Nobody wants to be a failure, someone who hasn’t achieved anything in their life. Yet all successful people will tell you the same things: there’s no progress without failures. We do not learn much, and certainly do not grow as human beings, when everything goes according to the plan, when we go from one success to another. And that’s exactly what makes this interview question tricky.

Many people think that hiring managers want to hear about some small failures. Or about a big one, which you overcame, rose like phoenix from ashes, and eventually turned a big failure into even a bigger success. That’s not true.

Mark my words: They are not interested in the situation you narrate, though everyone enjoys hearing a good story. What matters for the hiring managers is your attitude–whether you can admit making a mistake, take responsibility, get over your failure, and consider it a learning experience. Sometimes they may even prolong the question, asking exactly about these details: “Give us an example of a goal you failed to meet and how you handled the situation.”

Let’s have a look at 7 sample answers to this interesting question. My list contains some obvious choices, but also some unconventional and philosophical answers, which can help you stand out. At the end of the day it’s better saying something different than most people say. Let’s have a look at the list.


7 sample answers to “Tell me about a time when you failed” interview question

  1. I failed to get to the college of my choice. I tried hard, prepared for the entrance exams and for the interviews, but I eventually didn’t make a cut. At first I find it hard to accept, because I thought that I did my best. But when I later talked to some other people, I understood that I didn’t put as much efforts as the others into my preparation. I didn’t hire an interview coach and a tutor, and I didn’t have my application reviewed by a professional writer. That’s what many others did. At the end I simply accepted the situation. Others were better, or tried harder, and so they deserved the place more than I did. It’s behind me now, I earned my degree from another field, and now I am looking forward to get my first job.
  2. I failed to reach my sales goals in my last job, and that’s one of the reasons why I am here. I could complain that they were super ambitious–and maybe they were, but I prefer not to. You know, some other people met them, so certainly I could have done something better. Maybe I could find better leads, make more calls, try different sales pitches, do a better follow-up, and so on. Trying to analyze what exactly happened, and why I failed, I identified a few things I could have done better, and I think that it will help me in my next sales job. But that’s about it. I failed, I accept that, learned my lesson, and now it’s time to move on. It makes no sense doweling on the past.
  3. To be honest, I do not think that I’ve failed big time, at least not up to this point of my career. I’ve got to the college I wanted to get to, always had good relationship with family and friends, succeeded with my internship application, and now I am applying for a job in a place where I always wanted to work. But I know that some setback will come, that failure is an integral part of each success story, and I feel mentally ready to experience both successes and failures.
  4. I failed to meet the expectations of my manager in my last job. They hoped I’d improve the effectiveness in the production process by 10%, tweaking certain things in the automation process. I tried what I could. I broke the entire production into smallest possible cycles and processes, and looked how we could improve each one. It was not an easy task to be honest, because their starting point was pretty solid already. I managed to find few areas for incremental improvement, but eventually we ended up decreasing the production time by 1% only. Well, I accepted the responsibility, which means that they did not prolong my contract. Maybe there is a more skilled engineer somewhere, who’d suggest some superb innovation, but within the limits of my knowledge and imagination, I could not help them anymore. Was it a real failure, however? I do not think so. I would consider it a failure only if I did not try my best. And that’s not the case. I think I handled the failure well, and now I am looking for a new chance with you.
  5. In my opinion, whether we succeed or fail depends mostly on our own expectations. Let me give you an example. Someone runs a marathon with a goal to win it, or finish in top 10. Someone wants to beat the three hour mark, and another one just want to beat his friend. And someone simply wants to finish the race, or even just to stand on the starting line, something they didn’t find courage to do before. I mean, we all have our level of ambition. I am not particularly ambitious, or competitive, and I think it’s a good quality in this profession. It does not mean that I do not want to progress, or become better in what I do. But it means that I do not stress much about stuff. I do not start pointless conflicts with my colleagues. And if something doesn’t work, or we do not reach some goal, I simply accept it, try to understand why it happened, and improve for the next time. This is my personal philosophy and attitude to life.
  6. I perhaps failed in the most important task of all tasks–to be a good parent. Working super hard, and spending Saturdays at work, I never really had much time for my son. And when I did not have time for him he found another company. As you can imagine, it wasn’t the best company. He started with drugs five years ago. After several rehabs and tough years, he’s still not entirely clear. I failed as a father, and wish I could turn back the clock. Now I try all I can for him, but still I feel that some things can never be entirely reversed, some wounds can never be healed… But I do not want to talk about sad things now. I always succeeded to separate my work from my personal life, and I am sure I’d do that in your company.
  7. My answer may surprise you, but I recently failed two times–in the job interviews. I underestimated my research, did not learn enough about the prospective employers. And though I prepared for some questions, I opted for common interview answers, something probably everyone else said. I failed to stand out. Now I approached the task differently. I learned a lot about your place, what you do here, who your clients and competitors are. And I decided to be 100% honest with my interview answers, and not say something just because it sounds good or because that’s what they generally suggest online. Here I am, hoping for a different outcome this time.


Dwelling on failures won’t help you in any way

Regardless of how much you failed–in school, work, in personal life, you should ensure the hiring managers that you’ve got over it already. Nobody wants to hire an employee who will spend half of their time in work thinking what they could or should have done differently, in this or that sphere of their life.

It’s important to analyze our failures, and identify the reasons why we didn’t reach the desired outcome. But once that is done it makes absolutely no sense to return to the situation again and again in our head. We cannot change what already happened…

* Special Tip: This isn’t the only difficult question you will face while interviewing for any decent job. You will face questions about prioritization, dealing with pressure, dealing with ambiguity, and other tricky scenarios that happen in the workplace. If you want to make sure that you stand out with your answers and outclass your competitors, have a look at our Interview Success Package. Up to 10 premium answers to 31 tricky scenario based questions (+ more) will make your life much easier in the interviews. Thank you for checking it out!

You can say that you haven’t failed to reach your goals yet, but should elaborate on your answer

Maybe you’ve been lucky enough to avoid major bumps on the road, and haven’t experienced any real setback yet. You’ve graduated from the school of your choice, got the jobs you wanted to have, and now perhaps you are applying for a job of your dreams.

That’s completely fine to say, as long as you elaborate on your answer. Ensure the interviewers that you know life isn’t a walk in the park. You know that you won’t succeed in all your endeavors, and feel ready to handle the unavoidable setbacks.


Do not be afraid of unconventional answers

There’s nothing more boring like leading ten interviews in a single day, and hearing the same (or similar) answers from all applicants… I led enough interviews in my life to tell you that it does happen… Especially now, when everyone goes online and check some poor mainstream sources (think Monster, Big Interview, Balance, etc), where you cannot really find anything else than general advice.

That’s fine to use when you are the only job candidate, or perhaps apply for a role in IT, or other heavily understaffed sector of economy. But if you compete with many other people for the job, or lack some skills and experience other candidates have, you won’t achieve anything with mediocre answers.

Do not be afraid to experiment. Maybe you can talk about a failure from personal life, something that won’t leave any interviewer at ease (see sample answer no. 6), or about your failures from previous interviews (see sample answer no. 7). It’s always better than saying the same thing everyone else does…

Ready to answer this one? I hope so! Check also 7 sample answers to other tricky interview questions:

Matthew Chulaw
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