Tell me a time when... how to answer all those tricky interview questions

How to confidently face those graduate interview curve balls: All the insider secrets to navigating the interviewer’s trickiest questions.
Team GradAustralia
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Anyway, so, last time we had a good yarn about the importance of weaving together a story of yourself and how it shaped you to become, well, you.

Like for example, that time you went on a gap year and demonstrated great leadership skills. Sound familiar?

Well, this time, we thought we would flip it around. Instead, how’s about we draw up a list of all the skills that employers are looking for, like said leadership skills, and come up with excellent examples for each. We like to call this little number, the inverse.

After all, most, if not all, potential employers will ask you behavioural questions about things such as leadership or communication. There are a handful of standard skills that are critical for every job. In these cases, your interviewer is asking how you understand this trait and ways in which it is relevant to you.  

It’s important to remember that you’re not being asked for examples in which you were the ultimate leader or times you addressed hundreds of people. Your understanding doesn’t have to be that literal. Leadership can also indicate times when you took the initiative on a much smaller scale; communication can be effectively achieved in one-on-one situations.  

We encourage you to think hard when it comes to these answers and be creative. You might have used sign language in your previous job as a babysitter or organised a fundraiser for your local church. Don’t undervalue these experiences because they just might be the stories that help you connect with your interviewer and stand out.

Remember, never say “I don’t know” to questions like this. It shows that you either haven’t had enough life experience or that you haven’t really considered how your experiences have shaped the person that you are. Either way, employers are looking for someone who craves growth and can increase their competencies.

As always, we love to help. So we have crafted up some nifty examples below to help with your interview prep.

Leadership

'Can you give me an example of a time you showed leadership?'

Example:

'During my final year of university, I had to complete a group assignment for economics worth forty per cent of my final grade.  In the group was an international student with limited English language skills, a highly disengaged boy, a girl I had never worked with, and me. We were under pressure to complete the project in a short timeframe with, what quickly became clear, limited contribution from key members of the group. I decided to take the lead and worked with my female colleague to divvy up the tasks. I also volunteered to put everything together, reviewing what was sent to me for quality control and also ensuring that the assignment was submitted on time. I took responsibility for checking in with my fellow group members throughout the project to make sure everyone was on the right track. I found that when I broke up the work, even the more disengaged members were able to complete their tasks.'

Conflict

“Tell me about a time you dealt with conflict”

Example:

'When I worked at McDonald's we had a particularly unhappy customer who was raising his voice across the counter. I remained calm and explained that his options were a new cheeseburger or a full refund. He began to calm down and I was able to get my manager. I think he appreciated my attempt to offer solutions and responded well when I elevated the situation so that he felt like he was being heard.'

Note: Resist the urge to talk about anything too depressing with this question, such as your parents’ divorce, the death of a loved one, or that time you got kicked out of home and had to sleep in a shelter. This will make your interviewers uncomfortable.

Teamwork

'How do you think you operate within a team?'

Example:

'I actually grew up with four siblings all born quite close together so teamwork is basically our family motto. I very quickly learned to understand each person’s character. I knew who to turn to for help with homework, who was best at Play Station and could help me get through Level 5, and who would offer a sympathetic ear when my side was totally overlooked in an argument. This has taught me that everyone has different strengths. I really feel like I know how to understand the best someone has to offer and work effectively with those elements of their personality.'

Change

'How do you handle change?'

Example:

'Change is inevitable. It’s what makes life interesting. I learned this when I was eight. We moved from Perth to Sydney and I remember actually tying myself to the front door handle of our old house on moving day. I cried all the way to the airport and refused the activity pad and toy aeroplane when the Qantas staff tried to cheer me up. But within a week of arriving in Sydney my parents had me in a soccer team and I had already decided that my new next door neighbour was the coolest kid I had ever known. People are more adaptable than we think. It’s just about taking a breath and giving things a moment to settle.”

Communication

'How would you describe your communication style?'

Example (*said clearly and with confidence, obvs*):

'I did a lot of babysitting growing up, both my own siblings and neighbourhood kids. I learned that good communication takes patience. Kids want to feel like they’re being heard, or else they find ways to act out. I later learned that adults are the same, just with a few less tantrums. If you give people the time to talk through their thoughts and feelings before responding, the outcome is always better. I really value that training.'

5 steps to being prepared for standard questions:

  1. Read up on standard behavioural questions (and check out our next article about practising those really tricky nuggets).
  2. These often include things like how you handle change and conflict, leadership situations, teamwork and communication.
  3. Write answers for each question based on examples from your own life.
  4. Think about how your experiences shaped your approach to each skill.
  5. Be creative in talking about how your stories shaped your professional approach – think about things like siblings, pets, school excursions etc.

Now that you know how to answer tricky questions, time to learn how to practise and role play.