When you're prepping for a job interview, it's important to include a variety of situational questions. If you're an interviewer, you'll want to plan to ask at least a few situational questions that involve having candidates discuss situations they have faced in the past that could impact whether they are well suited for the job you're seeking to fill. Because most interviewers ask at least a few "tell me about a time" questions, job seekers should be prepared to respond.
Examples of "Tell Me About a Time" Interview Questions
Any time an interviewer says, "Tell me about a time that...," they are looking for the candidate to respond with a specific example of a situation they have experienced at work or elsewhere, such as while working on a charitable committee or even at school (for early career candidates). So, an inquiry that starts with the phrase "tell me about a time" is always a situational question. They're not asking for a hypothetical (what would you do if) response. They want you to share a real scenario.
- Tell me about a time you dealt with an irate customer. Calmly explain a work-related situation in which you were responsible for interacting with a customer who was extremely upset. Calmly and objectively explain what happened without getting overly emotional, making it clear that you are aware that dealing with such situations is part of your responsibilities, and you have the ability to do so effectively.
- Tell me about a time you disagreed with your boss. Provide an overview of a time that you didn't share your boss's perspective on a situation, focusing primarily on how you approached the situation in a constructive way. Discuss how you presented the situation, including how you argued your point without overstepping. Share what the resolution was and how you handled the outcome.
- Tell me about a time you helped train a new team member. Describe how you approached helping a team member learn skills that would help them succeed in your job. This could be based on a time your boss asked you to help train, a time a new team member asked you for help, or a time you proactively offered to provide guidance or assistance to a new hire.
- Tell me about a time you led a team. Be prepared to share details about a situation in which you functioned as the leader of a team, whether you were formally assigned to be the team leader or it was a situation where you became an informal leader of a group that you were part of. Ideally, focus on a work-related scenario, but if you haven't had this experience at work, share a story about a school project, volunteer committee, or another team where you played a leadership role.
- Tell me about a time you worked through a conflict with a co-worker. Briefly describe the conflict, but focus primarily on how you approached resolving the conflict. Share what you did to reach an agreement, recognizing that it's important to maintain a positive working relationship with co-workers. The recruiter will be looking to see that you can maintain professionalism through disagreement and focus on the situation rather than making it personal.
- Tell me about a time you had to step outside of your comfort zone at work. Describe a time that you were faced with something completely new at work, or when part of your job functions may have changed drastically. Give a short explanation of the situation, but focus on what you did to push yourself to succeed with an unfamiliar task or process. The recruiter wants to learn how you respond to change, and get a sense of what you consider being outside your comfort zone.
- Tell me about a time you pitched an innovative idea at work. Share a story about a time that you came up with a fresh idea related to your job, focusing on how you approached pitching the idea. Did you test your idea, write a proposal and submit it to your boss? Did you share it at a team meeting so everyone could provide input and brainstorm about how it might be implemented? There's not a right or wrong answer; the recruiter wants to get a sense of how you handle such instances.
- Tell me about a time that reaching a goal required re-prioritizing your tasks. Here, the recruiter will look to see that you are flexible and adaptable enough to change what you focus on when it is necessary to accomplish a goal, whether it is an individual, team, or organizational goal. Talk about how you decide what to do first, or emphasize the most, based on what you are tasked with accomplishing.
- Tell me about a time you have exhibited leadership skills. The recruiter wants to get a sense of your leadership skills, along with when and how you utilize such skills. Share a scenario from work, your personal life, school, or other groups you may be involved with where you were not in charge, yet still exhibited leadership behaviors. Provide examples of what you did and how those actions positively impacted the group.
- Tell me about a time you needed to ask a co-worker for help. If you're asked this question, share a story about a time that you needed help from one of your peers and explain how you approached requesting their assistance. The recruiter is probably looking to see what you do in a situation when you need help from someone at work who is not your boss. This can reveal if you're willing to be vulnerable and humble, both of which are important aspects of being a good team player.
- Tell me about a time your boss criticized your work or provided negative feedback. Provide an overview of a time that your boss let you know that an aspect of your work needed to improve. Focus on how you responded to the feedback, both in terms of what you thought and felt about it, as well as what you did as a result. Keep in mind that hiring managers typically look for people who can take constructive feedback as an opportunity to grow, rather than reacting negatively.
- Tell me about a time that a co-worker went above and beyond to help you. Give an example of a time that someone you work with did more than they had to in order to help you (and the team) succeed. This may involve helping with tasks when you're extremely busy or explaining how to do something. Your response should demonstrate that you accept help gracefully, and that you express appreciation to those who help you.
- Tell me about a time you were assigned a task that you didn't know how to do. Describe a time that you recognized what you didn't know how to do and asked for instructions. With this question, the recruiter is looking to see if you are comfortable admitting when you don't know how to do something, and that you will speak up and ask for help, rather than avoiding or putting off the task or, worse yet, attempting it without knowing what you're doing.
- Tell me about a time you felt overwhelmed by work. Share a scenario in which your workload was much heavier than usual, to the point where it became overwhelming. Focus on what you did to make it manageable. Did you ask your boss to help you prioritize? Did you ask for assistance from a coworker? Did you work tirelessly until everything was done? The recruiter wants to see what your organizational skills are like, and verify that you wouldn't just shut down and leave things undone.
- Tell me about a time a friend asked you to describe what your job is like? With a question like this, the recruiter is trying to get a sense of how you represent the brand of your current employer when communicating with outside contacts. After all, you'll probably take a similar approach when talking about their company if they hire you. Be sure your response indicates a combination of professionalism and honesty, without saying anything that could harm a firm's reputation.
Setting the Stage for Behavioral Interviewing
A situational question is usually the first part of a behavioral interview question. Behavioral questions are designed to get the applicant to expand upon what they shared when describing the situation. An interviewer who is using a behavioral approach will follow up the situational question by requesting other information that follows the STAR acronym, which stands for situation, task, action, and result. If you're an interviewee, be prepared to respond to follow-up questions that include all of these elements. Or, better yet, be proactive in providing this level of detail.
- Situation - The interviewer starts with a situational "tell me about a time" question, choosing carefully based on what they hope to learn about the candidate.
- Task - After the candidate describes the situation, the interviewer follows up by asking for specifics about the task. They may ask, "What was your goal in that situation?" Another option could be, "What key task did you need to accomplish?"
- Action - Next, the interviewer will ask the candidate what action(s) they took in relation to the situation that occurred.
- Result - Finally, the interviewer will ask the candidate to share the result. They may say, "What happened as a result of your action in this situation?" Or, they may simply say, "What was the outcome?"
This line of questioning can provide information about how an applicant has behaved in the past, which can often be a good indicator of how the individual is likely to behave in the future.
Prepare for a Successful Interview
Thinking through how you can truthfully respond to the questions above will help ensure that you're ready to answer to a wide variety of interview questions. Even if the questions you are asked are different, you may be able to respond to them using the same or similar examples. Of course, not every question you are asked will focus on sharing anecdotes about situations you've experienced at work or in other groups. Your preparation should involve deciding how to answer other challenging interview questions as well. Additionally, be ready to ask the interviewer a few unique questions at the end of the interview.