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.

Once you come face to face with a hiring manager, you’ll probably be expecting the usual job interview questions: Tell me about yourself. Why do you want to work here? Where do you see yourself in five years? But there’s one type of question that can be a bit more challenging, and that’s when the interviewer asks: “Give me an example of a time you did something wrong, and how you handled it?” Another variation of that is the dreaded “greatest weakness” interview question.

The reason these types of difficult interview questions stump candidates is because it’s tough to talk about your biggest flubs and imperfections. You might be wondering if it’s even OK to admit that you’re less-than-perfect. The key is to realize what the interviewer is really asking.

These kinds of questions all have a similar intent, says Amanda Augustine, career expert for TopInterview. “Whether a recruiter asks you to describe a situation in which you did something wrong, you flat-out failed, or you made an honest mistake, they’re ultimately hoping your answer will shed some light on your sense of judgment, your professionalism, your problem-solving skills, and even your personality,” she says.

Every aspect of your answer, from the actual mistake you choose to share to the way in which you describe the situation, can be very revealing about you as a worker. The last thing you want is to get caught off-guard. “It’s best to brainstorm a couple of examples for this question during your interview preparation,” says Augustine.

Here are some strategies for owning up to past mistakes and coming out a winner.

Be strategic about which stories you choose to share with a recruiter

This is not a time when you want to go big or go home. On the contrary, you want to avoid talking about a huge screw-up that led to disciplinary action or your termination, says Augustine. “If it was bad enough to get you written up or fired, it won’t help you win over a prospective employer,” she says.

You also want to steer clear of any examples that would lead the recruiter to call into question your qualifications for the job. “If your failure demonstrates your lacking a vital skill to do that job, then your interview response could sabotage your chances of landing the job,” she says.

Highlight what you learned from your mistake

Your best bet is to select a minor mistake or failure that helped you grow as a professional. “Ideally, this experience has helped you overcome a weakness or develop a skill that is desired in your line of work,” says Augustine.

For example, maybe a social media campaign you ran didn’t meet expectations and it prompted you to take a class that helped you see big improvements the next time around. “Your response should focus less on what you did wrong and more on how you responded to the failure,” says Augustine.

Elaborate on how you handled the situation and what you learned from the experience, she adds, and emphasize how it has since affected your behavior or influenced your decisions.

Augustine shares an example of how she might answer this question:

“When I first started moderating events for my former employer, part of my job was to recruit and prepare high-caliber speakers for the panel discussions. For my first panel discussion, I emailed each panelist every question I intended to ask at the event.

I quickly learned that this was a rookie mistake for two reasons: Since all communication was via email, I didn’t have a sense of how each panelist would respond to the questions, making it difficult to play off each other’s answer; and since each panelist knew every question verbatim, their responses sounded rehearsed and overall flat. 

While I still cringe thinking about that event, I learned some valuable lessons that I’ve applied to my work ever since. Now, I insist on scheduling a brief call with each panelist to get to know them better. Instead of emailing them a list of questions, I discuss the topics I plan to cover during our phone call so they have a sense of what we’ll discuss—and I get an idea of how they might approach certain questions—while preventing the actual panel discussion from sounding overly rehearsed.” 

Three answers to avoid:

  • “I’ve never really done anything wrong.” That will come off as phony since everyone makes mistakes. “If we never fail, we never grow as professionals,” says Augustine.
  • “I was on a date with this guy last month and ended up spending most of the dinner venting about how crazy my ex is … only to find out the next day that my ex and he were friends.” Talking about mistakes in your personal life is TMI, and not where you want to be going with this. Plus, it might give the interviewer the impression that you’re not great with boundaries in the workplace. “Stick to stories that are work-related, plain and simple,” says Augustine.
  • “I put too much trust in my co-worker and he messed up the project.” Yikes! Not only are you passing the buck to someone else, but this kind of response makes it seem like you don’t work well with others. You’ll be better served by looking inward and focusing on your own actions.

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.