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How to answer the ‘Tell me about a time when…?’ Interview question

Written by: Charlotte Rogers
Published on: 15 Apr 2022

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When you go into an interview, you can never really be sure about what the interviewer may or may not ask you. Being prepared for anything can really help calm your nerves but for some reason, you may find yourself scrambling for words when the interviewer asks a question starting with ‘tell me about a time when?’. You may have prepared, but sometimes, we forget what we’re about to say and go with something else. There is a good plan for answering these types of questions, keep reading below to find out how you can be as prepared as possible and stop those nerves hitting you as soon as questions like this are asked.

Why do employers choose these questions?

It’s always good to understand why you are being asked these questions, to ensure that you are giving them the best possible answer, enabling you to show them your strengths and experience. ‘Tell me about a time’ questions are behavioural questions. They are asked to encourage you to not only discuss your skills but focus on a specific time or experience in your personal or professional life.

The interviewer is looking for you to give an answer that follows with an example. This makes it more of an open answer where you can discuss an experience and how it impacted you in that moment. Employers want to know your skills and how you have put them into practice and whether you would be a good fit for their team. They may ask you questions about both positive and negative experiences, but it’s important that you always stay positive throughout. You can discuss how you overcame issues but never talk yourself down.

How to start answering these questions?

These kinds of questions need to have stories. You need to think of a time when you were actually put in that situation and go from there. The STAR method is a good way of answering these types of questions.

Situation – Think of a time when

Task – What was the task at hand?

Action – What did you do in this situation?

Result – What was the outcome?

One of the main reasons we may feel nervous when these questions are asked, is because we either haven’t prepared for the exact question they have asked, or we can’t think of a time where we were actually put in the situation they have asked for. It’s important to know that these questions don’t ways have to be answered with experiences in the workplace. We are more than our jobs and life experiences also make you who you are.

Questions you may be asked

It’s likely that the interviewer will ask you a variety of different questions, including some for both positive and negative experiences. There are some examples on what you should expect from an interview below.

  1. Tell me about a time when you reached a goal at work?
  2. Tell me about a time when you set a goal and didn’t reach it?
  3. Tell me about a time when you led a team? Did you have any problems? How did you solve them?
  4. Tell me about a time when you were successful at work?
  5. Tell me about a time when you struggled at work?
  6. Tell me about a time when you had to solve a difficult problem?

If you are asked any of the above, even the ones asking about a time where something may not have gone exactly to plan, always finish on a positive note. If you are talking about a time when you didn’t reach a goal, what did you do to ensure that next time you achieved it? If you are asked a question relating to a time where you worked as a team, ensure you are telling them how you worked in the team and the part you played in it. Yes, teamwork is important, but they want to know how you worked in that situation.

Start planning

The likelihood is, you won’t be asked more than a couple of questions like this. So, there is no point getting flustered and worrying over not knowing what they will ask. The best advice I can give, is to think of both a positive and negative experience you had and adapt this scenario to the question you are asked. The most popular questions asked may include:

  1. Tell me about a time when you were successful at work?
  2. Tell me about a time when you struggled at work?

So, try and think of examples for these and practice them when you are doing your interview preparation. Behavioural questions are all about giving more than just one-word answers. They give the interviewer a more in-depth understanding on how you work, how you deal with problems in the workplace and who you are as a person. It allows them to understand your skills at a deeper level than just reading them off your CV. These questions can feel daunting, but once you get the hang of them, there is really nothing to worry about.