How to Answer the Question "Tell Me About a Challenge You Overcame"

A Discussion of This Frequently Asked College Interview Question

frustrated student at a laptop

A college wants to know how you'll handle adversity, for your college career will invariably be filled with challenges that you will need to overcome. The question isn't a difficult one as long as you've put a couple of minutes of thought into it before your interview. The main danger with the question is being unable to think of an appropriate challenge during the interview.

Realize that you can draw from many different kinds of "challenges" when you answer this question. You don't need to have lived a life of adversity or oppression to have a meaningful challenge to discuss.

So your first step is to figure out what challenge you want to share with your interviewer. You would be wise to shy away from anything that is too personal—you don't want your interviewer to feel uncomfortable. But an appropriate challenge can come in many forms:

An Academic Challenge

Did you find chemistry or English particularly difficult? Did you struggle to balance your school work with your demanding role as the lead in a play? An academic challenge is one of the more predictable responses to this question, but it is perfectly appropriate. After all, dealing with academic challenges will be extremely relevant when you are in college.

A Challenge at Work

Did you have a boss or co-worker who was difficult to work with? Did you have a run-in with an extremely challenging customer? The way in which you deal with difficult people says a lot about you and gives your interviewer a glimpse into your ability to deal with a difficult roommate or demanding professor. Make sure your answer here presents you in a good light—pouring hot coffee in an annoying customer's lap or telling off your boss aren't the types of responses that a college will look upon favorably.

An Athletic Challenge

If you're an athlete, you most likely had to work really hard to succeed in your sport. Did you have to work hard to improve your skills? Was there an aspect of your sport that just didn't come easily to you? Alternatively, you could talk about a specific competition that was especially challenging. Just make sure your answer reveals your problem-solving abilities. You don't want to come across as bragging about your athletic accomplishments.

A Personal Tragedy

A challenge can be extremely personal. Did you lose someone close to you and have a hard time getting over the loss? Did an accident or death distract you from your school work and other obligations? If so, how did you eventually move on and grow from the painful experience?

A Personal Goal

Did you set a goal for yourself that was difficult to accomplish? Did you push yourself to run a six-minute mile, or did you challenge yourself to write 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo? If so, this can serve as a good response to the question. Explain to your interviewer why you set your particular goal, and how you went about reaching it.

An Ethical Dilemma

Were you put in a position where none of your options were attractive? If so, how did you handle the situation? What factors did you consider in finding the best solution to the dilemma?

Realize that your solution to the challenge does not need to be heroic or absolute. Many challenges have solutions that aren't 100% ideal for all parties involved, and there is nothing wrong with discussing this reality with your interviewer. In fact, revealing that you understand the complexity of some issues could play well during your interview, for it will highlight your maturity and thoughtfulness.

A Final Word

Keep in mind the purpose of this type of question. The interviewer isn't necessarily interested in hearing about some horror story from your past. Rather, the question is designed to help the interviewer discover what type of problem solver you are. College is all about developing critical thinking and ​problem-solving skills, so the interviewer wants to see that you have promise in these areas. When confronted with a challenge, how do you respond?

The best response will highlight your ability to navigate a challenging situation.