How to handle the “tell me about a time when you…“ question and you have no work experience

How to handle the “tell me about a time when you…“ question and you have no work experience was originally published on Intern From Home.

There’s a huge issue with the way companies recruit for internships: some companies hiring for internships want interns who have prior experience. But, internships by their very nature are for people who have little or no experience at all. If you’re confused about this, well, know that you’re not alone. If you’ve felt super frustrated that you didn’t get an internship because of your lack of prior work experience, we hear you… loud and clear. Your frustration is totally fair. And we are here to help you overcome these challenges. Even without a single prior work experience, you can get an internship… and you can even get that internship where the employer wants you to have prior experience. How? Well, that’s what we’re covering in this post.

Let’s set the scene: you submitted your resume and cover letter for a role. You coordinated an informational interview. You did your research and prepared for the informational interview and it went well. The other person offered to refer you for the role and you followed up with them. You then get a 1st round interview where you were asked about yourselfyour focus of study, and why you want to work at the company in the role you applied to. You then get asked to a 2nd round interview and things seem to be going well. And then it all starts to go downhill: you start getting lots of questions that ask something along the lines of “tell me about a time when you…” You might be thinking to yourself: I applied to an INTERNSHIP. Why are they expecting me to have lots of work experience? You have a totally fair question, but there’s a few things to keep in mind when you get asked lots of questions about prior experience.

Things to keep in mind when you get asked questions about your candidacy that seem unreasonable

  1. Your answers do not need to talk just about formal work experience. You can also talk about experiences from leadership roles, clubs, extracurricular activities, personal projects, athletics, arts, and the list goes on.
  2. Your interviewer is looking for you to demonstrate that you have an ability to handle different situations, especially ones where you had to overcome adversity (ie: overcome a hard situation). In other words, they’re looking for you to talk about how you handle situations… not just about prior work experience.
  3. The interviewer doesn’t necessarily expect you to have tons of prior experience. Even if you have limited prior experience, that very well might be okay and they just want you to talk about the experience you do have.

You may be asked technical questions that you don’t know the answer to. It’s best on those questions to simply say that you don’t know the answer but you’d like to look further into it. However, when you are asked questions along the lines of the “tell me about a time when you…” it is best not to say you don’t know the answer. To say you don’t have an answer to that question is basically saying you don’t know yourself…. that isn’t the look you want to give off!

With that in mind, it can be hard to talk about ourselves. This can be for a variety of reasons: we don’t come from cultures where it’s encouraged to talk about our strengths, we don’t necessarily give ourselves credit for what we’ve done, and the list goes on.

The value of thinking about personal examples you may want to use when responding to questions

To help overcome the challenge of talking about our past experiences, we want to use an analogy. Sticking with the cooking analogy we used when talking about how to be the chef of your internship application process, let’s say you’re trying to make a dish that you learned how to make 1 year ago but you haven’t made it since. Do you have the ability to make it again? Absolutely. Might you have forgotten some of the steps of making it since it’s been 1 year? Totally.

Let’s say you had to make this dish again… not just for yourself, but for your friends, and perhaps even a teacher of your’s. What would you do? Would you cook it with your guests waiting and hope it works out? Or would you practice it first with family, see what you forgot, and work out the kinks so that you’re really ready to make it when you have your audience? We hope you’d consider this second option.

Guess what? Preparing for an interview and the questions about “tell me about a time when you…” are extremely similar to this cooking example. Deep down, you know about your prior experiences just like you know how to make that dish you learned a year ago. But, you need some refreshing on it. And, similarly to how you might want to test the dish with a small group first where there’s no pressure if it doesn’t work, you might want to practice your interview techniques with a family member or someone you trust before the actual interview with the company.

Getting ready for the dreaded “tell me about a time when you…” questions

So, how can we get ourselves ready to answer the “tell me about a time when you…” questions? Our recommendation is to brainstorm some of your prior experiences (totally cool if they’re not formal work experiences) and to write them down. While you definitely do not want to be reading from this during the interview, the pure act of writing down relevant prior experiences will get your brain ready to easily reference prior experiences so that you can answer the questions you’re asked with specific details.

To make things easiest, we’re sharing ten common “tell me about a time when you…” questions below. Our suggestion is to write out a few sentences for each one. Ideally, you can share two different answers for each question. If you do that, you’ll then have 20 prior experiences that you can very easily reference when on an interview. You might discover something really helpful about doing this: not only will you have thoughts at the ready that you can use to inform your answers to “tell me about a time when you…” questions, but you might also think about prior experiences that you want to include in your answers to other questions or even when describing your background/interest in the role.

As a reminder: your goal in answering the below questions is not to pre-prepare your answers to specific questions. It is extremely challenging to predict the exact questions you’ll be asked, and even if you do happen to predict them, you don’t want your answer to be pre-prepared… you want them to feel genuine, natural, and customized to the company/role/conversation you’ve been having in the interview.

10 “tell me about a time when you…” questions that you can think about

  • Tell me about a time when you had to convince other people to do something they weren’t planning to do.
  • Tell me about a time when you had to overcome not having the skills you needed to do the task at hand.
  • Tell me about a time when you didn’t have enough time to complete a task that you wanted to.
  • Tell me about a time when you didn’t agree with something someone else said. Did you do anything about it?
  • Tell me about a time when you received criticism. What did the other person say and how did you respond?
  • Tell me about a time when you taught yourself something without help from another person.
  • Tell me about a time when you failed. How did you handle the situation?
  • Tell me about a time (or the last time) that you learned a new skill. Why did you decide to learn it and how did you learn it?
  • Tell me about a time that something very unexpected happened and you had to improvise on the spot.
  • Tell me about a time when you wanted something so much that nothing was going to stop you.

When we say you can answer these questions even if you’ve never had prior formal work experience, we mean it. Here’s a list of places that you might draw inspiration from for your answers.

Ideas of past experiences (non work-related) where you may get inspiration to answer questions

  • Academic experiences
    • Challenging academic projects
    • Navigating group work situations
    • Planning for and finishing long-term assignments
    • Overcoming challenges or a lack of knowledge around a subject matter
    • Forming relationships with teachers/professors
  • Leadership experiences (ie: clubs, volunteer experiences)
    • Keeping a team focused on a task
    • Setting direction and making sure others around you are convinced of the need to follow your lead
    • Building protocols and processes to keep many groups/teams on the same page
    • Handling work across a variety of different areas
    • Efficient and prompt communication
  • Sports / music / arts experiences
    • Being a great team player and working well with fellow sports teammates, band members, etc.
    • Finding creative ways to solve a solution (ie: not having enough players on a sports team or music group)
    • Overcoming hurdles (both physically and mentally) such as injuries
    • Handling different people’s emotions and making sure people embrace the group they’re in
    • Preparing for games/concerts/deadlines where you wish you had more time but still need to meet the deadline

In conclusion

We can’t predict the exact questions you’ll be asked in an interview. However, the “tell me about a time when you…” question is common. And it is not easy to answer! However, it becomes much easier to answer when you’ve already done some thinking before the interview about your prior experiences. By doing so, you can pick one of your prior experiences that you’ve already thought about and use it to inform your answer to the question. As a reminder, the first step is to think about the different types of experiences you’ve had and use them to think about/write down answers to the different “tell me about a time when you…” questions. You can do this!

Did you enjoy this guide? You’re in for a treat: this is just one of dozens of guides created for students about how to handle the recruiting (aka: getting an internship/job) process. To see all of the other guides, subscribe to Intern From Home’s newsletter (it’s completely free!) where we talk about all things from using LinkedIn to preparing for an interview to making the most of your role.

By Intern From Home
Helping students from 600+ colleges learn about how to find and get an internship/job, use LinkedIn, prepare for interviews, write a cover letter/resume, make the most of their role, and more.