College Interview: How to Answer “Tell Me About a Challenge”
This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Robert Crystal in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.
During a college interview, there are several common types of questions that you might encounter. In this article, we focus on a question often asked during interviews: “Tell me about a challenge you experienced. How did you deal with it?”
Read on for tips on using the STAR method to respond to this question and for an example from Robert Crystal, who has conducted more than 200 admissions interviews for Yale University.
Find the Question Behind the Question
The first step in approaching an interview question is to find the “question behind the question,” or what the interviewer is hoping to learn from your response. For the question, “Tell me about a challenge you experienced. How did you deal with it?” admissions officers are looking to see how you deal with adversity.
A strong response to this question will show that you can be introspective and reflect on how you react and respond to things that have challenged you. Do you just roll over when the going gets tough, or do you find a way to work through problems either on your own or with other people?
The STAR Interview Method
What Is STAR?
A great strategy to use when responding to the challenge interview question is the STAR method. It enables you to answer any sort of behavioral interview questions that you may encounter. Such questions are usually posed like these examples: “Tell me about a time when . . . ,” “What do you do when . . . ,” “Have you ever done . . . ,” “Give me an example of . . . ,” or “Describe a time when . . . .”
With the STAR method, you can answer behavioral interview questions by breaking down your response into four sections: situation, task, action, and result.
To start a STAR response, begin with the situation. In this section, you set the scene for the interviewer by explaining what the situation was when a challenge occurred. Talk about it in terms of the challenge that you experienced.
Robert shared a sample “situation” from a student’s essay. The student talked about how their computer science club wasn’t drawing a diverse set of students. Each year, the club had a homogenous group of new students joining, so they wanted to expand their membership to become better known as an inclusive club that was welcoming to all types of people.
In this example, the situation was that the student wanted to improve the inclusivity of the computer science club, and they were struggling to figure out how to do that.
After stating the situation, the next section of the response is the task. In this phase, describe what your role was in the situation and what you were tasked with doing.
Let’s take the computer science club example. Perhaps you were the club’s public relations manager, so you were responsible for developing a marketing strategy to recruit new members. Maybe you were a general member, but you identified this problem and stepped up to lead efforts to resolve it.
The next step after “task” is to highlight the action. Explain the steps that you took to address whatever the situation was. Here, you can highlight how you dealt with and responded to it.
For the computer science club example, if this club wasn’t as inclusive as the student wanted it to be, what did they do to address this? Perhaps they started doing outreach to different groups of students.
The final step of STAR is to share the result. This section is self-explanatory: it’s a space to show the ultimate outcomes following your actions from the previous step. This is where you should convey the scope of your work and its impact.
Overall, using the STAR method can ensure that you give a focused answer without going on tangents or getting into unnecessary details. There’s also a natural flow to the STAR blueprint, so even if you prepare your potential responses ahead of time, they can still feel authentic to the interviewer. STAR helps you move from the general to the specific and back to the general again by describing the role that you play in all these settings, whether they are challenge oriented or circumstantial.
Example of the STAR Method
Now that we’ve introduced the STAR method, let’s look at an example for the challenge interview question.
The first step is to identify the situation or challenge. For example, let’s say that you want to talk about a time when you were the president of a club organizing an event. The challenge was that your partner for this project wasn’t available, so you had to do everything by yourself.
The task in this example is that it was your responsibility to organize an event for first-year students and expose them to research opportunities available on and off campus.
The action could be that since your partner was no longer available, you had to reach out to the other people in the club who wanted to be more heavily involved but hadn’t had the chance to get leadership positions. You created a task force and mobilized them to organize this new event.
For the result, discuss how successful the event was. Maybe it had the highest turnout ever in the three years that it had been organized. A result like this shows the interviewer the effects of what you did.
Hopefully, this one example gives you an idea of how you can use the STAR method effectively in an admissions interview.