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Tell Me About a Time You Made a Mistake

When preparing for a job interview, most people usually focus on the positives, such as their experience, highest points of their careers, level of education, etc. Very few people prepare for the negatives.

When preparing for a job interview, most people usually focus on the positives, such as their experience, highest points of their careers, level of education, etc. Very few people prepare for the negatives. For example, not many people think of the question 'tell me about a time you made a mistake' until it pops up unexpectedly at a job interview. Understandably, discussing your greatest weakness may not be something you enjoy doing; however, when done right, it could actually get you a new job.

Sounds strange, right? Here's why. 

Why interviewers ask the 'tell me about a time you made a mistake' question'

Everyone makes mistakes. Interviewers understand that no one is perfect. The main idea is to find someone who acknowledges their strengths and weaknesses. The last thing a hiring manager wants is a candidate who'll shift the blame to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. Instead, they need someone who's not afraid to make mistakes, take charge of a situation, no matter how challenging it is, and turn it around. 

So as you prepare to discuss your experience, education, and other great achievements in your career, always bear in mind that the 'tell me about a time you made a mistake' question can pop up out of nowhere. 

Best formula to answer the 'tell me about a time you made a mistake question'

When answering this question, consider following the STAR formula. Here's what it stands for:

  • Situation: Briefly explain the situation. 

  • Task: Explain the task you were expected to accomplish and your mistake. 

  • Action: Describe the action you took to correct the mistake.  

  • Result: Mention the results of the action you took to correct the mistake. 

10 interview tips on how to answer tell me about a time you made a mistake

That said, here are some important tips to help you answer 'tell me about a time you made a mistake.' 

Identify the mistake

Even though the main goal of this question is to determine whether you are the kind of person who takes responsibility for your actions, this doesn't necessarily mean that you should choose the worst mistake of your life. 

Firstly, for best results, choose a mistake that's related to your career. Secondly, the mistake shouldn't be too damaging. In fact, it's advisable to choose a minor mistake you rectified. 

Don't shift blame

Avoid blame-shifting when discussing the mistake. The main idea here is to come up with a mistake that you take full responsibility for. For example, even if it was a team project, focus on the specific mistake you made and not the entire team. 

Mention the lessons learned

Let's face it; we don't always get a chance to correct some previous mistakes in our lives, both at the personal and professional levels. That's fine. The best thing to do is to mention the lessons learned from your past mistakes. This creates the impression that you're not only an honest individual but also willing to learn and improve yourself. 

Focus on positive results

If you had a chance to correct your mistake, don't forget to mention the positive outcome during the interview. Interviewers are always looking for individuals who can handle challenging situations and come out stronger and wiser than ever. This explains why many job descriptions mention something like 'looking for a problem-solver' or something along those lines. 

Don't humblebrag 

In simple words, humblebragging is the art of false modesty. Humblebragging is when you try to sound humble while bragging simultaneously.

In most cases, when humblebragging, individuals focus on their achievements rather than mistakes. For example, talking about how you helped your former employer make a net profit of $100,000 a month for 12 consecutive months, $5,000 less than the intended target, is considered more of humblebragging than a genuine mistake. 

Be honest

The problem with lying during a job interview, or in any situation for that matter, is that there's always the risk of being caught in the lie. Remember, the recruiters sitting in front of you have probably interviewed hundreds of potential candidates for that specific job offer. They know the difference between a generic answer, a lie, and an honest one. Check out the next point to further understand the importance of honesty when answering the 'tell me about a time you made a mistake question.'

Expect follow-up questions

The hiring manager might ask you a follow-up question, depending on your answer. Of course, when your answer is honest, you'll not have a rough time keeping up with the conversation or follow-up questions. On the other hand, you'll have a rough time responding to follow-up questions if you fabricated the answer. And when things begin to go wrong, the entire atmosphere in the room will most likely change. The bottom line is, lying about a mistake you made is not worth it. 

Research in advance

One of the best ways to avoid getting caught off-guard with the 'tell me about a time you made a mistake' question is by researching well in advance. Just like you would research other common interview questions and answers, consider researching about that specific time you made a mistake. You'll probably come up with different incidents and then choose one that meets the criteria we've discussed in this article. 

Be brief

Be concise. This is not the time to narrate your family history, personal problems, or anything unrelated. Instead, answer the question directly and as briefly as possible. 

Don't justify the mistake

When discussing a mistake you made, don't attempt to justify it. Justifying a mistake could mean you don't really take responsibility. However, if you must, then don't overdo it. 

Sample answers to 'tell me about  a time you made a mistake'

Here are some good 'tell me about a time you made a mistake' examples

"While working as an editor at [company name], I once approved a newsletter for publishing. However, I didn't realize that the date in the newsletter was wrong, precisely the year. We had just started the New Year, and my mind was still stuck in the previous year.

"Luckily, I was able to contact the printing company contracted to print the newsletters and changed the error just in time before publishing."

"Since that day, I proofread every newsletter and any other written material under my responsibility at least three times before approving for publishing."

From the example above, the job candidate acknowledges the mistake, explains what they did to correct it, and what they also did to avoid repeating the same mistake in the future. 

This example answer shows a mistake the interviewee had time to correct. Here's an example of a mistake that didn't provide room for correction.

"As a digital marketer, I once accepted so many projects without considering the importance of getting enough rest in between shifts. I was overwhelmed and fatigued. As a result, I missed some deadlines, and the company lost a client.

"I apologized to the project manager and the entire digital marketing team. To prevent the mistake from happening again, I reviewed deadlines for each project well in advance. I also learned how to use project management software to better manage my tasks. My supervisors were impressed with my performance, earning the company an excellent reputation in the industry."

The example above shows that the candidate bounced back by being keener on deadlines despite losing a client. The candidate also explains what they did to improve the situation. 

How to plan and practice your answer 

As mentioned before, one of the best ways to plan your answer is by practicing way before the interview. It's not realistic to expect questions that only focus on the positive aspects of your career or personality. Everyone has a weakness and a low moment in life; think about a few and narrow it down to the one that perfectly fits the criteria we've discussed above.

Remember to focus only on mistakes that relate to your career. Secondly, consider role-playing with your friends or family members. Have them ask you this question just like they would with other interview questions you're practicing for.

One more thing: don't recite your answers. During the interview, one distraction or mistake is what it takes to forget some of your answers, and that's not a situation you want to find yourself in. For best results, work on your confidence and composure. 

Breathe in and out whenever you feel stressed or anxious ahead of the interview. Then, during the interview, you can pause for a second or two before answering a question. This not only refreshes your mind but also calms your nerves. 

What not to say

When answering this question, it's advisable to talk about yourself only. The main idea here is to demonstrate to the interviewer that you can take responsibility for a situation, even if it involves a team. For this reason, use phrases such as 'I' rather than 'we."

Here's a fictional example of what not to say: 

"While working as a waiter at [company name], we accidentally overcharged one of our clients. Unfortunately, it was a busy day, and that's why we made the mistake. The client brought the issue to our attention, and we apologized and offered him a discount. We then held a meeting to discuss ways to improve customer service and reduce the margins of errors while on shift."

From the above example, the interviewer isn't taking individual responsibility. Instead, the narration seems to put the blame on the team members rather than an individual. 

Here's another example of how not to answer the 'tell me about a time you made a mistake' question:

"At my previous job, we had a daily sales goal of $1000 per salesperson. I consistently reached $2000 in sales every day. However, the day after my birthday party, I was so tired after hanging out with my colleagues. My concentration at work dropped, and I couldn't perform my sales duties as I normally would. That day, I reached around $950 in sales. I then asked my supervisor for time off to recover. I spent the rest of my off day trying to figure out how it went all wrong that day."

The above is a perfect example of humblebragging. Avoid that by all means possible.

Pro tip: Interviewers ask this question in different forms. Some common variations include:

  • Tell me about a time when you failed or made a mistake and how you handled it.

  • What was the lowest point in your career?

  • What would be the one thing you would change in your career so far?

  • What's the most regrettable moment in your career so far?

Types of questions to ask the interviewer

One of the best ways to ease the stress and anxiety most people feel during a job interview is by initiating a conversation with the interviewer. However, this does not necessarily mean that you should take charge of the interview or ask too many questions, interrupting the interviewer in the process.

Instead, ask follow-up questions that are relevant to the topic. Avoid personal questions or anything sensitive. For example, this is not the time to ask the interviewer which political party they support or anything along those lines.

Check out these examples of follow up questions that will impress the interviewer:

  • What are some of the biggest challenges I would face in this position?

  • What employee training programs are available for individuals in this position?

  • What growth opportunities are available for individuals working in this position?

  • What are the performance expectations of this position during the first 90 days on this job?

Remember not to ask just any question hoping it will impress the interviewer. Instead, make sure the question fits the context of the discussion. Given that job interview procedures vary from one employer or interviewer to another, it's impossible to predict the exact questions or type of interviewer to expect.

For example, some recruiters may not appreciate off-topic conversations, and that's still okay. One of the most important things during the interview is to read the mood in the room and adjust accordingly. Above all, be yourself. Don't sound robotic. If you struggle to understand a question, feel free to ask the interviewer to repeat or rephrase it. Remember to keep your answers short and straight to the point. 

Best of luck! 

Katy Boyles |
Categories: Interviewing
Katy is our Social Media Manager at Snagajob, where she loves talking to hourly workers and employers all day long. Her first hourly job was as a hostess.