No one likes to talk about their mistakes, especially during a job interview when they are trying to make a good impression. But a question about past mistakes is one of the most commonly asked because it tells the potential employer a lot about you. So, how can you talk about your failures in a way that ensures your success during an interview?
Prepare a real example. Since you know this question is likely, you can be prepared. While you don’t want to sidestep the question, you also don’t want to say “Oh, I have so many failures to choose from!” Interviewers know you aren’t perfect, but they want to know that you are qualified, competent, and able to learn and get better over time.
Think back on your professional history and find an example of a time when things did not work out as you intended but had a positive outcome. It should be part of your professional activities, not your personal life. Practice telling the story out loud in 1–2 min. Be as accurate as possible—interviewers will often ask follow-up questions, and exaggerating certain aspects of the story to make yourself sound better is a sure way to get tripped up when the interviewer asks for more specific details.
Take the blame. When telling your story, make it clear what you did and didn’t do and how those actions caused a problem. For example, maybe you made an assumption using incomplete data or overestimated how much work could get done in a given period of time. While there are always contributing factors, be clear about your role and what the breakdown was. Take responsibility for your errors, but also make clear any circumstances that were beyond your control.
Show growth. Once you have explained how the situation was resolved, continue your answer by describing what you learned from the experience. What corrective action did you take to make sure the problem was resolved in the best way and with the resources available? What did you learn? Have you thought of better ways to handle similar situations since then?
Be proactive. Most importantly, describe the actions you have taken to ensure that this particular issue does not happen again. Did you create a checklist for this task to make sure no steps are missed? Do you now make sure to get all the background details on a project before you agree to take on the responsibility? Do you have a mental or physical list of mitigations you can use when you see another project starting to go down the same path?
Everyone makes mistakes, and you will never avoid them completely. While making a mistake does not make you a failure, failing to learn from that mistake can prevent you from growing professionally. So, turn your professional mishaps into learning opportunities, and you just may impress your future supervisor.
Get involved in the discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published the first issue of every month in C&EN. Send your comments and ideas for topics for future columns to email@example.com .