Request a demo
Back to Blog

How to answer “Tell me about a time” questions with confidence

September 27, 2022 - 17 min read

professional-hr-interviews-candidate-tell-me-about-a-time-interview-questions

Jump to section

Interview questions to reflect on the past

Interview questions to reflect on the past

What are the most common “Tell me about a time when” questions?

What are the best ways to answer these questions?

Moving forward

You’re all set for your job interview. You know to say that you excel at teamwork, have great time management skills, and work well under tight deadlines. But what if the hiring manager asks you those behavioral interview questions that require a bit more preparation?

Hiring managers love to ask “Tell me about a time…” interview questions. They provide insight into how you handle specific situations to see if your response will mesh with the company.

From an interviewee, these questions demand a well-thought-out, good answer with specific examples. It might even be what makes or breaks a good impression. You definitely want to get them right the first time.

Whether you’re applying for your first internship or your dream job, preparing for these interview questions will help you come across as confident and authentic. Any hiring manager will know you’ve reflected on your actions and identified why you truly are the best fit for the role.

These job interview questions have an exceptional range but don’t worry. We’ll give you a complete overview of positive and negative questions and some example answers to help you nail your next job interview.

 

Interview questions to reflect on the past

No matter what industry you’re in or what kind of job you’re looking to land, you’ll need to talk about past experiences. Talking about your previous employment will give the recruiter insight into how you’d handle this new job. 

That’s why the “Tell me about a time when…” questions are so important. These behavioral interview questions allow the recruiter to hear your thought process during challenging situations and understand your thinking better. 

Perhaps they’ll ask how you balance multiple deadlines, and your answer must demonstrate that you can handle a fast-paced work environment. Maybe they want to know how you manage an ineffective team member because you’ll be responsible for overseeing junior employees. 

You could say you have amazing leadership skills, but what do they look like in practice, and when have you used them? Do you claim to know how to manage social media accounts without ever running a campaign? If you’ve made a big mistake in one of these scenarios, can you admit that and frame it as a learning opportunity? 

Studies have found that past behavior helps predict future behavior. Of course, everyone can grow and learn, but recruiters use behavioral interview questions to see if there’s a solid base for improvement. They want to see if you’re adaptable and if you have the self-awareness growth requires.

New call-to-action

A complete overview: The positive and the negative

You want your job interview to paint an excellent picture of yourself. But you have to understand that these types of questions could be positive or negative. 

Hiring managers want to hear an example of a time when you did something great, and also an example of when you made a mistake. Not all of your past experiences are positive, so make sure you can also draw on negative experiences in your past jobs. 

Here are examples of positive and negative questions:

  • Negative example: Tell me about a time you failed to meet a deliverable deadline.
  • Positive example: Tell me about a time when you made a positive impact on your team members.

But don’t sweat the negative questions. Failure happens to everyone, no matter how hard you try to avoid it. In fact, it’s making mistakes is a good thing. Research has found that making small mistakes helps you learn information and skills better than if you hadn’t made any prior mistakes at all. Mistakes improve your memory when you’re learning and teach you what to avoid next time. 

Learning from your mistakes also shows that you have a growth mindset, and that’s what hiring managers want to see. They know that nobody’s perfect, so they want to investigate how you treat your failures. Do you hide them and pretend like they never happened, or do you speak openly about them? Can you admit defeat, adapt to the circumstances, and move on knowing you’re stronger? 

nervous-applicant-at-job-interview-tell-me-about-a-time-interview-questions

Remember, you’re not a robot that does things to perfection. Coming to work or a job interview as a Whole Person will show that you’re only human, and you accept your mistakes just as much as you appreciate your accomplishments. 

If you need help learning how to answer negative interview questions, consider meeting with a BetterUp coach. They’ll help you recognize your mistakes and identify how they’re learning opportunities so you can be proud of your growth in interviews — and in life.

What are the most common “Tell me about a time when” questions?

The questions you’re asked during your interview will depend on your industry and seniority. But you can count on a few common behavioral interview questions popping up at any level. When you have an idea of what’s coming, you’ll be better prepared and more articulate in the moment. 

And if you impress the hiring manager with how well you answer behavioral interview questions, they might send you further down the hiring funnel to a working interview or the final round.

confident-woman-in-laptop-tell-me-about-a-time-interview-questions

Here are six common questions and sample answers for some “Tell me about a time when…” questions:

  1. Question: Tell me about a time when you had two simultaneous long-term projects and how you prioritized your time.

    Example answer: The end of the year is the busiest time at my last job. Once, I had two client reports to write for the same due date, so I had to keep myself organized. I knew I had other smaller responsibilities to uphold, so I wrote a to-do list each day and made sure to accomplish the smaller and easier tasks first thing in the morning.
    This let me focus on my two client reports in the afternoons. I used time-blocking on my schedule to limit notifications and distractions, investing equal time in each report until they finished on time.
  2. Question: Tell me about a time when you experienced conflict with a coworker.

    Example answer: One of my coworkers and I had to design a new advertising campaign for our client. We disagreed on nearly everything, and our productivity suffered. Rather than let that ruin our work, I made the most of my problem-solving skills and sat down with my coworker when we were halfway to the deadline.
    We calmly communicated each one of our frustrations, and afterward, I felt like I better understood their perspective. We had an easier time compromising when we knew where one another was coming from.
  3. Question: Tell me about a time when you reached a milestone at work.

    Example answer: One of my biggest goals this past year was to improve my public speaking skills and overcome my shyness. Even though it scared me, I routinely left my comfort zone by volunteering to speak first and asking questions in meetings. A year later, I’m not afraid to use my voice, and I see the value in sharing my perspective.
  4. Question: Tell me about a time when you missed a deadline or fell behind at work.

    Example answer: I had just returned from some time off and wasn’t back into my usual groove of working yet. I hadn’t asked someone to cover my part of a project before I left, despite my work friend answering. On my second day back, I realized that I was the only person who hadn’t finished their part. I ended up working overtime all week so the team wouldn’t be waiting on me. I felt ashamed for being late and exhausted from trying to catch up. I learned that I shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help and need to establish more of a routine to follow to never miss a deadline.
  5. Question: Tell me about a time when you had to adapt to a new structure at work.
    Example answer: I learned the value of adaptability two years ago when my office switched to a new bookkeeping system. The new system was very complex, and I was very confused. But I made notes on how to use it, asked questions when needed, and took the time to better understand the new system. I checked in with someone from the accounting department every few weeks to ensure I wasn’t missing anything. Eventually, my confidence grew, and it taught me about the value of my teammates. Everyone else knows something you don’t. 
  6. Question: Tell me about a time when you had to handle a high-pressure, stressful situation.
    Example answer: My computer crashed a few hours before an important video call with a client. It was supposed to be my first solo presentation on the account, and the crash erased all of my slides and detailed presentation notes. My instinct was to tell my boss that someone else needed to take over.
    But I took a moment to manage my energy, do some breathing exercises, and come up with a plan. I quickly made new, simple slides and wrote everything I could remember. I’d worked on the presentation for days, so I needed to ignore my imposter syndrome and trust that I knew what I was going to say.
    A little self-compassion went a long way, and I nailed the presentation. It was much more relaxed with a less rigid structure, and my boss loved it.

man-waiting-to-be-interviewed-tell-me-about-a-time-interview-questions

What are the best ways to answer these questions?

Knowing common behavioral interview questions is one thing, but prepping your answers beforehand is especially handy. Being prepared is a wonderful thing. It alleviates jitters and boosts your confidence. 

Everyone prepares differently for job interviews, but here are four tips to help you give great answers and make a good impression on the hiring manager:

  1. Be specific with your answers: Give details, be descriptive, and use specific examples when you explain yourself. Avoid anything generic or impersonal. 
  2. Write down your stories beforehand: If you find you draw a blank when asked questions, try writing out your accomplishments, strengths, and weaknesses ahead of time to help recall them easier. Find several key moments in your career and list what they taught you. Some of them probably work for several other questions. 
  3. Choose relevant stories: Remember, this is a professional setting, so stick to work-related stories and examples that apply to the job.
  4. Use the STAR method:  STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, and Result. It’ll help you understand how to frame your answer and what order to talk about things.

businessman-talking-to-coworker-tell-me-about-a-time-interview-questions

Moving forward

Tell me about a time…” interview questions have the power to throw off the rest of your interview. But they don’t have to be something dreadful. They’re a great opportunity to tell a good story about yourself, and the hiring managers are eager to listen. You’ve worked hard to get where you are, and you deserve to brag about what you’ve learned and how you’ve grown.

Your interview is a good chance to be a good storyteller and share your past experiences, positive and negative. You can share your strengths, things learned from mistakes and your work ethic. But above all, it’s the opportunity to introduce who you are, your values, and how you’ll contribute to a team. 

The hiring manager wants to understand you as a person, not just an employee, so remember to always be your authentic self and answer their questions with pride.

New call-to-action

Published September 27, 2022

Elizabeth Perry

Content Marketing Manager, ACC

Read Next

Professional Development
16 min read | October 18, 2021

How to use motivational interview questions to drive change

Discover the principles of motivational interviewing, examples of motivational interviewing questions, and how you can use them to motivate employees. Read More
Professional Development
16 min read | January 25, 2022

Make the right impression — the best questions to ask a hiring manager

Discover 33 important questions to ask a hiring manager at your next interview. Be well-informed and make a great first impression. Read More
Professional Development
16 min read | February 1, 2022

Uncover the best talent with these 10 creative interview questions

Creative interview questions reveal a candidate’s unique personality and mindset. Here’s what you should be asking in order to find high-potential candidates. Read More
Culture
19 min read | January 31, 2022

Why are they leaving? Find out with the right exit interview questions

The answers to exit interview questions can offer valuable insights for your company. Find out how to conduct an exit interview and why they’re important. Read More
Professional Development
12 min read | June 3, 2022

How to define success (and talk about it) in your next interview

Help prepare yourself for one of the most common interview questions, ‘how do you define success,’ and find out the best way to respond. Read More
Professional Development
15 min read | October 11, 2022

What are the best ways to answer “Why do you want this job?”

“Why do you want this job?” Here’s everything you need to know about this tricky interview question. Read More
Professional Development
14 min read | October 7, 2022

Think smart: How to work through situational interview questions

Curious to learn about situational interview questions? Learn the do’s and don’ts when answering those questions, plus some common questions to expect. Read More
Leadership & Management
14 min read | August 11, 2022

7 reasons why stay interviews drive employee retention

Stay interviews can be an important component to your employee retention strategy. Use these 16 stay interview questions today. Read More
Professional Development
14 min read | September 23, 2022

Breathe in, breathe out: 15 tips to prepare for an interview

Wondering how to prepare for an interview? Here’s what you can do to best prepare for your interview and feel confident answering each question you’re asked Read More

Stay connected with BetterUp

Get our newsletter, event invites, plus product insights and research.