Answering "Tell Me About A Time You Failed" | Big Interview Resources (2023)

As part of our continuing series on answering the most common behavioral interview questions, today we will discuss how to answer interview questions such as “Tell me about a time you failed,” “Tell me about a time you made a mistake,” and “What is your biggest failure?”

Tell Me About a Time You Failed

What’s the toughest behavioral interview question of them all? For many, it’s this one: Tell me about a time you failed.

More and more recruiters and hiring managers are including this question in their standard behavioral interviews. Some recruiters will even tell you that this is the most important interview question to ask a candidate.

Obviously, you can’t afford to FAIL to answer this question well. However, experience shows that most candidates are terrible at answering this question.

Why is it so difficult? Typical behavioral interview questions are tricky enough — but the “Tell me about a time you failed” question asks specifically about a negative experience. Negative experiences are tough to talk about in job interviews because your focus is on trying to present yourself in the best possible light.

You want to be candid, but not TOO candid. How do you talk about failure without sabotaging your chance of landing a job offer?

Let’s start by taking a look at what behavioral interview questions are in general first.

NOTE: This is Lesson 10 from the Big Interview training system. Take a quick look here if you want to learn more about it.

(Video) 3 Steps to Answer Tell Me About Yourself - Example included!

Read on for advice on how to prepare for and answer these critical questions about failure.

What Are Behavioral Interview Questions?

Companies ask behavioral interview questions, such as “Tell me about a time when you failed” to learn more about your past job performance. According to studies tracking years of hiring and firing at companies around the world, behavioral interviewing is the most effective way to predict future job performance and pick the right candidates.

Behavioral interview questions tend to begin with “Tell me about a time…” or “Give me an example of…,” such as “Tell me about a time you failed” or “Give me an example of a mistake you made at work.” Each question focuses on a desired competency area such as communication skills, time management, or creativity.

Read our Behavioral Interview Questions 101 Guide for a more detailed overview of behavioral interview questions, how to best prepare for them, and how to best approach them in your interview.

Why Interviewers Ask About Your Biggest Failure

“It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” — Bill Gates

You might assume that hiring managers ask this question to torture candidates — to dig for any evidence of a flaw, any excuse to reject you. When you look at it this way, it’s no wonder that many candidates freeze up and have trouble coming up with a good example of a failure.

It may reassure you to know that hiring managers don’t expect you to be perfect. They know that everybody fails.

They ask “Tell me about a time you failed” to understand:

  • Are you someone who can learn from failure?
  • Are you self-aware enough to acknowledge failure and weakness?
  • Do you take smart risks?
  • How do you view success, failure, and risk in general?

After all, if you’ve never failed, you’ve probably never succeeded on any significant level either.

Prospective employers want to know: Do you know how to fail smart and learn from your mistakes?

The most common phrasing of this question is the simple, “Tell me about a time you failed” or “Tell me about a time you made a mistake.” There are some other variations on this theme as well:

  • What’s your greatest professional failure?
  • Tell me about a mistake that you made.
  • What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?
  • Tell me about a decision that you regret.
  • What’s your greatest professional regret?
  • Tell me about your biggest failure.

(Video) Tell Me About Yourself - A Good Answer To This Interview Question

How NOT to AnswerBehavioral Questions About Failure

The most common mistake when an interviewer asks “Tell me about a time you failed” or “What is your biggest failure?” is to NOT answer the question. It is understandable why a candidate might freeze up if asked about failure. If you haven’t prepared to address this topic, it can be daunting to try to instantly think of a good example and then describe it in a diplomatic way that shows you are both honest and a smart hire.

Many candidates will “um” and “uh” for a while and finally say something like: “Well, I can’t think of any serious failures. I guess I’ve been fortunate to be pretty successful in most of my positions so far…”

That might seem like a safe way to answer. However, from the interviewer’s perspective, you’re not answering the question at all.

This non-answer will be interpreted in one (or more) of four ways:

  1. You think you are perfect and thus have no self-awareness or ability to grow.
  2. You’re hiding a history of tragic failures that you don’t want them to know about.
  3. You don’t hold yourself to a very high standard, so you never fail.
  4. You always play it safe and never take any risks or make any bold moves.

None of these interpretations are particularly flattering.

The other common way to mess up this question is to blurt out something without thinking it through. Some candidates get flustered and put their foot in their mouth. They share something that makes them look bad.

Inside Big Interview

In our complete training system for job interviews, we give you video lessons, sample answers, and an interactive tool for you to practice answering all the different versions of “Tell me about a time you failed.”
Click here to find out more

Watch this brief video to learn a little more about Big Interview.

How to Answer “Tell Me About a Time You Failed” and Similar Behavioral Questions About Failure

We strongly recommend that every job candidate prepare a story for the “Tell me about a time you failed” interview question. As we’ve mentioned earlier, this question has become extremely common, and according to our corporate clients, it is very effective in separating the B.S. artists from the solid candidates.

It’s also a question that can really bite you if you mess it up. Maybe you’ll get lucky and your interviewers will stick to questions you’ve prepared well for. However, it is always better to be prepared for every kind of question.

As usual, when it comes to preparing for behavioral questions, I encourage you to use the STAR approach to behavioral questions to prepare your failure story.

(Video) 5 Secrets About Yourself You Should NEVER Tell a Man (He Doesn't Need to Know!) | Dating Advice

With the STAR framework, you simply write down a few bullet points for each of the key aspects of your story (Situation/Task, Approach, and Results). This method allows you to hit all of your key points while keeping your answer concise (this is very hard to do without focused preparation).

Note: Big Interview has step-by-step instructions for creating powerful STAR stories — and our Answer Builder tool will walk you through the process quickly and easily. Learn more.

How to Pick a Good Failure Story

Before you jump into the STAR format, you must choose the right example to talk about. It is very important to select a failure example that will serve you well in job interviews.

Everybody fails — in big and small ways. The tricky part is to craft a failure example that highlights your strengths and smarts.

Here are some guidelines for selecting the right example:

  1. Choose a real failure. You must answer the question. Don’t go with something like: “We only improved sales by 35%, but I wanted to do more, so I felt like a failure. I guess I’m just a perfectionist.” (insert a humblebrag shrug)
  2. Don’t raise red flags. At the same time, you don’t have to confess your deepest and darkest secrets. Don’t choose a failure that was the result of a serious personal mistake (totally forgot to attend the meeting) or character flaw (probably shouldn’t have called the client “Sweetcheeks”). A team failure can work well because you share responsibility with others (just make sure you acknowledge your role and don’t try to pass the buck completely)
  3. Focus on learning. Pick a story that ends with a compelling example of a lesson learned. Ideally, you should be able to point to applying your hard-won knowledge/skills successfully on a subsequent project. (Read our sample answers below for inspiration).

“Tell Me About Your Biggest Professional Failure.” – Sample Answer

The sample answer below uses the STAR format to tell a failure story. You’ll notice that this example is more scripted than your own STAR bullet points will be. We took this approach to try to illustrate how the answers might sound in an interview.

When preparing your own STAR stories, there’s no need to write full sentences with detailed transitions. You can just write down rough bullet points to create a framework — your delivery should be a little bit different each time.

S/T (Situation/Task)

This is the “backstory” for your failure interview question. Provide an overview of the project or situation. Keep it concise and give only enough background for context.

Example Situation/Task Bullet Points

  • I would say that my biggest professional failure was in my current role as a project manager at ABC Consulting Corp.
  • Last year, our team failed to land a $2 million new project from one of our existing clients.
  • The project should have been ours, but we dropped the ball.

Why We Like These Bullet Points

With a failure story, you want to get right to the point in the S/T section. Give them the basic facts about the situation/task. The emphasis should be on the positive — the lessons learned, which you’ll cover later in the R section.

This candidate takes responsibility for the failure and doesn’t try to sugarcoat it or lead with defensiveness.

(Video) "You Can't Tell Me How To Answer The Question"

A (Approach)

After you have given a brief background of what the failure was, it’s time to walk through a bit more detail about what happened and why.

Example Approach Bullet Points

  • I think the biggest issue was that the whole team took it for granted that the project would be ours. We had a good relationship with the client and we had just wrapped up a very successful project for them.
  • A team of us, led by the account manager, went to pitch. It was a solid pitch and we got great feedback.
  • But in retrospect, we didn’t go the extra mile to wow them. We didn’t push as hard as we should have. That opened up the opportunity for a competitor to put on a big show and steal the business.
  • At the same time, we failed to truly understand all of the client’s key concerns. They told us that price was the #1 consideration, so we focused on demonstrating cost-effectiveness.
  • Meanwhile, a new senior VP had come on board and I now realize that his priority was picking his own vendor and he saw us as his predecessor’s pick. As the person working with the client team day-to-day, I should have picked up on that and found a way to address it.

Why We Like These Bullet Points

  • This is a pretty insightful breakdown of what happened. There is enough detail to allow for a full understanding of the outcome, but the candidate doesn’t go off on tangents or overwhelm them with information.
  • The candidate has clearly thought about the causes of the failure and analyzed his own role.
  • He takes responsibility and identifies how both he and the overall team could have done better.
  • He doesn’t raise red flags about his work ethic or professionalism.

R (Results)

A good STAR interview story always features a happy ending. With a failure story, your R section will be a little different than usual. With a typical STAR answer, the R describes the positive outcome(s) of the actions that you took (increased sales, reduced costs, winning presentation).

With a failure story, the happy ending is a twist ending. By definition, failure is not a positive outcome. The positive outcome comes later and focuses on learning a lesson and becoming smarter/better/stronger.

Example Results Bullet Points

  • Losing the business was a real blow to the company — financially and from a morale perspective too.
  • I actually volunteered to lead the analysis of what happened and see what we could learn.
  • Our #1 lesson as a team was to never take a client for granted — and to never, ever settle for a “good-enough” pitch. We have to hit all of our presentations out of the park. And I can honestly say that we’ve done so ever since — and it has led to a record year for new business in our group.
  • Personally, I learned that I need to pay more attention to the dynamics within the client organization and read between the lines more.
  • As the project manager, sales aren’t the main focus of my job. However, when it comes to daily contact with the client organization, there is a lot that I can do to help the company bring in new business.
  • I decided to take a sales course to develop my skills and have found that I now really enjoy being closely involved in the business development process — and I am pretty good at it.
  • In fact, I made a point of staying in touch with my client contact from the lost project and continued to nurture that relationship.
  • As a result, when that contact moved to a competitor, she ultimately brought ABC in for an even bigger project than the one we lost.

Why We Like These Bullet Points

  • The candidate analyzes what went wrong and what he learned from the experience. He looks at it from the organizational, team, and individual perspectives.
  • He demonstrates that his lessons were well learned by discussing the success of subsequent sales pitches.
  • He takes responsibility without seeming negative or defensive
  • He puts more focus on the R (what was learned) than on the failure.

Don’t Forget to Practice

If you’re a regular reader, you know how much we emphasize practice. Just like for any other interview questions, practicing your answers to behavioral interview questions like “Tell me about a time you failed” or “What is your biggest failure?” will not only leave you well-prepared, but also alleviate the nerves and tackle the question with confidence.

We know interview practice may not be exciting, but it is incredibly effective. We have seen the difference that practice had makes for thousands of job seekers, especially when it comes to answering difficult behavioral questions (including questions about failures).

The truth is undeniable: candidates who prepare and practice land more job offers. To paraphrase the old saying: Don’t fail to prepare, prepare to discuss your failure.



Need a hand? There are 2 ways we can help you:

1. Learn how to turn more job interviews into job offers here. (Rated with 4.9/5 by 1,000,000 users)
2. Learn how to successfully negotiate a better salary. (Take a sneak peek of one lesson for free here)


How do you answer what is your biggest failure at interview? ›

Spend more time explaining what you have learned about yourself than the experience: Instead of dwelling on what went wrong, identify the reasons behind the incident and emphasise what you have learned and what you now do differently. Explain the actions you took to ensure that you wouldn't achieve the same mistake.

What has been your biggest failure best answer? ›

“What is your biggest failure?” example answer

It all went wrong when I [describe the action you took] which I tried to solve by [add an action]. I had solved a similar problem in the past in this way, but this time I forgot to [insert the action that would have made a difference].

What is your greatest success and failure interview answer? ›

TELL A STORY: Describe an occasion of success or failure fully, explained what challenge was involved, how you responded, and the outcome of your actions. DETAIL LESSONS LEARNED: Explain how and what a challenging situation or project taught you and how it has contributed to improving your work skills.

What is my biggest failure examples? ›

I was responsible for interacting with big clients and understanding the requirements. Being a fresher, I did not pay much attention to the details of the project. Instead, I focused only on my ethics and discipline. My poor listening skills led me to lose one of the most significant projects of the organization.

What are examples of failures? ›

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.
Jul 24, 2020

How do you handle failure sample answer? ›

Ways to Manage Failure
  • Recognise and accept your emotions. Failure hurts, at least in the first instance, and you need to accept that. ...
  • Don't make it personal. ...
  • Don't worry what anyone else will think. ...
  • Take the right amount of responsibility. ...
  • Use failure as a way to improve.

What are some successful failures? ›

They're perfect examples of why failure should never stop you from following your vision.
  • Arianna Huffington got rejected by 36 publishers. ...
  • Bill Gates watched his first company crumble. ...
  • George Steinbrenner bankrupted a team. ...
  • 4. Walt Disney was told he lacked creativity. ...
  • Steve Jobs was booted from his own company.
Dec 8, 2014

What are three famous failures? ›

Albert Einstein had the label "mentally slow" put on his permanent school record. Henry Ford's first two automobile companies failed. Oprah Winfrey was fired from an early job as a television news anchor. Jerry Seinfeld was booed off stage in his first stand-up comedy appearance.

What is your biggest failure and how did you handle it? ›

Choose a specific failure

Pick a real failure that happened in the workplace, specifically a failure related to the work you're doing now. Look for a story where something didn't go as planned. Choosing the right story is important, as you want to explain a situation where only one thing went wrong.

What is a real life example of failure? ›

Examples of failures

Receiving poor or failing test grades. Not getting accepted into a degree or certification program. Interviewing for a position but not securing a job offer. Getting a bad performance review.

What is a good sentence for failure? ›

Example Sentences

He became discouraged by his repeated failures in business. He was often crippled by his fear of failure. The accident was caused by engine failure. The patient was suffering from heart failure.

When did you fail interview question? ›

Tell your story.

Interviewers don't ask this question to see you squirm, they want to know how you handle setbacks—so get to the part where you're dealing with the failure as quickly as possible. Start with the situation, and explain why it was challenging. Then go into what you specifically did to try and rectify it.

How do you deal with failure and disappointment interview questions? ›

Acknowledge the failure

So, the best way to answer this HR interview question is to own up and acknowledge the task that you could have done differently and explain the situation very clearly. This showcases your integrity and your will to learn and avoid making further similar mistakes.

How do you deal with pressure or stressful situations? ›

2. Commit to a Positive Attitude
  1. Decide what you can do. Pinpoint which parts of the situation you have the power to change or influence for the better. ...
  2. Get support. Find someone to talk to about your situation. ...
  3. Care for yourself. Take especially good care of yourself when stress in your life is high.

What is success and failure explain with example? ›

Success and failure, however, are terms meant to define events, not people. You are either successful at doing something, or achieving some milestone, or you failed at doing something or did not achieve some milestone. That does not imply that you are a complete success or a complete failure.

What failure leads to success? ›

Through failure you will get to know yourself better and you will learn from your mistakes. Failures make us rethink, reconsider and find new ways and strategies to achieve our goals.

What to do after a big failure? ›

How to move on after failure — and rebuild your confidence
  1. Use your to-do list to boost your confidence. ...
  2. Separate your value from your work. ...
  3. Develop — and depend on — a mutual support group. ...
  4. Remember that no one cares about your failures as much as you do. ...
  5. Be mindful of burnout. ...
  6. Believe in the possibility of future success.
Dec 21, 2020

What does failure mean to you interview question and answer? ›

Short Answers

"To me, failure means to have a goal and not do anything about it." "I think failure is not reaching your potential. If you do not use the resources you have and the resources around you, that's failure because the work or goal could have been done better."

What do interviewers want to hear when they ask about a time you failed? ›

Interviewers want to see that you can accept defeat, move on, and do better. It's about what you learn from your mistakes and what steps you take to improve.

How do you explain a failing grade in an interview? ›

You need to explain why your GPA is lower than your peers. If you were working concurrently with attending classes, say so. If your GPA was lower in your first year or two, say so. If your GPA is higher in your major classes (which are the most important to a prospective employer), say so.

How do you explain a failed grade interview question? ›

The best way to explain bad grades in an Interview is by showing how you were doing something very substantial which took away most of your time. It can be your personal side projects or working on open source projects or doing some good Internships.

What is the most common reason why Interview fail? ›

Poor preparation before an interview is an obvious killer and 75% of the interviews fail because the candidate didn't expect some of the questions asked or didn't know enough about the company…

How do you explain poor performance in an interview? ›

Keep a level head and focus forward.
  1. Figure Out What Happened. ...
  2. Don't Over-explain Things. ...
  3. Avoid Getting Emotional. ...
  4. Turn Lemons Into Lemonade. ...
  5. Have References Prepared. ...
  6. Avoid the Blame Game.

How do you motivate yourself after failing an interview? ›

How to Keep Motivated After Failing Multiple Job Interviews
  1. Hire an Interview Coach. ...
  2. Research the Firm. ...
  3. Do You Need to Narrow Your Search? ...
  4. Provide an Example for Everything. ...
  5. Ask Some Questions of Your Own. ...
  6. Follow Up. ...
  7. Take Care of Yourself.
Jan 29, 2019

How do you subtly fail in an interview? ›

Interview Mistakes to Avoid During the Interview
  1. You're Late to Arrive. ...
  2. You Pretend You Know an Answer That You Don't. ...
  3. Too Much Name Dropping. ...
  4. You're Too Rehearsed. ...
  5. You Have No Questions Prepared, Especially at the End of the Interview. ...
  6. You Use Too Much Jargon. ...
  7. You Let a Small Mistake Derail You.


1. Tell Me About Yourself | Best Answer (from former CEO)
(The Companies Expert)
2. Tell Me About Yourself - A Good Answer to This Interview Question
(Don Georgevich)
3. How to Answer “Tell Me About Yourself” Interview Question!
4. Give Me an Answer - What is the Basis for Human Value?
5. Tell Me About Yourself - A Good Answer to This Interview Question
(Linda Raynier)
6. Tell Me About Yourself - Structure a Strong Answer
(Jeff Su)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Roderick King

Last Updated: 03/13/2023

Views: 5447

Rating: 4 / 5 (71 voted)

Reviews: 94% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Roderick King

Birthday: 1997-10-09

Address: 3782 Madge Knoll, East Dudley, MA 63913

Phone: +2521695290067

Job: Customer Sales Coordinator

Hobby: Gunsmithing, Embroidery, Parkour, Kitesurfing, Rock climbing, Sand art, Beekeeping

Introduction: My name is Roderick King, I am a cute, splendid, excited, perfect, gentle, funny, vivacious person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.