“Tell me about a time when you disagreed strongly with your supervisor. ”
“How would you do things differently now?”
“What draws you to this program more than to any other?”
If you have interviews coming up, whether for a seat in a college program or a job opening, will you be ready to answer these types of questions in an effective, natural, appealing way? Compelling storytelling showcases your communication skills and relays your expertise and qualifications for the slot in the class or the job.
For school interviews, you may be asked behavioral questions that ask about a specific situation or experience: “Tell me about a time when…” The stories you choose to share will reveal a great deal about your accomplishments, work style, and skills. Choose stories strategically. You should be able to tell them briefly in a way that demonstrates your expertise and allows the interviewer to learn about you.
Recipe for a good story: Situation, Action, Result
A helpful approach to storytelling is SAR: Situation, Action, Result.
First, share the situation, with enough background so that the interviewer has the context for the situation but not more than is essential. Keep it brief! Next, share the action: how did you handle the situation? This is the most crucial element of the anecdote. As you plan how to tell this story in your mind, consider: what skills did you use and what personal qualities did you demonstrate when you took the actions you did? Finally, share the result: what happened after you took your action? And–this is also key–what did you learn from the experience?
If you are preparing for a job interview, review the job posting. Circle or highlight the essential responsibilities and qualifications listed. Learn about the organization’s key priorities and accomplishments by reading their website. Next, think about specific experiences you have had when you demonstrated skills related to the position. This may involve discussing broader professional skills, such as project management, working with a team, adapting to unexpected circumstances, and learning new technologies, so be prepared to share relevant stories. While you want to come across as a team player, try to avoid using the word “we” as you tell your story. The interviewer wants to learn about you. When appropriate, refer to “my staff” or “our team” when discussing a team experience.
Honesty and diplomacy matter
If you are asked about a difficult supervisor, aim to describe the situation honestly, yet diplomatically. Choose a situation where you and your manager saw things differently, but you were able to come to a shared understanding. Even if the interviewer uses loaded adjectives, such as “worst,” you are not required to agree and describe a terrible boss. Your goal is to show the interviewer that you know how to work with someone with whom you do not always agree. Similarly, if you are asked to share an anecdote about a challenging person or situation, select anecdotes that reveal your qualities as a self-reflective, collaborative individual, someone who can find a way to work with others who have diverse perspectives and even difficult personalities.
Make sure you can talk about a difficult team project without throwing the other team members under the bus. (I know, this may be really challenging!) Choose your words carefully. Instead of saying, “One of the team members just wouldn’t do their work,” say “One of the team members had many additional responsibilities, so focusing on this project was difficult.” In this way, you lift the blame from the individual, and the interviewer will get the message. If you were ever engaged in a team project that was a complete disaster, do not share that story in an interview.
Practice your storytelling
It’s not easy to tell stories effectively, with just enough context and details but without rambling or repeating yourself. If the anecdote you selected requires too much time to set the stage, think of another situation. Many candidates spend 90% of their response describing the situation, and then say little about the actions they took and the outcome. This is a wasted opportunity.
Because most people do not have much experience in telling stories succinctly, it’s critical to your success to practice. Do not not try to memorize your stories, because if you suddenly forget one word, you might freeze up and ruin the moment. You know the essentials, and that’s what you need to keep in mind, including any pertinent highlights that will add a bit of flair or impact. It can be very helpful to write down on an index card the key highlights of each story. Look at the card before the interview begins to refresh your memory. Try to keep each anecdote to not more than one minute. Does that sound short to you? Time yourself: you can say a lot in one minute! Consider doing mock interviews with a career coach. This can be very helpful and build both your skills and your confidence.
Be prepared for follow-up questions
“How would you handle that differently now?” is a question you should be ready to answer after describing a challenging situation. This gives you an important opportunity to show that you have learned and grown from your experiences.
Be prepared for the unexpected
While you cannot prepare anecdotes for every question you may be asked, if you practice telling several stories, you will be more likely to think of a story for a situation you did not expect. What if you are asked about a situation that you have not encountered? Share a story about something you did that involved something similar.
Most of your stories likely will come from your work experiences, but you may also want to talk about situations in your personal life or through some community involvement that raise relevant issues. However, if you talk about your personal life, be sure to maintain good boundaries. No TMI! Do not share anything the employer does not need to know about.
With careful preparation and selecting the right experiences, you can impress your interviewer as a dynamic candidate who will contribute to the organization or the program and get the offer you are after.
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Alice Diamond was Associate Dean for Career and Community Service at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. She has 35 years of experience in career and admissions advising for undergraduate and graduate students. Want Alice to help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch!
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