Have you ever been in a job interview and felt as though everything was going great right up until the moment when the interviewer suddenly asked you to name your greatest accomplishment?
That question — along with other behavioral probes — can sometimes take job candidates by surprise and leave them struggling to come up with a compelling answer. You might even be wondering, is there a way to avoid that potential misstep? Yes, there is! You just need to have a prepared answer before you walk into the interview.
In this post, we will explore the “what’s your greatest accomplishment” interview question and provide some simple tips that you can use to ensure that you have an answer prepared for that and other common questions. We will also provide some sample answers that you can customize to fit your own work history and notable achievements.
Why do employers ask behavioral questions?
Behavioral questions may be a challenge for many job candidates, but they remain one of the most valuable tools hiring personnel can use to get to know potential hires.
These questions are used to provide a candidate with the opportunity to describe their knowledge, experience, skills, and other traits. The answers can enable the interviewer to get a better understanding of the type of person they might be hiring.
This is important because companies do not hire skills; they hire real people with real personalities, habits, and drives. A single bad hiring decision can be extremely expensive in terms of both money and time. According to Glassdoor, it costs businesses around $4,000 and 24 days to hire each new worker.
To avoid a bad hiring investment, interviewers need to use every tool at their disposal to ensure that they are making the very best possible employment decisions.
What are interviewers trying to discover when they ask the “what’s your greatest accomplishment” interview question?
Like many other behavioral queries, the “what’s your greatest accomplishment” interview question is used as a way to predict future behavior and results. Put simply, hiring managers understand that past behavior is the best predictor of future outcomes.
By asking you to describe your greatest previous achievement, the interviewer is gaining insight into what their company can expect from you if you are selected to fill their open position. For that reason, you need to come up with a convincing answer for them.
Note that the emphasis here is on how the company can benefit from your achievements. Your answer can provide insight into your skills and work ethic, the things you value, and how well your overall working style will align with the organization’s culture, vision, and mission. When you describe how you achieved certain results, you give the employer additional information about how you work, as well as how you define success.
As a result, you should always be prepared to provide an answer that compellingly demonstrates why you are the very best candidate for their open position.
Tips you can use to choose your greatest accomplishment
One problem that you may encounter as you try to prepare for the “what’s your greatest accomplishment” interview question is figuring out which achievement to highlight. While all of your achievements are important, you will need to select the right one for any given job opportunity and interview setting. It can be rather a tough decision. Luckily, the following tips can be useful for making that determination.
Focus on professional achievements
This shouldn’t need to be said, but always remember to talk only about your professional accomplishments when an interviewer asks the “what’s your greatest accomplishment” interview question. Yes, you may have scored four touchdowns in a single game of high school football, but how can that benefit a potential employer? Keep it above board.
Make your accomplishment relevant
Before you go into your interview, select one or two achievements that involve skills or tasks you are likely to perform in your new role if you get hired.
The reason for this is simple: you want the employer to be able to see the value that you can provide by achieving similar results for their company. If your greatest achievement involved hitting a certain sales number, that may not be of much interest to an employer who is looking for someone to fill a manufacturing role. Always make sure that it’s relevant.
Pick a recent achievement
When choosing between accomplishments, always try to select the most recent victory — as long as it is at least somewhat relevant to the role you are seeking. While employers may be interested in hearing about older exploits, they are really keen on seeing how valuable you have been in the recent past.
Make a list of accomplishments
Never rely on your memory to prepare you for your interview. Instead, take the time to create a list of your most relevant achievements. Then select the best accomplishment to cite for any given interview, depending on the company’s needs and the position you are seeking. You should work on creating a ready-made answer for each achievement.
Quantify your achievements
As you create your answer, be sure to include hard numbers that quantify the value of your actions. This not only provides a greater level of authenticity to your story but can help the employer to better understand how they could benefit from similar results.
Use the STAR method to develop your answers
Since your answer will involve you telling a story, you should ensure that your narrative has the right structure. The STAR method can help you create that compelling story by providing a simple step-by-step process you can use to structure any answer.
Situation: Begin by detailing the situation at the time you took your action.
Task: Describe the assignment you were given or any obstacles you needed to overcome
Action: Provide details about the specific steps you took to meet the challenge and achieve your goal.
Results: End your tale by focusing on the measurable results you achieved. Again, be sure to use real numbers that demonstrate the positive impact you made.
“What is your greatest achievement”: sample answers
To give you a better idea of how this works, here are some simple examples of how someone might answer this behavioral question. Of course, these are hypothetical answers that you can use as a guide when you structure your own responses. Note how each answer incorporates the STAR method to provide a simple narrative structure.
“During my time as sales manager at ABC Corp, the company experienced an unexpected drop in sales. I was tasked with developing a sales campaign that could turn around that decline so that the company could avoid cuts in other departments.
Recognizing that I needed buy-in from my entire team, I called a group brainstorming session to ensure that every team member’s voice and input were heard as we created our response.
That collaboration boosted morale and helped our team increase sales by 45% month-over-month. The company eventually incorporated that new brainstorming process into its broader management efforts, enabling other departments to benefit from the increased employee engagement.”
“I think my greatest accomplishment was achieved during the onboarding period immediately after my last promotion. That new job came unexpectedly, since I had not actually sought the role but instead was chosen to fill in for a colleague who had passed away. Her passing left the company in turmoil, and I was left to learn a whole new array of duties and responsibilities during a period in which there was little assistance available to help me get up to speed.
I made the decision to spend extra time each day learning everything I could about my new department, its processes, and my team. All of this occurred during the height of our annual customer acquisition drive, so there was real pressure to maintain continuity while still meeting the company’s broader goals. That extra time I spent acclimating myself to the new role helped me get up to speed while leading my team as it not only met our department goals but exceeded them by increasing acquisition by 12%.
When the time came for the company to hire a permanent replacement for the position, it was offered to me without reservation.”
“As a content director at a design firm, I experienced my greatest achievement when I was tasked with overhauling our customer project management process. The old process was not well-structured and repeatedly resulted in missed deadlines, mistakes, and partial refunds. I developed some clear structural processes that ensured ongoing communication between customers, developers, and on-site management personnel.
Ultimately, that system change reduced mistakes, improved customer retention by 53%, and reduced refund losses by more than 80%.”
“One of my greatest accomplishments came last year when I was working at Bumble Bee Kindergarten teaching five and six-year-olds. One student who was known for being disruptive during day sessions was unexpectedly diagnosed with autism, and required additional support. Since no member of staff was trained in this area, I took it upon myself to enlist in a course on supporting children with learning and social disabilities. I completed the classes in my own time, after work, and gained the full qualification in six weeks.
Having picked up supportive strategies, I was able to implement these approaches into the everyday sessions. These included allowing the young person to have a more flexible schedule, adapting the language I used to suit their needs, and creating a “working board” and clear reward system for them. The effects were almost immediate. The student became less disruptive during the day and was more engaged in the sessions we hosted.
I am most proud of this achievement as I feel I made a genuine difference to the learning experience of the student in question. Making these small changes to the way I ran sessions meant that he was able to take an active role in them and start his learning journey. It is my hope that this has put him in a good position to succeed in the future.”
“While working as a health and well-being officer in my previous role, I was responsible for managing workers’ absence records and carrying out “back to work” meetings. I soon noticed that a particular worker was regularly absent from work due to sickness.
The protocol was to carry out a meeting directly after the bout of sickness and have the employee fill out a questionnaire. However, after the fourth incident, I realized that there was more to this problem than first met the eye. In our next meeting, I spoke to the employee about possible causes for the absence and sickness, encouraging her to speak openly about what was happening. She explained that she was struggling with work-related stress and believed that this could be increasing her chance of falling ill.
It became clear that the employee was not getting the support she needed to fulfill her job duties, and was becoming burned-out. I spoke to her line manager and arranged a meeting to discuss possible outcomes. We decided to create more flexible deadlines for the employee and offload a handful of her duties. As a direct result, her absence decreased by 63% in the following three months.”
As a job seeker, you should never allow yourself to be surprised by any of the many questions you may be asked during an interview. Whether it’s the “what’s your greatest accomplishment” interview question or any number of other probing questions that explore your skills and experiences, knowing how to respond can be an important part of selling yourself as the best possible candidate for the job.
Is your resume compelling enough to land you that important interview? Let our expert resume professionals provide you with the free resume review. Be confident you have the tools required for job-seeking success. Whatever your career goals, you are more likely to reach them with a tailored resume that hits the mark.
Ken Chase, Freelance Writer
During Ken's two decades as a freelance writer, he has covered everything from banking and fintech to business management and the entertainment industry. His true passion, however, has always been focused on helping others achieve their career goals with timely job search and interview advice or the occasional resume consultation. When he's not working, Ken can usually be found adventuring with family and friends or playing fetch with his demanding German Shepherd. Read more resume advice from Ken on ZipJob’s blog.