How to answer the job interview question ‘Give me an example of a time you did something wrong’

It’s not really about what you did or didn’t do, but about how you handle adverse situations—and tough questions.

How to answer the job interview question ‘Give me an example of a time you did something wrong’

Answering an interviewer honestly will impress them the most.

Your resume and cover letter successfully outline your qualifications. You’re nailing all the reasons you’re the right person for the job in the interview. But when the interviewer says, “Give me an example of a time you did something wrong, and how you handled it?” you freeze.

No one wants to talk about their screw-ups, but doing so with confidence and answering this question well can prove crucial if you want the job. When interviewers ask this question they’re trying to evaluate how you responded in a tough situation, says Corey Listar, staffing operations manager for Atlanta-based building materials manufacturer Oldcastle.

These four tips can help you answer this tough question with confidence and offer an answer that will not only pass this test, but also impress your interviewer in the process.

Never say never

Answer honestly because anyone who says they’ve never made a mistake is obviously lying or delusional. As unpleasant as it may be to discuss, you must admit to a mistake and explain how you made things right in some detail.

“I would much rather you tell me what you learned from a mistake,” says John Rampton, founder and CEO of Due, an online invoicing company based in Palo Alto, California. Everyone makes mistakes, it’s how you get past those mistakes that interests me.”

You say: In my position three years ago at Company X, I missed a major deadline, which is why I'm extremely vigilant on keeping my calendar and to do list up to date every day. 

Don’t blame others

Admit your mistake and take full responsibility for it. Don’t try to blame someone else or spread the blame around, taking only part for yourself. Interviewers don’t want to hear how your teammate gave you bad information and caused your mistake.

“Take responsibility of a mistake that happened. Own it,” Rampton says. “It was 100% your mistake and it shouldn’t have happened.”

“Taking responsibility is about being straightforward and contrite,” says Andrew Pearl, certified resume writer and interview coach with the Orlando-based Precision Resumes. The interviewer wants to see how you react to a difficult question, how you handle pressure, and if you’ll fit in with the company’s culture.

If the mistake truly wasn’t your own, pick a different mistake.

You say: I missed the deadline because I didn’t maintain proper communication with my team members.

Tell them you handled it like a champ

Explain in detail how you solved the problem. And be honest about it, no matter how bad you think your explanation may make you look. The interviewer won’t necessarily see it that way.

“The interviewer wants to see if the candidate is adaptable and flexible,” Pearl says. “How do they deal with problems and what do they do when presented with a challenge?”

You say: As soon as I realized I was going to miss the deadline, I contacted all the stakeholders in the project to smooth things over, and we all put in the extra hours needed to get it completed quickly.

Talk about lessons learned

“As long as you were able to learn from it, you can admit to most any mistake—within reason,” Listar says. “The interviewer is looking to hear that you did learn from it and put parameters in place so it does not happen again.”

Tell a story that highlights your ability to learn—and learn well enough not to make the same mistake again. “In almost every role, the best candidate is going to be a strong problem solver,” Pearl says. “This question helps show how we recover from a problem.”

You say: After I missed that deadline, I created a spreadsheet for all future projects that showed everyone a project snapshot and clearly indicated deadlines and where we’re at in the process at any given time. Since then, I’ve never missed a deadline.

Craft strong answers

You’re a great worker. You’re responsible and driven. You have the problem-solving capabilities to impress any boss. You just happen to have a little difficulty putting all this awesomeness into words. Still worried about giving a weak answer in a job interview? Join Monster for free today. As a member, you can get career advice and job search tips sent directly to your inbox. From updating your resume to nailing the interview to asking for a raise, Monster’s expert insight can help take you far.