3 Rules That Guarantee You'll Nail the Answer to "Tell Me About a Time You Made a Mistake"

Even if you know the interview question is coming, it’s always tough to discuss a mistake you’ve made. But here’s a little secret: Being open about a specific example of when you messed up can actually score you points, even with the toughest interviewer.

Given the choice between a potential teammate who is willing to take tough feedback, and another who does everything possible to cover his or her you-know-what after a mistake, most people would choose the former.

To give you the ammunition that’ll show The Person in Charge that you’ll work hard and are a great teammate, here are three rules to follow when you’re responding to the dreaded question, “Tell me about a time you made a mistake.”

1. Don’t Pass the Buck

Hey, we all make mistakes. And anyone you’ll interview with for any job knows this. But, when you know something was your fault, do yourself a favor and own up to it. Nobody wants to work with someone who’s always pointing fingers, and yet, too many applicants I met with went out of their way to convince me there was nothing they could’ve done differently. This was a huge bummer, especially when I had grown to like the candidate a lot.

When in doubt, choose a blunder you can articulate the details of, and open up as much as possible.

Here’s a fictional, but good, example:

Early in my career, I missed a deadline that ended up costing us a really big account. There were a lot of factors that contributed to this, but ultimately, I was the one who dropped the ball. From that experience, I went back and thought really hard about what I could’ve controlled and what I would’ve changed. It turns out that I was not nearly as organized as I thought I was. I sat down with my boss, asked for suggestions on how to improve my organizational skills, and a few months later I was able to score an even bigger account for the department.

This kind of response covers a lot of bases. But most importantly, it addresses the mistake, the lessons learned, and the actions taken to grow from the experience. It also ends things on a really positive note.

2. Don’t Assume You’re Done Talking About Your Mistake Once You’ve Answered the Question

Any honest answer about a mistake you’ve made in the past will be appreciated. In fact, your honesty will be appreciated so much that most interviewers will have follow-up questions. Whenever I heard a candidate respond openly about a previous blunder, I started rooting for them to really win us over—even as I started digging deeper. And too many times, it was hard for people to stay candid.

It usually went something like this:

Q: Tell me about something you wish you had done something differently.

A: I mishandled a report and ended up making my boss look really bad in front of a potential client. It was nobody’s fault but mine.

Q: So, what do you think you learned from that example?

A: I learned those reports are really hard to write.

Often, I’d go back and forth with a contender until it became clear this was as transparent as things were going to get. And with each response that left me wanting more, I couldn’t help but clench my teeth, knowing that the entire mood of the interview could have been different if the person was just willing to stay candid. Once you’ve gotten comfortable with being open, be as open as possible about all the facets of your mistake.

3. Even if Your Mistake Was Simply Taking a Certain Job, Don’t Blame Your Former Company

Sometimes a particular job is simply not right for you. It happens! But remember, while it’s good to be honest when talking about previous mistakes, you don’t want to go into a tirade about how much you just didn’t like your former (or current!) boss, team, or company.

Instead, see if you can reframe the way you talk about your reasons for leaving. Even better, if you have some unique circumstances, an answer like the one below will score you some extra brownie points.

I’m happy in my job in a lot of ways. My boss is great, the company is awesome, and I work on a really close team. I took a job in sales because I wanted to make sure I had enough money to pay my bills and eventually, I got really good at it. But even though my sales job has been good to me financially, I went to school to be a journalist and ultimately feel like this is the right time to finally pursue my dream of writing for a leading news outlet like yours.

The best part about this answer? It’s honest, but at no point does it utter the words, “taking this job was a huge mistake.” It’s also relatable. Some people land their dream jobs right out of college, but for the majority of us, it takes a little bit of work.

Nobody likes talking about things they didn’t do well. Nobody will ever like talking about things they wish had gone differently, especially when a job is on the line. But, even though it might go against conventional wisdom, be willing to talk about the mistakes you’ve made in the past.

You’ll be surprised how this bit of self-awareness will go a long way in making it clear to everyone you interview with that you are the absolute right person for the job.

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