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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.