Main image of article Structured, Unstructured and Semi-Structured Interviews: Tips for Success

If you’re prepping for a job interview, you inevitably do your research into the organization, role, and even your interviewer. However, understanding the common interview formats can also help you adjust your responses and style in an optimum way. 

The format for traditional face-to-face interviews typically falls into three categories: structured, unstructured and semi-structured. Most companies intentionally select a structure, process and scoring mechanism that aligns with their values, work approach and management style.

To eliminate the unknowns and help you put your best foot forward, here’s a look at three basic types of job interviews and how to formulate your responses.

Structured Interviews

Companies that are trying to minimize unconscious bias in hiring decisions often use a structured interview format. You are more likely to encounter a structured format at a large, mature company with an HR department.

In structured interviews, each candidate is asked the same set of questions in the same order, and their answers are scored against the key requirements using specific benchmarks. 

One of the telltale signs of a structured interview is when the interviewer reads questions from a sheet of paper or a screen and doesn’t ask follow-up questions, explained career coach Kyle Elliott, who helps tech pros prepare for interviews, often with FAANG companies.

“The downside is that when questions don't build on one another, the exchange feels less conversational and it’s more difficult to stand out,” Elliott said.

When the conversation feels one-sided, you might be tempted to respond curtly or stay buttoned-up, warned interview coach Jeff Sipe, who recruited at Google for five years. However, adapting the way you respond can help you connect with the interviewer, and more importantly, be memorable, even with a rigid, structured format. 

How? When answering scripted questions, always explain what sets you apart. 

The structured interview format relies on the theory that past behavior is a good indicator of future performance. Communicating the match between the requirements and your skillset through a clear, compelling story of a previous accomplishment showcases not only what you can do but who you are. 

Even better, checking all the “must-have” and “nice-to-have” boxes in the original job posting can raise your score. Make sure to weave as many of the employer’s desired attributes as possible into your tales.

Injecting just one or two interesting and unique details or facts into your story can help to create great visuals or images in the mind of the interviewer, Sipe said. The most common mistake candidates make when vying for a position at a premier company: Not telling a memorable story. 

But stay aware that repeating the same story is a red flag, Elliott cautioned. Even if the questions are the same, always tell a new story to highlight your skills each time you meet with different team members.

Unstructured Interviews

Founders and managers sometimes hire by gut instinct, especially at smaller companies and startups where time and attention are at a premium and hiring is rapid. Instead of relying on standardized questions, they base new questions on the flow of the conversation and your responses.

While the conversation may feel super-casual, it can be hard to determine what the interviewer wants to get out the discussion and structure your talking points accordingly. In turn, you may ramble or respond in a way that seems off-target. 

The best way to succeed in an interview that lacks structure is with… structure.

When the conversation goes in lots of different directions, ask clarifying questions to confirm what the manager is asking and to bring focus to the discussion, Sipe advised. Don’t be too obvious about it, but make every effort to keep the talk “on track.”

Sometimes the interviewer doesn’t know what they want, or they may be trying to see how you adapt to unclear circumstances and work through problems. When you incorporate your own questions and ask the interviewer to elaborate on specific items before responding, you seem calm, methodical and detail-oriented.

Once you’ve clarified the question and identified whether its open-ended or behavior-based, your best bet is to share an example or success story using the STARCFS or another method.

Semi-Structured Interviews

A hybrid or semi-structured interview format uses some pre-planned questions while also giving the interviewer the flexibility to ask follow-up or clarifying questions on the fly or at the conclusion of the structured segment. 

When the interviewer mixes things up, you should mix and match, too. For example, if the questions seem scripted, share a success story or example. When the questions flow from the previous question and are open-ended, clarify if necessary, then structure your answer in a way that reflects the environment, your role and responsibilities, and the type of people you’ll be working with (such as business stakeholders, end users or external customers).

The best way to ace any interview is to do your research and perfect your success stories and anecdotes. Anticipating the format can help you nail almost any question and scenario the hiring manager tosses your way. Just make sure to do your pre-work, and prepare those stories that highlight your skills and problem-solving abilities.