How to Answer the Interview Question: "Describe a Challenge You Overcame"

How to Answer the Interview Question: "Describe a Challenge You Overcame"

How to Answer the Interview Question: "Describe a Challenge You Overcame"

Updated 30 September 2020

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Every job interview is different, but there is a selection of key questions that are used frequently across all sectors.

Preparing an answer to these behavioural-style questions will give you the best possible chance of being successful.

‘Describe a challenge you overcame’ is a common interview question, and one you can prepare for.

Examples of other ways it could be phrased are:

  • What is the biggest challenge you've faced?
  • Tell me about a challenge you have overcome
  • Tell me about a time you were faced with a challenge and had to overcome it

It may seem fairly straightforward, but the question carries a lot of weight. There are several things an employer is looking for, so it’s important to carefully craft a couple of answers before you attend the interview.

It can be daunting to consider that the employer is going to draw conclusions about you from one simple answer, but it’s also a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate how well suited you are to the job and why they should hire you.

The key to successfully answering behavioural questions is to help an employer see how your past has shaped you as a professional and how it informs the decisions you make today.

Other behavioural interview questions include:

  • What is your greatest accomplishment?
  • Tell me about a time you tried something in your job and it didn’t work
  • Tell me about a time a client wasn’t happy – What did you do to resolve the situation?
Describe a Challenge You Overcame

Why Do Interviewers Like to Ask This Question?

An answer to this behavioral question can tell the employer a lot about what type of person you are and provide them with an insight into the way you work.

Giving details of a challenge you faced and overcame can give clarity on:

  • What you see as a challenge
  • The way you tackle difficult situations
  • Your past accomplishments
  • Whether you are a problem-solver
  • How you cope in adversity
  • The strategy you take when tackling a problem
  • Your ability to think on your feet
  • Whether you are a creative thinker
  • Your ability to cope under pressure
  • Your level of resilience when facing a challenge

The answer you give will provide the interviewer with a greater sense of the real you.

Do you shy away from difficult situations and only face a challenge when you absolutely have to? Or do you seek out challenges to keep yourself motivated, gain new skills, and boost your knowledge and experience?

Answers to this question can also raise red flags to the employer. For example, an answer that begins: ‘Seeing something as a challenge is a sign of weakness’ says a great deal about the interviewee's likely work personality.

How to Choose Your Challenge

The best starting point for choosing a challenge is to go through the job description.

Focus on the personal attributes the company requires the candidate to have, the nature of challenges they are likely to face in the position and the essential requirements for the job.

Try to find a challenge example that will clearly demonstrate your competency in relation to the job you are applying for and which draws parallels between this one and past positions you have held.

Make sure it’s a significant challenge and doesn’t clash with the job description – for example, if you are going for a job that requires you to manage many different clients at once, don’t choose a challenge that involved not being able to manage the number of clients you had.

The challenge you choose will depend on your situation. If you are applying for a job in the same sector, it should be straightforward to think of a challenge that relates to the role you are applying for.

If you are changing career or this is your first job in the sector, focus on the transferable skills you can bring to the role from Saturday jobs, student life or other employment.

Students with no career history are likely to have a challenge involving a university deadline or a difficult project.

If you really can’t think of any examples, you could go down the personal route for this one; moving away from home and having to make new friends is a challenge in itself.

Example Answers using the STAR Technique

Every answer you give to this question should follow the STAR technique to keep your response focused and ensure it ticks all the boxes for the employer.

If you follow the STAR technique, you won’t have to go into huge amounts of detail – you don’t want to bore the employer before you get to the good bit.

Remember, the employer is mainly interested in how that challenge has shaped you professionally and what you took away from the experience.

The STAR technique is:

  • Situation – Give context to your answer so that the employer has a good overview of the circumstances surrounding the problem, and how the challenge arose.

  • Task – Give details of the task in hand, so that the employer knows exactly where you fitted into the team or situation and what you were responsible for.

  • Action – Talk about the actions involved to overcome the challenge. Here you can discuss your thought process and the approach you took to solve the problem.

  • Result – Make sure you end on a very positive note, demonstrating that your involvement and proactive approach resulted in the problem being overcome. Quantify your answer if it’s possible to do so.

See our dedicated article for a full overview of the STAR technique

Here are some biggest challenge interview question examples, using the STAR technique.

We have provided you with three different answers based on an individual who has some career history to draw on, an individual who has limited career history to draw on and a student with no job history.

Example Answer 1: Individual With Career History

Situation

In my previous job, I was tasked with organizing a one-day business networking event in a conference center. A few days before the event, the conference center had a fire which meant the event could not go ahead in that location.

Task

I had to establish whether the event could still go ahead, or whether we should cancel. In my position as Event Manager, I called an emergency meeting soon after I heard the news. With the support of my assistant, the Marketing Manager and the Operations team, we decided to try and find another venue for the conference. This was challenging because we only had two days to re-organize everything.

Action

I overcame the challenge by creating a spreadsheet that listed all of the stakeholders we would need to communicate with, so no one was forgotten – contractors, businesses, delegates and media. I assigned a member of the team to each stakeholder group and tasked them with contacting them to relay the new information and make sure they were happy.

Result

As a team, we managed to contact everyone in good time. We dealt with all of the issues surrounding the venue move and the event was a great success. Attendance rates were up 23% on the previous year.

Example Answer 2: Individual With Little Job Experience

Situation

I started working in a café at the age of 16 and was trained by older waiters who had been there for several years. After a few months, I was informed I was being promoted to supervisor, which would mean me being in charge of those who had trained me.

Task

I needed to ensure the older waiters understood why the promotion had been given and ensure they were going to be respectful to me in my new role.

Action

I asked the two members of staff if they could stay behind for an hour when our shift had finished. I bought them both a coffee and asked them how they felt about my promotion. I talked through their concerns and reassured them that I respected their experience at the café and would need their support.

Result

The two members of staff were pleased that I had taken the time to speak to them and valued their opinions and support. They were very respectful of me in my new position and supported me brilliantly.

Example Answer 3: Student or Individual With No Past Job Experience

Situation

As part of my English degree, we had to cover three novels every week. Despite having had the reading list over the summer, I hadn’t managed to read all of the books and soon found it difficult to keep up. I began to realize that other people were in the same situation.

Task

I knew that if I was going to be able to complete essays on time I would need to find a way of managing the workload. I invited the others on my course who were struggling to attend a meeting in the kitchen of my halls of residence.

Action

I created a study plan for each week, blocking out time between lectures to concentrate as a group on each book. We used this time to research the book, looking at plot summaries, Cliff notes and critiques. Between us, we downloaded the audiobooks and film adaptations and listened/watched in the evenings.

Result

Despite feeling uncomfortable with the method I was taking to keep up with the pace of the course, I was able to contribute in lectures and felt I had enough of an understanding of each book to be able to complete the required essays. The other students were the same, and we all graduated with a 2:1 or above.

Interview Question: "Describe a Challenge You Overcame"

Answers to Avoid

The employer wants to know more about how you approach a challenge, so saying something like, "I don’t see anything as a challenge", will not score you any points in this instance.

Portraying yourself as a person with no flaws will mean the employer will either think you lack self-awareness or are simply not telling the truth.

Similarly, responding with, "I’m brilliant with budgets so in my last job I found it increasingly difficult to tolerate those around me who struggled" does not paint a positive picture of you.

It’s important to show humility in your answer and put yourself in the best light possible.

The reverse of this is to make sure you don’t answer too negatively. Focus on challenges you have conquered, rather than those you are still actively battling with.

If you struggle to keep your cool when working with a team of people, don’t tell the employer that you tend to storm out during meetings.

Keep it professional and show what kind of employee you will be; responses that go down the route of, "My boss was useless, so cleaning up his mess every day was a challenge" will not paint you in a good light.

The jury is out on whether it is ok to use a personal challenge or not.

If you are going for a job as an investment banker and you have previously held positions in the finance sector or completed a higher education course, refer to a challenge in your professional life. This is not the time to talk about how challenging it was when a grandparent died.

However, if you are new to the jobs market or if you are going for a role which requires you to have a high level of empathy – like a nurse, carer or special needs teacher, this kind of personal challenge example where you have to look after other people, lead and manage a situation amid adversity, might be appropriate. As long as you use the STAR technique for your answer and clearly show how you personally worked to overcome the challenge.

Finally, be careful not to criticize others in your response, or accidentally alert the employer to one of your flaws – for example, saying, "I misread the question" or "I kept being late" might set alarm bells ringing.

Top Tips for Success

Here are our top tips to help you answer this interview question successfully:

  • Have a couple of answers prepared – not just one.

  • Think about the buzzwords or phrases that are going to make the employer sit up and pay attention. These will usually come from scouring the job description to find out what is required from an employee in this role.

  • Rehearse your answers as much as possible to avoid waffling on the day.

  • Be excited. You should convey the fact that you relish a challenge and can’t wait to get your teeth into this role.

  • Ensure your answer is something the employer will be able to relate to.

  • If at all possible, pick a challenge that involves working with other people to overcome the problem, rather than you working alone. You need to demonstrate the fact you can communicate and lead.

Final Thoughts

Rather than being daunted by this question, see it as your chance to shine. Take the opportunity to show the employer just how perfect you are for the role.

Practice your answers as much as you can before going into your interview so that you cut out the irrelevant parts of the story and perfect the vital elements.

An employer wants to hire a human, not a robot – flaws and failures are a positive thing, as long as you can clearly show that you have overcome them and learned valuable lessons that inform the work you do today.

By Katie Wild Katie Wild