A stressed graduate considers ways he can handle his stress for the future.

‘How do you handle stress?’: Tricky graduate interview question

Find out what recruiters really want to know when they ask about ‘handling stress’ and learn how your answer can demonstrate your self-awareness, preparation skills, motivation and resilience.

No job will be entirely free of stress and, depending on the career you have chosen, stressful situations could be a regular occurrence of working life. Interviewers want to see that you will be able to handle the stresses of work, that you are aware of what you find stressful and that you are able to remain productive and professional in challenging situations.

‘How do you handle stress?’ (or a similar question such as ‘Describe a time when you successfully handled a stressful situation’ or ‘Describe a time when you had to show resilience’) is a fairly common interview question, but one that can be tricky to answer if you’re not sure what recruiters want to know.

How not to answer the question ‘How do you handle stress?’

  1. ‘I don’t get stressed.’
  2. ‘I know I get stressed by time limits and deadlines, so I avoid these entirely.’
  3. ‘Terribly. I completely stop functioning and can’t work at all.’
  4. ‘I know I’m stressed by managing multiple workloads, so I prepare by prioritising my tasks but it never works out and I always find myself falling behind.’
  5. ‘I’m motivated by stress.’

Why are these answers unlikely to get you the graduate job you want?

1. Recruiters don’t want to hear that you never feel stress, or that you’ve never been in a stressful situation. This is unlikely to the extent that, even if you were being entirely honest, recruiters may assume you’re being untruthful, which is never a good look in interviews.

2. It’s important to understand your own strengths and the responsibilities of the job you are applying for, so as to be able to strike a fine balance – showing that you are realistic about the stresses involved, but are confident that you can find ways to cope. This is where research and matching yourself with the competencies required for the job pays off. You need to be honest with yourself about what you want, particularly if you are applying for a job where deadline pressure is to be expected.

3 and 4. While honesty is key in interviews, it is possible to be too honest. No recruiters will be impressed to hear that you cannot operate at all under pressure. Stressful situations are likely in any job, so they probably won’t hire you if you make it sound like you are going to be unable to work whenever there is a heightened situation. Similarly, you want your answer to show you in a good light, so don’t choose to highlight an example that makes it seem as if you do not know how to react and prepare for stressful situations.

5. Being motivated by stress is a valid response, but may not really be answering the question that your interviewers have asked. Stress is different for everybody and so recruiters want to find out what your own personal response to stress is. Don’t respond in a way that could be seen as avoiding the question. Also, it is a tad clichéd.

What is the graduate employer really asking?

  • Do you know what situations you find stressful?
  • How do you react to situation not going to plan or situations that require resilience?
  • Do you know the job that you are applying for?
  • How do you stay motivated while working?

Recruiters want to see that you are aware of your working style and how you work best and that you are aware of what situations you find stressful; different things will stress different people. For example, some people may find juggling multiple tasks and working to a time limit stressful, while for others it may be motivating.

How should you tackle the question ‘How do you handle stress?’

Your answer needs to include evidence of a time when you successfully handled stress. Choose an example that is specific to what you find stressful and shows you to be self-aware, prepared and motivated to achieve your goals. If you need to, consider examples from outside of work experience, such as from extracurricular activities or your university course.

For example, if you find public speaking stressful your example could illustrate how you researched techniques for confident communication and prepared visual aids to assist you in carrying out a presentation.

You can structure your answer around the Situation Task Action Result model. Give the interviewer context for the situation and let them know what your goal was. The focus of your answer, however, should be on the actions you took to counteract and mitigate the stress and the (positive) result that this had.

Demonstrating you can handle stress during assessment centres

Keep in mind that recruiters will also be looking at your behaviour and actions during assessment centres and interviews, as well as your answers to questions. Recruiters will be paying attention to how you behave in potentially stressful situations such as a video or face-to-face interview, group exercises, case studies and scenario-based exercises.

Act professionally, be considerate when working with others and focus on the success of the task in hand. You need to actively participate in the team exercise without appearing to dominate, as you want to show recruiters how you might behave in a stressful workplace situation.

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