Of all the difficult interview questions out there, the ‘greatest accomplishment’ prompt can be particularly tricky. However, it tends to be a great question that interviewers and recruiters use to get to know you better.
Answer too arrogantly, and you’ll appear difficult or over-reaching. Answer too modestly, and your interviewer might think you’re not taking them seriously!
How do you strike that perfect balance when answering “What is your greatest accomplishment?” – and how can you execute it with confidence?
This interview question could be a make-or-break scenario, so it’s essential you plan ahead.
In this guide, we’ll look through everything you need to keep in mind to knock this question out of the park. We’ll cover:
- Why interviewers ask this question
- How to prepare your answer ahead of time
- The best way to answer “What is your greatest accomplishment?”
- Two example responses
Ready to get started? Let’s go.
Why Does An Interviewer Ask “What Is Your Greatest Accomplishment?”
This question is similar to “What is your greatest strength” because the interviewer isn’t just looking for a great answer, they’re interested in how you answer, too.
Your interviewer really wants to know the following about you:
- How ambitious you are, and what drives you
- If you have the right attitude and are a good fit with the company/team
- A little about your problem-solving skills, if possible
- What your definition of ‘success’ might be
Your answer to this question really can give away all of the above. And most of it will come down to delivery. An interviewer wants to hire someone confident, yet grounded.
Answer too arrogantly, and you may appear problematic. Answer too modestly, and you may appear passive or disinterested. A recruiter will know if you are over-exaggerating or under-selling yourself!
What Answer Are They Really Looking For?
With this question, your interviewer wants to know that you’ll push for success. They want an answer that tells them you not only have the right skills, but that you want the position and know you're the best person for the job.
A recruiter wants to hear about a relevant, genuinely impressive experience from your professional life. They want to know:
- That you’re a team player
- That you focus on details as well as results
- That you genuinely care about your work
That’s why it really does pay to plan ahead. A great life hack you could use ahead of time is to start making notes of all your professional successes. Keep track of every win – big and small – and refer back to your log when it’s time to prepare for an interview.
Brilliant note-taking apps such as Bear and Evernote, for example, are easy to annotate right after your latest win.
The Best Ways To Answer “What Is Your Greatest Accomplishment?”
The best answer to this question is one that is not only believable, but one that has a start, a middle and an end. Think about structuring your answer like a story.
Let’s break this down into a 5 step formula:
- Think of a working situation or scenario from your recent professional life.
- What was a challenge that arose – and what was at stake?
- What did you do personally to help turn things around?
- How did things change for the better following your action?
- How has this accomplishment influenced your career?
Answering the question with a story format works well, as you can fit all kinds of experiences into the framework. This is much like the Star Interview Method, where you break down your answer from the situation to the result.
The idea of story building is older than you think! Aristotle created the story arc theory, which is useful for breaking down plays, movies, books – and everyday situations! Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic goes in-depth – a great read.
What To Avoid Saying
Success is relative to an extent, but you need to make sure your answer is relevant to the job you apply to. You won’t be able to get away with claiming X number of kills on Call Of Duty as an accomplishment, sadly.
Again, as explored above, you want to avoid coming across either too cocky, or too dismissive. Let’s consider some scenarios in which you could appear either way.
- Disregarding or even lambasting your company or co-workers – not appropriate!
- Positioning yourself as the hero, but being very vague on details
- Claiming you are the ‘quickest’, or the ‘fastest’, or the ‘best’
- Failing to show positive changes you made to others’ lives
- Referring to others’ opinions of you too much
- Downplaying your final accomplishment
- Sandwiching your positives with negatives – try the other way around!
- Using negative words – ‘almost’, ‘pretty much’, ‘more or less’
It takes time to strike the balance. Check out my guide to a similar interview prompt – ‘tell me about yourself’ – for more tips.
Greatest Accomplishment Example Answers
Ready to give highlighting your own accomplishments a try? Here are some example answers to help inspire you:
“My greatest accomplishment came during my role as a networking engineer at (Company). An office serving 100+ agents suffered a huge data outage right in the middle of a busy working day. They needed a quick, reliable solution so they could get back to helping customers.
I took initiative and applied a general fix to help bring the network back online – while I worked on a permanent remedy to prevent the issue happening again in future. This meant customer queues were kept to a minimum, and I helped to make sure this potential disaster didn’t repeat itself!”
“A year or two into my role as an onboarding trainer at (Company), our firm was starting to take on a bigger influx of employees. This pushed our resources to the limit, and what’s more, our existing documentation was starting to grow ever-more outdated.
Taking initiative, I worked closely with my team to develop an open-source training wiki via the company intranet. This not only helped new employees onboard quicker and more confidently, but our team was now able to make new changes and create new pages as needed. It meant new recruits could hit the ground running faster and happier, and that led to saving revenue for the company, too.”
Both of these examples are great because they clearly identify a problem, they quickly detail a solution, and consider the bigger picture.
This question is designed to really get you digging deep, but it’s also a quick, easy way for a recruiter to get the measure of you. That’s not a bad thing, providing you put in plenty of interview preparation!
Remember, being asked about your greatest achievements is very likely to appear in any set of interview questions. That applies face to face and through telephone interviews, too.
Start planning early and take notes. Follow our five-step formula, and record every little win. You never know when you might need to refer back to them!