Regardless of whether we talk about an interview at a small corner gas station, local elementary school, or in a big international corporation, with thousands of employees, some bias will always be present. Recruiters and hiring managers will–often unwittingly, prefer people they like on a personal level, people similar to them, people they feel good around. And while it is certainly great for them, it isn’t ideal for the organization or company they work for… Because the company wants to choose the best match for the job, and not the person the hiring manager likes the most.
While we cannot avoid the bias completely, we can do a few things to minimize the impact of personal preferences of people leading the interviews. The so called “structured interview” is the no. 1 tool to help us. Structured basically means that:
- The interviewers ask each and every candidate the same questions, in the same order.
- There is a clear evaluation process in place, which means that a hiring manager knows how many points they should assign to each candidate for each of their answer (this becomes more difficult with open-ended behavioral questions, more on it later on).
- At the end of the interviews, instead of relying on emotions and impressions (“I think the candidate no. 7 was the best one”), the managers simply count the points each candidate scored, and the one with the most points is the one they will offer the job to.
Most common questions you will face in a structured interview
As you can likely imagine after reading the opening to this post, the questions depend a lot on the job you apply for. What I try to say is that it doesn’t make sense asking about accounting software in a nursing interview, or about your ability to work in a team when you interview for a job of a lighthouse keeper…
Having said that, hiring managers aren’t interested only in your hard skills related to the job. Interviewing is more complex, and in order to get a better picture of each candidate, they will typically include some typical interview questions in each structured interview. Some questions you will most likely face in any structured interview:
- Why did you apply for this job?
- Why do you want to leave your present job/why did you leave your past job?
- How is your previous working experience relevant for this job?
- Why do you think you are a good candidate for this position?
- Where do you see yourself in five years time?
- What are your main strengths and weaknesses?
- What do you like to do in your spare time?
Behavioral questions in a structured interview
Behavioral (often also labelled as “STAR” or “situational” questions) also repeat in most structured interviews. At the end of the day, regardless of your job title and place of work, you will face the same tricky situations at work–conflict with a colleague, dealing with pressure, trying to meet a deadline, and so on. Make sure to prepare for the following questions:
- Tell us about an obstacle you overcame.
- Give an example of a time when you showed initiative at work.
- Describe a conflict you had with one of your colleagues in your last job.
- Describe a situation when you were under pressure. How did you deal with it?
- Have you ever worked on a project that was a failure?
- Tell us about a time when you had to meet a tight deadline.
- Tell me about a time when you improved a process.
Behavioral questions form the core of interviewing in multinational corporations and Fortune 500 companies nowadays. However, answers of job applicants aren’t always easy to evaluate, and compare. For this reason, in a truly structured interview–one in which they try to virtually eliminate the bias and make sure personal preferences of the interviewers play no role, they often replace behavioral questions with tests, and simple case studies. For example, instead of asking you about a time when you had to meet a tight deadline, you will find the following situations in a test:
Imagine that it is Friday 2pm, and you already think about the weekend. Suddenly your superior arrives and asks you to prepare a presentation for Monday morning, for a meeting with an important client. But you know it will take at least 7-8 hours to do this presentation, and you won’t manage to do it until 5pm, the end of your working week. What will you do in such a situation?
- Option A: I will explain the situation to the manager and ask them to reschedule the meeting for Tuesday morning, to have sufficient time to prepare a quality presentation.
- Option B: I will stay at work until 9pm, sacrificing my free time, to make sure the presentation is ready.
- Option C: I will explain the situation to the manager, and together try to find a way how the presentation can be done, without me spending half of the weekend working on it.
- Option D: I will refuse the task, knowing I could not meet the deadline.
- Option E: Since my priority is meeting the deadline, I will do the best presentation I can within the time allotted, even if that won’t be the best presentation possible.
In this form of structured interview, you simply pick one of the options A to E, and the hiring managers know exactly how many points you should get for choosing each option. As a result, instead of judging your answers based on their impression, they simply score your answers according to pre-defined criteria. In my opinion, this is a more sensible way of using behavioral questions in a structured interview.
Technical questions in a structured interview
The third thing they evaluate is your readiness for the “technical aspect” of the job. Do not let the word technical confuse you, however. It simply refers to hard/soft skills necessary to the job in question. Education often also fits the bracket. Let me give you two examples:
- For a job of a website designer you need to know HTML, CSS, etc. You also need to know to work with certain software programs and platforms, such as WordPress for example. These are some of the necessary technical skills for the role.
- For a job of a secondary school teacher, you need a relevant university degree, and a good knowledge of the subject you will teach (PE, Physics, Biology, French language, etc). Once again we can label these abilities as “technical skills”.
As you can likely imagine, technical questions depend a lot on the job you try to get, and may differ from one interview to another. I will give you some examples below, just to know what type of questions you can expect. Make sure to read the job description carefully and think about a typical day in your new job. It should help you understand what skills/abilities you need, and what they may ask you in this interview.
- Can you tell us more about your experience with MS Excel?
- How do you feel about lifting objects weighting 40 pounds?
- Have you ever worked with a mentally disabled person?
- What kind of water pump will you use in this or that setup?
- In your opinion, which of the following two cars is better for a family of four, and why?
- Explain a difference between a debit card and a credit card.
- What types of forklifts have you worked with up to this point?
Tests and case studies as an alternative in a structured interview
If you want to really know if someone can swim, and how well do they swim, what will you do? Will you ask them whether they can swim? Or will you rather take them to the swimming pool and ask them to jump to the water and swim to the other end of the pool?
I think the answer is obvious. Someone with strong communication skills can convince us of almost everything. However, once you ask them to perform some task, words won’t help them. Either they can do it, or they can’t…. Many employers learned this lesson the hard way (paying the price with wrong hires), and hence instead of asking you any technical questions, they will simply ask you to demonstrate your skills. Depending on the job you try to get, you can face the following tasks in the interviews:
- Here is a simple IQ test. You have 15 minutes to complete it.
- Look at this math riddle. Try to solve it as quickly as possible.
- We have a defected window here. Here are the tools. Please diagnose the defect and repair it.
- Look at this purchasing contract. Can you see any mistakes on it? What can you do to improve it for the buyer?
- Imagine that I am a client on the phone. Try to convince me to open an account with this bank.
- Sell me this pen.
- Here are some data from the stock market. Please analyze the data now and suggest what assets should an investor buy on the market today.
- Here is a set of data about sales of a certain car model in 2022. Look at the data set, enter the data to MS Excel, make some pie charts to illustrate the trends, and interpret the data.
Drawbacks of a structured interview
While structured interviews have their advantages, and can help the company to fight nepotism and hiring based on personal preferences of the interviewing managers, they aren’t perfect. To the main disadvantages belong:
- Inability to use elaborate behavioral questions, such as “Tell us about a time when you did X. Why you did X, what was the outcome, and what would you do differently in the same situation?” Answers to such questions can tell us a lot about the job candidate and their attitude to work, but it is almost impossible to compare answers of two candidates or score their answers with some point system. Hence we cannot use them in a truly structured interview.
- Once the company uses exactly the same questions with each and every candidate, and even asks them in the same order, it is super easy for the questions to leak online. Sure, you can find interview guides for any job/employer online nowadays (and of course the best guides you will find here, on InterviewPenguin.com). But if the interviews aren’t structured the guide cannot tell you exactly what questions you will face. If they are structured, however, it is enough if a single candidate leaks the questions on some online forum or social media platform, and other candidates can use the list for years to prepare for the interview in advance.
- Certain things just cannot be measured by scores and scales. While personal preferences of a hiring managers shouldn’t decide the outcome of an interview process, their gut feeling and first-hand impression from the candidate is something we should not completely ignore…
The world we live in today places of lot of value on equal opportunity. It forces the companies to use interview formats that aren’t necessarily the best, but minimize the impact of personal preferences of the hiring managers. Structured interview is such a format. I hope this article helped you to understand what it means, and how to prepare for it. Good luck in your next interview!
May also interest you:
- Emotional intelligence interview questions.
- Teamwork interview questions.
- 15 most common interview questions and answers.