If you asked me to tell you about a time when I felt the most nervous during a job interview, it would be almost any time an interviewer said, “Tell me about a time when…”
It turns out, I’m not the only one who tenses up when asked this question, as it frequently shows up on lists of the toughest—and most common—interview questions.
To ace this question, it helps to know why employers are asking it and how to prepare.
Why employers like this question
"Tell me about a time when…” questions are known as behavioral interview questions because they ask about your past behavior.
Alison Green, a former nonprofit chief of staff who writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, explains that employers typically choose behavioral questions over hypotheticals because a behavioral question will give them a better sense of how you would perform on the job.
"In other words, the interviewer doesn’t want to hear about what you claim you’ll do in the future, or your thoughts on how you’d approach an abstract situation. They want to hear about what you’ve done already. This makes sense, since how you operated in the past can give a lot of insight into how you’re likely to operate in the future,” writes Green.
"Of course, it’s a lot harder to bluff your way through an interview like this,” Green adds. “And that’s the idea.”
Preparing for behavioral interview questions
Although they may seem harder to answer in the moment, behavioral questions can be easier to prepare for because you’re drawing from your past experience instead of trying to dream up how you would handle a hypothetical situation.
There are two steps to preparing for behavioral interview questions:
Step 1: Anticipating the questions you may get asked
Look at the job description and consider possible scenarios or challenges you may face if you got the job.
For example, if responsibilities include running trainings, the interviewer could ask you to talk about how you responded when a training you were giving didn’t go well, or when someone in your training was disruptive.
If the job involves tight deadlines, an interviewer may ask you to talk about a time when you missed a deadline, or almost missed one, and how you handled it.
Pro Tip: The Muse gathered 30 behavioral interview questions you may encounter in six categories: teamwork; client-facing skills (in the social impact space, “clients” could be direct service clients or constituents of an organization); ability to adapt; time management; communication; and motivation and values.
Step 2: Map out your answers
Once you have a list of behavioral interview questions, it’s time to outline your answers, just like you would for any interview question.
First, reflect on your previous jobs in order to come up with experiences that fit each question. If you haven’t faced that scenario at work, you can draw from your experiences in school or volunteering.
Then create an outline for your answer, which Green says should have three components: problem, response, outcome.
For example, if you’re asked to talk about a time when you had a conflict with a coworker at work, your outline for the answer could be:
- Problem: Jane and I had different opinions about how we should approach our boss’ goal of increasing individual donations by 10%. I wanted to focus on recruiting new donors while Jane wanted to focus on increasing giving from current donors.
- Response: Jane and I sat down and discussed why each of us thought our idea was the right approach and how we would implement it.
- Outcome: By keeping an open mind and looking at our plans side by side, we realized that we could implement both of our ideas simultaneously. In the end, we ended up increasing individual donations by 25%.
Another formulation to try that gets at the same answer structure is the STAR technique: Situation, Task, Activity, Result.
The problem is the situation (or context) plus the task (or what was required of you in the situation), and the activity and result are the same as Green’s answer structure.
Pro Tip: The STAR technique can be helpful if you tend to give wordy interview answers. Try outlining your answer using only one sentence for each point of the STAR.
For example, if you’re asked about a time when you had to reorganize your priorities to make room for an unexpected and urgent project, your STAR outline could look like:
- Situation: We were three weeks out from the launch of our new website, which my team had been working on for 14 months, when we learned that next week the mayor was going to announce the six-figure investment in schools that our organization had been requesting for years.
- Task: My responsibility was to keep the website process on track while developing and executing a communications plan around the mayor’s announcement to maximize media coverage of our role in the city’s new investment.
- Activity: In order to remain focused on the mayor’s announcement, I delegated the remaining steps of the website process to my junior communications coordinator and met with her for 15 minutes each morning to check in on how things we’re going.
- Result: The mayor’s announcement was a success—we got coverage in all four major newspapers and the broadcast TV channels—and we stayed on track to launch our website as planned.
A pep talk on behavioral interview questions
No matter how much you prepare and practice your answers, it’s possible that you’ll still get nervous when confronted with a behavioral interview question—and that’s okay! Interview anxiety is perfectly normal, and there are ways to embrace the anxiety (aka excitement) and turn it into an asset.
You can also make behavioral interview questions work for you. Because the scenarios they’re asking you about are ones that you’ll likely encounter in the position, each question gives you insight into what you can expect if you got the job, Green says. For example, if they’re asking a lot about how you would deal with organizational change and staff conflict, that can be a red flag about the way things work in that particular organization that you’ll be grateful for down the line.
Just remember: Interviewers aren’t asking you behavioral interview questions to try to trip you up. They’re asking because they want to know how you would excel in the position, and you’ve already made a strong case for that by getting to that interview seat.
You know why you would be great for this position—now it’s time to show them what you know.
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As a nonprofit advocacy professional living in Washington, D.C., Deborah works with groups across the country to educate their communities and lawmakers about public policies that can help low-income residents make ends meet. She is passionate about helping people connect their interests to a cause they believe in and empowering them to take action.