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What's your most significant achievement?

'What is your most significant achievement?' Tricky graduate interview question

Avoid predictable answers by thinking ahead about achievements that are uniquely significant to you.
Great answers show the recruiter how you had to be determined, dedicated or confident in the face of a challenge in order to succeed.

It can be tricky to pick out a real personal or professional achievement when most of your life has been spent in education. Yet everyone has had some kind of accomplishment in their life that they’re proud of, so don’t let this tricky question leave you stumped in the interview.

What is the graduate recruiter really asking?

Recruiters sometimes add the condition ‘outside of education’ to this question and even if they don’t, it’s often what they’re really looking for. They want to know more about you as a person – what makes you tick and what motivates you – and whether there’s more to you than just academic qualifications. They also want to find out what you consider ‘significant’ to see if you have a good attitude and if your values will be a good fit for the organisation.

How not to answer the question

There are two common answers to this question that do little to impress recruiters:

  • ‘I got a 2.1’
  • ‘I passed my driving test’

No matter how proud you are of these achievements, they don’t say anything exciting about you. When you’re going for a graduate job, having a degree is hardly going to make you stand out from the crowd and neither is having a driving licence, which is a requirement of many jobs.

How should you answer the question ‘What is your most significant achievement?’

Avoid these clichéd answers and choose something that’s specific to you. It should be a tangible event or accomplishment that you can pinpoint and measure – if you raised money for charity, how much did you raise in the end? It’s no good giving a vague response, such as ‘becoming more confident when meeting new people’, unless you can develop it. As with competence-based interviews, you should aim to use the STAR technique.

  • Situation: give the interviewer a context – describe the situation and why the achievement was significant. Why was it difficult to achieve?
  • Task: what goal did you aim to achieve?
  • Action: explain what your specific actions to achieve your goal were.
  • Result: make sure it’s a clear and specific event.

It should be something that wasn’t easy; great answers show the recruiter how you had to be determined, dedicated or confident in the face of a challenge in order to succeed. You really need to show off the benefits to the recruiter. Does your achievement show that you’ve got great self-motivation and self-awareness and that you always achieve what you set your mind to? Then make sure this comes across.

You can choose a professional achievement that’s related to the role, such as exceeding sales targets in your part-time job, but you don’t have to. It’s more important that it’s an achievement you’re genuinely proud of – if you’re not passionate about it, that will come across to the interviewer.

If you’re still struggling to come up with something, think about whether you’ve done any of these:

  • Trained for and finally completed a marathon or other sporting achievement
  • Set up a new student society or turned a struggling one into something more successful
  • Overcome a fear by completing something you were frightened of
  • Gone travelling alone despite nerves
  • Given a presentation at an event and got over public speaking worries
  • Raised a certain amount of money for charity
  • Helped others to succeed, for example, by teaching them a new skill

This is also your opportunity to talk about something you haven’t been able to discuss in your interview so far. You could prepare a few significant achievements to choose from on the day so that you can pick up the extra skills and experiences that haven’t been discussed in the interview yet. There’s also no reason why you can’t mention more than one achievement or the fact that you have plenty of other goals and achievements yet to come.

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