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College Interview: How To Answer the Team Conflict Question

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. 


What’s Covered:



During a college interview, there are several common types of questions that you might encounter. In this article, we focus on a question that is commonly asked in interviews, which is: “Tell me about a conflict you experienced on a team.” Read on for strategies to respond to this question from Robert Crystal, who has conducted more than  200 admissions interviews for Yale University.


The Question Behind the Question


During admissions interviews, as well as interviews in general, the prompt “Tell me about a conflict you experienced on a team” is quite common. This question is similar to another common interview question: “Tell me about a challenge you’ve faced.” In some ways, the team conflict question is a more specific subtype of the challenge question. 


To address this question, the first step is to identify the “question behind the question,” or what the interviewer wants to learn from your response. While they are asking you to describe a conflict, it is more important to describe how you worked through that situation. This interview question is mostly a way for the interviewer to gauge how you respond to conflict. 


Additionally, it can sometimes work to choose a conflict that may not yet be fully resolved but that still allows you to demonstrate how you worked through the issue.


Demonstrate Emotional Maturity


Additionally, with the added context of a conflict within a team setting, it’s important that you demonstrate emotional maturity in your response and that you are well-intentioned. 


Avoid Blaming Others


Sometimes when students respond to this question, they tend to blame others for the conflict that they experienced. Blaming others can come off as spiteful or vindictive, which is not the impression you want to leave. Instead, keep a level head about your experience, and explain the conflict and the steps that you took to address it.


A Positive Example


For example, maybe you experienced a situation in which you were the copresident of a club and your copresident wasn’t pulling their weight in organizing an event. To show emotional maturity, you could describe how you took your copresident aside to ask how they were doing and if there was a circumstance in their life preventing them from being fully involved with your organization. In this response, you could highlight the circumstance as well as how you spoke to your copresident to ultimately show how you addressed a conflict within a team. 


Why This Matters


Most importantly, with questions like these that talk about negative things like conflict or challenge, it is critical to paint yourself in a good light without speaking ill of anyone else in the process. If you speak ill of other people when responding to a question like this, then the college interviewers will get the impression that you are someone who isn’t empathetic and doesn’t have everyone’s best interests at heart. 


Instead, be sure to project your values and demonstrate that you are a sympathetic person who is capable of working well with others. At the end of the day, college is not a vacuum where you only work independently. You will be part of an entire student body with all sorts of different interests and personalities. Therefore, colleges need to make sure you have the emotional maturity and interactive skills to be a part of a broader student body and interact with many different types of people.


The Leadership Question and Preparing a Response


The Leadership Question


Another variation of the challenge question is the “leadership” question. This question is commonly posed as, “Tell me about a time when you exhibited leadership qualities.” While this question shares similarities with other interview questions, it does have a slightly different nuance. It is often possible to use similar examples and answers for each of these questions, as long as you can still respond to the specific “question behind the question.”


Preparing a Response


When choosing a specific example to use in response to the “leadership” question, keep in mind that the specific incident is the vehicle through which you talk about what your strengths are or when you did the right thing. This could be any sort of leadership quality imaginable, such as communication, organization, delegating ability, gratitude, or empathy, which are all qualities that any good leader should have and exercise.


As you brainstorm potential examples to use in your response, be sure to take some time to self-reflect and figure out when you might have exhibited these qualities. This can be challenging to think of on the spot, so it can be helpful to jot down some bullet points as you begin to prepare for interviews. 


While preparation is good, you shouldn’t try to overly memorize any of these circumstances. Instead, just prepare a couple of notes on what the circumstance was, what the challenge was, how you responded, and how things turned out.