Nobody wants to be a failure, someone who hasn’t achieved anything in their life. Yet all successful people will tell you the same things: there’s no progress without failures. We do not learn much, and certainly do not grow as human beings, when everything goes according to the plan, when we go from one success to another. And that’s exactly what makes this interview question tricky.
Many people think that hiring managers want to hear about some small failures. Or about a big one, which you overcame, rose like phoenix from ashes, and eventually turned a big failure into even a bigger success. That’s not true.
Mark my words: They are not interested in the situation you narrate, though everyone enjoys hearing a good story. What matters for the hiring managers is your attitude–whether you can admit making a mistake, take responsibility, get over your failure, and consider it a learning experience. Sometimes they may even prolong the question, asking exactly about these details: “Give us an example of a goal you failed to meet and how you handled the situation.”
Let’s have a look at 7 sample answers to this interesting question. My list contains some obvious choices, but also some unconventional and philosophical answers, which can help you stand out. At the end of the day it’s better saying something different than most people say. Let’s have a look at the list.
7 sample answers to “Tell me about a time when you failed” interview question
- I failed to get to the college of my choice. I tried hard, prepared for the entrance exams and for the interviews, but I eventually didn’t make a cut. At first I find it hard to accept, because I thought that I did my best. But when I later talked to some other people, I understood that I didn’t put as much efforts as the others into my preparation. I didn’t hire an interview coach and a tutor, and I didn’t have my application reviewed by a professional writer. That’s what many others did. At the end I simply accepted the situation. Others were better, or tried harder, and so they deserved the place more than I did. It’s behind me now, I earned my degree from another field, and now I am looking forward to get my first job.
- I failed to reach my sales goals in my last job, and that’s one of the reasons why I am here. I could complain that they were super ambitious–and maybe they were, but I prefer not to. You know, some other people met them, so certainly I could have done something better. Maybe I could find better leads, make more calls, try different sales pitches, do a better follow-up, and so on. Trying to analyze what exactly happened, and why I failed, I identified a few things I could have done better, and I think that it will help me in my next sales job. But that’s about it. I failed, I accept that, learned my lesson, and now it’s time to move on. It makes no sense doweling on the past.
- To be honest, I do not think that I’ve failed big time, at least not up to this point of my career. I’ve got to the college I wanted to get to, always had good relationship with family and friends, succeeded with my internship application, and now I am applying for a job in a place where I always wanted to work. But I know that some setback will come, that failure is an integral part of each success story, and I feel mentally ready to experience both successes and failures.
- I failed to meet the expectations of my manager in my last job. They hoped I’d improve the effectiveness in the production process by 10%, tweaking certain things in the automation process. I tried what I could. I broke the entire production into smallest possible cycles and processes, and looked how we could improve each one. It was not an easy task to be honest, because their starting point was pretty solid already. I managed to find few areas for incremental improvement, but eventually we ended up decreasing the production time by 1% only. Well, I accepted the responsibility, which means that they did not prolong my contract. Maybe there is a more skilled engineer somewhere, who’d suggest some superb innovation, but within the limits of my knowledge and imagination, I could not help them anymore. Was it a real failure, however? I do not think so. I would consider it a failure only if I did not try my best. And that’s not the case. I think I handled the failure well, and now I am looking for a new chance with you.
- In my opinion, whether we succeed or fail depends mostly on our own expectations. Let me give you an example. Someone runs a marathon with a goal to win it, or finish in top 10. Someone wants to beat the three hour mark, and another one just want to beat his friend. And someone simply wants to finish the race, or even just to stand on the starting line, something they didn’t find courage to do before. I mean, we all have our level of ambition. I am not particularly ambitious, or competitive, and I think it’s a good quality in this profession. It does not mean that I do not want to progress, or become better in what I do. But it means that I do not stress much about stuff. I do not start pointless conflicts with my colleagues. And if something doesn’t work, or we do not reach some goal, I simply accept it, try to understand why it happened, and improve for the next time. This is my personal philosophy and attitude to life.
- I perhaps failed in the most important task of all tasks–to be a good parent. Working super hard, and spending Saturdays at work, I never really had much time for my son. And when I did not have time for him he found another company. As you can imagine, it wasn’t the best company. He started with drugs five years ago. After several rehabs and tough years, he’s still not entirely clear. I failed as a father, and wish I could turn back the clock. Now I try all I can for him, but still I feel that some things can never be entirely reversed, some wounds can never be healed… But I do not want to talk about sad things now. I always succeeded to separate my work from my personal life, and I am sure I’d do that in your company.
- My answer may surprise you, but I recently failed two times–in the job interviews. I underestimated my research, did not learn enough about the prospective employers. And though I prepared for some questions, I opted for common interview answers, something probably everyone else said. I failed to stand out. Now I approached the task differently. I learned a lot about your place, what you do here, who your clients and competitors are. And I decided to be 100% honest with my interview answers, and not say something just because it sounds good or because that’s what they generally suggest online. Here I am, hoping for a different outcome this time.
Dwelling on failures won’t help you in any way
Regardless of how much you failed–in school, work, in personal life, you should ensure the hiring managers that you’ve got over it already. Nobody wants to hire an employee who will spend half of their time in work thinking what they could or should have done differently, in this or that sphere of their life.
It’s important to analyze our failures, and identify the reasons why we didn’t reach the desired outcome. But once that is done it makes absolutely no sense to return to the situation again and again in our head. We cannot change what already happened…
* Special Tip: This isn’t the only difficult question you will face while interviewing for any decent job. You may face questions about prioritization, dealing with pressure, using logic, dealing with ambiguity, and other tricky scenarios that happen in every corporation. If you want to make sure that you stand out with your answers and outclass your competitors, have a look at our Interview Success Package. Up to 10 premium answers to 31 tricky scenario based questions (+ more) will make your life much easier in the interviews. Thank you for checking it out!
You can say that you haven’t failed to reach your goals yet, but should elaborate on your answer
Maybe you’ve been lucky enough to avoid major bumps on the road, and haven’t experienced any real setback yet. You’ve graduated from the school of your choice, got the jobs you wanted to have, and now perhaps you are applying for a job of your dreams.
That’s completely fine to say, as long as you elaborate on your answer. Ensure the interviewers that you know life isn’t a walk in the park. You know that you won’t succeed in all your endeavors, and feel ready to handle the unavoidable setbacks.
Do not be afraid of unconventional answers
There’s nothing more boring like leading ten interviews in a single day, and hearing the same (or similar) answers from all applicants… I led enough interviews in my life to tell you that it does happen… Especially now, when everyone goes online and check some poor mainstream sources (think Monster, Big Interview, Balance, etc), where you cannot really find anything else than general advice.
That’s fine to use when you are the only job candidate, or perhaps apply for a role in IT, or other heavily understaffed sector of economy. But if you compete with many other people for the job, or lack some skills and experience other candidates have, you won’t achieve anything with mediocre answers.
Do not be afraid to experiment. Maybe you can talk about a failure from personal life, something that won’t leave any interviewer at ease (see sample answer no. 6), or about your failures from previous interviews (see sample answer no. 7). It’s always better than saying the same thing everyone else does…
Ready to answer this one?I hope so! Check also 7 sample answers to other tricky interview questions:
- Do you consider yourself successful?
- What does integrity mean to you?
- Who inspires you?
- Recent Posts
Matthew has been working in international recruitment since 2008. He helps job seekers from all walks of life to pursue their career goals, and to prepare for their interviews. He is the founder of InterviewPenguin.com website.
Latest posts by Matthew Chulaw (see all)
What is an example of Tell me a time when you failed? ›
Example Answers to “Tell Me a Time When You Failed”
“I was managing a project for one of our biggest clients in my previous company, and I was so eager to please them that I told them we could finish the project within 2 weeks. I thought this was doable, but it ended up taking three weeks and they were not happy.
1st Answer Example
"Our team was recently on a project with a very tight deadline. We knew the client and their needs very well which I believe made us go into the project overconfident. Because we underestimated the work involved, we missed our deadline by three business days.
Spend more time explaining what you have learned about yourself than the experience: Instead of dwelling on what went wrong, identify the reasons behind the incident and emphasise what you have learned and what you now do differently. Explain the actions you took to ensure that you wouldn't achieve the same mistake.What are examples of failures? ›
- Not meeting others' expectations.
- Missing a deadline.
- Taking on too much/over-promising.
- Failing an assignment.
- Not getting a job.
- Not getting into a club or making a team.
- Recognise and accept your emotions. Failure hurts, at least in the first instance, and you need to accept that. ...
- Don't make it personal. ...
- Don't worry what anyone else will think. ...
- Take the right amount of responsibility. ...
- Use failure as a way to improve.
He became discouraged by his repeated failures in business. He was often crippled by his fear of failure. The accident was caused by engine failure. The patient was suffering from heart failure.
The best approach to answering this question:
Your best approach is to talk about a specific situation where you missed a deadline due to unforeseen or unplanned circumstances, yet take personal responsibility for the shortcoming and talk about what you are doing to keep it from happening again in the future.
"Things didn't work out the way I wanted, but I'm still OK." Turning failure into a catastrophe isn't helpful. Keep failure in proper perspective and choose to be grateful for what you have. Whether it's your health or having a roof over your head, there are always things to be thankful for.What are examples of failing in a team? ›
Teams fail when members engage in dysfunctional or unproductive behavior. You may have worked with someone who demonstrates dysfunctional behavior: social loafing, micromanaging, pulling others into unproductive “rabbit holes,” lacking self-awareness, and criticizing other people's ideas.What is your greatest failure sample answer for freshers? ›
I was responsible for interacting with big clients and understanding the requirements. Being a fresher, I did not pay much attention to the details of the project. Instead, I focused only on my ethics and discipline. My poor listening skills led me to lose one of the most significant projects of the organization.
How do you define failure in an interview? ›
- "Failure is when I do not reach my goal."
- "I think to fail at something is making a mistake and not learning anything from it."
- "To me, failure means to have a goal and not do anything about it."
- "I think failure is not reaching your potential. ...
- "I think it's harder to fail than it is to succeed.
The most common phrasing of this question is the simple, “Tell me about a time you failed” or “Tell me about a time you made a mistake.” There are some other variations on this theme as well: What's your greatest professional failure? Tell me about a mistake that you made.What are three famous failures? ›
Albert Einstein had the label "mentally slow" put on his permanent school record. Henry Ford's first two automobile companies failed. Oprah Winfrey was fired from an early job as a television news anchor. Jerry Seinfeld was booed off stage in his first stand-up comedy appearance.What are the 3 types of failure? ›
- Preventable failure: a failure caused by deviating from a known process. ...
- Complex failure: a failure caused by a system breakdown. ...
- Intelligent failure: a failure caused by an unsuccessful trial.
- Arianna Huffington got rejected by 36 publishers. ...
- Bill Gates watched his first company crumble. ...
- George Steinbrenner bankrupted a team. ...
- 4. Walt Disney was told he lacked creativity. ...
- Steve Jobs was booted from his own company.
- Accept feelings and emotions. ...
- Failure does not mean your life is going to be over. ...
- Learn from failure and be constructive. ...
- Find inspiration. ...
- Don't give up. ...
- Be passionate. ...
- Surround yourself with positive people. ...
- Avoid isolating yourself.
- Acknowledge your feelings. ...
- Acknowledge any irrational belief. ...
- Avoid seeking others' approval. ...
- Accept responsibility. ...
- Avoid defining yourself by your mistakes. ...
- Channel negative emotions productively. ...
- Adopt coping skills. ...
- Improve your self-esteem.
Any time you fail at something, whether it's a long-term goal or a small project, the first thing you should do is take a step back and detach from the situation. Work backward by tracing the thinking and beliefs you had at the time the mistake was made, and look to see where you made a misstep.What words describe failure? ›
- Start facing challenges instead of running away. Gradually expose yourself to situations where you can succeed, to break the pattern and reinforce success.
- Connect with your goals, aspirations and talents. ...
- Make a plan. ...
- Risk failure. ...
- Speak to someone. ...
- Try our Self-care courses.
Can you describe a time you failed to meet a deadline what would you do differently to ensure it didn t happen again? ›
I missed my deadline and had to change the delivery window. The client wasn't happy with the extra time I needed. While I did finish the project, it took much longer than it should have. Had I taken those steps to test changes at every stage, I wouldn't have had to go back to the drawing board to make changes.Why do interviewers ask about a time you failed? ›
In most cases, interviewers who ask about failure are not trying to trip you up or make you feel bad. Instead, they're usually trying to get to know you better and understand how you handle adversity. After all, everyone makes mistakes; it's how we learn and grow professionally from them that counts.Can you give me an example of a situation where you realized that you would not be able to meet a deadline? ›
Example 2: Entry-level candidate
As the final week of the internship approached, I knew I couldn't meet the deadline for the project and ready all the components. I met with my supervisor, and he allowed me to continue completing the project on a part-time after the internship concluded.
Leaders start to fail when they get too focused on the achievements and the numbers. Without the culture and the values to direct them, leaders (along with the team) follow misguided and misconceived goals which can quickly lead them to their downfall.What are the three greatest problems that lead to team failure? ›
A team can fail for a number of reasons, including lack of communication, lack of goals, and lack of interest.What are the 5 major reasons that caused the team to fail? ›
- Lack of trust.
- Fear of conflict.
- Lack of Commitment.
- Fear of responsibility.
- Inattention to results.
12 Good Examples of Mistakes Made at Work
Mishandling or losing cash at work. Missing a deadline. Not delivering the work a client/customer expected. Being unprepared for a team meeting.
"To me, failure means to have a goal and not do anything about it." "I think failure is not reaching your potential. If you do not use the resources you have and the resources around you, that's failure because the work or goal could have been done better."
Talking too much or not enough
Waffling is a common interview mistake and tends to be the result of nerves, but avoid talking about everything all at once. It's important to sell your skills and experience without rambling.
- Own Your Mistakes. You can't learn anything from a mistake until you admit that you've made it. ...
- Reframe the Error. ...
- Analyze Your Mistake. ...
- Put Lessons Learned Into Practice.
How do you explain a mistake at work? ›
“Offer a genuine and humble apology, acknowledging your error and the harm you caused to the other person, team, or the business. Don't be defensive or make your apology about yourself. What other people care about is your impact, not your intent.”How do you deal with biggest failure? ›
' Be careful about the incident that you choose to explain. Mistakes that resulted in a huge loss should be avoided. Instead, talk about a lesson you learned, which is relevant from an interview perspective. Also, try to sound modest and acknowledge your shortcomings.How do you work together under pressure? ›
- Maintain control and focus. ...
- Create a plan. ...
- Evaluate your priorities. ...
- Avoid procrastination… ...
- 5. … ...
- Break down tasks and simplify. ...
- Communicate effectively with your team. ...
- Execute the plan.