If you’ve ever been to a job interview, you’ve probably been asked a ‘tell me about a time when...’ question. These common job interview questions are a staple of interviews and have been for decades. In fact, they’re so common they have a name: behavioural interview questions. Answering them can be tough because there’s no clear ‘right’ answer.

Behavioural interview questions require you to tell a story. Answering behavioural interview questions can be tough if you’re not a natural storyteller. You can't know what the interviewer wants, but you can get ready for these questions in some ways.

job interview
job interview

If you're looking for more interview questions and answers, check out these 17 tough questions and how to answer them. 

brainstorm ahead of time

One of the most difficult parts is answering questions such as ‘tell me about a time when’ question is coming up with an example. If you do the hard work ahead of time, you’ll be able to breeze through these questions when they come up and make a good impression. Not sure where to start?

A few categories that you’ll see pop up time and again. The exact question or wording may vary, but most ‘tell me about a time when’ interview questions will fall into one of these buckets. Sit down and think of a few specific situations for each category of common behavioural questions.

  • an example of a mistake or failure
  • demonstrating your skills and experience
  • showcasing greatest strength and time management skills
  • a time you implemented feedback and communication skills
  • a disagreement or conflict with a coworker
  • a time you solved a problem or rose to a challenge
  • a time you were a leader or a team player

prepare a catalogue of stories

If this sounds like a lot of work, you’re right! It will take some time to get your thoughts together. Select the best examples to keep in your repertoire, but we promise it will be worth it.

When you receive one of these job interview questions during your next interview, you’ll sail through it like a pro. Try to prepare at least 2 examples for each category listed above to show that you'll fit the job.

That way, you’ll have options depending on what you think the interviewer is looking for. Make sure that your examples pull something from the job description to bring it back to the role you're interviewing for.

keep your answer short and to the point

Though you want to tell a story, it should be brief. If it takes over a minute to get your point across, you risk losing your interviewer’s interest. Avoid rambling and going off on tangents. Stick to telling a story that gets right to the point and addresses the question directly.

If you’re not someone who excels at telling stories, no worries! Storytelling is a skill that you can pick up with a little practice. The STAR method is a tried and true way to structure a simple story. Each section can be completed in as little as a sentence or two.

Here’s how it works:

  • situation: explain the background and setup.
  • task: explain what your current job tasks entail.
  • action: what did you do in your current position?
  • result: what was the outcome of your story?

write out key points to remember

Around 65% of the population are visual learners. Meaning they learn and remember things better when they can physically see the words in front of them. If you’re one of these people, write out the bullet points you want to touch on for each answer. this will help you structure your thoughts and remember your key talking points. 

don’t memorize a script

We recommend keeping a list of bullet points for each story rather than writing your examples in full and planning every word you say.

Memorizing a script will seem unnatural and rehearsed if you plan out what you will say down to the words. No one wants to hear you recite an answer like you’re reading from a script. Not only does it seem inauthentic, but it’s also boring to listen to as an interviewer.

Most hiring managers will notice if you have memorized it through your body language and tone. It can also trip up your entire answer if you get off course or forget one of your lines. Instead, try paraphrasing your story while still touching on your outlined key points—it will sound more natural.

listen to your interviewer for cues

There’s more to being a good interviewee than just speaking about yourself and making eye contact. Being a good listener is also invaluable for job interviews to show you're a good fit. Perk up your ears for clues that indicate what your interviewer is looking for in their ideal team member.

Did the hiring manager nod their head when the topic of collaboration came up? Maybe you should focus on stories that showcase your ability to work in their company culture. Did the interviewer ask many questions about a specific social media you mentioned using? Try telling a story that features that specific social media. 

always end on a positive

When an interviewer asks an inherently negative question during the hiring process… say, ‘Tell me about a time when you made a mistake.’ It can be difficult to think of an answer that doesn’t seem fake or paint you in a bad light.

We recommend telling the truth within reason. Of course, you’re not going to admit to anything illegal, or that could be a deal breaker for the company to hire you. However, you should be honest with yourself and your interviewer about your professional weaknesses. 

For instance, let’s say your mistake was taking on too much work and being unable to say no. Explain how you fixed the behaviour when ending your story to make the answer positive for the job interviewer.

A negative story then becomes a positive learning experience—all while seeming authentic.

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