Job Interview Tips Professional Development

How to Talk About Failure in a Job Interview

Written by Kate Lopaze

When you’re putting together your resume and getting ready for an interview, you focus on making yourself look as perfect as possible. This is not a process where you want to let self-doubt and self-esteem issues creep in. Yet all that positive thinking and prep can be undone by one or two little questions in an interview. “Where could you use some improvement?” Or, “Can you tell me about a time when you failed.”

After positioning yourself as kind of an uber-candidate, this can be a tricky navigation. You want to show an appropriate amount of honesty and humility, but who likes reliving past failures, let alone disclosing them to a potential employer? There are ways to do it that can help you get past these spots, without derailing your image as a confident, competent interviewee. Here are some things to consider when you talk about failure in a job interview.

DO take it seriously.

“I’m addicted to Mountain Dew” is not the way to go here. The interviewer is trying to get a sense of your level of self-awareness, and whether or not there are any red flags or major gaps.

DON’T use a clichéd comeback.

“I care too much.” “I work too hard.” “I am too dedicated to my job.” The interviewer isn’t looking for a beauty pageant answer…he or she is looking for someone who can be frank about shortcomings, and self-aware enough to try to overcome them. Backdoor bragging that tries to show that you’re just too well-liked or too diligent at work will most likely earn you an eye roll.

DO be honest…

It’s okay to admit you’re not perfect. This is one question in an interview that is 99% about your accomplishments and qualifications, so approach it honestly and candidly. The interviewer will appreciate your candidness.

…But DON’T treat it like a confession.

This is not the time to list all of your drawbacks. (Unless you’re applying for the CIA, in which case you might as well be honest, because they will find out.) Ahead of time, think about one or two areas where you know you need improvement, and make sure they’re not red flag-worthy. For example, if you’re not great with numbers, don’t answer the question with, “I suck at math.” Basically, anything that makes you seem “bad” at something is not the right choice here.

DO perform the spin-pivot move.

Whatever you do go with, make sure you use it to emphasize strengths you do have. With the bad-at-math example, you can emphasize that you prefer creative problem solving to hard-and-fast numbers. Frame it as a choice between A (weakness) and B (strength), and talk about how you’d choose B.

DON’T use anything in the basic job description as your weakness.

If you despise being around kids, and are applying for an elementary school position, well—what are you doing there? But more importantly, if you’re asked about an area where you could improve, mention that you’re always looking to improve your ability to relate to students.

DO emphasize that you’re a work in progress.

Part of what an interviewer is trying to assess is your growth potential. When you talk about any challenges or areas of improvement you have, be sure to say that you’re aware of your limitations in X area, and that you’re constantly seeking to be better/more efficient/stronger.

DO avoid using words like “weakness,” even if the interviewer uses it first.

Instead, frame it as a challenge, or avoid using negative nouns altogether.

Getting past this moment in an interview can be awkward, but if you do some thinking ahead of time about your challenges and how you plan to turn those into strengths, you should be back in safe, “I’m awesome” territory in no time.

About the author

Kate Lopaze

Kate Lopaze is a writer, editor, and digital publishing professional based in New York City. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Emerson College with degrees in English and publishing, she is passionate about books, baseball, and pop culture (though not necessarily in that order), and lives in Brooklyn with her dog.