Interviewing: “Tell Me About a Time When…”

Published: Sep 11, 2013

By Heather Krasna

An underlying assumption of many recruiters and hiring managers is that past performance predicts future behavior.  Because of this, many interviewers ask you to describe an example of a time when you have encountered a problem similar to ones you're likely to solve in the job for which you are interviewing.  These questions almost always start, "Tell me about a time when..."

What comes next depends on the job, but here are some of the most common questions:

"Tell me about a time when... overcame a challenge. had to handle a disagreement with a team member. had to convince someone of your idea without having authority to do so. came up with a new idea or initiative and saw it through to its conclusion. had to handle a budget. had to pay attention to details.

...things did not go as planned.  How did you overcome the challenge?  What did you learn?"

How do you prepare for this onslaught of questions?

First, copy and paste the job description into Word and highlight the repeated phrases, "essential requirements," or “main job duties”.  Translate each main requirement into a question.  A job requiring the use of social media might have an interview question, "Tell me about a time when you leveraged a social media platform to communicate with your target audience."  Others require reading in between the lines of the job description; a job description that mentions "handling changing priorities and multi-tasking" might ask for you to describe a time when you worked without much supervision, or how you handled ambiguity, or how you have worked in an entrepreneurial culture.  Create a list of the top six or seven most likely questions.

Then, look through your own resume and think carefully about each job, volunteer experience, or even class project, and write down a few stories, using the "Problem/Action/Result" method.  What was the situation you were in?  What conflict or problem did you face; or what opportunity did you discover to help improve the situation?  What did you do to solve the problem, and what was the final result?  Be sure to emphasize how you resolved the initial problem.  Make sure you don't sound like you are complaining about any prior employer, colleague, or classmate, even if asked a negative question.  Focus on work or school-related achievements (like the time you handled a complex research project and got it published) and avoid the overly personal ones (like the time you lost 30 pounds).  Tie your stories in to the actual questions you may encounter in the interview.

Finally, remember that you won't be able to read from notes in the interview itself.  Try telling these stories a few times to a friend, recording them as a video or voice memo, or just saying them to a mirror, keeping your stories to 2-3 minutes each.  Just taking a few minutes to say them aloud will greatly improve your confidence and make you much more convincing in the interview.

Back to listing