You’re prepped and ready to totally nail this job interview. You’ve rehearsed your elevator pitch—in front of the mirror, even. You’ve committed the entire job description to memory. Heck, you even drove a practice route to the interview location to make sure you knew exactly where to park.
So, when the meeting finally rolls around, you’re feeling cool, calm, and collected. That is, until the interviewer jumps right in with the dreaded, “Tell me about a time when…”
Suddenly your mouth is dry, your mind is blank, and you have a mental facepalm moment. Why, oh why, didn’t you think to prepare for these types of prompts?
Yes, those requests for real-world examples—also known as behavioral interview questions—are frustrating. But, they’re also an extremely common part of the interview process.
Your best bet is to have a few stories prepared and ready to go for your next interview. Here are the six big ones you should make sure to have in your arsenal. They’re general enough that they can be used for a variety of questions, but specific enough that the person asking will feel like he or she’s getting a good, solid, detail-filled response. (And be sure to read up on the STAR interview method to help you craft impressive answers using these stories.)
1. When You Solved a Problem
You’ve likely seen the term “problem solver” listed as a desired skill in almost every job description you’ve read. But, anybody can simply slap that key phrase on his or her resume. The proof is in the pudding, so you need to be prepared to explain a time when you actually exercised this skill.
Did you once resolve a conflict between two team members you worked closely with? Was there a time when you managed to find a last-minute conference speaker after the original one backed out in the eleventh hour?
Dig back through your history to find an example that shows you’re a creative, resourceful, and self-motivated problem solver who’s always there in a pinch. No, your interviewer likely won’t be impressed by the fact that you moved closer to the office simply so you could sleep later. Is that a solution to your problem? Sure. But, you’re probably better off keeping that tidbit to yourself.
2. When You Overcame a Challenge
The workplace can be full of obstacles. Whether you need to navigate a tricky relationship with your manager or you get stuck with an overwhelmingly difficult project, it’s important to show that you aren’t quick to back down from a challenge.
There are so many inspiring stories out there that it can be tempting to rack your brain until you come up with a tear-jerking example of how you overcame adversity. But, you don’t need to lie about how you climbed Mount Kilimanjaro or pulled yourself out of homelessness. Interviewers aren’t looking for a movie plot.
Instead, come up with a real-life instance of when something stood in your way and you did everything you could to get around it. For example, maybe you worked two part-time jobs in order to pay for your college tuition. Or maybe you turned around a huge work project on an impossibly tight deadline. Those are great stories to share about how you took initiative in order to climb over roadblocks.
3. When You Made a Mistake
We’ve all heard it before—nobody’s perfect. People make mistakes, and interviewers know that you’re no exception. But, what’s important to them is how you react to your slip-ups. Do you sweep them under the rug, or do you address them head on?
Mistakes are common, so you probably won’t have a tough time thinking of a wide array of blunders to choose from. But, you want to be somewhat selective about the one you choose to share. After all, you definitely don’t want to tell the interviewer about the time you accidentally sent a scathing email about your boss to the entire company.
Instead, think of a more minor mistake that you made in the workplace (e.g., not something like leaking internal documents to the press). Briefly explain the situation, and then talk about everything you did to remedy the issue. Remember that the emphasis of this story shouldn’t be on the actual mistake you made—it should be on the steps you immediately took to fix it, and then what you learned from it.
4. When You Worked as a Leader
“Leadership” is another one of those job interview buzzwords. And, if you’re applying for a management position, you want to be sure to have at least a few solid examples of your leadership skills in your back pocket.
Perhaps you previously led your team to achieve the highest sales numbers on record. Maybe you coordinated a wildly successful company-wide event. Or, perhaps you chaperoned and directed your niece’s Girl Scout troupe on a three-day camping trip.
If you can come up with a time when you successfully took charge and saw positive results, you’ll be prepared to wow your interviewer with your incredible leadership know-how.
5. When You Worked With a Team
You know the saying—teamwork makes the dream work. And, as you know by now, collaborating with others in the workplace is pretty much inevitable. So, you need to demonstrate that you know how to play nice in the sandbox.
What sorts of examples can you bring up? Pretty much any time that you effectively teamed up with people will fit the bill! You can talk about a huge project that you were a part of or explain your volunteer position as one of the board members of a local nonprofit. As long as your example shows that you understand not just how to collaborate, but why it’s so valuable (all the heads are better than one)—you’ll be in good shape.
So, pick a time when you worked with others—more importantly, when you worked well with others—and give your interviewer the details.
6. When You Did Something Interesting
Yes, interviews place most of the emphasis on your job-related qualifications and competencies. But, if the hiring manager has a decent handle on your background and thinks you’re a potential good fit, he or she might be interested in finding out more about you personally—not just professionally.
You definitely don’t want to meet the person with a blank stare when he or she concludes the interview with, “So, tell me something about what you like to do outside of work.”
Whether you’re currently training for your first marathon or you’re in the process of doing a DIY renovation on your kitchen, you should be armed and ready with a few noteworthy tidbits. Not only will you answer the interviewer’s question, but you’ll also leave the hiring manager with something memorable to associate with your name!
Those tricky behavioral interview questions are enough to immediately make your palms clammy. But, they’re also a perfect opportunity to demonstrate that you’re a great fit for the position. Have these six stories at the ready, and you’re sure to ace your next interview!
Photo of job interview courtesy of Shutterstock.
Kat is a Midwest-based freelance writer, covering topics related to careers, productivity, and the freelance life. In addition to The Muse, she's a contributor all over the web and dishes out research-backed advice for places like Atlassian, Trello, Toggl, Wrike, The Everygirl, FlexJobs, and more. She's also an Employment Advisor at a local college, and loves helping students prepare to thrive in careers (and lives!) they love. When she manages to escape from behind her computer screen, she's usually babying her two rescue mutts or continuing her search for the perfect taco. Say hi on Twitter @kat_boogaard or check out her website.More from this Author