Answering the “Tell Me About a Time You Failed” Interview Question

Dana Guterman
Updated: June 17, 2023

After reading this article, you’ll:

  • Understand how to answer the interview question, “Tell me about a time you failed.”
  • Know why employers ask about your failures.
  • Be prepared for the interview with various examples of common mistakes and failures.

For the most part, an interview is all about your academic and professional excellence. But then, there are those questions about your weaknesses, missteps, and failures. One of the most frequently asked questions is “Tell me about a time you failed.” These types of questions are a bit trickier to answer.

Today, we’ll look at how to talk about your failures and mistakes in an interview.

How to respond to “Tell me about a time you failed”

So, how do you respond honestly without making the interviewer think you’re a human disaster? It requires careful planning and diplomacy—and using the STAR method, since this is a behavioral interview question.

Here are the key points to hit:

  1. Briefly and clearly share an example of a time you failed.
  2. Take responsibility for what happened and don’t blame others.
  3. Then, focus the majority of your response on how you learned from the experience.
  4. Highlight how this experience allowed you to improve certain skills or qualities relevant to the internship or job for which you’re interviewing.
  5. End by summarizing how the experience made you a better worker and led to future successes.

Handling Follow-Up Questions about Failures in Interviews

Interviewers often delve deeper into your responses, especially those concerning failures, to gauge your self-awareness, problem-solving abilities, and capacity for personal growth. Here are some tips to effectively manage these follow-up questions:


Consider possible follow-up questions the interviewer might ask about your failure, such as “What would you do differently now?” or “How did this experience influence your future actions?” Plan your responses ahead of time to answer confidently.

Maintain a Positive Attitude

Remember, the follow-up questions are not meant to corner you but to understand your learning process and growth. Stay positive, focusing on the lessons learned and how the experience helped you improve.

Stay Consistent

Your responses to the follow-up questions should be consistent with what you initially shared about your failure. Any inconsistencies could raise doubts about your honesty.

Be Concise

Like your initial response, your answers to follow-up questions should also be concise and direct. Stick to the facts and avoid unnecessary details or rambling.

Reinforce Your Learning

Use follow-up questions as an opportunity to reinforce what you learned from your failure and how it made you a stronger candidate for the role. This helps to end the discussion of your failure on a positive note.

Follow-up questions can provide an excellent opportunity to further showcase your problem-solving skills, ability to learn from past experiences, and commitment to personal growth, all of which are qualities employers value.

“Tell me about a time you failed”: Sample answers

Here are two sample answers for talking about a time you failed.

Example 1: Engineering internship

In one of my engineering classes two years ago, our final project had us working in teams of four to design the plumbing, HVAC, and electrical systems for different historic buildings. I designed the electrical, and I promised my team I’d get my designs done three weeks early, so the rest of the team could design theirs based on my work. My team was surprised that I could turn it around that quickly, but I brushed off their concerns. Then, I got three new assignments that same week. I couldn’t get my part done on time, and I felt terrible. My team worked together to finish the project, and we got an A, but I felt like I let everyone down.

After that, I knew that I needed to manage my time better. I started using project management software, and I learned to under-promise and over-deliver, rather than the other way around. This semester, I had a similar group project, and I gave myself several weeks to complete my part. When I delivered everything a week early, my team was thrilled.

Example 2: Entry-level product manager

I’ve had a part-time job doing data entry and scheduling for healthcare providers for the past three years. I started when I was a freshman in college, and balancing my coursework, extracurriculars, and a new job was challenging. During finals period in my freshman year, I was pretty overwhelmed. I’m a careful person, but I was trying to rush through my forms so I could get back to studying. I made a mistake inputting the client information, which led to a real headache for the provider. To fix it, I spent hours on the phone with the client, taking full responsibility. We got everything fixed. I was determined to avoid a mistake like that ever again.

I met with my supervisor, and she helped me develop strategies to improve my attention to detail. These actually benefited the whole company, as we all began a peer editing process to minimize errors. My supervisor also suggested a schedule where I didn’t work for the two weeks prior to finals. Now, I’ve been at the job for three years, and I’ve been promoted—and I’ve never made a mistake like that again.

Need more inspiration? Read on.

Other examples of failures for your interview

Just like people define success in different ways, everyone has their own definition of failure. Here are some general examples of regrets, blunders, and failures to jump-start your brainstorming process. Chances are you’ve experienced at least one of them.

Remember: The best examples of failures allow you to tell a compelling story because you learned something and grew from the failure.
  • 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.
  • Losing a customer.
  • Staying in an unsatisfying job/major/class too long.

Tips on talking about your mistakes and failures

  • Don’t ramble. Your answer should be less than two minutes. Don’t drone on about every aspect of the failure. Choose a clear, concise example, and then focus on the outcome.
  • Keep it positive. This isn’t about the failure itself; it’s about how and what you learned from your failure.
  • Don’t go too small or too big. It should be a real failure, but not a total disaster. Getting a B+ is too little, while losing your company hundreds of thousands of dollars is too much.
  • Share a one-time mistake. No one wants an intern who makes the same mistake again and again. Let the interviewer know that you learned from the experience and it’s in the past.
  • Don’t say you haven’t failed. Everyone fails, and saying you haven’t makes you appear oblivious and risk-averse.

Common Mistakes When Answering “Tell Me About a Time You Failed” and How to Avoid Them

Blaming Others

One of the common errors applicants make is to shift the blame onto others. This sends a message that you’re unable to take responsibility for your mistakes, which is not a trait employers appreciate. Always make sure to accept your part in the failure, no matter how tempting it might be to blame others.

Choosing an Insignificant Failure

Another common mistake is downplaying the situation by choosing a failure that is trivial or irrelevant. This might make it seem like you are avoiding the question or that you have not faced any substantial challenges. Be honest and select a real example where you learned something valuable.

Neglecting the Learning Aspect

Some candidates make the mistake of focusing too much on the failure and not enough on what they learned from it. Remember, the purpose of this question is not to dwell on the negative but to demonstrate your ability to learn and grow from your mistakes.

Choosing a Recurring Failure

Discussing a mistake that you’ve made repeatedly could indicate to the employer that you struggle with learning from your mistakes. Choose an instance where you failed, learned from it, and subsequently improved your performance.

Saying You’ve Never Failed

This is possibly the worst response you can give. Everyone fails at some point; it’s a part of life and learning. Saying you’ve never failed might make you come across as either dishonest or extremely risk-averse.

Remember, discussing failure in an interview is about showcasing your ability to take responsibility, learn from your mistakes, and implement changes that improve your future performance. It’s not about highlighting your shortcomings, but about demonstrating your resilience, adaptability, and personal growth.