From planning and rehearsing your answers to common interview questions to changing your outfit five times to taking such a big buffer to account for traffic that you arrived an hour early and killed time at the coffee shop down the block, all your energy is going into making your potential employer think you’re the perfect professional. You’ve never gotten lettuce stuck in your teeth or forgotten to attach the report to an email. Would someone who makes mistakes have printed out three hard copies of their resume and placed them in such a nice leather portfolio?
So why is the interviewer trying to throw you off your groove by asking you something like, “Tell me about a time you made a mistake”?
Why do interviewers ask “Tell me about a time you made a mistake”?
Let’s get this out of the way up front. Perfection is impossible. Your interviewer knows that, so the fact that you’ve made a mistake in the past isn’t going to knock you out of consideration for this job. Rather, interviewers “want you to take responsibility for your mistake and talk about your key learnings, ensure you have a good attitude,” and demonstrate a commitment to improvement, says Muse career coach Jennifer Smith, founder of Flourish Careers.
It’s easy to look good when you’re talking about your achievements, but your interviewer wants to know how you’ll react when things don’t go as planned. Your response can teach them:
- How you handle challenges
- How self-aware you are
- How well you acknowledge and admit your errors
- How you learn from mistakes and mitigate them going forward
How do you answer “Tell me about a time you made a mistake”?
When you put it all together, your answer should roughly follow the STAR method—an interview answer structure for behavioral questions like this one that includes laying out the Situation, Task, Action, and Result of a past experience—but with some minor modifications to ensure you’re fully answering this specific question. Here’s how to make sure your interviewer comes away knowing you can own up to your mistakes and learn from them.
1. Choose the right mistake to talk about.
“I recommend talking about minor mistakes,” Smith says. While you may want to come prepared with a story from earlier in your work experience, Muse career coach Barb Girson, CEO of Beyond Sales Tactics, says that as employers are putting an increasing emphasis on emotional intelligence and humanizing the workplace, choosing to talk about a more recent mistake will also be just fine.
And at least as important as the story itself is how you reacted to it. “Select a mistake that reflects your ability to own your errors, take in feedback, create a plan for improvement, problem-solve, and share lessons learned,” Girson says.
Here are some kinds of mistakes you might talk about:
- Lack of attention to detail
- Situations where you were reactive instead of proactive
- Errors on work products you submitted
- Missed deadlines
- Productivity issues
- Conflicts, disagreements, or coordination issues when working with others
- Fumbled presentations
- Knowledge or skill gaps
Meanwhile, you should avoid talking about mistakes that:
- Can be seen as ongoing character flaws (e.g.,“I’m always late”)
- Involve integral skills for the job you’re applying to (e.g., a fundamental accounting error if you’re applying for a financial analyst job)
- Are legal, ethical, or otherwise controversial issues (let’s be real, if your “mistake” was taking a swing at a coworker or pocketing some inventory, you’re not getting the job)
- Are framed to be someone else’s fault (e.g., “I made an error in judgment by trusting my boss’s strategy”)
- Aren’t really mistakes (No, “caring too much” and “working too hard” don’t count.)
And of course, you should also avoid saying you’ve never made a mistake or can’t recall any.
2. Clearly lay out the situation.
Before you get to the mistake itself, give your interviewer all the context they’ll need to understand what your mistake was and why it was in fact a mistake. But don’t feel the need to add in any extra details. Just briefly lay out what the overall goal was for your project, team, or company, and talk about what your individual tasks and responsibilities were.
For example, Smith suggests you say something like:
“I was responsible for coordinating the logistics for a live virtual presentation for 100 of our summer interns across the country. Our senior vice president of sales was joining us to talk about their career path and share advice with our interns.”
3. Tell your interviewer what mistake you made.
Be direct about your mistake and what led up to it. Don’t get defensive, blame anyone else, or use passive language—say, “I wrote down the wrong time,” not, “The wrong time got written down.”
Continuing with Smith’s example:
“We ended up having a last-minute time change for this event due to business needs; so I had to quickly update all the logistics and I forgot to update the calendar invite for the SVP.”
4. Explain how you addressed the mistake in the moment.
Your interviewer might phrase this question as, “Tell me about a time you made a mistake and what you did to correct it,” or they might just say, “Tell me about a time you made a mistake.” Either way, they absolutely want to know what you did once you realized you’d messed up and how the situation turned out. Everyone slips up, but not everyone owns up to it immediately or takes steps to fix it.
“As we were preparing to go live, our speaker wasn’t there. The second I realized this I contacted their admin, we located them quickly, and they were able to join just a few minutes late. As a result, the event went on with just a few minutes of delay in start time.”
5. Talk about what you learned and how you’ve avoided making the same mistake again.
“It is critical to include what you learned and what you will do to prevent the same mistake from happening in the future,” Girson says. Remember, your interviewer will be thinking of you as a future colleague when listening to your answer. “They will appreciate it if you do have the ability to make course corrections and that you are not a repeat mistake offender.”
So say something like:
“This taught me that I have to be better prepared for last-minute changes. I created a checklist for all of the major components of events I was coordinating going forward—including everywhere various pieces of information had been communicated or recorded—so the next time something similar happened, I had something that I was able to refer to easily to make sure I had everything covered and wouldn’t miss a beat.”
“Tell me about a time you made a mistake” example answers
Need more inspiration? Check out these example answers.
An entry level candidate might draw on their experiences in school and say something like:
“For my neurobiology class, our final lab reports had to be written individually, but based on experiments run by each member of our lab group. We quickly divided up who was doing which experiment and decided we’d all have our experiments done by April 15, so we’d all have time to write. I didn’t thoroughly look at my section until I was literally walking into the lab and only then realized that I needed results from other group members before I could start. I quickly reached out to my group to let them know what I’d done wrong, apologize, and to see if they had their results yet.
One person didn’t and didn’t have time in their schedule to do their experiment until April 14. Luckily, we were able to switch sections, and I was able to complete their original part and compile all the results they needed so that they could complete my original part. Since then, I’ve always made sure to lay out all of the steps and requirements for each step of a project before starting and be super clear on what I’m responsible for and how it fits into the larger picture.”
Someone talking about a time they made an incorrect assumption could answer:
“At my last job, we always called the project managers ‘PMs.’ When I first started my current job, I was tasked with sending ‘the PMs’ some budget numbers by Friday so they’d have them for a meeting on Monday midday. I was still very new and didn’t quite know what the numbers were for, but I didn’t want to seem clueless by asking too many questions. So I sent the numbers to the project managers. On Monday morning, I walked in to see someone at my boss’s desk asking where the budget numbers were—and that person was a *product* manager. My immediate instinct was to run and hide—or to at least only tell my boss what had happened once this person had left—but instead I politely introduced myself and explained my error. I sent the numbers to the correct people right then and there and offered to help set up the conference room ahead of their presentation if they needed more time to prep because of my delay. After that, I always asked any questions I had rather than making assumptions and I haven’t had a mixup like that since.”
A manager who acted too quickly when dealing with a direct report might say:
“As a woman in software engineering I’ve always felt the need to speak up to make sure I’m respected by my colleagues and coworkers. This has usually worked well and I’ve also helped other female or nonbinary engineers feel more comfortable doing the same. However, when I was first promoted to engineering manager, I took it too far. When one of my team members failed to complete his part of the sprint in time, I called him out in a team Zoom meeting.
“Later on, he Slacked me and explained that he’d been dealing with multiple cases of COVID in his family. I apologized to him for how I’d brought it up and asked about his situation. When he was ready, we discussed why he hadn’t talked to me ahead of time and how important it is to know when someone is falling behind so that we hit our overall goals. He’s been more forthcoming since, and at our next huddle I told the team that I shouldn’t have called the engineer out like that, while still maintaining his privacy. Since then, I’ve developed a policy of always checking in one-on-one first. I’ve also learned that while being assertive is necessary sometimes, it’s never necessary for that to cross the line into putting someone on the spot like that. As a result, I’ve gotten some of the highest management scores in the company and that engineer is now one of our top performers.”
Someone who made a mistake with a customer could say:
“At my last retail job, we had a daily meeting before each shift started just to hear any announcements or learn about promotions going on at the store. I always attended and listened, but I didn’t take notes. One day, the shift manager told us that all birthday party supplies were on back order so they wouldn’t be replenished on Tuesday as usual. Later on, someone shopping for their child’s birthday party asked if we’d have more Roblox decorations in by Wednesday. I automatically told them to come back on Tuesday and only realized my mistake the next morning when the manager made the same announcement again. From that day forward, I started taking notes at shift meetings and haven’t forgotten anything since. And, on Tuesday, I happened to spot that same customer and apologized, but told them that I’d checked and another location five miles away had the decorations they were looking for in stock. I even called the other store to set them aside while the customer drove over. I’ve seen the same customer multiple times since and we always say ‘Hi.’”