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How to answer interview questions about failures

'What has been your biggest failure?' Tricky graduate interview question

Usually followed by ‘…and how did you deal with it?’, this question can unsettle an interviewee who is all geared up to talk about the positives.

Interviewers are more interested in what you have learned than in the 'failure' itself.

Graduate and internship interviewers are sometimes just as interested in what has gone wrong in your life as what has gone right. This is not because they take pleasure in others’ pain nor because they want to see you squirm, but because they want to see how you have dealt with adversity and obstacles. They want to see whether you can learn from mistakes and how resilient you are.

For this reason, it’s not uncommon for you to be asked ‘What has been your biggest failure to date and what did you learn from it?’ or variations on the theme, such as:

  • 'Describe a time when something didn’t work out as you had planned. What did you do and what did you learn from it?'
  • ‘Tell us about a mistake you’ve made.’
  • ‘How do you deal with setbacks?’

These types of questions are also good ways to test your problem-solving skills and assess how aware you are of your strengths and weaknesses.

How not to answer the question ‘What is your biggest failure?’

  1. ‘I have never failed at anything.’
  2. ‘I am so dreadful that there are too many examples to choose from.’
  3. ‘I had nothing to do with why everything went wrong. It wasn’t me.’

Why are these answers unlikely to get you the graduate job you want?

  1. It is unlikely that you have achieved everything first time around, so you would be stretching your interviewers’ credibility. If you truly don’t feel that you can pinpoint a ‘failure’, you could instead talk about a time when you were disappointed or a time when something almost didn’t work out, but then did thanks to your actions. Remember that the interviewers are more interested in what you have learned from an experience than the failure itself.
  2. This is not the time to talk yourself down. You want to choose an example where you have managed to take something useful from a difficult or discouraging situation. If you’ve since been able to avoid repeating what went wrong, or to turn failure into success, so much the better.
  3. Note: the question is asking what your biggest failure is – plus, pinning the blame on someone else doesn’t indicate that you are capable of learning from your mistakes.

Three tips for answering questions about failures and mistakes successfully

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.

Don’t play the blame game: A graduate job interview shouldn’t be like the closing round of The Apprentice. You shouldn’t be looking to excuse your behaviour or actions; instead, show that you are aware of your weaknesses in that particular situation and focus on what you have done to mitigate or work on them since.

Use it as a springboard to talk about success: Once you have detailed your ‘failure’, you can turn to talking about how what you learned from that incident has led to you being more successful in another situation… and then talk about that.

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