Tell Me About a Time You Made a Mistake: Sample Answers + Tips
What do you do when an interviewer asks you to tell them about a time you made a mistake? Is it safe to tell the truth? Find out how you can use this question to your advantage, and more job interview tips, in this post.
“Tell me about a time you made a mistake” is one of the most common questions asked in job interviews. Interviewers want to know if you’re able to assess your behavior, recognize and own your mistakes, and improve upon them.
So what are ways you can answer this dreaded interview question? You can find practical ways to phrase your answer, as well as models to base your responses on, here! And if you read on, you’ll learn how to answer an interviewer who asks about your strengths and weaknesses.
- Why do interviewers ask about your weaknesses?
- How to answer “Tell me about a time you made a mistake”
- Sample answers for “Tell me about a time you made a mistake”
- What are good weaknesses?
- Strengths for job interview
- How do I find out my strengths and weaknesses?
You’ll notice as you read that preparation and previous experiences will come up a lot in this post. That’s chiefly because they’re your best bets for answering the question “tell me about a time you made a mistake”. Apprenticeships are a great way to get work experience, as well as discover your strengths and weaknesses.
To craft a great response to questions about any mistakes or weaknesses you have at work, you need to understand why they’re asked in the first place.
Why do interviewers ask about your weaknesses?
Interviewers have a limited time to get to know you. They need to tell if your skills fit with their hiring needs, if you can mesh with the team, and if you’re self-aware in 15 to 30 minutes. Questions like “tell me about a time you made a mistake”, or asking what are your weaknesses in a job interview, are shortcuts.
Asking about a time you made a mistake in particular means they want to know these five things:
- If you’re self-aware or overconfident
- How you complement your prospective team members
- If you’re capable of self-reflection
- How you address your mistakes
1. If you’re self-aware or overconfident
Interviewers want to know if you’re self-aware, which only 15% of people are. They also want to see if you’re experiencing overconfidence bias. Overconfidence bias is the tendency to have more confidence in your abilities than reasonable.
So how can you become more self-aware?
First, you need to check if you’re internally and externally self-aware.
Being internally self-aware implies knowing your values, strengths, weaknesses, goals, and the impact of your actions on others. On the other hand, being externally self-aware indicates you understand how others see you. It also demonstrates that you have empathy and value the opinion of others.
This kind of self-knowledge is what recruiters want to see in an interview.
2. How you complement your prospective team members
Your actions in a crisis reflect your leadership ability and capacity to work with a team. In other words, how you recall your team’s actions in a flub can tell the interviewer how you’ll get along with their current staff.
So when talking about mistakes, be careful not to pass the buck to your team or make it seem like you’ve claimed sole responsibility when it’s not the case. The interviewer might think you’d rather blame your co-workers than take part of the blame. Or you might seem like you can’t work well with others or handle any criticism.
3. If you’re capable of self-reflection
Being asked about mistakes you’ve done at work is a way to learn if you’re capable of learning from them. Saying you can’t recall an incident, or that you’ve taught others through your mistake, can state that you can’t evaluate your actions objectively.
4. How you address your mistakes
Without a doubt, everyone has made mistakes. The question is: have you addressed them? You’ll learn more about how answering this can illustrate a commitment to improvement.
How to answer “Tell me about a time you made a mistake”
First of all, you must be aware that interviewers may rephrase this question. For instance, an interviewer can ask “Has there ever been a time your actions produced unexpected results?” or “What steps do you take to address difficult situations at work?”.
So when recruiters ask you to tell them about a time you made a mistake, you should keep these rules in mind:
- Be honest
- Don’t dwell on your mistake
- Emphasize the steps you took to fix it
- Explain how your actions improved the situation
- Discuss what you’ve done to avoid repeating the mistake
1. Be honest
Honesty is key! These types of questions gauge your accountability and critical thinking, among other things. And those soft skills and leadership traits are often more important to recruiters than other qualifications you may have.
When it comes to your professional experience, never fudge the details or fabricate accomplishments. HR can check your background, and it will create complications if you’re hired.
But when it comes to questions that may touch on personal details—such as why you’ve left your current position or what your hobbies are—try to be strategic. Instead of saying you’ve left because of bad management, say you’re seeking new experiences. As for hobbies, don’t go too deep into them, as it may look like they’re distractions to your work.
2. Don’t dwell on your mistake
When describing your experience, avoid spending too much time on it. If you dwell on your mistake, you’re liable to do three things:
- Cut into your interview time
- Draw attention away from your solutions
- Demonstrate a character flaw
The last point is especially important. You don’t want to pick a grave oversight that would make it seem like you can’t handle the responsibilities of the position you’re interviewing for. Aim for a minor mistake, or for a team mistake that you can claim collective responsibility for.
So when you find a mistake to discuss, try to go over it quickly. You’ll find examples of this below, in our section for sample answers.
3. Emphasize the steps you took to fix it
This is your chance to show off your critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills. Outline the measures you took to resolve the problem. Go over your initial reaction, how you came up with your plan, and how you executed your initiatives.
Be mindful of how you phrase your answer. Check if you’ve unintentionally blamed your co-workers, managers, or clients. Moreover, try not to reprimand yourself when recounting this incident. “Should have”, “would have”, and “could have” didn’t help then and won’t help now!
4. Explain how your actions improved the situation
After explaining your solution, it’s time to show the results. While you still need to be truthful, emphasize the positives of owning up to your faults. Show that you’re capable of turning things around if you or your team make a mistake.
5. Discuss what you’ve done to avoid repeating the mistake
Discussing what you’ve learned from your fumble shows your initiative and ability to analyze events objectively. You’re also indicating that you understand how the mistake came to be.
Don’t forget to mention how you addressed misunderstandings, protocols, behavior, or lacking skills that contributed to that error. By doing so, the interviewer will know you’re prepared to improve and adapt.
Sample answers for “Tell me about a time you made a mistake”
A great way to structure your answers is by using the STAR method. STAR stands for:
As you’ve noticed, this method is similar to the rules in the previous section. You set the situation by briefly explaining the incident. Then, mention what the task was and your role in it, what actions you took to address it, and the results after.
Here’s an example that follows the rules and the STAR method:
My supervisor tasked me with coordinating with a client for a week. Instead of reaching out to my team to split the task associated with it, I took on everything myself. As a result, I worked overtime unnecessarily and led the client-side team to think I swapped with my supervisor.
I clarified the situation with the client first, then explained it to my supervisor and team next week. I apologized to both my client and my team for the confusion. I then shadowed my supervisor to learn how they delegated their work and improved my relationship with the team.
After that, I handled the client more effectively. Then, my supervisor promoted me to project lead. Because I repaired my relationship with the team, I had their full cooperation for the duration of our contract with the client. The process went smoothly with their help.
In this case, the candidate admitted they overreached and caused a lot of misunderstandings. They reached out to all wronged parties, then sought to learn more about project management. They also didn’t neglect their team, which they realized was vital to their task.
Let’s take a look at another case:
A new client rejected all the proposals I made during a pitch. They said the key visuals didn’t connect with the ideas in the presentation. The KVs also didn’t carry ideas they liked from a previous pitch that they thought would carry on with our meeting.
From then on, I took a course on graphic design to better execute my ideas visually. I also took care to debrief with my team and accounts, so I’m aware of any carry-overs from that client. My next pitch went well enough that the client picked it for their campaign.
This candidate showed that they’re able to take criticism well. Not only that, they turned that criticism into a learning experience—literally. They skilled up through a course and took initiative to prepare better for their next pitch.
Now that we have these covered, let’s find out how to truly assess your strengths and weaknesses.
What are good weaknesses?
As always, questions about your weaknesses may be phrased differently. They may prefer to ask: “On your worst day at work, when you come home feeling drained and frustrated, what were you doing that day?”. This question uncovers what tasks you can be better at and what you dislike at work.
But before everything, you should remember the distinction between self-awareness and negativity. Don’t talk down to yourself even when talking about tasks you’re not so good at. Project confidence even while stating your weaknesses. Lastly, try to phrase your weaknesses as positively as possible.
Here are a few examples:
“I don’t trust that I won’t make mistakes in a team setting.”
This shows you want to do things as perfectly as possible because you’re afraid of failing your team and your objectives.
“My experience with creating visuals is near-zero.”
You’re honest about what skills you need to get or improve.
“I often water down my critique because I don’t want to hurt others.”
Aside from exhibiting an aptitude for analysis and providing feedback, you’re also showing empathy for your coworkers.
“Public speaking makes me blunt and straightforward.”
You’re showing that you can perform this task, but you know what you need to do to improve your skill.
“I struggle with job satisfaction because I’m critical of my work, even if I reach my goals.”
With this answer, you have room to elaborate on what you tend to be critical about and what it takes to achieve satisfaction with your work. It also demonstrates that you can reach success while working on your harsh inner critic.
Strengths for job interview
Even when it comes to strengths, interviewers may want to tackle them differently. Facebook head of recruiting Liz Wamai, for example, prefers to ask candidates: “What do you do on your best day at work?”. Wamai asks this to find out what candidates are good at or what they enjoy doing.
Apart from picking the right adjectives to describe yourself with, you need to avoid overused phrases. You also need to provide a concrete example to illustrate how your strength is applicable at work.
Take a look at these examples to figure out how to get around this tricky question.
1) I have incredible focus when it comes to my tasks, and I can rank them efficiently.
These traits became clear when, while in the middle of a social media audit, I received urgent revisions for website copy, along with a request to be in a meeting.
I assessed that I wasn’t needed for the entire meeting, and used that time to turn over the revisions instead. I was able to return to my main task immediately, without inconveniencing others or compromising my output’s quality.
2) My wide knowledge of video editing software saved my team many times.
During one stressful week, two of our computer units failed, and we had to resort to using units with lower specs. Instead of persisting with software that required intensive resources, I found an alternative program that produced the results we needed.
Aside from that, I found plugins and extensions that cut down the time we spent on adding certain effects to our raw footage. That helped clear our plate and gave us enough time to apply revisions before clearing day.
3) I have proven experience in applying my degree in Human Resources in real work situations.
In one of my internships, I helped my mentor define several new job descriptions they’d never heard of, but I have because of the research I did for my courses.
I also took on tasks beyond the normal scope of an intern, because I had the competence for it. Because I came to my internship well-prepared, I succeeded and earned extra credit, plus references for interviews such as this.
How do I find out my strengths and weaknesses?
1) Real-world projects
Working on real-world projects is a great way to test how you function in a real working environment. Since you’ll have an impact on real businesses, you’ll get to analyze your strengths and weaknesses. What’s more, you’ll enhance your portfolio with your output.
If you’d rather pair hands-on experience with some classroom learning, then you can opt for courses that offer that experience. But if you want to find these projects on your own, then you need to learn how to:
“It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.”
Considering that as much as 70% of openings aren’t posted on job boards, this quote remains true in 2022. Forming a professional network is key for people who want to get a job with no experience. And contrary to popular belief, it’s easier than you think!
Joining online communities is a great way to start your professional network. You’ll connect with professionals who have fresh perspectives on your industry, and even job interview tips. They may also share learning and work resources that are hard to find elsewhere.
Signing up for certification can also help start your network. In these programs, you’ll encounter other professionals who are also seeking new connections in your mutual industry. In addition, you’ll get one-on-one professional coaching to get you ready for interviews.
Another surefire way to build work experience is through freelance work.
Freelancing lets you use and upgrade your skills through portfolio-building work. Moreover, you’ll get the chance to receive client evaluations. You’ll not only gain social proof—reviews that show you’ve got the right experience and abilities for the job—but concrete evidence of your strengths and weaknesses.
But if you want a balance of mentorship and practice via real-world tasks, an apprenticeship might be for you.
4) Valuable mentorship in an apprenticeship
Apprenticeships allow you to match with a mentor you believe will give you the kind of work experience and advice to enter your field of choice. Whether that’s social media, SEO, digital marketing, or others, you’ll discover your working style and the kinds of tasks you enjoy.
Who knows—you might even get hired by your mentor, something that more than 50% of apprentices experience after or during their three-month term.
Now that you know how to answer the question “tell me about a time you made a mistake”, you might want to look for more job interview tips. Here’s a few useful posts that will help you prepare for your job hunt:
- How to Get a Job after College with No Experience
- Ace that Marketing Job Interview!
- 50 Video Job Interview Tips from Hiring Managers and Recruiters
- Describe Yourself in an Interview: Guide, Adjectives & Tips
- How to Prepare for a Job Interview
- Interview Anxiety: How to Calm Nerves Before an Interview
Five years in journalism, two in proofreading, and eight in freelance ghostwriting. Creating content that's entertaining, informative, and actionable shapes my writing. When not scrutinizing my copy, I'm likely watching hockey.
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