Employers love to ask interview questions about mistakes.
They want to see if you’re honest and upfront, and most importantly – they want to see if you learned from the experience.
There are a variety of mistake-related interview questions you might hear, including, “Tell me about a time when you failed,” “Tell me about a mistake you made at work,” etc.
So in this article, we’re going to look at how to answer ALL of these mistake-related interview questions.
Hiring managers aren’t trying to disqualify you when they ask interview questions about mistakes you made and failures you’ve been through.
Instead, they’re trying to make sure you’re honest and upfront with them (very important in ANY interview question).
They’re also trying to make sure you have come to terms with the mistake and learned something from it.
If you still seem angry or resentful – or even worse – if you still seem like you’re blaming other people and not taking responsibility, you won’t get hired!
And finally, as with all the common behavioral interview questions, they want to make sure you can tell a clear, concise story and describe a situation briefly but effectively.
Hiring managers want to hire people who can communicate and stay on-track when describing a situation. So make sure you’re staying brief when you answer a question like, “tell me about a past mistake you made at work.”
Questions about past mistakes fall under the category of behavioral questions. (Behavioral interview questions are questions that start with phrases like, “tell me about a time you…”)
These interview questions operate on the premise that the best way to predict future behavior is to examine past behavior. Therefore, if you can cite an example of a past mistake and what you’ve learned from it, recruiters will see you as a person who is capable of learning a lesson from a mistake.
And the method we recommend for answering any behavioral questions is the S.T.A.R. method. That’s short for: Situation. Task. Action. Result.
This ensures you’ll tell a clear, easy-to-follow story that will impress the hiring manager. Remember – employers want someone who can communicate clearly and get a point across quickly while still sharing some details. S.T.A.R is the best way to do this.
You’d start with the situation or challenge you were faced with, and the task you had to complete. For example, you might say, “We were late on three client projects, and two of our team members were out sick. We had to finish these projects by Friday, because our clients were counting on us.”
Next, you’d describe the action you took. What solution did you come up with?
And finally, the result. What was the outcome? And most importantly – what did you learn from the experience?
Don’t worry if this sounds confusing… you’ll get to read a full word-for-word example answer for, “tell me about a mistake you made” coming up soon in this article.
First, here are the key pieces to make sure to cover in your answer…
The way you answer this question also says a lot about your level of personal responsibility. No one wants a coworker who is constantly passing the buck and blaming their blunders on others. So the first thing to do is acknowledge the mistake and take responsibility.
Don’t badmouth or blame others. Don’t make excuses. They’re not going to judge you for having made a mistake. But they will judge you for having a poor attitude about it!
Next, you need to show that you didn’t panic, and came up with the best solution possible to recover from the mistake. Errors and mistakes happen; it’s all about how you respond. That’s what the employer is concerned with here!
And finally, show that you learned from the situation. How have you avoided similar mistakes? If you can show employers that after making a mistake once, you adjust and prevent it from ever happening again, they’ll be very excited about you as a candidate.
Being able to stand up and own your mistakes will show employers you have a great attitude and are someone they should seriously consider hiring.
Also, the ability to reflect on the lessons you learned through failure is evidence of growth. After all, if you can’t point to a failure, you may be a person who isn’t willing to take risks. This is critical information in some industries, like tech, that are interested in hiring innovative people.
Everybody fails at work. It’s just a fact of life. The trick to answering a question about a past failure is to choose an example that shows you are a human who errs, and also that you are a person who learns from their mistakes.
Like every other part of a job interview, the goal is to show that you are smart and insightful about how your actions impact the organization.
A humblebrag is a statement that is designed to sound modest but that actually highlights something that you are proud of.
Answering a question about failure with a thinly-veiled self-congratulatory story won’t fly. You need to choose a real example of failure and then explain the lesson you learned from it. Below are two possible responses.
“Last year I redesigned the company’s online store to improve the user experience. The project took six months of really hard work, but we still didn’t meet our goal of increasing sales by $100,000. Instead, we only improved sales by $75,000. It was a real disappointment but, then again, I can be really hard on myself.”
“Last year, I was tapped to give a presentation to the company’s finance team to make a case for having funds added to my team’s budget to revamp the company’s online store. The presentation landed during our busiest time of year, and I was swamped. Because I was overwhelmed, I convinced myself that I knew the information inside and out and that I didn’t need to prepare for the presentation. In short, I blew it. We didn’t get the money we needed, and I disappointed my team. I know this happened was because I was overly confident and didn’t set my priorities well. Since then, I’ve always found time to prepare for presentations, even if it means taking the material home to practice. My presentations have brought in some of the biggest deals our company has seen this past year since the mistake, so I used that failure as a learning experience and a chance to improve myself.”
To succeed in answering a question about a past failure, pick a story that ends with a compelling lesson. Ideally, you should briefly outline the mistake and then elaborate on the lesson learned and how you’ve applied it to other projects.
Better yet – try to show how you actually used this lesson to avoid similar mistakes in the future.
You should never babble during a job interview, but brevity is very important when you are describing a recent failure. Don’t tell a longwinded story.
As a rule of thumb in an interview, no response should be more than a minute or two long. Make this response, in particular, as short as humanly possible. Keep it simple by using this simple formula:
Your Ill-Advised Action + Poor Result = Lesson Learned.
As important as it is to choose a real failure, you aren’t required to confess your most humiliating mistake in a job interview. Avoid telling stories that might be perceived as character flaws (“I am almost always late to meetings because I have terrible time management skills.”) or that might present a major headache for your employer (“As a result of the incident, I was investigated for sexual harassment.”)
Always use a real past failure example but do your best to make it benign. In other words, don’t give the employer a reason not to hire you with the example you choose. A company is not going to hire a person who might create a fiasco or present a legal problem for them down the road.
Remember failure isn’t fatal. Just focus on the lesson you learned from your mistake. If you follow the steps and tips above, you’ll be ready to answer any interview questions about mistakes that you’re asked.
About this guest author:
Since 2005, LiveCareer has been developing tools that have helped over 10 million users build stronger resumes, write persuasive cover letters, and develop better interview skills. Land the job you want faster using our free resume examples and resume templates, writing guides, and easy-to-use resume builder.