how to answer ‘tell me about a time when…’ interview questions

If you’ve ever been to a job interview, you’ve probably been asked a few ‘tell me about a time when...’ questions in one of their many, many forms. These 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, and you have no way of knowing exactly what your interviewer is looking for in that story. If you’re not a natural storyteller, it can be especially tough to be put on the spot.

how to tell a story in a job interview

Here are some tips and tricks to handle all the ‘tell me about a time when’ questions that get thrown your way during a job interview. 

brainstorm ahead of time

One of the most difficult parts of answering a ‘tell me about a time when’ question is coming up with an example on the fly. If you do the hard work ahead of time, and you’ll be able to breeze through these questions when they come up. Not sure where to start? There are 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 examples for each category.

  • an example of a mistake or failure
  • an achievement you’re proud of
  • a time you implemented feedback
  • a disagreement or conflict with a coworker
  • a time you solved a problem or rose to a challenge
  • a time you were a leader 

prepare a catalogue of stories

If this sounds like a lot of work, you’re right! It’s going to take some time to get your thoughts together and select the best examples to keep in your repertoire, but we promise it will be worth it. When you’re on the receiving end of one of these questions during your next interview, you’ll sail right through it like a pro. Try to prepare at least 2 examples for each of the categories listed above. That way, you’ll have options, depending on what you think the interviewer is looking for.

keep your answer short and to the point

Though you want to tell a story, it should be a brief one. If it takes more than 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 set up.
Task – Explain your role.
Action – What did you do?
Result – What was the final outcome? 

write down key points to remember

The majority of people (estimated at around 65% of the population) are visual learners which means they learn and remember things better when they are physically able to see the words in front of them. If you’re one of these people, writing down the bullet points you want to touch on for each of your answers 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 out in full and planning every single word you’ll say. It can seem unnatural and rehearsed if you plan out what you’re going to say down to the word. No one wants to hear you recite an answer like you’re reading from a script. Not only does it seem inauthentic (which is usually not a quality most hiring managers appreciate!) it’s boring to listen to as an interviewer. It can also trip up your entire answer if you get off course or forget one of your lines. Instead, try to paraphrase your story, while still touching on the key points you’ve outlined. It will sound more natural!

listen to your interviewer for cues

There’s more to being a good interviewee than just talking about yourself. Being a good listener is also an invaluable skill for job interviews. Perk up your ears for clues that indicate what your interviewer is looking for in their ideal candidate. Did she nod her head when the topic of collaboration came up? Maybe you should focus on stories that showcase your ability to work well on a team. Did the interviewer ask a lot of questions about a specific software you mentioned using? Try telling a story that features that software. 

always end on a positive

When an interviewer asks a question that’s inherently negative… say ‘tell me about a time when you made a mistake’ it’s 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 when it comes to hiring you (i.e. you’re late to work every day) but 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. The key to spinning that answer in a positive way is to end your story with an explanation of what you’ve done to correct the behaviour. For instance, “Since then, I’ve integrated a task management tool into my routine so I know exactly how much is on my plate and whether I have time to take on new projects. I’m able to make more informed decisions about how I spend my time and communicate and manage expectations with my coworkers.” A potentially negative story then segues into a positive learning experience, all the while seeming authentic.

 

Need even more help with your interview prep? We’ve also written helpful articles on these topics:

Good luck with your next job interview! 

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