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Preparing for ‘tell us about a time when…’ questions

Preparing for ‘tell us about a time when…’ questions

Chantal Elian


A common type of question that comes up in applications and interviews is to describe a situation in which you faced a certain challenge or demonstrated a specific skill. As this type of question is quite open, it can provide you with an opportunity to talk about whichever particular experience you want, but can also leave you spoilt for choice.

It can be tough during an interview to make a quick decision on the spot about which experience you want to discuss and to avoid repeating the same points. To try and make it a little easier, I’ve found that it can be helpful to prepare for this type of question in advance.

There is no need to prepare and memorise answers, but thinking ahead can help you to start making links and to have some vague ideas in your head to draw on. In the moment, you might think that you have forgotten everything, but don’t worry, you will surprise yourself and figure it out better than you think you will! 

Below is hopefully some helpful advice on how to prepare for  ‘tell us about a time when…’ questions, making it a little easier for you to put your best answers forward when the time comes.

Write a list of all of your experiences

An endless list of skills and scenarios can be used to answer ‘tell us about a time when…’ questions, so trying to prepare for all options is a difficult task. One tactic is to list all of your personal experiences first.

This can include any situations in which you learnt something new or had to use certain skills to solve a problem (for example, work experience, university group projects or maybe something completely random that you encountered in everyday life from which you learnt a lot).

These situations and experiences can form the basis of your answer and it can be helpful to have written them down to avoid missing out on the chance to discuss something notable that you have achieved.

Match your experiences to different skills and attributes

Once you have your list, you will be able to see what types of skills and attributes you have used for each experience. There are numerous general skills that could come up, such as teamwork and communication, so they can be a good place to start. A quick Google search can also help to find lists of skills and scenarios that might be asked about in the context of a ‘tell me about a time when…’ question.

Equally, looking on law firms’ websites and at recruitment information can be a valuable way to narrow down these lists down and tailor your preparation to the firm that you are applying to or being interviewing at. Certain firms will emphasise certain skills and attributes as being important to them, so it might be helpful to include these details when annotating your experiences. They might not be the exact skills and attributes that you are asked about in your application process, but they can help you to prepare for this type of question and your interview or application more broadly.

Consider which experience and skill pairings are the strongest

Another difficulty can be talking about everything that you have achieved and want to talk about in your answers. As with most open questions, there is scope to fit a lot into your answers, so keeping some options for later can be a helpful trick. 

You might have repeated some skills and attributes more than once in your answers and it can be difficult to start discussing lots of different experiences in one go. To save some skills and experiences for other answers it can be helpful to start linking experiences that are strongly suited to certain skills. That way you can have a few options in mind and lead with your best foot forward.

There are no ‘bad’ pairings and it is a personal choice which ones you think are your stronger answers. You may keep changing your mind, even on the day, which is perfectly fine, as simply putting the thought into it beforehand will be a valuable exercise to improve your answers and showcase all that you have achieved.