What is your biggest failure?

By Barbara Mason

Have you been caught off guard by the interview question, "What is your biggest failure?" Most candidates usually respond by describing a minor mistake that won't make them look so bad. Or they may say, "I have never failed before."

Neither of these responses will impress a skilled interviewer. Our experts have insider advice on how to properly interpret and answer this seemingly tricky question.

What this question really means
There are many misconceptions about why interviewers ask about failure. Most people think the purpose is to uncover your weaknesses. Well, that's only a very small part of it.

The real reason why interviewers ask about your biggest failure is that it reveals a lot about you--your ability to take risks, face challenges, acknowledge your mistakes and learn from them.

The most important thing to remember when answering this question is that it really isn't about what you did wrong. It's about how you handled a difficult situation and what you learned from it.

Avoid Perfection
Don't turn an interview into a failure by saying that you've never made a mistake or you haven't experienced failure. Nobody is perfect. The most successful people in the world have had many, many failures. Here's how an interviewer interprets someone with no failures:

1) You don't take risks
2) You don't set goals, so you never fail
3) You are hiding something
4) You don't take responsibility for your actions
5) If something bad happens, you'll blame it on everything or everyone else but yourself

This is definitely not how you want to portray yourself. The best way to effectively answer this tricky question is to be prepared. Here are a few tips from our experts:

Quick Tips from the Experts

  • Take time to reflect. Think about the key decisions or milestones in your career or education. Consider the problems or challenges you faced. Honestly evaluate whether or not you made the best choices. Would you make the same decisions now that you did then?
  • Choose your failures strategically. Choose failures or challenges that you've honestly learned from. Don't mention any failures that didn't teach you a lesson, are incriminating or ones that you haven't recovered from.
  • Show what you've learned. Don't dwell on the fact that you made a big mistake. Focus on the positive things you learned from the situation and how much it has helped you grow as a professional.

It is always hard to admit that you've made a mistake or failed. But when asked about your biggest failure in an interview, don't hide or shy away from this opportunity to shine. Humbly explain the challenges you faced and the outcome. Then, confidently describe how you've learned from the failure and how much you've grown as a result.

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