“Can you describe a challenge you overcame?”
People face and overcome challenges every day, but few of them are worthy of mentioning in an interview setting.
This article will explore this question in more detail, talk about what’s really being asked, and how best to structure your reply.
Variations Of This Question
Before we start, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the different variations of this question so you don’t get caught off guard.
Here are the most common:
- What’s the most difficult situation you’ve overcome?
- What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced at work?
- What situations do you find challenging?
- How do you overcome difficulties at work?
- Do you find unexpected conflicts hard to overcome?
- Do you welcome workplace challenges?
What The Interviewer Really Wants To Know
When asking this question, the interviewer is gathering information that helps them determine the following:
- Your problem-solving skills
- How creative you are with your solutions
- Whether you’re a team player
All jobs come with their own unique set of challenges, and you’ll eventually have to figure out how to navigate a tricky situation you find yourself in.
Coming up with a solution is key.
There’s not a single solution for every hurdle life throws at you, so your ability to think on the fly and come up with a creative fix is what the interviewer wants to see.
How to Answer: “Can You Describe A Challenge You Overcame?”
Your answer should have 3 components:
1. Describe A Challenge You Faced
Keeping the answer to this question relevant to a workplace situation will work in your favor. I mean, this is a job interviewer after all.
However, if you’ve gone through a significant personal challenge in your life that you’ve overcome, taking this approach can be more powerful than any work-related story could ever be.
The challenge doesn’t have to be something that was immediately resolved. Some of the bigger challenges we face can take weeks, months, or even years for us to work our way through them.
The point here is to think of something that was a legitimate challenge for you at the time, it doesn’t matter how big or small.
2. Explain The Steps You Took To Solve It
Once you describe what the challenging situation was, explain how you resolved it.
Again, this will be relative to the story you’ve set up, and whether it was a work situation or a personal one.
When you explain the resolution steps that were taken, you’re essentially leading the interviewer from start to finish through the story.
This paints a vivid picture in their mind about how you respond to unexpected situations and helps them make the link between your skills and if they’ll be useful to the company.
3. Finish With The Lessons You Learned
Overcoming any challenge will help you grow as an individual, and you want to convey this to the interviewer.
You’re then positioned as a candidate that’s successfully learned how to identify challenges and make the necessary adjustments to resolve them.
You should take some time to reflect on what you took away from the experience. Without sounding cliché, here are a few examples to get you on the right path:
- Change is inevitable
- You can’t control everything in life, but you can control how you respond to challenging situations
- You’re a lot stronger than you thought you were
- Pain is temporary
- With the right attitude, things always work out in the end
Putting It All Together (Example Answers)
That’s the theory covered, but how do you actually put this all together in a real interview scenario? Below are some sample answers to give you a better idea.
Example #1: Asking For Help
“For as long as I can remember I’ve always been strong-willed in my work habits, thinking I can do anything and everything.
I once worked for a company that recognized my work ethic and gradually began increasing my duties. One day, I realized I was completely overwhelmed by the additional workload.
Not only was I working extra hours to get everything done, but I was burning myself out in the process. After some self-reflection, I realized I couldn’t do it all by myself, which was hard for me to admit.
I voiced my concerns to my boss and he was more than understanding. He ended up hiring an assistant for me, which greatly reduced my stress and resulted in an increase in productivity.
I can now admit when I need help, and that there’s no shame in asking for it, as everyone requires a helping hand at some point in their lives.”
Example #2: Meeting Quota
“A few years back I worked in advertising sales for a dog magazine.
Every month we were expected to bring in a certain amount of business for the company. It was a high-stress job but one that I was good at, until one month when I realized I was considerably behind my quota and only had 1 week left.
I worked like crazy in those 7 days. Every spare minute I had, I was on the lookout for new leads and pulling 12 hour days.
While I didn’t quite hit my target, I came very close. Ever since then I’ve been able to use that experience to push through and charge ahead whenever things look bleak. I now know that sales, like most things in life, is cyclical.”
Example #3: Demanding Customer
“I do wedding photography in my spare time, and I always provide examples of my work upfront so clients know what to expect.
One couple I worked for hated the wedding photos I took for them. They said the photos appeared “cold and dark” — which baffled me because they were near carbon copies of the examples I showed from previous weddings I did.
Obviously, I couldn’t reshoot their wedding, so I offered to re-edit the photos and “warm them up”.
Long story short, it took 3 rounds of edits until they were satisfied.
By staying calm, taking time to understand their concerns, I was able to capture their special day exactly the way they wanted it. I also threw in a few free prints and apologized for any trouble.”
How NOT To Answer
We’ve talked about the right things to do, but it’s worth mentioning some of the mistakes people often make so you can avoid them.
Don’t Mention Conflicts With Bosses Or Colleagues
It’s best to keep your interview largely positive, as you don’t want to come across as someone who’ll exude negativity in the workplace.
If the example you’ve chosen to go with is work-related, make sure it’s one that doesn’t include ex-coworkers or bosses.
This will make it seem like you might be the problem (remember, you’re the one who’s currently out of work), rather than someone who works to resolve them.
Don’t Dwell On The Problem (Or Challenge)
The interviewer wants to know if you can handle adversity.
If you dwell on the challenge while answering, you may come across as someone who has trouble moving through difficult situations.
They want to see that you can accept challenging circumstances and begin working towards a solution, and you can’t do that by merely focusing on the problem.
Make no mistake, this is reflected in your answer by how much time you choose to talk about the challenge itself rather than the steps you took to overcome it.
- Learn the different variations of this question
- Familiarize yourself with the most likely lead-up questions
- Talk about a specific challenge you had to solve
- Clearly detail the steps you took to solve it (and how you came up with them)
- Summarize a lesson you learned from the experience