College Interview Tips: "Tell Me About a Challenge You Overcame"

A Discussion of This Frequently Asked College Interview Question

frustrated student at a laptop

A college admissions officer wants to know how you'll handle adversity because your college career will invariably be filled with challenges that you'll need to overcome. The question isn't a hard one as long as you've put a bit of thought into your answer before your 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.

Your first step is to figure out which challenge you want to share with your interviewer. It's wise to shy away from anything that's too personal—you don't want your interviewer to feel uncomfortable. But an appropriate challenge can come in many forms.

Academic Challenge

If you struggled, but ultimately succeeded, in a specific class, you might find this to be a perfect topic to discuss during your college admissions interview. Other academic challenges include the demands of balancing schoolwork with a demanding role as the lead in a play or captain of the basketball team. 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 relevant when you are in college.

Challenge at Work

The way you deal with difficult people says a lot about you and gives your interviewer a glimpse into your ability to deal with an annoying roommate or a demanding professor. If you've had a challenging experience with a boss or customer at work, you might consider discussing how you persevered through this situation with your interviewer. 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 isn't the type of response that an admissions officer will look upon favorably.

Athletic Challenge

If you're an athlete, you likely had to work hard to improve your skills and succeed in your sport. Was there an aspect of your sport that didn't come easily to you? Did you overcome a physical problem to excel in your sport? These are great topics to discuss during your interview. Alternatively, you could talk about a specific competition that was especially challenging. Just frame your answer to reveal your problem-solving abilities. You don't want to come across as bragging about your athletic accomplishments.

Personal Tragedy

Many challenges are personal. If you have lost someone close to you or had problems due to an accident, you've likely suffered from the distraction. If you decide to discuss this topic with your interviewer, try to center the conversation on the steps you took to eventually move on and grow from the painful experience.

Personal Goal

Did you set a goal for yourself that was tough to accomplish? Whether you pushed yourself to run a six-minute mile or write 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month, this can serve as a good response to the challenge-you-overcame question. Explain to your interviewer why you set your particular goal and how you went about reaching it.

Ethical Dilemma

An ethical dilemma is a situation in which you must decide between two options, neither of which is clearly the greater moral choice. If you have been in a position where none of your options were attractive, you might consider discussing this situation with your interviewer. By providing background information, sharing how you handled the situation, and detailing the factors you considered in finding a solution, you can showcase your problem-solving abilities and moral compass to your interviewer.

Realize that your solution to the challenge does not need to be heroic or absolute. Many challenges have solutions that aren't 100 percent 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 certain issues could play well during your interview as it may highlight your maturity and thoughtfulness.

Formulating Your Response

When describing the challenge in your interview, begin with a brief summary of the challenge itself. Explain to the interviewer any necessary context so that she can understand the circumstances you faced. Keep this part of your response brief, as you should focus the conversation on the process of overcoming the challenge rather than the initial struggle. To transition from the challenge to the process of overcoming it, take the interviewer through your thought process. Identify the different options that were available to you and how you arrived at your decision.

A Final Word

As you prepare for the interview, keep the purpose of this type of question in mind. 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 whether you show promise in these areas. When confronted with a challenge, how do you respond? The best answer will highlight your ability to navigate a challenging situation.