How to answer the interview question: “Tell me about a time you failed.”

This is a classic interview question, and one that can take many forms. Employers might ask this exact question, or they might ask, “What is your greatest professional failure so far?” or simply “How do you handle failure?”

Why an employer would ask this question

If you are human, you’ve failed at something. Employers aren’t looking for perfection . They expect you to give a truthful answer about a time you failed, so be prepared to tackle this question head-on.

Employers ask about failure for several reasons.

First, they want to gauge your level of emotional intelligence and self awareness. Are you aware of your mistakes and the impact they have on those around you?

Employers are more interested in how you handled the failure than the details of the failure itself. Did you own up to your mistakes? Did you take responsibility and do your part to fix the situation? Did you learn from the situation?

Craft your answer with this in mind.

How to approach your answer

Explain the failure in one or two sentences, and spend the rest of the time explaining how you responded to the failure. 

Share what you learned. Did you have to work with a team to address the situation? Talk about how you grew as an employee, and what you’re doing to prevent this mistake in the future. 

Let's talk about what not to say

One of the worst ways you can answer this question is, “I can’t think of a time I’ve failed.” or “I’ve never failed professionally.” Answering this way either makes you look prideful or not self-aware. You’ll give a better impression by talking about a time you failed than you will if you avoid the question.

As always, we suggest you write out your answer in advance and practice it several times with a friend or colleague. Being prepared with answers to specific interview questions is one of the easiest and best things you can do to set yourself up for success.


Read our article on preparing for an interview.

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