The interview question “Tell me about yourself” can be the scariest of all questions. Situational interview questions crop up in job interviews across almost every industry. If you aren’t well-prepared for these kinds of questions, you’re likely to leave your interview having underwhelmed your interviewer. When asked questions starting with the phrase, “Tell me about a time when…”, the interviewer is looking to learn important information about the way you handle different situations, your decision-making skills, your communication skills, and your ability to learn from difficult experiences. To answer these kinds of questions effectively, you’ll want to have plenty of stories prepared before attending your interview. Picking the best stories for your interview has a lot to do with making sure they are applicable to more than one common situational interview question. If you can bend and mold your stories to apply to multiple potential questions, you’ll have an easier time during your interview. Effectively wrapping up each answer you give creates a strong impression and helps maintain the idea that you’re a solid communicator who will be a valuable member of the organization’s team. This obviously is not the only question an interviewer will ask. Here are some important steps to a successful interview.


Have your stories ready to go before the interview

Be as prepared as possible by selecting and practicing specific stories beforehand. You’ll want to get familiar with common situational questions that are asked during job interviews in your industry. You may want to do some of your own research to come up with a list of relevant questions, but here are a few good examples to start with.

  • “Describe a difficult work situation. How did you overcome it?”
  • “Talk about a time you disagreed with your supervisor. What was the outcome?”
  • “Tell me about a time you motivated your team successfully.”

These are all examples of typical questions you can expect to be asked. As you have probably noticed, they’re all very general. As a result, it’s sometimes possible to have one story that will apply to more than one of these kinds of questions. As an example, a story about a time you continuously stayed late to finish closing tasks despite a supervisor who was always pressuring you to leave tasks unfinished in order to leave earlier would apply to both of the first two questions. Try to keep this multi-purpose answer idea in mind as you select specific stories to prepare for your interview.

Start by compiling a list of common situational questions that are asked during interviews for your job position. Don’t forget to include more general questions that can be applied across multiple industries, like the ones listed above. Create a list of soft skills that the position requires and find questions that relate to each one. Now, write down important experiences you’ve had at each job you’ve held that can apply to each the questions you’ve gathered.

You don’t have to have a different story for each potential interview question, but you’ll want to have examples of situations where you’ve demonstrated each of the soft skills required for the position. You’ll also want to examine your resume for weak points, such as a lapse in employment, and be prepared to discuss each potential issue.

Make your answer as effective as possible

As soon as each of your interview questions is asked, take a moment to examine what the interviewer wants to get out of your answer. Why is the question being asked? Identifying the reasoning behind the question can help make your answer stronger, even if you’ve already prepared a relevant story for the question.

After beginning your answer with an appropriate introductory statement, remain focused on the original question. You want to answer the interview question as effectively and concisely as possible, so avoid drifting off-topic. It’s OK to highlight additional, relevant details but make sure that your entire answer is relevant to the reasoning behind why the interviewer is asking you the question in the first place.

In the case of stories that involve mistakes that you made, immediately connect the interviewer to what you learned from the experience by making a summarized statement of your story outcome before beginning it. For example, you could say something along the lines of “I learned that immediately getting to know a new hire and welcoming them onto the team helps both the new hire and the rest of the team acclimate to changes and work together more cohesively,” before moving into a story about a time your team’s productivity suffered because you neglected to help a new hire acclimate to the team.

Another benefit of beginning your story with a statement like this is that the interviewer will focus on what you learned from the experience rather than your failures and other underwhelming parts of the story.

Leave a lasting impression

After spending countless hours preparing for your interview and a few tense minutes successfully articulating your story, the last thing you want to do is end on a weak note. Avoid trailing off and finish strong. Wrap up your interview answer by reconnecting your story to the original question, to the position you’re interviewing for, or to the company itself.

One example of how you can accomplish this is to explain how what you learned from the experience relates to the position or to an element of the position. You can also finish up an interview question by summarizing your main points and going back to the original question. Wrapping your answer up like this will help show your interviewer that you’re able to remain focused and that you’re a strong communicator.

If none of the stories from your personal experience directly relate to the interview questions being asked, you can choose to substitute a story with a similar outcome. In general, “Tell me about a time when…” interview questions are focused on a handful of experiences and outcomes. This might be a negative experience, like a time that you had an issue with a boss or coworker. Alternatively, it could be a question meant to provide the interviewer with an example of a time you excelled in your role. As long as your story is well-framed and relevant, you shouldn’t expect an issue using a story that isn’t an exact match for the question. Just be sure to wrap up your answer by clearly and concisely pointing out what the interviewer should take away from your answer.

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