A structured interview is when an interviewer uses the same predetermined list of questions with all job candidates. Having questions already laid out in advance can help hiring managers and HR professionals feel prepared as they head into an interview, and it can make the interview process more straightforward, mitigating bias both in the interview room and while evaluating applicants’ answers after the interview.
Different from unstructured interviews, which are more like free-flowing conversations that take different directions based on the candidate and their responses, the structured interview approach can be customized to suit the hiring strategy for a variety of positions.
And when given an overview of what the structure will look like, applicants may feel more relaxed and better prepared for the interview, which allows them to comfortably demonstrate and explain the qualities that make them a good fit for the job. That makes it easier for recruiters and hiring managers to identify and connect with some of the highest quality candidates in their talent pool.
What Is a Structured Interview?
A structured interview is one where the interviewer uses a standard set of questions that they ask each job candidate who’s vying for the position. Meaning, they don’t really improvise or go “off script” based on how the conversation is going.
James Durago, director of people operations at database platform company Molecula, told Built In in 2022 that he swears by the structured interview process. A tight labor market can make finding the right candidates for open positions particularly difficult. That’s why it’s even more important now to have well-thought-out plans for the interview process, Durago explained. By planning, hiring managers can tailor interviews to the roles they are hiring for and find the best candidates for them.
Structured interviews can be easier on interviewers, Durago said. It’s common for companies to have several different internal employees involved in the hiring process, and not all of them will have the same level of interviewing experience and preparation. Setting a well-defined interview structure helps make the experience better for candidates and ensures the costly hiring process is worthwhile for the company.
“You don’t just want to just throw it into the wind and hope and pray that it sticks. That’s not a good use of your money or your time.”
“Maybe you go through 10 candidates — that’s 10 hours of just your own personal time, and then you’ve got to ask other people to interview that person,” Durago said. “You don’t just want to just throw it into the wind and hope and pray that it sticks. That’s not a good use of your money or your time.”
Access ready-to-use resources to successfully plan, conduct and evaluate candidate interviews remotely.
Structured Vs. Unstructured Interviews
Both structured and unstructured interviews have their advantages and disadvantages during the hiring process. For example, a structured interview provides the person asking the questions with a written checklist so they can get their bearings at the start of each interview and be sure they don’t miss anything important. Unstructured interviews, on the other hand, can help interviewers evaluate a candidate’s approach to problem-solving and understand how they make decisions.
Deciding on the right interview format to fill your vacant roles can depend on the type of position you’re hiring for and what skills you need to evaluate.
Structured Interviews Vs. Unstructured Interviews
- Structured interviews are characterized by a predetermined list of questions that interviewers ask all candidates. Giving an overarching structure to the interview provides a consistent experience for all candidates. Structured interviews also help interviewers avoid asking redundant questions.
- Unstructured interviews are more like free-flowing conversations. Unstructured portions of interviews allow interviewers to understand candidates on a deeper level. Unstructured interviews help in assessing behavioral portions of the interview process.
Structured Interview Advantages
Having a predetermined interview structure can give each interviewer a better understanding of their role and the purpose of the interview, which in turn can help them evaluate candidates. It gives them the ability to piece together a clearer picture of each applicant’s strengths and weaknesses.
Job interviews are already stressful for candidates, and having completely unstructured interviews can make the experience even more nerve-wracking. Giving candidates an outline of what to expect, like who they will speak to and what skills they will be tested for can take away much of the anxiety caused by uncertainty.
“For example, if I know this interview is going to be focusing on interpersonal skills or teamwork, then I can at least put myself in that frame of thought and put my best foot forward,” Durago said.
STRUCTURED INTERVIEW DISADVANTAGES
The structured interview process also has its downsides. For example, the seemingly formal nature of ticking off questions has the potential to make an interviewer — and by association, their organization — come off as disconnected, cold or even intimidating. This can make it difficult to build a rapport or relationship with applicants, as well as get an accurate read on their temperament and communication skills.
And because a structured interview is supposed to stick mostly to a fixed set of questions, interviewers aren’t able to ask follow-ups that take more of a deep dive. They’re certainly able to prompt candidates to provide clarity or expand on something they said, but the structured interview process doesn’t necessarily allow them to stray into a more complex discussion.
Unstructured Interview Advantages
For Ani Khachatoorian, VP of people at e-commerce natural food company Thrive Market, unstructured interviews come in handy when hiring for higher leadership positions. She’ll ask them standard questions about how many people they’ve managed and their department’s org chart, but also open-ended questions about their experiences and career journey.
“It’s not just the results — how you break down a complicated project is equally important,” she said. “Because we also want diversity of thought and diversity of experiences. And if we don’t ask for your experiences, and we just ask for that end result, we’re not going to have a team that could approach really big, hard problems in a multifaceted way.”
Even interviews for technical positions shouldn’t stick to a strictly structured format. Interviews for senior technical positions, especially, move away from curated coding questions and focus more on conversations about process and software design, said Sonali Moholkar, engineering manager at blockchain analysis company Chainalysis.
“When you have system design and behavioral rounds, they naturally tend to be a little more semi-structured,” Moholkar said. “Because there is no one way to design a system. Depending on the [candidate’s] experience, the conversations can go in completely different directions.”
Unstructured Interview Disadvantages
With a totally unstructured interview, there’s always the danger that an interviewer might try to fill up 60 minutes of time with random questions, or that different interviewers might ask one candidate the same questions.
As a candidate, Durago has been on the receiving side of poorly conducted unstructured interviews and has seen firsthand how disorganized they can be.
A sloppy interview process is not only a waste of the candidate’s time, but can also be harmful for the company in the long run. Job candidates are also consumers and can share their bad interview experiences with other consumers, which can have a negative effect on a company’s reputation.
“Those candidates, whether we hire them or not, have a platform, and that platform is powerful,” Durago said. “If you don’t have an [established] brand that can carry weight, then you’re making your job of growing your business exponentially harder.”
How to Conduct a Structured Interview
All interviewers should be trained on basic interviewing skills, such as understanding what’s appropriate and relevant to ask during the interview process. If the hiring process consists of several interviews with different people, make sure they are not interviewing the candidates for redundant skills.
Agree on Questions Before Starting Interviews
For structured interviews, Durago recommends writing down a list of interview questions and reviewing them with all interviewers before any candidates are involved.
Questions should be based on the company’s hiring philosophy and values, he said. Interviewers can reflect whatever is most important to the company by compiling questions that map back to those core values. Questions can then be tweaked for different positions in ways that still address those same values.
Tailor Questions to Find the Right Employee for the Job
Hiring managers should also think about what types of employees thrive at the company, Durago said. All companies are different, with different corporate environments, so hiring managers should tailor interview questions to the types of candidates that would do well in their particular environment. If employees are expected to work on tight-knit teams, for example, the interview should include questions about their teamwork experience and communication skills. If employees are expected to be self-directed, interviewers should ask about their time-management strategies and methods for prioritizing tasks.
“If it’s a teamwork question, I can ask a software engineer, ‘Tell me about a time when you had a disagreement with one of your peers — how did you work it out?’” Durago said. “In sales, you can say something along the lines of, ‘Tell me about a time when you had a particularly challenging relationship with one of your existing clients — how were you able to salvage that relationship and turn it into a fruitful one?’”
Give Candidates Insight About the Interview Structure
It may also be helpful to let candidates know the overall structure of the interview process ahead of time. Companies shouldn’t share exact questions, but telling candidates how many sets of interviews there are, who they will talk to and the general types of questions to expect can help candidates prepare.
“Just letting them know that, for example, we use graphs a lot via the company so just be aware of traversing a graph,” Moholkar said. “It’s a huge domain to be aware of, because you don’t necessarily write algorithms on a day-to-day basis at work. So having the interviewers prep the candidates a little bit just helps.”
Decide on Criteria to Objectively Evaluate Candidates
As hiring teams decide on the questions and overall structure that will dictate the interview process, they should arrange a system for evaluating candidates’ responses as well. Those criteria should be adapted to the specific position and necessary qualifications, such as focusing on interpersonal skills for someone who will have to work within a team. With the structured interview format, being prepared to ask a predetermined list of questions in a fixed order can make it easier for interviewers to follow criteria for grading applicants.
Creating a scoring system sets a more even playing field for assessing applicants’ skills, work style and overall suitability for the role and job environment. It also ensures that if multiple interviewers need to be involved in conducting interviews for a single position, they all have a clear and unified strategy for comparing applicants and determining who should move onto the next stage.
Examples of Structured Interview Questions
These 10 examples of structured interview questions can be tailored to cover assessing a candidate’s interpersonal and technical skills, whether they’d be a good fit for the team, how they approach solving internal and external challenges and their career trajectory.
- What are your biggest strengths and weaknesses?
- Describe how you give feedback to others and the most effective way for you to receive feedback.
- Think about a really effective manager you worked under. What made them so successful in that position and did they demonstrate any skills or attributes you try to emulate?
- What do you find most challenging about this kind of job? What skills, experience or knowledge do you bring that would help you overcome those challenges?
- Tell me about a successful project you worked on. Why was it memorable to you and what was your role or contribution?
- Tell me about a time when a project you worked on didn’t go as planned. What did you learn from that experience?
- Tell me about a time when you disagreed with a colleague or manager. How did you communicate your difference of opinion and resolve the disagreement?
- Tell me about a challenging relationship or interaction you had with a client. How did you work through that situation and turn the relationship or interaction into a fruitful one?
- If you’re faced with (pose a common problem or task they’re likely to encounter in the job), briefly walk me through the steps you’d take to tackle that situation.
- What are your career goals for the next five years and what experience or professional development opportunities do you think this company can provide to help you get there?
We analyzed more than half a million applications to uncover what the candidate journey in the tech industry looks like.