Tough Interview Question - Tell me about a time when you had too many things to do and you had to prioritize your tasks

Tell me about a time when you had too many things to do and you had to prioritize your tasks.

Similar interview questions:
What typically happens when you cannot complete all of your work in the assigned time?
Give me an example of how you prioritize your projects.
What is the most difficult for you in prioritizing your time?
Do you have difficulty with prioritization? Can you give me an example?

Why the interviewer is asking this question:
This question is both about how you handle priorities as well as working under pressure. Most jobs entail some level of inability to complete all tasks, so the ability to prioritize in a confident manner is a key work competency, both for individual contributors as well as managers.

The best approach to answering this question:
Focus on a time when you had to get others involved in setting and approving the prioritization of your work tasks and/or projects. Ideally, this would include your manager, but could also include other team members as well as external managers who are requesting your time.

An example of how to best answer this question for experienced candidates:
"My job has multiple conflicting priorities where it can be difficult to know what is most important and urgent. My boss and I worked out an important/urgent scale for rating tasks so that it is clear what takes the highest priority. If something is both important and urgent, it gets highest priority. Important but not urgent is next and urgent but not important is next, then not important and not urgent is last. My boss knows the rating system and even codes request as IU, INU, UNI and NINU when sending them to me. As a result, my overall productivity in the past year has gone up considerably as benchmarked against prior to using our prioritization rating system…"

An example of how to best answer this question for entry level candidates:
"During my summer internship, I was assigned both a primary project as well as maintenance of an existing project. However, the existing project was getting so many support requests that it made it difficult for me to schedule time for my primary project. So two weeks into my internship, I met with my boss to discuss the prioritization conflict and we were able to work out a schedule that allowed me to respond to both the most urgent and important support tasks as well as completing my primary project. The end result is that I received two awards that summer, both for my primary project as well as my quick response to several important issues with my support project…"

An example of how you should not answer this question:
"Well, I recently had to decide between going out to party with my friends or studying for midterms the following day. So I decided I would do both. I would go out to party with my friends first, then I would come home to study. Win, win, right? But I got so hammered at the party that I ended up passing out, then woke up in the middle of the night not knowing where I was. I finally found my way back home and started studying and I know what you might be thinking, but I ended up getting an A on my midterm. So I can clearly multitask my priorities…"

Remember to answer each interview question behaviorally, whether it is a behavioral question or not. The easiest way to do this is to use an example from your background and experience. Then use the S-T-A-R approach to make the answer a STAR: talk about a Situation or Task (S-T), the Action you took (A) and the Results achieved (R). This is what makes your interview answer uniquely yours and will make your answer a star!

Further review: know the answers to these Common Interview Questions to be fully prepared for your interview!

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