Interview Question: "Give an Example of Overcoming an Obstacle"

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated September 8, 2022 | Published February 22, 2021

Updated September 8, 2022

Published February 22, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

A person in glasses holds a piece of paper and talks to a person sitting in front of them while gesturing with their hand.

During an interview, a hiring manager may ask you to give an example about overcoming a challenge or obstacle. You can use your answer to show the employer how you solve problems and stay calm under pressure.

In this article, we explore why employers use this prompt, how to answer it effectively, what to avoid in your answer and some examples to help you craft your own effective response.

Why employers ask "Tell me about a time you overcame an obstacle"

There are many reasons employers ask you to explain times when you overcame obstacles, including to:

  • Understand your problem-solving and decision-making skills

  • Assess your ability to communicate and ask for help

  • Determine your resourcefulness and resilience

  • See your self-confidence and self-awareness

How to provide an example of overcoming an obstacle during an interview

Follow these steps to answer this prompt:

1. Think about challenges you may face in this new role

Review the job description and the responsibilities to understand what you'll be doing in the position. Then, consider the challenges you may encounter either in the first 90 days, occasionally or frequently on the job. This can help you better tailor your answer to the position you're interviewing for, which can help the hiring manager understand how well you'd do in the role.

For example, if the role involves interacting with clients over the phone, you might list the following potential challenges:

  • Upset or dissatisfied callers

  • Language barriers

  • Disconnections

With this list, you can recall experiences from your past where you've effectively dealt with these situations.

Read more: How To Overcome Challenges in the Workplace

2. Prioritize workplace obstacles

Focus on obstacles that you overcame in a previous professional role, such as a past job or volunteer experience. These kinds of examples can help you better showcase your ability to use different skills in the workplace.

When choosing an obstacle from your previous professional experience, consider using examples that:

  • Showcase communication, problem-solving, customer service or empathy skills.

  • Show how you collaborate with coworkers, colleagues and supervisors.

  • Demonstrate your instincts on when to ask for help.

  • End with you successfully reaching a goal or solving a problem.

3. Consider challenges from your personal life

If you have limited professional experience, like as an entry-level candidate, you can also focus your answer on an obstacle from your personal life that demonstrates resilience, resourcefulness and other positive characteristics. Make sure that the story itself is workplace-appropriate and the experience you gained can be easily applied to a professional role.

Consider the following experiences for your personal life obstacle:

  • Completing a personal project.

  • Achieving a fitness goal.

  • Earning a recognition.

  • Learning a new or advanced skill.

  • Participating or placing in a competition.

For example, if you wrote a novel and self-published it, you might focus on your preservation through writer's block, your creative problem-solving skills and your business acumen related to publishing and marketing your novel. If you trained for and competed in a distance run, you can emphasize your self-motivation, focus and discipline.

4. Emphasize key soft skills

While reviewing the job description, pay attention to the abilities the employer is looking for. Some skills you might consider showcasing include:

  • Proactive thinking

  • Quick decision-making

  • Troubleshooting

  • Leadership

  • Creativity

  • Integrity

  • Critical thinking

Once you know what soft skills the employer needs in the role, you can then determine which one of your personal and professional obstacles best illustrates these skills.

Read more: Soft Skills: Definitions and Examples

5. Use the STAR method

A prompt like "Tell me a time when you overcame an obstacle" is considered a behavioral interview question. These types of questions aim to discover the way you use skills and traits in workplace scenarios. To effectively answer these prompts, and this one in particular, use the STAR method to explain a specific situation, describe the task you had to complete, outline the actions you took and end with the results of your efforts.

As you consider various examples of obstacles from your personal and professional experience, try to highlight every step of the STAR method for each example. Then, you can determine which one of these examples has STAR method steps that are clearest and most relevant to the role.

Read more: How To Use the STAR Interview Response Technique

Examples of overcoming obstacles at work

Here are a few examples you can use when creating your own answers:

Example 1

"In my previous role, I frequently accompanied my employer to international locations to support her during business trips. I often had to liaison with people who spoke little or broken English, and early in my role, my foreign language skills were relatively limited.

On one trip to Rome, I had to change my employer's entire itinerary because our flight into the city was delayed. I had only previously communicated with the driver, hotel and business contacts via email, but I needed to get in contact with these people quickly, so I had to call and speak over the phone. I prepared what I was going to say before I called each place, and then I quickly translated each message into broken Italian. Then, I went to the airline customer service desk to ask if they would review my brief written messages. They agreed and kindly helped me correct the grammar. Finally, I looked up the pronunciation for words I was unsure of how to say, and then I called each place to inform them of the changes and to successfully revise our reservations.

To help me improve my international communication skills in the future, I actually took online courses in the three languages spoken in my employer's most commonly visited countries: Italian, Spanish and French. I also found a Spanish tutor and an Italian speaking group to further improve my speaking skills."

This example demonstrates the candidate's abilities to:

  • Think proactively.

  • Craft professional messages.

  • Ask for help when needed.

  • Pursue new skills to improve their ability to handle a similar obstacle in the future.

Example 2

"When I was a creative project manager, I led an advertising team in creating and sending deliverables to clients We once had a client who needed to push up their campaign's deadline for timeliness. We had two weeks to complete the revised mock-ups, get client approval on the final designs, create the campaign deliverables across the art, photography and copy teams and deliver the assets for publication.

In nearly two days, I reorganized the whole team's production schedule. I first reviewed the deadlines for our three other clients and calculated how much time we could spend doing less work on their projects to make time for this client's rush project. After discovering we only had three days of excess time, I met with the creative team leads to reallocate team members to the rush tasks. I then collaborated with team leads to vet and hire external contractors to take on tasks for other clients to ensure work was still completed. Then, I reviewed the budget to see if overtime for internal employees was feasible.

Finally, I held an all-hands meeting to communicate the new goals and delivery dates for the rush project, assign team members to review externally contracted work for other clients and provide opportunities for overtime that fit within the budget. And I also met with the client to let them know of the deadlines for each stage of the revised process to ensure we were all clear on the new expectations. With all of this reorganization, the team was able to meet the new rush deadline without compromising other client projects."

This example demonstrates the candidate's ability to:

  • Manage complex calendars and conflicting deadlines.

  • Use external resources when necessary.

  • Communicate expectations and goals.

  • Lead a team.

Example 3

"When I started bookkeeping, I learned how to do all the financial organization and calculations by hand. With technological advances, software completes many of these functions now. At my last bookkeeping job, I had to learn how to use bookkeeping software to keep up with these advancements and to ensure I effectively handled the company's financial records.

I first watched some tutorial videos from the software's website to get acquainted with basic functions. Then, I scheduled a call with one of the software company's trainers to go over more advanced functions. However, I was still struggling to retain information and apply what I had learned when an issue arose or I had to do a function that I didn't quite understand. To improve my skills in up-to-date bookkeeping, I enrolled in a few courses at the local community college to learn from experienced instructors, complete hands-on projects and assignments to practice different functions and earn a professional certification to showcase my abilities."

This example demonstrates the candidate's abilities to:

  • Self-reflect on their strengths and weaknesses.

  • Self-motivate and seek improvement and skill development opportunities.

  • Stay up-to-date with industry technology.

What to avoid in providing an example of overcoming an obstacle

Use the following do's and don'ts to craft the most effective answer to this common interview prompt:

  • Do be honest. Clearly explain what the obstacle was and why you struggled or how it challenged you. Use the STAR method to remain actionable about the steps you took to overcome it.

  • Don't exaggerate or use hyperbole. Be specific about what you did and the outcome of your actions to keep your story accurate.

  • Do be concise. Keep your answer to about two minutes long. This ensures that you leave time for the hiring manager to ask other questions and keep the conversation going.

  • Don't give too many details. Write out a brief outline of your answers ahead of time and practice giving your response verbally. Time how long it takes you to give your answer, and streamline it where necessary.

  • Do remain positive. Show that no matter the challenge, you are still content, calm and optimistic in the workplace.

  • Don't blame others. If the challenge was a result of a communication issue, an error or other factor that wasn't your fault, be sure to remain objective about how an issue occurred. For example, instead of saying that a coworker included incorrect information in a report, try to phrase it like "The report had errors due to inconsistencies in resources." This example doesn't blame a person but rather the resources used, which can sometimes be out of everyone's control.

  • Do try to focus on a clear obstacle. Have a clearly outlined story in mind to show that you can identify and solve problems in the workplace.

  • Don't say that you've never had to overcome an obstacle. When you do have a strong example, you show that you have self-awareness, are a goal-setter and are confident in your abilities to appropriately and effectively react to issues that arise.

  • Do showcase a successful result. Answer the question fully by choosing an example where you did actually use your abilities to overcome any obstacle.

  • Don't use a story where you didn't overcome the challenge. Show the interviewer you effectively take direction by ending your answer on how you succeeded and what the results of your hard work were.

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