"Tell us about a time you failed": Tricky Interview Questions


May 13, 2021

Any interview question can set your heart racing. But there are few questions that are likely to catch you off guard more than “tell us about a time you failed.” For the under-prepared, it can truly be a puzzle. 


Aside from the fairly straightforward, “Tell me about a time you failed”, you might also be hit with a different version, “When have you experienced failure, and how did you handle it?”, or a “What has been your biggest failure?” Another version of the question is “What are your strategies for coping with failure?”.


To help you navigate this potential minefield of a question, Student Circus has compiled this guide to help you prepare an answer. 


What is the purpose of the question?


The reason interviewers ask this question is simple: while your application is generally filled with all of your accomplishments, stellar achievements and successes, it can tend to shadow your other positive aspects of your character, such as humility, resilience, and fortitude. The purpose of this question, therefore, isn’t to catch your imperfections, but to figure out if you are self-aware enough to recognise and learn from your failures. It helps find candidates who have overcome failures and grown/learnt from them. It’s also a great way for interviewers to find out more about who you are, and perhaps there might be an anecdote that they really relate to which can help you stick out from the rest of the candidates. 


How can you answer?


There are multiple ways of answering this question. The best ways involve immediately providing an anecdote of a time that you recognised you had failed in a particular task. Make sure that the task itself is related to the job you’re applying for. Sincerity and honesty are incredibly important when it comes to answering any interview question, but especially here. It is very easy for interviewers to spot an honest anecdote against a pretend one, so make sure that you are telling the truth — even if you think it’s boring! 


The most important part of answering this question is sharing the lessons learned from the failure. If, for example, you failed to deliver a deadline on time, you could say that you learned the importance of time keeping and being realistic about the responsibilities you have on your plate and whether you can meet them in time. With takeaway lessons, it’s important to emphasise what you recognise was a failure, and how you’ve turned that failure into success going forwards. It’s all about turning lemons into lemonade. 


What to say, what not to say?


Keep a positive outlook to the question. Pepper your anecdote with “I’ve failed many times before, but each failure has taught me something valuable.” End it with “I think every person has to go through failure in order to figure out what is best for them.”

Refrain from pretending to be superhuman here,“I’ve never failed before so I can’t answer this question!” will not score you brownie points. 


Use statements like:


1) “I know I’m still going to face failures in the future, but I know that now I’m more prepared to deal with them than I was before.”

2) “I think that I’ve become a stronger and more resilient person as a result of those failures. For example, last week when something similar happened, I didn’t react in the same way.”

3) “When <problem> stuck, I didn’t panic. Instead, I approached it with a solution-oriented mindset.”


Go the extra mile


Ahead of interviews, make sure to list a selection of ‘failures’ that you can easily remember. On top of this, write down what the takeaway lessons from those failures were. Doing this will ensure that you won’t be taken by surprise when this question gets asked ever again! Also, it’s always worth throwing in a joke here and there, but be wary of sounding too self-deprecating. While they’re asking you to recall a failure, this doesn’t mean you should come across as overly self-critical or downbeat — rather it’s about demonstrating self-awareness and an ability to not take oneself too seriously.


Written by Marco Marcelline


Marco is a freelance journalist who has written for the likes of Dazed and VICE UK. He also co-edits Kalu Mala, a zine that seeks to platform the creative talents of the Sri Lankan diaspora.

Photo by Magnet.me on Unsplash


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