How To Answer “Tell Me About A Time You Made A Mistake” (With Examples)

Chris Kolmar
By Chris Kolmar
- Apr. 15, 2021
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Regardless of the job you’re applying for, there are a few questions that interviewers will ask that seem to make it into every single interview, regardless of your job title, experience, or industry.

The question, “Tell me about a time you made a mistake,” is common and can often trip an interviewee up. It can be an awkward response to think up on the fly and your answer should walk the fine line between positivity and transparency.

However, if you consider this question before walking into your interview, you’ll be able to answer it effectively and with confidence. Discussing a past mistake at a job can be uncomfortable and bring up negative emotions.

In this article, we’ll discuss the different variables around this specific question, how you should think about answering it, and what it means in an interview.

Why Interviewers Ask “Tell Me About a Time You Made a Mistake”

Although this question might be a little bit uncomfortable or even scary, you are not alone. The question intentionally puts you on the spot. The interviewer is looking to understand how you handle both stressful and challenging situations.

Being able to articulate a mistake you made at work shows that you are honest and have integrity. It also shows that you are self-aware and can readily admit and take responsibility for your mistakes. Nobody is perfect, and your interviewer knows this.

The most important thing to remember when answering this question is not the specific instance, but rather, what the interviewer is looking for. They are likely looking to see what you consider a mistake and specifically what you learned from your mistake.

This is a different variety of the “Tell me about your greatest weakness” question. They’re probing you to tell them where you think you might fall short and how you’re working to overcome this or what you’ve learned from past experiences.

How to Answer “Tell Me About a Time You Made a Mistake”

Now that we understand what the question is looking for, we’ll want to think about how to best answer this question. There are a few different ways to think about this and some of the variables might be different depending on your industry, job title, experience, or specific situation. It’s best to follow these steps when answering this question:

  1. Don’t play the blame game. Outline your mistake simply and avoid blaming teammates, bosses, or the company. We all make mistakes and it’s best to own up to the mistake you made, even if there were others involved.

    Pointing fingers and assigning blame makes you look like you’re not willing to take responsibility when things fall apart. To avoid this, open up as much as possible, and take responsibility while addressing the mistake.

  2. Don’t stop at the mistake. Once you’ve articulated the specific mistake, you may think your answer to the question is finished. But this is false, as mentioned above, your potential employer isn’t looking for the specific mistake you made, but rather how you handled it.

    Don’t leave your interviewer with a vague solution to the mistake. Instead, get specific and describe the actions you took to resolve the errors.

  3. Mention the positive aspects. If the outcome of your mistake ended up ultimately being positive, make sure you mention this as quickly in your answer as you can.

    This will show your potential employer that you are able to handle any curveball thrown at you, especially if you’re at fault. Explain to them how you worked to resolve the problem to avoid any further issues.

  4. Talk about what you learned. The most important piece of this answer is to articulate what you learned after making the mistake. Discuss the lessons you learned following this particular event and how you incorporated those learnings into your everyday work.

    Explain how you avoid these types of mistakes moving forward and show your interviewer how this resulted in your professional growth.

Common Mistakes When Answering “Tell Me About a Time You Made a Mistake”

There are all kinds of different ways to respond to this question, but there are a few common mistakes you should consider before heading into your interview. You want your response to be honest, but not too honest, while still maintaining all of the credibility you’ve built during your interview. In order to do this, it’s best to pay attention to the following:

  • Don’t appear dishonest or unrealistic. Responding to this question with “I’ve never made an error or mistake at work,” is not the answer your interviewer is looking for. Saying that will make you appear egotistical and dishonest.

  • Don’t choose a trivial mistake. Telling your potential employer that you forgot to take the trash out one day is the wrong one to pick here. Be sure you choose a real mistake that had consequences. If you choose an incident that doesn’t actually count as a mistake, this could turn your employer off and damage your credibility.

  • Don’t gloss over. Try to avoid speeding past the mistake or even worse, trying to give justifications for why it happened. Take responsibility for your mistake and discuss it head-on, even if it’s uncomfortable.

  • Avoid damaging mistakes. Being honest is encouraged, but it’s best to leave out disastrous mistakes that could damage your prospects. Think about the mistake you want to discuss carefully and make sure it’s appropriate in an interview.

Tips and Examples for Giving the Best Answer

The best way to consider this question is to use the STAR interview response technique. With this technique, the interviewee is expected to describe a Situation (S), Task (T), Action (A), and Result (R) to articulate the mistake and situation surrounding it.

This method allows you to provide your interviewer with specific examples that you successfully fixed an error in your work and that you have the correct experience and skills for the job at hand.

Consider this example:

When I first became the operations manager at my office, I attempted to take on every single task at once. I worked on the day-to-day operations of the branch, making calls and answering both incoming phone calls and customer visits. Soon, I took on both marketing and sales responsibilities, as well as small financial tasks.

What I found was that I needed to delegate to other individuals who could help me with the heavy workload. Since then, I have learned how to better manage my employees and direct them towards tasks instead of taking them on myself.

This response works well because it demonstrates how the candidate can learn from challenging responsibilities and adjust their working methods to fit the tasks at hand. It’s a great example of a mistake that may be initially negative, turned into a positive skill.

Consider this example:

When I first joined my sales team, we failed to land one of our big sales for the quarter. Our executive team told us that it had to do in part with an effective presentation.

Over the next few months, I worked closely with the marketing team to develop an engaging sales presentation that both resonated and offered value to our potential clients. Six months later, we landed the client with that presentation.

This is another great response to this question. It shows that the candidate is open to honest and critical feedback and willing to work through it. Not just that, but they’re willing to work cross-functionally for the good of the sales team, the company, and the client. It highlights both the desire to learn and dedication to the team and company.

Since this answer can vary widely depending on many variables, here are some basic tips to keep in mind when crafting your answer.

  • Understand your audience. If you know this question is coming, you’ve got a chance to understand the audience you’ll be interviewing with. Look over the job listing and consider a mistake that might be relevant, but not closely related to the specific job. If you can, try and tie your learnings to how it can make you a more valuable candidate.

  • Put your own spin on it. Don’t forget to end on a positive note. Don’t pick a mistake that wasn’t fixed, pick one that has a positive resolution at the end. Be sure you include your learnings from your mistake and how it will help you avoid similar mistakes at this new job, should you land the opportunity.

  • Review questions and answers. Sometimes you need a starting point to craft an effective response to these types of questions. Look through some common interview questions and consider different answers for all of them. Practicing with a friend can help you be more prepared for your interview and answer the questions effectively.

Example Answers For Different Job Titles

As mentioned above, the answer to this question may look different, especially for different job titles. Below are some examples of specific job roles and their response to this kind of question.

  1. Business Development Example

    One of the most important mistakes I ever made in my career was when I struggled to meet my sales goals for the year when I first started in this role. I felt discouraged, but I went to my manager for advice and feedback. He said I needed to get more creative in my follow-ups and not stop with a phone call. I discussed with the marketing team, who helped me craft some monthly emails that I could send as a follow-up to my phone calls. My numbers doubled. I now make sure I am using all of the resources at my disposal to nurture leads.

  2. Digital Marketing Manager Example

    When I first came into this role, I learned how to manage the marketing automation tool, our social media handles, and began developing new advertisements that we could use. However, our drip campaigns weren’t getting the pull that we wanted and I couldn’t figure out why.

    Ultimately, my two first drip campaigns were failures. My manager told me to sit with the data for some time and make sense of it a few different ways. After doing this, I realized I needed to make room every week to analyze and make conclusions from the data we were seeing. Now, data is a crucial part of my job and I don’t make any decisions without having the data to back it up.

  3. Human Resources Associate Example

    When I interned, I was very shy and didn’t have much confidence. I was terrified to ask questions for fear of bothering busy people. At the end of my internship, my manager told me he didn’t think I learned enough and encouraged me to ask more questions in future opportunities. That prompted me to enter my next opportunity with a different mindset. I now ask a lot of questions which has prepared me well to interview potential candidates and be a better human resources associate.

Possible Follow-Up Questions

Telling your potential employers about a mistake you may have made isn’t the only common question you’ll get in your interview. Your interviewer may have follow-up questions that result after your discussion of this mistake. Consider them carefully to come up with sample answers, in case they are asked. Some examples of follow-up questions could be:

  • Why should we hire you?

  • How do you handle a stressful environment?

  • How do you manage multiple projects at once?

  • How do you handle constructive criticism from your colleagues? From management?

  • Tell me about your greatest accomplishment at work.

Never miss an opportunity that’s right for you.
Chris Kolmar

Author

Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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