Interview Question: "What Was Your Biggest Challenge as a Student?"

Student studying in library
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When anyone applies for an entry-level position, one typical job interview question they might be asked is about how they’ve handled significant obstacles in the past. If you are currently in high school or college, lacking major work experience, interviewers may couch this question as, “Tell me about the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a student.”

These challenges might be academic or personal—there is a wide gamut of situations you might choose to share. Perhaps you were faced with completing an important team project, but your teammates bailed at the last minute. Maybe you were an officer in an extracurricular or service organization tasked with organizing a major fundraising project. Or, like many students today, you might have struggled to balance your classwork with the demands of a necessary part-time or full-time job.

More important than the challenge is how you handled it: Use this as an opportunity to highlight strengths that would be helpful on the job, such as persistence,  communication skills, time management abilities, etc.

What the Interviewer Really Wants to Know

This question is a way for interviewers to get a sense of how you tackle problems and adversity. They are also interested in your level of self-motivation. Are you an individual who actively seeks new challenges in order to develop your skills and gain knowledge and experience? Or are you someone who passively avoids difficult situations until they arise, and you are forced to cope?

If possible, demonstrate to your interviewer how you are a person who embraces challenge.

How to Answer, “What Was Your Biggest Challenge as a Student?”

Be honest. It’s tempting to toss back a humble-brag as a response, e.g. “My biggest challenge was that I’m such a perfectionist!” Don’t do this. Everyone has flaws and areas for improvement. By pretending you don’t, you’d force the hiring manager to assume that you’re either lying or not self-aware. Neither makes a good impression.

Focus on challenges you’ve conquered. By the same token, now is not the time to present yourself in an unflattering light. There’s no need to share challenges you’re still actively trying to resolve. For instance, if you currently have trouble keeping your cool in stressful situations, don’t tell the hiring manager that you tend to freak out when the pressure is high. Instead, look for examples that show how you faced a challenge and overcame it. (So, for instance, if you used to feel stressed out before presentations, talk about how you solved the problem by taking a public speaking course and creating a schedule that allowed you to prepare ahead of time.)

Look for opportunities to show that you’re the best person for the job. When answering this or any job interview questions, your goal is to show the hiring manager that you’re the best candidate for the position. That means matching your qualifications to the job and using your answers to show that you’d be a good fit. For example, if the job listing specifies that the employer is seeking someone with good time management skills, you might talk about how you developed a system to help you juggle a challenging course load and a part-time job.

Examples of the Best Answers

Here are sample interview answers that you can edit to fit your personal experiences and background. Notice how these responses all demonstrate desirable soft skills that employers hope to find in their new hires.

My biggest challenge as a student was being the student! Sitting through the conventional lectures was sometimes difficult. My mind and body were always going, and I couldn't wait to get out of my seat, move around, share my thoughts, and interact with my peers. I handled it by focusing all my energy into my listening and note-taking. It helped keep my mind busy and my body moving, and I also left with some great notes.

Why It Works: This candidate demonstrates a good degree of self-knowledge in admitting that his preferred learning style was one that allowed interactive, interpersonal communications rather than passive listening comprehension. Better still, he demonstrated that he could successfully recognize and adapt to what was, for him, a less-than-ideal classroom environment.
Desirable soft skills: Interpersonal communications, teamwork, adaptability, flexibility, and active problem-solving.   

During my freshman year is when I faced my biggest challenge as a student. I had never lived away from home before, and I experienced severe homesickness. I was almost defeated by it, and had the opportunity to go home and attend a local college instead. But I decided to try to overcome my homesickness, which I did by making a real effort to connect socially with new friends in my classes, my dorm, and a campus church group.

Why It Works: This is a smart answer because the speaker shares what is a fairly common challenge for many students, then outlines the steps she took to overcome it.
Desirable soft skills: Self-motivation, problem-solving, personal initiative, and tenaciousness. 

Acquiring successful time management skills was the biggest challenge I faced as a student. It was an aspect to college life that I underestimated the significance of. Now that I am in the workforce, I continue to use the skills I gained, and I am always trying to improve on them as well.

Why It Works: Here the candidate chooses to focus on a single job skill that she knows would make her a valuable and productive employee: time management. She also expresses her belief in continuous improvement.
Desirable soft skills: Time management, self-initiative, self-knowledge, problem-solving, and willingness to learn.

One of my biggest challenges my first year in college was the volume of work. It was a big change from high school, and standards were also much higher! I tackled this in a few different ways: I looked for opportunities to start or join study groups, met with my professors for advice on where to focus my attention, and set up a structured schedule to make sure I was putting in the required time studying. This resulted in my maintaining a 3.8 GPA, even though I was also working a part-time job to help pay for tuition.

Why It Works: This answer effectively uses the STAR interview response technique to describe a past Situation, explain the Task / Challenge involved, describe the Action(s) taken, and present the positive Result of the action.

Desirable soft skills: Strategic planning, problem-solving, personal initiative, communications, organization, and project management.    

Tips for Giving the Best Answer

Practice your answers. It’s a good idea to have a couple of answers in mind, in case the interviewer nixes your first reply, or the interview goes in a direction you don’t anticipate. Regardless, you should devote some time to practice interviews before you meet with the hiring manager. Ask a supportive friend to conduct mock interviews with you, to get a feel for how to answer questions effectively and organically … and change tracks when necessary.

Emphasize relevant soft skills. Even if you don’t have much professional work experience, as a student you’ve probably developed many of the soft (“interpersonal” or “people skills”) that employers are thrilled to find in entry-level job candidates. Highlight the soft skills mentioned in the employer’s job posting, then allude to these in your answer. 

Be enthusiastic. Use your tone of voice and body language to express your confidence and willingness to accept the sort of challenges the job would present. Humor, judiciously used, can also work in your favor.

What Not to Say

Don’t mention a significant challenge you failed. Don’t mention an important failure (like flunking a class) or use any sort of example that would raise a red flag with your employer about your reliability, ability to focus, coachability, or work ethic (like, “I had to miss a lot of classes”).

Don’t make excuses. When explaining a challenge, don’t make excuses for yourself or cast blame on an instructor or your classmates. Avoid negative statements like, “The professor expected too much.”

Possible Follow-Up Questions

Key Takeaways

KNOW YOUR STRENGTHS: List the interpersonal / “people” skills that empowered you to overcome a challenge as a student and highlight these in your response.

EMBRACE CHALLENGE: Ideally, use your answer to persuade your interviewer that you would readily accept challenges in order to grow your skills and contribute productively to their workplace.

SHARE AN ANECDOTE: Use the STAR interview response technique to create a unique, illustrative example that the interviewer will remember when it comes time to make a hiring decision.