Q&A: describe a challenge you faced and how you overcame it

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 30 November 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

There are many different kinds of interview questions. Some test your understanding of the role and assess the skills you have that are specific to the job you've applied for, while others test your general aptitude and life skills. A frequent example of this is asking you to describe a challenging situation and how you overcame it. In this article, we discuss some of the different ways you can answer this question to help you prepare for your next job interview.

Why do interviewers ask candidates to 'describe a challenge you faced and how you overcame it'?

'Describe a challenge you faced and how you overcame it' is a popular interview question used by many employers. They might be looking for evidence of certain characteristics, such as resilience, adaptability and a positive mindset. They also want to see how you react to challenge and pressure. These sorts of questions are particularly favoured by interviewers who feel that the job position they're hiring for is in a stressful working environment. The interviewer wants to hear that you can think on your feet and are not overwhelmed by a sudden setback or failure.

Whilst you could respond in many ways, these examples show that a clear, structured and thought out response are best for the interview question, 'describe a challenge you faced and how you overcame it'.

Related: Video Interview Tips: How To Prepare for and Succeed in a Video Interview

Examples of interview questions

You will hear this question asked in various ways, some of which have only have subtle differences. Some of the most common formats this kind of question can take include:

  • Describe a challenge you faced and how you overcame it.

  • Describe a time you have had to overcome an issue to deliver a solution at pace.

  • Describe a time you have faced challenges from your team and how you overcame them.

  • Tell me about how you would handle a setback in a project you are managing.

  • How do you cope with challenges and issues to maintain momentum on your projects?

How to prepare examples of challenges you've overcome

Before your interview, have some examples you can use to answer this question. This allows you to remain calm and collected during the interview, avoiding the need to think of an example on the spot.

1. List some of the biggest challenges you have faced

An example of a challenge could come from your previous work. But bear in mind that unless the question specifically asks about your biggest challenge at work, you could also talk about something at home, school or in a volunteer role. Try and come up with a list of ideas for various scenarios which would make the best answers for different questions. It's a good idea to try and think of challenges where you found a clear, defined solution, as this can help you structure your answer.

2. Choose the examples to use that demonstrate a goal-driven outcome

You might have faced a range of challenging situations. It's helpful to think of specific examples where you had to work under time pressure to resolve a problem. You could also consider examples where you needed to think creatively or come up with an innovative solution.

3. Layout your response in a thorough way

Using the STAR method is a practical way to answer behavioural interview questions. This stands for:

  • Situation

  • Task

  • Action

  • Result

Breaking down your answer into these clear sections guides you into preparing a well thought-out response. The answer you give needs to highlight that you are capable of handling stressful situations. You also want to demonstrate that you don't take challenges or difficulties personally and that you adopt a pragmatic approach to solving them.

Related: How To Use the STAR Interview Technique in Competency-Based Interviews

How to use the STAR method to answer questions about challenges you've overcome

By breaking down your answer using the STAR format, you can cover all the key criteria an interviewer is likely to be looking for:

1. Describe the situation concisely

Be clear and concise when you describe the situation that led to the challenge you're about to describe. This may include details of where you were working, who you were working with and the goal you were working to achieve.

Example: '**I was working at a petrol station on an evening shift. It was fairly quiet, and there was only one other colleague and I working there when we encountered an aggressive customer.'

2. Tell them about the task

In this answer, describe what went wrong. Explain the parameters within which you had to work to fix the problem.

Example: '**The customer was becoming increasingly aggressive to my colleague because we would not give him free fuel. He claimed that his car had broken down. I knew that I needed to de-escalate the situation whilst keeping my colleague and myself safe. I wanted to do this as quickly as possible. I sought to prevent further customers from getting involved and making the situation worse.'

3. Explain the actions you took

Remember that this example is stronger when you talk about the actions you took. Use 'I' instead of 'we' during the conversation and avoid talking about your team or giving credit to others for the responsibility you took to resolve a problem.

Example: 'I initiated our emergency protocol, alerted my manager and firmly told the customer to leave. I made clear that I would call the police if he did not leave immediately. I took my colleague behind the counter, which has a protective screen.'

4. Tell them about the end result

Finally, explain how the outcome was beneficial as a result of your actions. This could include how it helped the company, your customers or your team. Remember that it's all about you, so talk about the specific role that you played in resolving the issue.

Related: Interview Techniques: Definition and Examples

Example answers

We have provided further answers to the question, 'describe a challenge you faced and how you overcame it' as examples of different situations. Review these to help you structure your own response.

Example 1: From education

If you're applying for a graduate job, you may not have a good example from the workplace. This example answer draws from education experience.

Situation: '**In my final year, I had to complete a research assignment. I chose to design a study about people's reaction times. This involved one-to-one sessions where I asked participants to react to prompts on a screen. I planned to test whether reaction times changed when listening to music in the background.'

Task: '**I had completed an extensive amount of background reading and research evaluation. The week before I was due to start the practical session, the university switched to remote learning because of Covid-19. I was no longer able to carry out my planned interviews. I did not have time to change the subject of my research, so I needed to adapt it.'

Action: '**I used my existing study material to develop an online version of the test. I researched online platforms which I could use to host the study and used my networks to recruit participants virtually. I had to update much of my work to take into account the limitations of conducting the study in this way but still managed to record the number of test results that I had planned.'

Result**: *'I was able to complete the project and write up my research. I accounted for the change in study design and factored this into my conclusion. I received a 70% first-class pass on the project and praise for my adaptability and ability to think of an innovative solution.'*

Example 2: Taking a simple problem and demonstrating your skills

Stay calm when you think you have no amazing examples of creative thinking and problem-solving. You can still take a simple problem and present your actions in a way that answers the question perfectly.

Situation: 'I was working in a small jewellery shop and helping plan a launch event for a new line of jewellery the owner was launching herself.'

Task: 'In the days before the launch party, our caterer cancelled due to a sudden illness. We had planned a very specific themed menu with them and I now had two days to find a replacement.'

Action: 'I identified five other local suppliers and checked their availability. Only two could work at such short notice. I discussed our plans with them to see who could achieve the closest to our designed themes.'

Result**:* 'The launch was a success and my manager acknowledged that no one would have noticed the food was such a last-minute addition.'*

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