Successful Interviewing: Tell Me About a Time…

Successful Interviewing: Tell Me About a Time…

In most interviews, you will be tested in a lot of ways.  If you are a programmer, you may be asked to start writing code.  If you are a project manager, you may be asked to start collaborating on a plan or approach for a current business problem.  No doubt you spend time preparing yourself for the “technical” aspects of your qualifications for any job you are applying for.  However, there is a very human element to any interview (at any level) as well.  People doing the hiring need to know that you are not only qualified to do the job but are going to be the sort of person they want on the team.  In fact, smart interviewers will discover your personality and unearth your character traits using a tried and tested technique known as behavioral interviewing.

PeopleWaitingforInterviewThese questions take a very conversational tone typically beginning with “Tell me about a time/situation/etc…” but do not be fooled into thinking that you are just “having a chat.”  This part of the interview is perhaps the most critical and often ill-prepared stage of the process for most people.  Don’t be that person.  You have a wealth of experiences to draw upon regardless of if you’ve just entered the workforce – for instance, you can draw on experiences  about teamwork on University projects or meeting critical deadlines as an intern.  The trick is to be prepared with your own personal war stories so that you can tell them with some polish during the interview.

Let’s imagine a typical scenario where you may be asked to relate a story during the interview.  Tell me about a time you were working on a team and the project was behind schedule.  What did you do and what was the result?  Can you give me some specific examples?  Spend some time thinking about an actual situation like this and prepare the story in your mind.  You may even want to practice telling the story to a friend.  The kiss of death is to use conjecture – in other words, to say something like “Well, what I would do is…”.  No employer wants to hear what you WOULD do – they want to know what you DID do.  The more specifics you can provide, the better, and make sure the story has a good outcome (yes, I’ve heard stories that did not end well).  Finally, do not lie or make stuff up – most skilled interviewers can see right through a story that sounds fabricated or full of self-aggrandizing details.

You can well imagine other situational questions you may get in the course of an interview and if you’re stuck for ideas, look online for examples.  My recommendation is that you prepare for 3-5 situational questions by having your story top of mind ready to replay for the interviewer.  Ensure that you have plenty of interesting facts and details ready to sprinkle into the response.  If the situation is one you haven’t directly prepared for, just relax and take a few moments (it’s perfectly acceptable) to think about it – often times, some variation or combination of your stories will make a good response.  There is also the possibility that you simply haven’t encountered the situation being asked about – just be up front with the interviewer and ask if they would like to hear your ideas or prefer to ask you for a different example.

What employers are looking for in your responses are examples of teamwork, leadership, dealing with ambiguity and adversity, and an ability to execute to a deadline.  Be careful not to over-emphasize your personal contributions in the stories as it can back-fire and unfairly paint you as an individual contributor who “doesn’t play well with others.”  In today’s work environment it is nearly always about results achieved by the team and demonstrating that you can be an effective team member only enhances your worth in the eyes of a potential employer.

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