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Advice / Job Search / Finding a Job

Tips for Tackling "Tell Me About a Time When" Interview Questions Like a Pro

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It’s interview time. Your outfit of the day’s on point, you arrived early, and you delivered the perfect elevator pitch about why this job’s the one for you.

Then comes the moment we all dread—the interviewer opens their mouth and says, “So, tell me about a time when…”.

You maintain eye contact and force your smile to stay put. But your palms start sweating, and all you can do is rack your brain for the perfect scenario. Will it make me look good? Did that even happen, or did I dream it? Am I sort of lying here?

We get it—behavioral interview questions are tough. But we’ve got your back. Below are three tips on how to answer those dreaded questions like a pro.

Prepare a List of Scenarios Ahead of Time

It’s hard to think of experiences off the top of your head. Having a handful prepared and ready to go can reduce the risk that you’ll sit there wide-eyed and wordless. Sure, you can’t anticipate every single thing they’ll ask, but you can equip yourself with a “catalog" of examples to reference.

This way, you can run through your options and decide which fits the question best. And, one good thing you’ll find is that you can actually adapt many of your choices to a few different situations.

For instance, let’s say one of your prepared anecdotes is about receiving negative feedback from a client. That could answer both, “Tell me about a time you had to have a difficult conversation," and “Tell me about a time when you felt like you failed.”

Struggling to come up with a range of scenarios? Consider some of the below questions, and challenge yourself to come up with an anecdotal response to each.

Put Your Examples Into Categories

When putting together your list, put your examples into three different buckets: tough times, highlights, and working with others.

“Tough times” are mistakes and challenging situations. “Highlights” include any big or small wins. And, in the “Working with others” category, you can include interpersonal conflicts, your ability to collaborate, and anything leadership-related. (Sometimes these will overlap—that’s OK!)

For each, write down three or four examples. They don’t have to be huge, life-changing events. Yes, getting promoted is a great highlight, but so is receiving praise from your boss after a big presentation.

This will not only help you organize your thoughts as you brainstorm, but it’s also helpful when choosing a response. If the question is negative, you can immediately go to your “tough times" bucket rather than thinking about your entire list. This will cut down on that deer in headlights moment before your response!

Craft Your Responses Like a STAR

Good news: There’s a specific framework you can use to make your answers succinct and comprehensive. It’s called STAR—Situation, Task, Action, Result. Set the story up by providing context (situation) and your specific responsibility (task). Then, follow up with the actions you took and what the results were.

For example, say the hiring manager wants to hear about a time you made a mistake.

(Situation) “I compile annual reports for our clients. One time, I forgot to request a specific data set the client wanted. Our data operations team needs two weeks to pull, and the meeting was in five days.”

(Task) “We couldn’t expedite the process, so I needed to figure out how to move forward.”

(Action) “I collaborated with the data ops team to figure out the earliest date we could have that data set. Then, I called the client, explained that I dropped the ball, and told him when he’d get that data.”

(Result) “The client wasn’t thrilled, but he told me he appreciated my honesty. And, we added a new task to our project plan so we can prevent this in the future.”

And remember, interviewers want to hear about the lessons you learned and the skills you used. In the example above, you displayed to ability to solve a problem, teamwork, and honesty. When you're constructing your responses, ask yourself, “What am I trying to teach the interviewer about me?”

Interviews are intimidating, and these types of questions don’t help. But preparation (as well as believing in yourself and your experience) is key. And, don’t be afraid to take a few moments to breathe and think. You’re human, and that’s 100% allowed. Good luck!