A typical job interview subject is past work-related mistakes. One question the interviewer might ask about past mistakes is, “What have you learned from your mistakes?" Another is, "Tell me about a time you made a mistake." While the topic might make you uncomfortable, it’s important to know how to answer a job interview question about mistakes.
What the Interviewer Really Wants to Know
The interviewer asks questions like this to learn how you handle challenges. Everyone makes mistakes, and the interviewer wants to know how you handle it when it happens to you.
They also ask these types of questions to determine your weaknesses, and decide if you have what it takes to do the job well.
When answering this question, you want to be honest, but you should also do your best to tell a positive story about how you became a better job candidate because of a mistake.
Read below for more tips on how to answer this question, as well as sample answers you can tailor to your career experiences.
How to Answer, "Tell Me About a Time You Made a Mistake”
The best way to answer this question is to talk about a specific example of a time you made a mistake:
- Briefly explain what the mistake was, but don’t dwell on it.
- Quickly switch over to what you learned or how you improved, after making that mistake.
- You might also explain the steps you took to make sure that the mistake never happened again.
When talking about what you learned, try to emphasize the skills or qualities you gained that are important for the job you’re interviewing for now.
You might also explain that something you struggled with a long time ago has actually now become one of your strengths.
You want your example of a mistake to be honest. However, it's a good idea not to mention a mistake that would be critical for success in the new position. For instance, give an example from your last position that isn't specifically related to the job requirements for the new position.
It's also a good idea to mention something that is relatively minor. Avoid mentioning any mistakes that demonstrate a flaw in your character (for example, a time you got in trouble for fighting at work).
Sometimes a good mistake to mention is a team mistake. You don’t want to place all the blame on your teammates, but you can say that you collectively made an error.
Examples of the Best Answers
Here are some sample answers that you can use to help you prepare and practice your own response to this common job interview question. Note how most of these examples use the STAR interview response technique, in which an interviewee describes a Situation, Task, Action, and Result to explain how they responded to and learned from a workplace situation.
When I first became an assistant manager of a sales branch, I tried to take on everything myself, from the day-to-day operations of the branch to making all of the big sales calls. I quickly learned that the best managers know how to delegate effectively so that work is done efficiently. Since then, I have won numerous awards for my management skills, and I believe a lot of this has to do with my ability to delegate effectively.
Why It Works: This answer demonstrates how the candidate is able to evaluate and learn from challenging work responsibilities, readjusting course as necessary. It’s a great example of how to turn a “mistake” or “negative” (a tendency to micro-manage) into a positive management skill (the ability to delegate).
I’m the kind of person who tries to learn and grow from every mistake. Years ago, a team I was working on failed to land a sale, and we were told it had to do in part with our ineffective visuals. Over the next six months, I spent much of my free time learning how to use various software programs to create enticing visual presentations. Since then, I’ve been continuously praised for my visuals in meetings and sales pitches.
Why It Works: This response skillfully reduces the level of the candidate’s culpability for a critical work review by casting it as a team failing, then explaining how he took the initiative to increase his personal skillset to ensure that his team did better in the future. It highlights both his desire to learn and his dedication to being a strong contributing team member.
One thing I have learned from past mistakes is when to ask for help. I have learned that it is far better to ask for clarification and solve an issue right away than to be unsure. I know that your company emphasizes teamwork and the need to be in constant communication with one another, and I think my ability to ask (and answer) questions of my peers would help me fit in very well with your company culture.
Why It Works: This answer subtly redirects the conversation from the focus upon the candidate’s earlier performance weaknesses to the needs of the employing company. It shows that the candidate has done her homework in defining the culture of the employer’s workplace and proves how, self-aware as she is, she can offer them the desirable trait of open team communications.
Tips for Giving the Best Answer
- Know your audience. You’ll probably get some sort of interview question about a past mistake or failure, so it’s a good idea to go into each interview with an example of a mistake in mind. Before the interview, look over the job listing, and try to think of a mistake you have made in the past that is not too closely related to the requirements of the job.
- Be a spin doctor. Be sure to think carefully about the positive spin you’ll put on the mistake. What did you learn from your error, and how will it make you an ideal candidate for this position?
- Review common interview questions, along with sample answers. Not all interview questions will be about the mistakes you’ve made at past jobs, but there will be more interview questions about you, such as, “Are you easy to talk to?” or, “Tell me about something that’s not on your resume.” Your interviewer will also expect you to have some questions for him or her to answer about the job, the company, or the culture.
If you’re not good at coming up with questions to ask on the fly, review questions for candidates to ask the interviewer.
What Not to Say
Avoid self-deprecation. Everyone makes the occasional mistake at work. While you should own up to the fact that you’ve made errors in the past, keep the tone positive rather than apologetic. The most important strategy in answering this question is demonstrating that you’ve had the maturity to benefit from previous “learning experiences” and then to move on with increased wisdom and competency.
Don't throw anyone under the bus. While it’s fine to defuse the negative impact of a previous mistake by casting it within a team context, don’t throw individual shade on any of your previous team members. Instead, explain how you developed new ways to avert future errors.
Don’t claim perfection. Under no circumstances should you try to duck the question by claiming that you don’t make mistakes. The hiring manager knows better.
Possible Follow-Up Questions
- Why should we hire you? - Best Answers
- How do you define success? - Best Answers
- How do you handle stress? - Best Answers
PICK YOUR POISON: When you are asked by an interviewer about a previous mistake, describe one innocuous enough that it will not adversely impact your candidacy for the job.
REDEFINE THE QUESTION: Put a positive spin on your response by defining the “mistake” as a “learning experience” that led to your increased competency in the workplace.
OFFER A S.T.A.R. RESPONSE: Carefully describe the situation, task, action, and result of your past error so that it becomes clear, through the context, of how you learned and even eventually benefited from the experience.