How to Answer College Job Interview Questions About Stress

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Job interviewers know how tough college academics can be, especially for certain majors, and they'll want to know how you handled the pressure and how this will translate to their workplace.

They might ask this as an ice-breaker to begin the interview ("Wow, you went to MIT? How did you deal with that crazy workload?"). They might want to gauge your ability to prioritize and persevere. Most likely, the job you're interviewing for will have plenty of stress baked into its work environment, and the interviewer wants to know if you can hack it. 

There are plenty of angles you can take to answer this question, but above all, be honest. Don't start twisting your answers to present yourself as some kind of invincible wunderkind. Interviewers want to know your strengths and weaknesses, and they know that nobody is 100-percent perfect or has superhuman strength. Everybody has their kryptonite. The key is to tell the interviewer how you take your kryptonite and make it work for you.

You might be one of those people who do your best work when the stress is on. In any event, these suggestions will help you craft a convincing answer that stays true to who you are. Here’s how to turn stress into a positive attribute in an interview.

What Employers Want to Know

During an interview, a potential employer wants to filter out any candidates that seem like they might have a melt-down under stress. They want to make sure that, in tense situations, you don't become overly emotional, disruptive, overwhelmed, or allow your feelings to get in the way of completing an assignment.

Employers want candidates who can channel a healthy level of pressure into energy, efficiency, and focus that they apply to their work. Telling employers that you typically plan ahead lets them know that you won't be caught unprepared in a stressful work situation. Employers also want to know that you can communicate in a constructive way during tough times, maintain healthy boundaries, and have a "coachable" mindset if you need to improve certain traits such as reactive tendencies.

Answers for When You Thrive on Stress

You may thrive in a stressful environment, but how do you thrive? You've of course researched the company where you're applying, so your answer should show how you will use that stress to succeed at that particular company. Here are some sample answers. Edit to fit your personal experiences and background:

  • I find that when I'm under the pressure of a deadline, I can do some of my most creative work. (Great answer for a job that requires a lot of creativity.)
  • I'm not a person who has a difficult time with stress. When I'm under pressure, I focus on the task at hand, and I get the job done. (Demonstrates the ability to focus in a distracting environment.)
  • I find it exhilarating to be in a dynamic environment where the pressure is on. (Hints at being a great team player.) 

Explain the Steps You Take to Handle Stress

You don't have to like stress. One way to answer this question is to describe the steps you take when the stress is on. Share examples to illustrate how you handled a specific stressful time, whether at a job you had in college or during a time when the academics were crushing.

  • When I am under pressure, I stop and figure out my priorities. I make a list to rank what is most important, and then I work through that list step by step, getting each task done.
  • When I've been in stressful situations, I try to figure out what is causing the stress. It's not always time-driven deadlines. Sometimes it's other people disagreeing on how to move forward. I figure out what the problems or disagreements are and work to get past them so we can all be productive.
  • I do my best to anticipate stress and to plan for it. In college, you have the advantage of knowing when your crunch times will be – when a midterm is scheduled or an essay is due. The same thing’s true in the business world – production cycles are predictable based on the calendar. So, my approach is to plan ahead by breaking projects into phases, setting myself early deadlines for their completion, and making sure all of the prep work is completed before a big exam or a final due date. I find this greatly relieves the amount of stress I feel when deadlines loom.

Keep it Positive

No matter how you answer, keep your response positive and focus on conveying how you will be an asset to the company.