No one is comfortable talking about their past mistakes, especially in a job interview. But asking about a past mistake is a common job interview question. So, when a potential employer asks about it, you need to be prepared to give an example of a time when you learned from a difficult situation and grew as a professional.
Use the following instructions and examples to outline your answer beforehand and leave a good impression on your interviewer.
5 Tips for Your Answer
• Choose an authentic experience you had.
• Keep it short but be ready to give details if needed.
• Be honest and take responsibility for your mistake.
• Emphasize what you learned from it.
• Explain what you have done to avoid similar mistakes after that.
5 Mistakes to Avoid
• Don’t say you’ve never made a mistake.
• Don’t put too much emphasis on the mistake.
• Don’t blame others.
• Don’t joke or lie.
• Avoid situations that show character flaws or moral failures.
How to Answer: STAR Interview Response Technique
A simple and great way to structure answers to behavioral interview questions like this one is to use the STAR format. STAR stands for:
S: Situation – describe the situation you were in when that past work-related mistake happened.
T: Task – explain what you were supposed to do.
A: Action – tell them what happened. Describe what you did wrong and how you handled the negative situation.
R: Result – show the positive results and the lessons you learned from the experience.
The following are some sample answers to this common interview question using the STAR technique to help you prepare your own answer.
Best Example Answers to “Tell Me a Time You Made a Mistake” Interview Question
1. Example Answer:
When I was assigned as a team leader for the first time, my team wasn’t reaching its sales goals. I decided to do all of the work myself and quickly became overloaded. I complained about it in a team meeting, and one of my team members said I should delegate more. She was right.
It wasn’t easy, but I started appointing more tasks to my team and we finally reached our sales goals. That experience taught me to be humbler and focus on my role as a leader, delegating and supporting my team, instead of doing everything myself.
Key Takeaways: The candidate was confident enough to share about their weakness and showed how it helped them learn and become a better leader.
2. Example Answer:
Back when I started my previous internship, my greatest weakness was insecurity. I wanted to show that I could do and handle everything myself. When my manager told me to prepare a report for a client, even though I had no idea how to do it, I didn’t ask anyone.
I thought that asking would be a sign of weakness. When I delivered the report, he said it was a mess. I felt foolish and incompetent. That’s when I learned a valuable lesson: to acknowledge my limitations and ask for extra help.
Key Takeaways: The candidate speaks honestly and shows growth as a person and a professional.
3. Example Answer:
Quite some time ago, I worked at a catering company and was responsible for taking orders over the phone. A customer placed an order, then minutes later, she called again to ask for a vegan dish for one of her guests. I didn’t write it down and I forgot about it. When the order was delivered, there was no vegan dish. My mistake made the company look bad. After that, I made sure to write everything down and confirm every order by email.
Key Takeaways: This answer shows the candidate owned their mistake, realized its consequences and implemented changes in their behavior to avoid repeating the mistake.
4. Example Answer:
In my first job as a sales representative, I had difficulty reaching my goals. I decided to ask one of my customers why this company had rejected my latest proposal. He said that the proposal didn’t give them what they wanted or needed.
That feedback made me realize that I needed to pay better attention and ask more questions so that my proposals would be responsive to what my customers needed. The following year I was one of the top sellers in the company and received numerous awards.
Key Takeaways: The candidate had the courage to seek out criticism to understand how to improve as a professional. Then, they worked to solve what they were doing wrong. The important thing is that the mistake helped the candidate become a better employee.
5. Example Answer:
When I got my first entry-level job, I took on every task my manager assigned. Soon, I was overwhelmed, and it impacted the quality of my work. My manager talked to me about it, and I reluctantly admitted my difficulties. He recommended a time management course and a mentor to help me deal with my workload better. I learned to be more open about the issues I face, manage my time better, and ask for help before getting in over my head.
Key Takeaways: This answer shows an excellent example of a common mistake and the effort to learn how to avoid it.
6. Example Answer:
I started working as a freelance graphic designer. There was this time when I worked on a company’s annual report. The customer asked for a small change after I finished the work. Since I had just reviewed everything, I made the change and checked only the page with that change before sending it to them.
I hadn’t noticed that something had broken the page numbers. The customer was very upset about receiving the work back with incorrect pagination. Since then, I always double-check my entire work product, even after minor changes.
Key Takeaways: The candidate made a simple mistake that left the customer unhappy. He learned how to avoid it in the future.
7. Example Answer:
I was young and inexperienced when I started working in customer support. There was a time when I was on call. It had been a calm week so far, so I decided to go to the movies. I didn’t know that there was no cell reception inside the theater. While I was in the movie theater, a customer had a major crisis but couldn’t reach me because of the lack of cell signal.
When I left the theater, I saw the missed calls and voicemails. When I told my manager what had happened, he made it clear that my behavior was completely unacceptable. I have a lot better judgment at this point in my career, but will always remember that mistake as teaching me to be responsible and to take my obligations seriously.
Key Takeaways: The candidate was bold by sharing such an immature mistake, but they made it clear that the mistake was early on in their career and that they have much better judgment now.
8. Example Answer:
I was a young 7th-grade history teacher and had about 30 tests to grade. I was tired, so I decided to take them home and work on them later that night. I stopped by the grocery store on my way home. When I got to my car, someone had broken into it. They stole my belongings and the folder with all the students’ tests. After that, I never took any tests or term papers off the school grounds again, and I organized my time better to do my grading while at school.
Key Takeaways: This answer shows a mistake that affected many people and the lessons learned from it.
9. Example Answer:
After a few years working as a systems security specialist, I got overconfident. I had a presentation to do for a key customer, but I didn’t plan my time well. So, I didn’t prepare for it properly. The presentation turned out to be a fiasco. The visuals weren’t good. The customer asked questions that I wasn’t prepared to answer. My mistake made my manager look bad too because he had appointed me for this task. I had to learn the hard way to manage my time better to always prepare for each assignment.
Key Takeaways: The candidate realized their mistake and sought to have different behavior from then on.
10. Example Answer:
About six years ago, an old friend of mine, who I hadn’t heard from in a long time, reached out to me. We met for lunch. He asked me about my work, and I eventually told him about a proposal that I was working on for a new client. A few days later, I met with the client to present my proposal. That’s when I found out that my “old friend” had already offered them a proposal similar to mine. I was devastated and embarrassed. I learned to keep my business information to myself and choose my friends more carefully.
Key Takeaways: The candidate shares an embarrassing story with sincerity. They also show what they learned from it.
11. Example Answer:
I was a new assistant manager of a sales branch. They had many processes and procedures that I had to learn, but I didn’t pay enough attention because I was focused on reaching my professional goals within the new role.
When there was a surprise audit of my department, I failed because I did not know the processes and procedures well enough. I had to explain myself to the top managers and executives. It was so embarrassing! I learned to take every aspect of the job very seriously, including the documentation and more mundane parts of the job. I studied them very hard, and I passed all audits from then on.
Key Takeaways: The candidate admits he underestimated a critical part of the job, but corrected his behavior.
12. Example Answer:
I was a junior assistant, and my boss asked me to send a couple of internal reports to an associate. I started writing the email, and I got a phone call. I answered it and talked while I finished the email. When I clicked the Send button, I realized that I was sending the email to a customer instead! Luckily, our email system already had the option to cancel an email right after it got sent, and I used it. After that, I was much more careful with tasks that required my full attention, like sending emails.
Key Takeaways: This mistake didn’t have consequences, but it was still a good learning opportunity.
13. Example Answer:
I was working as a project manager for about a year when I got my first complex project. When I prepared the project schedule, I was too optimistic, and I didn’t include much time for unexpected issues that might arise. In the end, we had more problems than I had expected, and we ended up four weeks behind. The customer had to reschedule the launch date. My company lost part of its profit because of having to pay delay penalties.
My error prompted me to seek an experienced colleague to mentor me. My mentor taught me how to handle scheduling better, gave me career advice, and helped me become a more efficient project manager.
Key Takeaways: The mistake had many consequences, but the candidate found an excellent way to learn from it.
14. Example Answer:
When I worked as a freelancer, I had a customer who wanted to move his website from an old provider to a new one. I had done this many times before. So, I migrated the domain and the website itself, but I forgot to redirect the email. I only realized it the next morning when the customer called me and said they weren’t getting any emails. I fixed it quickly, but the customer was very unsatisfied.
From that moment on, I didn’t trust my memory anymore. I prepared detailed plans and checklists for every procedure so I would not miss any steps.
Key Takeaways: In this sample answer, the candidate explained how they failed to thoroughly complete a task, and how it understandably upset the customer. This answer also highlights the actions taken to avoid the mistake in the future.
15. Example Answer:
In my last job, I was given a new intern and I wanted him to organize all the resumes we had on our server. I was busy, so I gave him my user and password to access the files. He accidentally deleted all the resumes. Fortunately, the IT team was able to recover the files from a backup.
If I had taken the time to create a user id for him with the proper permissions and explain what he needed to do, that wouldn’t have happened. I learned to avoid shortcuts and always make sure my team has what they need to get the job done correctly.
Key Takeaways: It may seem that the intern made a mistake, but the candidate makes it clear that they were responsible for what happened.
16. Example Answer:
There was a time when I went to a customer’s location to fix one of his computers. I wasn’t sure how to solve the problem and didn’t want him to see me referencing the manual because I thought he would assume I didn’t know what I was doing. I ended up connecting a flat cable to the wrong port and losing a significant amount of time because of it.
The customer figured out my error when he checked the manual himself. I was embarrassed and the customer was upset. I learned how important it is to follow the company’s procedures, check the manuals, and seek help if needed.
Key Takeaways: The mistake shows immaturity, but the incident helped the candidate grow.
17. Example Answer:
A few years ago, I worked at a marketing agency where I designed graphic content for social media. I was constantly overloaded and stressed. I had just finished a piece and published it right away, without proofreading it.
Shortly after it was published, that post had gained a lot of comments. The comments were about a typo that looked like a curse word. I deleted it, but hundreds of followers had already seen it. The customer almost canceled its contract with the agency. Now, after I complete any content, I ask a colleague to review it before I publish it.
Key Takeaways: Rushing resulted in a mistake that could have hurt the customer’s brand and could have resulted in the marketing agency losing a contract. It became an invaluable lesson that the candidate will not forget.
18. Example Answer:
When I worked for a software company, it organized a workshop to introduce the latest version of its main application to its customers. I was one of the speakers, and I had an exciting deck ready for my presentation. However, when it was my turn, my laptop wouldn’t start. The hard drive had crashed. I had no backup of the slides except for a printout. I had to go ahead and present without the slides and screenshots I had prepared. It could have been impressive, but it wasn’t. This event taught me to always keep a copy of my files on a cloud drive and an external hard drive, just in case.
Key Takeaways: The candidate ran into technical trouble, and didn’t have a backup plan. Another lesson learned.
19. Example Answer:
During college, I received an internship working with social media. One day, I was supposed to schedule a new series of ads for the company’s upcoming campaign. I didn’t have much free time, so I was in a hurry. I ended up publishing one of the videos instead of scheduling it.
When I noticed my mistake, many people had already watched it. Strategic information about the campaign spread because of my error, and I lost my internship. After that, I became more careful when publishing content and making sure I have the time to do things correctly. Also, I always double-check everything before submitting it.
Key Takeaways: The answer shows the mistake and its consequences. Again, it also shows the lessons learned.
20. Example Answer:
About ten years ago, I got my first job as a junior sales representative. My manager asked another colleague and me to prepare a presentation about a product to a potential client. We both didn’t see eye to eye, so we split the presentation and each prepared our own part. We didn’t communicate or cooperate with each other, so our presentations were really two independent pieces. However, he got sick on the day we were scheduled to present. I tried to reschedule the presentation, but my manager insisted that I present without my colleague.
I didn’t know his part, and it showed. I lost an excellent opportunity to make a great impression on my manager and the customer. I learned to put differences aside when working together, be professional and focus on the job.
Key Takeaways: The answer shows a problem that could have been a great opportunity, but turned out badly because of the candidate’s lack of teamwork. It also illustrates the lessons learned.
21. Example Answer:
About six years ago, I worked for a large engineering company. One day, I carelessly left a confidential report on my desk and went home instead of following protocol and putting it in a locked drawer. When I got to work the next day, I received an email informing me that I had violated a security procedure. I got a written warning for it. After that, I paid close attention to keeping all the company’s information locked and secure.
Key Takeaways: The answer shows how sloppiness caused a mistake. It also shows what the candidate learned from it.
Past failures can provide excellent examples of your growth as a professional and as a person. When asked about them, you can turn a previous mistake into a learning experience for your career and life. Be prepared for the behavioral questions in your next job interview, so you can use the opportunity to tell a compelling story and show them you’re the best candidate for the job.
Keith Miller has over 25 years experience as a CEO and serial entrepreneur. As an entreprenuer, he has founded several multi-million dollar companies. As a writer, Keith's work has been mentioned in CIO Magazine, Workable, BizTech, and The Charlotte Observer. If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, then please send our content editing team a message here.