Advice

5 ways to answer ‘Tell me about a time you failed’ interview question

By Tom Parry on July 04, 2023 How we wrote this article
Scrabble letters spelling out 'learn from failure'

“Tell me about a time you failed” is one of the most common job interview questions around. It's a broad question that gives you the opportunity to really sell yourself to the interviewer, and yet many candidates take the wrong approach.

In this guide, we explain why interviewers ask this question and how you can ace it.

We’ll look at five different example answers and we’ll explain how exactly you should prepare for this and other common interview questions:

  1. How to answer "Tell me about a time you failed"
  2. What NOT to do
  3. Five example answers to "Tell me about a time you failed"
  4. Practice answering "Tell me about a time you failed"

Here’s one thing you should know right away: many candidates choose an inconsequential failure that didn’t really matter or wasn’t really their fault. That's a big mistake, and we’ll tell you why below!

Practice common interview questions 1-to-1 with top ex-interviewers

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

Okay, let’s see what interviewers are looking for and what you need to know in order to ace this question. We’ve distilled all of it into five key points. Read and absorb them, and then we’ll show you some example answers. 

#1 This question is about your REACTION to failure

Failure is part of life, and it’s part of work too. Most successful people are well acquainted with failure. Ask a successful CEO about their failures and they’ll probably have a very long list.

So why do interviewers ask about failure? Because they want to know how you react to it:

  • Do you take RESPONSIBILITY when things don’t go as planned?
  • Do you learn the right LESSONS?
  • Do you stay POSITIVE in difficult circumstances?

Try to give an answer that demonstrates a “yes” to these three questions. We’ll show you how below.

#2 Use a real failure that mattered

Many similar articles to this advise you to choose a failure that didn’t really matter much. That’s a mistake, because it makes your answer far less powerful and it makes it harder to address the three bullet points we covered above in #1.

In other words, how can you demonstrate taking responsibility and staying positive if your failure had no consequences?

In many ways, the bigger the failure, the more powerful your answer can be.

#3 A failure is not the same as a mistake

If the interviewer specifically asks you for a failure, they’d prefer to hear about a time you tried to achieve a goal, but weren’t able to.

That’s not the same as, say, accidentally pressing “reply all” instead of “reply” in an indiscreet email. That’s a mistake.

Instead, think about a goal you were unable to achieve. What did you learn and what did you put right to get better results next time? That’s the kind of useful failure you want to use.

#4 Talk about how the failure has made you BETTER at your job

The focus of your answer should be the lessons you learned from the failure and ideally, these lessons should be highly relevant to your role.

For example, your answer could finish like this:

“...using the feedback I received I completely re-structured the way I built presentations and also improved my presenting style by practicing in front of the mirror at home. Since then, presenting to clients has become one of my strong points.

or:

“...it made me realize that my management style was based on instinct rather than actual expertise. To rectify that, I read three great management books and went on a very useful 2-day course. I learned so much and now growing my team and keeping them motivated is probably the part of my job I most enjoy.”

Notice how being brave enough to use a failure that’s very relevant to the role allows you to show how much you’ve learned and improved on this aspect of the role since then.

#5 Structure your answer

“Tell me about a time you failed” is a behavioral interview question. Behavioral questions are when the interviewer asks you about past experiences in order to assess whether you display the kind of behaviors they’re looking for.

Using an answer framework will help you structure your answers to behavioral questions. You’ll see that most of our “Tell me about a time you failed” example answers below follow the SPSIL framework: 

  • Situation
  • Problem
  • Solution
  • Impact
  • Lessons

We recommend you use the SPSIL framework, as we believe it’s better than the more commonly-used STAR framework.

If you want to see why SPSIL is better, see our complete guide to behavioral interview questions

What NOT to do

There are some very common pitfalls when answering "Tell me about a time you failed", so make sure you avoid them.

#Don't blame someone else

If someone else was really at fault for your failure, that's not the right example to be using. Your answer needs to demonstrate that you take ownership of your failures.

#Avoid spending too long on the negative part

Try not to spend too long setting up the situation and the thing you failed at. If you're going to dwell on what went wrong, it should be in order to explain the lessons you've learned.

#Don't say that you've never failed

This is probably the worst answer you can give. It suggests either stayed too far into your comfort zone or that you're not capable of recognizing your own failures.

#Avoid red flags

Above, we've talked about how powerful it can be to use a real failure that had hard consequences. However, never give an example where your behavior was unprofessional, excessively risky or anything else that might be a red flag for the interviewer.

5 example answers to “Tell me about a time you failed”

With the points we’ve covered above, you should be ready to start preparing your answer.

So you can see what to aim for, we’ve created five strong example answers, using different candidate profiles.

#1 “Tell me about a time you failed”: student candidate

Example answer: personal failure

"A couple of years ago, I played a trumpet solo at our high school end of year performance.

It was a big deal for me and I practiced very thoroughly because I was very worried about making a mistake on the day. I really wanted to impress my friends and family.

When the moment came, I was extremely nervous and I hit quite a few wrong notes. Afterwards I never wanted to play trumpet again.

Reflecting a few days later, I realized that although I felt like I’d let my bandmates down, they didn’t hold it against me. In fact, nobody really cared about my huge “failure” except me.

From then on I was less worried about making mistakes and I started to enjoy orchestra much more. I even volunteered for a part in the school play (which previously I’d been far too nervous to do) and I really enjoyed it, even though my acting skills are debatable!

I realized that failure isn’t terrifying. Failures happen when we try things that are hard or new, and we just have to accept them as part of the learning process, as long as we tried our best to succeed. I’m looking forward to failing at plenty more things.”

This is a great answer for a student applying to a college or a first job because it shows a really positive attitude. They show an enthusiasm for taking on challenges and trying new things despite their limitations, and show a really mature approach to failure. 

#2 “Tell me about a time you failed”: fresher candidate

Example answer: personal failure

(Situation)

“I love playing soccer and in my first week at college I went to the trials. I’m pretty good and I was hoping to make at least the second team.

(Problem)

However, I hadn’t been playing regularly and was pretty unfit. I was off the pace and didn’t play anywhere near my level. I didn’t make any of the teams. I was incredibly disappointed.

(Solution)

I vowed that I’d ace the trials the next year. I played regularly in casual games and made a name for myself as a decent player.

(Impact)

When trials finally came around again, I was fit and raring to go, and I made the first team.

(Lessons)

The experience taught me to never take anything for granted, being over-prepared is much better than being under-prepared. I’ve also learned that life is full of disappointments, but the ones that really sting are those you could have done something about.

Now when something is important to me, I always make sure I give it 100%, that way there are no regrets afterwards.”

If you don’t have any professional experience, use an example from your studies, sports team, hobbies, etc., like this candidate has done.

Notice how they use the SPSIL framework to good effect. In the Lessons part of the answer they demonstrate that they a) know the value of good preparation and b) put their heart and soul into things they care about. These are two very desirable traits in a candidate.

#3 “Tell me about a time you failed”: junior candidate

Example answer: project management failure

(Situation)

"A few weeks into my previous role my manager at the time gave me a small project to run. I saw it as a great opportunity for me to make an impact.

(Problem)

However, I soon started to get confused. I hadn’t taken many notes in the kick-off meeting, so I wasn’t sure which points my manager had already covered. Furthermore, I had people listed to help me on the project but I was too shy to ask them if they’d made progress. When I eventually did, it turned out they were waiting for my instructions.

(Solution)

In the end I had to go back to my manager and explain that I was way behind schedule and needed help. She delegated another team member to work on it with me and together we did a good job, but we missed the initial deadline.

(Impact)

It was my chance to impress and I completely failed to take it. I was extremely disappointed with myself.

(Lessons)

Looking back, it was actually an incredibly valuable experience as it made me much better at my job. I started taking more notes in meetings and made an effort to get to know people on other teams so that I’d feel less embarrassed next time I needed something from them. I also learned to ask more questions at the start of projects to clarify things - that was useful not just for me but for my manager as it helped her get things more defined.”

Notice how the candidate doesn’t try and blame their manager for not giving them a clear enough brief. Instead, they take full responsibility, but frame it as a positive learning experience by listing specific ways it helped them improve at their job.

#4 “Tell me about a time you failed” mid-level candidate

Example answer: deadline failure

(Situation)

“In my last position, I was the product manager for a key feature of a new product we were about to launch. My team was ahead of schedule, so I told our chief product officer that we would finish a week before the deadline. She rearranged launch dates accordingly.

(Problem)

However, as we continued work on the launch, it quickly became clear that the final details would take longer than anticipated, and we would not be meeting the earlier deadline.

(Solution)

I took it upon myself to speed up the process. First, I added some of my team’s workload to my plate in order to accomplish everything faster. I worked overtime to take care of the loose ends, then booked a new meeting with the chief product officer to explain. 

(Impact)

Ultimately, we were able to complete our preparations just in time for the original launch date, not a full week ahead like I'd anticipated. Thankfully, since it was only the earlier deadline I failed to meet, the product was still able to be launched on the original launch date one week later.

(Lessons)

The failure to meet that deadline reminded me to make decisions based on data and observation, not excitement. Since this mistake, I’ve been meticulous about deadlines, only setting or changing them after I’ve discussed it with the team and considered the repercussions. I haven’t missed a deadline since.”

Over-promising to a client or being overly optimistic on a deadline  can be good examples of failures to use in your answer as it helps you come across as hard-working and enthusiastic. Here the candidate takes full responsibility for the failure and lists lots of positive actions that they took in response.

#5 “Tell me about a time you failed”: management candidate

Example answer: people management failure

(Situation and problem)

“A few years ago, 6 months into my first ever management role, my team was frequently failing to meet its deadlines. I had enjoyed working under managers who were very hands-off, and so I had followed the same approach with my team. However, it was clear it was not working. What’s more, one of the highest performers left for another company.

(Solution)

To rectify the situation, I increased the number of team meetings and set regular 1-to-1 meetings with each team member. Every morning we had a quick progress check and everyone had to update the shared spreadsheet with their progress and warn of potential bottlenecks.

(Impact)

Our performance improved dramatically, and in H2 we hit all our main deadlines and completed 80% of our OKRs, which was above average for the company. Gradually, we were able to restore our reputation as a high performing team that could be relied on.

(Lessons)

I learned that it’s really important to put simple processes in place that enable regular feedback, progress reports, etc. I also realized that my management style was based on instinct rather than actual expertise. To rectify that, I read three great management books and went on a very useful 3-day course. I learned some really key skills that form the basis of my approach to management today.”

The candidate uses an example of their failure to properly manage their team which would be concerning if it happened recently. However, by explaining that it happened a few years ago in their first management role, the candidate is able to highlight how far they have progressed as a manager since then.

Practice answering “Tell me about a time you failed”

The information above should have you well on the way to crafting a great answer to “Tell me about a time you failed”.

Then you’ll just need to practice.

1. On your own

A great way to practice your answers is to interview yourself out loud. This may sound strange, but it will significantly improve the way you communicate during an interview. 

You should be able to tell your failure story naturally, neither missing key details nor memorizing them word-for-word.

Do the same for the other common behavioral interview questions.

Play the role of both the candidate and the interviewer, asking questions and answering them, just like two people would in an interview. Trust us, it works.

2. With someone else

Practicing by yourself will only take you so far. Try to do some mock interviews with friends or family. This can be especially helpful if you know someone with experience with behavioral interviews, or is at least familiar with the process. 

3. With expert ex-interviewers

You should also try to practice behavioral mock interviews with expert ex-interviewers, as they will be able to give you much more accurate feedback than friends and peers.

If you know someone who has experience running behavioral interviews at a top company, then that's fantastic. But for most of us, it's tough to find the right connections to make this happen. 

Here's the good news. We've already made the connections for you. We’ve created a coaching service where you can practice 1-on-1 with ex-interviewers from a range of leading companies (Google, McKinsey, Accenture, etc). Learn more and start scheduling sessions today.

 

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