to the ones that the company may be experiencing. The interviewer’s response to this question also reveals a lot about a company’s “scrappiness” and the robustness of its developer tooling. By discussing specific tools, you also demonstrate your familiarity with industry-standard technologies and your ability to navigate complex technical environments. You can also relate over how brutal it is to crawl through Kibana logs or something.Finally the good ol’ classic question, what is your favorite part about working at *company*? This question ends the interview on a positive note. When they’re done answering, you can express enthusiasm for their favorite part if it really resonates with you.

Additional Tips for Asking Questions

Tailor Your Questions. Make sure your questions are tailored to the specific company and role. Generic questions can come off as insincere or unprepared.Show Genuine Interest. Your questions should reflect a genuine interest in the role and the company. Avoid asking questions that could be easily answered by a quick peek at the company’s website.Inquire about Growth and Challenges. Ask about growth opportunities, the challenges the team is currently facing, or recent projects they are excited about. This can help you form observations regarding the pace of the company’s software development processes, innovation, and overarching trajectory. Answers to such questions can provide valuable context for evaluating your potential role within the team and the organization as a whole.

In preparing thoughtful questions, you have an opportunity to uncover valuable insights into the company and role, demonstrate your genuine interest, and leave a lasting positive impression on your interviewer.

Wrapping It Up

Phew. That concludes my advice on preparing for software engineering behavioral interviews. If it seems like a lot, it’s because these insights were built up over many hours of preparation, numerous interviews, and countless rejection emails. Thus, I understand it’s not feasible to grasp everything at once. Simply take it step by step, keep practicing through mock interviews with classmates, and you’ll steadily enhance your abilities and confidence in navigating this aspect of software engineering interviews.

If there’s one thing to take away from this article, it’s the importance of treating behavioral interviews as a conversation, not a speech. By maintaining a conversational tone, you can keep your interviewer engaged, foster a more natural exchange of ideas, and ultimately leave a more memorable impression. Prepare thoroughly, but also remain adaptable and open to the flow of the conversation. With the right preparation and mindset, you can confidently navigate behavioral interviews and showcase your skills, experiences, and personality to land your dream software engineering role.

If you want further reading into any of the topics above, a guide that really helped me prepare (and that I’ve referenced already) is the Tech Interview Handbook, so definitely check it out if your brain isn’t spinning from this article. Best of luck on your interview journey!

If you found this article helpful, you’re welcome to subscribe here as I aim to continue to share learnings about landing Intern/Graduate Software Engineer roles.

A Complete Student Guide to Software Engineering Behavioral Interviews was originally published in Level Up Coding on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

​ Level Up Coding – Medium

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