Prepare Behavioral Questions for Data Science Interviews

This is part 5 of a series by the author which helps readers nail the data science interviews with confidence.

By Zijing Zhu, PhD in Economics, Certified in Data Science

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash


I have listed the technical questions to practice in machine learningstatistics, and probability theory in my previous articles regarding data science interview preparations. I have also discussed the strategies that can be used to prepare case study questions before and during data science interviews. This article is the fifth article of the data science interview preparation series, and it will be focused on behavioral questions. I will first discusses how to prepare the behavioral round and then list some frequently asked questions for you to practice the techniques.

I like the behavioral round the most in the interview process because it is quite relaxing compared to other technical rounds. Before I know any strategies for answering behavioral questions, I always felt like I was chatting with someone about interesting experiences I have had during this round. Although a less stressful mindset is something nice to have during an interview, an over-relaxing altitude may not help you impress the interviewers. I ended up talking too many details and lost the chance of proving I have what the interviewers were looking for. Keep in mind that even though you are mostly chatting with the interviewers, you are still evaluated through the conversations in this round. It would be best if you took this round as the opportunity to show your interviewers that you are the best candidate for this position based on your experience and personality. You cannot efficiently represent yourself without solid examples and established structures, which I will discuss in this article.


Part 1. Collect Solid Examples

The content of your answers to behavior questions is the foundation. During the interview, to keep the conversation fluent, you rarely have any time to think of the perfect example to answer the question. Thus, when preparing the interview, we should start by collecting all the “useful” experiences and categorizing them by what types of questions can they be used to answer. In this way, you know you will always have something to talk about, and have the right examples to support your arguments. In this section, I will discuss the process of collecting solid examples.

Make your list

What examples should you use to answer behavior questions? Think about the working and studying experiences you have had in the past, and classify them into different categories.

When I was preparing for behavioral questions, I used the following table to brainstorm experiences I have had. Although questions can be asked in millions of ways, we can generalize them into the following eight categories. What are the challenges you have met? How do you prioritize your work? What are the accomplishments you want to share? What are the examples that show your leadership skills? When did you have conflicts and how did you deal with them? What are the mistakes you have made? How do you adapt to a new environment, how do you fit in?

category checklist


For each category, search your memory and prepare at least one example to share. If you have over one examples for each category, great! Write them all down and emphasize them in different aspects. For example, for the same category showing your accomplishments, you may find one example that emphasizes on your self-learning skills and another one showing that you are a team player. They are all outstanding qualities that interviewers may look for. Collect them all and learn how to prioritize the one to share based on the context of the question during interviews.

Prioritize examples

If you have several challenges you have conquered, which one should you choose to answer a specific question? I would suggest you to following these principles to prioritize the examples:

  • Prioritize the examples with higher impact: Impact is key. It shows the results of your work and demonstrates you are qualified for what you are applying. When you say I build a new model for my project, people may wonder why until you mention it is the model increases customer retention by x%.
  • Prioritize relevant examples: Relevance here has several aspects. First of all, there is no doubt based on the context of the question, and how the question is asked, the answer may be different. Thus, active listening is very important during interview. Although you may have already prepared a nice speech, if it is irrelevant to the question, you should always tailor your answer. Moreover, work-related examples are more relevant to school projects if you are applying positions in the workforce.
  • Prioritize recent examples: It is better to discuss the examples happened recently rather than something happened long time ago. For example, you can discuss the experience during your most recent position. If you have work experience, when asked about leadership skills, you are still using examples from school, the interviewers may have doubts about you being able to practice your skills in the workforce. This would send a bad signal.

Research company core values and job descriptions

There are some key characteristics that the interviewers want to locate from you based on the experience you talk about. Generally speaking, these characteristics are:

  • Good Communicator
  • Confidence & Humbleness
  • Go-Getter
  • Ability to Follow Rules & Protocols
  • Independent & Autonomous
  • Works well with Others
  • Problem Solver
  • Commitment to the Role & Company
  • Leadership Qualities
  • Positive Representative of the Company

The examples you use should show the interviewers that you have the key characteristics they are looking for. Besides, every company has its core values that would prioritize some qualities. You should find the core values easily online or summarize them from the job descriptions. When preparing the examples, keep all the core values in mind and try to incorporate them and prioritize them in your answers.

Make the best use of each example

When answering a question about resolving conflicts, besides showing your skills in problem solving, you can also demonstrate your excellent communication skills and leadership initiatives. Thus, I suggest also make the following table for all representative examples you have:

First make a summary on the quantified impact of this example. Then try dig the example and check mark the categories that this example helps demonstrate. You can write a one-sentence summary about the task you did in this example that shows your quality in this category.

If you have working experience before, you can easily find a lot of examples when you were working full time, part time, or during internships. For new grads, academic experience can also be treated as working experience with the right examples. You can talk about an individual research project you have worked on; how did you collaborate with advisors, who are like the supervisors in workforce; how did you work with other graduate students, who are like the coworkers in workforce. If you have worked as a teaching assistant, even though the job itself might be irrelevant to what you are applying for right now, you can still talk about some experience that shows your communication and leadership skills.

Be honest

Do not make up any examples! Do not pretend to be someone you are not. Getting a job is not the end of the story, but a starting chapter. You do not want to impress your future coworkers or bosses the wrong way that you have to act like someone else every day in the future. Rather than making up examples, try to think through the experience you have had, and dig into details. When I was looking for my first full-time position, I had some hard time proving my ability of working in the workforce to some interviewers. I emphasized a lot on my internship experience at a startup, especially the parts when I worked with my supervisor and coworkers from different teams. This experience gives me a lot of examples I can use to prove my communication and leadership skills, and show interviewers I can perform well in a fast-paced working environment. This is also why we need to go deep and make the best use of all the examples we have as discussed above.


Part 2. Establish and Practice Structures

Your answers should always be structured. Otherwise you will easily find yourself talking over time without points or mumbling about unnecessary details. You are not catching up with friends, that you need to go deep in every detail of your experience. You are also not writing a thriller that you need your readers to think hard and try give them surprises. During interviews, your answer should be direct, concise and clear.

Follow the STAR structure

STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result. It is a reliable method to follow to structure your answers.

Drawing by Author


You start your answer by briefly describing the situation you were in or the task you need to accomplish. Then talk about the tasks you had to complete. After that, list the actions you took to complete the tasks. Lastly, conclude what’s the results of your actions. For example, what happened? How did the event end? What did you accomplish? What did you learn? Note that:

  • You can describe the situation using the results. For example, you can start your answer by “I want to share the time when I built a model that reduced customer churn by x%”.
  • The tasks you pick need to be something specific rather than something general or hypothetical.
  • Focus on describing your tasks and actions even it is a group project. Emphasize on the communication and collaborating skills if you need to mention others’ tasks.
  • It will always be more impressive if you can quantify the results.

For more details and example, refer to this article and many other articles online to help you practice the structure.

Focus on the impact rather than the process

I cannot stress enough how important it is to show the impact of your work. How you did it is important, but that’s not the priority because you are not in a knowledge-sharing conference. You should focus on what you did, specifically what are the results. Quantify the impact on the company key KPI would impress interviewers even more.

Leave the details for follow-up questions

Do not go deep into details at first, especially the technical details. Keep your answer clear and straight to the points. Give a high level introduction about the example and focus on the impact and results first. If the interviewers are curious about how you have achieved the results, they will ask follow-up questions, then you can talk in more details. As discussed before, be honest about what you know and what you do not know. If you pretend you have done something or know something in details, interviewers might ask follow up questions and find you are lying. That’s a terrible signal.


Part3. Practice Frequently Asked Questions

Now you have some examples and you know the right structure to use, practice with the following question:

  • Tell me about a time when you were asked to do something you have never done before? What did you learn?
  • Tell me about a time when you had assigned with multiple projects at the same time. How did you organize your time? What was the result?
  • Tell me about a time when something significant didn’t go according to plan at work. What was your role? What was the outcome? What did you learn from the experience?
  • Tell me about a time when you had to work with someone difficult to get along with. How did you handle interactions with that person?
  • Tell me about a time when your supervisor wasn’t available when a problem arose. How did you handle the situation? With whom did you consult?


Last Remarks

There are many other questions you can find online to practice. When I say practice, I do not mean for you to write down the answers and read through it, hoping to get the exact same question during the interview. Rather, practice answering questions with an established structure. Moreover, practice it in front of a mirror or with a partner so you would get some feedbacks. Keep in mind that during the interview, you are not making a speech but having conversations with others. Thus, it is very important to actively listening, and watching out to others’ reactions in the meantime. I know it might be more challenging during virtual interviews, I have an article here helps you better prepare for virtual interviews. The goal is to have a great conversation so that you should focus on answering the question rather than providing the “perfect answer”.

That is all for this article. Thank you for reading. Here is the list of all my blog posts. Check them out if you are interested!

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Bio: Zijing Zhu holds a PhD in Economics, is certified in Data Science, and has passion in life.

Original. Reposted with permission.