Job Search Tip of the Week #21 (2018)


How to Ace Your First-Round (or Really, Just About Any) Interview

Think Like an Interviewer – Q15

We’re counting the days until “Solo: A Star Wars Story” comes out! To celebrate we’re going to tackle one of the most commonly asked interview questions: “Tell me about a time when you failed.”

See the opportunity

While it may seem counterintuitive to showcase your shortcomings or past mistakes to your prospective employer, this interview question is your opportunity to show whether you survive, die, or thrive in the face of failure. Specifically, your response helps your prospective employer gauge:

  • your response to pressure and adversity,
  • what standards you hold yourself to,
  • your resilience,
  • your penchant for risk taking, and
  • your problem solving abilities.
Don’t choke

There are many ways you can fail this failure question, such as:

  • Deploying evasive maneuvers. Nobody’s perfect, you live and you learn it. The very first step to answering this question correctly is to be honest and admit that you’ve made mistakes.
  • Giving a non-answer answer. Offering up some trivial mistake like the time you wore mismatched socks to an interview suggests you haven’t put any thought into how you’ve grown throughout your career. Likewise, picking an example that’s not relevant to the professional workplace (e.g., a situation rooted in your personal life or academic career) is too easy a cop-out. Speak to something related to the job you’re interviewing for, otherwise you may come across as flippant or disinterested.
  • Failing to strategize. If a mistake hits a key hiring criterion for the company, bringing it up can backfire. For instance, if you’re applying for a Software Development Manager position, you probably don’t want to mention that time you disregarded input from your team, which led to an unsuccessful software integration and a very unhappy (and now former) client.
  • Choosing a colossal failure. You don’t have to cite a mistake with an impact of Death Star magnitude. Doing so just draws unnecessary attention away from how you handled the setback and improved. Instead, think about what being unsuccessful means to you. For instance, you might consider a situation a failure if you were unable to meet expectations or anticipate potential issues. Just be genuine in your response – don’t lie or exaggerate about what’s important to you.
  • Focusing too much on the failure itself. You want to be honest and as specific as possible, but not scare away your potential future employer. Set the scene, but go into detail about how you tried to rectify the misstep, and what you took away from it and have/will do differently next time.
  • Playing the blame game or making excuses. Neglecting to take responsibility for your own actions and any resulting fall-out can create tension in the workplace, and eventually get you Force choked. In all seriousness however, passing the buck just shows a lack of accountability and trustworthiness – two traits no one wants in a potential coworker or employee. So, the situation you choose to recount to your interviewer should have to do with your actions (or lack thereof).
Rise to the occasion

“Tell me about a time you failed” is an example of a behavioral interview question. Such questions, as we’ve mentioned before, are about experiences you’ve had overcoming challenges in the workplace (or failing to do so), and are asked under the assumption that past behavior predicts that of the future.

Power through behavioral questions by touching on “PS CAR” (Not a car aficionado? Pferdestärke (PS) is the German word for horsepower. Silly pun, we know.) in your response:

  • People: Who was involved?
  • Situation: What was the situation?
  • Cause: How did the problem arise? Why was it significant?
  • Address: What specific actions did you take, and why did you choose that particular course of action over others?
  • Result: What was the end-result? What were the consequences of your decision, and how did you handle them? What did you learn from the experience? How did you become better for it? What will you do differently should a similar situation arise in the future?

So for example:

Once while I was working on a Web Application Developer at Company X, my team and I were on an aggressive timeline and so we skipped QA and performance testing. As a result, we missed some bugs in the code, and were unable to launch a new product feature. Our end-users were disappointed, and let us know that through social media. We collaborated with the marketing team to make a public apology, and worked over the weekend to ensure a Monday release without a hitch.

In the end, we learned that sacrificing quality to meet the deadline did not pay off. It was a lesson on the ramifications of bad publicity, and we realized that we had to better manage our time in order to protect not only our revenue, but also our customer experience. So the next time we were confronted with a quick turnaround for a project, we knew we had to prioritize QA and performance testing, and adjusted our deliverables and communicated expectations accordingly.

(Imperial) March forth

We’ve all taken risks that didn’t pay off as hoped. Hiring managers are looking for confident job candidates who don’t always play it safe, but always play it smart.

So PS CAR a few examples, just in case you find yourself facing this failure question or any of its permutations (like “Describe when something didn’t go as planned.” or “What was the biggest disappointment in your career?”). Practice your responses a few times to ensure you’re able to stay calm as you retell your worst failures – so you can roll right into your (many) following successes.

You’ve got this. May the Force be with you!

Sound Off: What has been your biggest work failure?

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Image Credits: The Legends of the Multi-Universe Wiki; Pinterest, pinned by Suzanne Phillips