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I am a second year university student and had a job interview. The job was a co-op student position as a Web developer / designer. The company is a fairly well known (well known to people in the city) business firm. During the middle of the interview, I was asked

What is your biggest life mistake and how did you go about trying to solve it?

I disliked this question because

  1. I believe it is too personal for a 'Web designer' co-op student position.
  2. In order for me to give a fairly truthful answer, I'd have to sit and think for over a minute about previous life events which have nothing to do with Web development.

This was my response:

What was my biggest life mistake and how did I go about solving it? * laughed to myself * I'm not going to answer that question because I, I think it was a pretty bad question because, well first of all, I think it is too personal and secondly, if you guys are looking for a truthful answer, then I would need at least one minute to think about my previous life events which by the way have nothing to do with Web development and design. I'd suggest maybe changing the question to 'what was the biggest mistake you made in school and how did you go about fixing it?' Or 'what was the biggest mistake you made in your previous work term / job' Or maybe 'what was the hardest challenge which you were faced with in school / hardest project which you were given and how did you try overcoming it?'. But yea, I mean I can answer questions like 'what was the biggest mistake I made in school' if you want.

As I said this, I kept a pretty friendly tone and said it like I was just trying to help make the question better because I strongly believed that they would learn a lot more useful things about me if I answered the questions which I recommended rather than answering the question which they initially asked.

They replied saying 'sure' (as in, sure, answer the 'what was the biggest mistake you made in school' question) and the interviewers had kind of a shocked look as I began to answer the 'biggest mistake I made in school' question.

Did what I say ruin my chances of getting the job?
If yes, what would have been a more appropriate response?

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7 Answers 7

You made three mistakes:

  • Never tell an interviewer that they have asked you the wrong question.
  • Never tell an interviewer that they have asked you the wrong question and list 3, 4, or 5 variants of the question that would not have been so wrong.
  • Never tell an interviewer they have asked you the wrong question, list too many "better" questions they should have asked, and then just stop without answering anything.

That last one might have cost you the job. I can accept a certain amount of lecturing about how to interview properly and put it down to nerves and the usual complaints about "kids these days" and how the millenials are ruining the world etc (that's sarcasm btw) but if you don't end up answering something then you've blown it.

How should you have handled it? Probably something like this. I'll use italics for what you're thinking, and regular type for what you say out loud.

What was my biggest life mistake and how did I go about solving it? I'm not going to answer that question because I, I think it was a pretty bad question because, well first of all, I think it is too personal and secondly, if they are looking for a truthful answer, then I would need at least one minute to think about my previous life events which by the way have nothing to do with Web development and design. Let me think for a moment. I've faced some challenges and overcome them, of course, but mistakes that I've made... that time I slept through an exam, no, makes me look unprofessional, turning down the scholarship from the more famous university, no, I don't think that was a mistake I stand by it, oh got it! There was an incident last year where I felt underprepared going into the midterm. I talked to some other students and they said that nobody really felt confident in the material, so probably the exam would be belled, or maybe we would only be tested on part of the material. That sounded like a great theory to me compared to putting in the work to fully understand the material. But no, we were tested on all the material and the marks weren't adjusted. Now I have a lower mark in Applied Whatever than I would like. I should have gone to the professor or the TA and asked about the material I felt unsure of. I know I will in the future when I feel unprepared.

What makes this a good answer? First, you buy some time by repeating the question and explicitly stating you need a minute to think. There is nothing wrong with taking a minute to think - when candidates rattle off prepared answers I often detect insincerity. Second, you clarify the scope of your answer - you're not going to tell them about overcoming challenges, or your biggest weakness, you are actually going to find a mistake and tell about making that mistake and trying to solve it afterwards. Third, you do just that. You choose a mistake that isn't insanely bad (one time, I stabbed a fellow student, which in hindsight was totally a mistake) but that isn't trivial (I forgot to get ketchup on my hamburger) either. You tell a story of the appropriate length, which contains a minimum of excuses, describe the consequences of the mistake and what happened after that.

There are many bad answers to this question. Claiming to never ever make any mistakes is a sign of a delusion. Telling a LONG story about how totally unfair it was that you got a low mark when the prof was clearly to blame and your mistake was not trying to get the prof fired right away is also a red flag. Telling a very personal story may also be wrong. Some personal stories may be ok if they might relate to work - say you overpromised something and from that learned never to overpromise, or you missed a personal deadline like the last day to shop before Mother's Day and you learned from that to plan things in advance.

It takes some skill to answer a slightly different question than you were asked, but if that's your plan, do that. Don't give a big "you suck" speech with 3 or 4 options that would be better than what the interviewer asked you, and then trail off after offering to answer one of them. Just reframe the question and answer the one you'd be willing to answer. If (and I would be astonished if this happened) the interviewer replied, "no, I mean a life mistake like choosing the wrong school, cheating on your lover, getting in a car accident, drinking too much and getting arrested, that kind of thing" you could certainly give them the speech about being personal and not related to web development. If. But a better first reaction is simply to answer the question you'd be willing to answer, and answer it well.

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When I interview someone, I take "talking back" as a major personality advantage. Most employers don't see what it's like for the employees, and are the best way to find problems in the company that higher up people never see. An employee who speaks up when he sees something he feels strongly against is highly valued IMO. But whether it's a good move overall varies, according to different corporate cultures. –  Muz Apr 12 at 2:32
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I had a fairly complex resume at a young age. So in in the midst of a conversation at one point a recruiter got kind of puzzled as to how old I was. She was surprised at putting together a few elements of my history and just said offhand "wait a minute, how old are you?" I smiled and said "Wellll... technically you're not allowed to ask me that. But I'll answer it anyway..." I got the job and she was quite helpful to me after. I think it's okay to challenge a question, especially an illegal one, but just don't be a jerk about it... just like you shouldn't be a jerk about anything else. –  HostileFork Apr 12 at 2:51
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I totally agree about not telling the interviewer they've asked a bad question - but since the OP obviously couldn't really understand what they really meant, maybe the more reliable approach is to just ask them to clarify? Probably a good approach in general, and in this case, presumably the interviewer isn't interested in your love life and you can quickly move on. (And if they are interested, well, you have bigger problems.) –  Jefromi Apr 12 at 5:33
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I would also suspect they put the word "life" in there just becasue a student could not be expected to have made many professional mistakes. They just wanted to know whather you ahve a filter on what is appropriate to say and whether you appear to have learned anything from a mistake. –  HLGEM Apr 17 at 20:09

In general, it's pretty safe to assume that any question asked in an interview has an implied context of items related to the job, that are consistent with general professional behavior, and that don't implicate a protected class. When someone asks "What is your greatest weakness?", they definitely don't want to hear answers about a candidate's romantic shortcomings. When someone asks "What is your greatest strength?", they don't want to hear about a candidate's religious strengths. A candidate can choose to introduce a bit of personal information in their answer if they can tie the answer to the job but it's generally best to do so cautiously to avoid alienating the interviewers or getting into things like membership in protected categories. It's potentially reasonable to say that your biggest mistake was, say, letting a beloved pet linger too long before having it euthanized so long as you tie that back to something that you learned that has applicability to the job-- the need to address things as they are not as you wish they were and the need to take action rather than being passive and hoping for the best. But it's safer to pick an example that is from an educational or professional arena to express the same basic idea.

These particular interviewers asking this particular question assuredly were not hoping for answers that involve deeply personal mistakes. If your greatest mistake really involved a story that began "I was totally wasted at this great fraternity party when...", the hope would be that your mental "professionally appropriateness" filter would kick in and move along to the second (or third or nth story) until you found something more appropriate. Potentially, in fact, part of the reason for asking the question could be to weed out candidates that haven't developed that particular filter and have a tendency to overshare regardless of the context.

As an aside, with regard to your comment about needing a minute to think, that's something that you should always be comfortable doing in an interview regardless of the question. It's very rare that an interviewer cares particularly whether you are able to answer a question immediately, they'd rather wait a minute if you need to organize your thoughts. Obviously, that can be annoying if taken to the extreme since if you're pausing for every question your interviewer will have to cut some questions that they'd like to ask for time purposes. But when an interviewer asks an interesting question, feel free to consider the answer before starting in.

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Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

You corrected the interviewer, without giving them a chance to fix the problem themselves. Given their reaction, I would indeed say that you probably blew the interview. Hopefully you've learned from this experience though.

When faced with a question I cannot to answer exactly as posed, perhaps because it's an inappropriate personal question, I choose one of two routes.

First I consider whether I can understand the underlying need, and fulfill that need with a slightly different response. In this case it's likely that they want to see if you accept that you'll make mistakes, that you own up to them, and that you fix them. Some people deny they ever made a mistake, or try to shuffle blame elsewhere, and this is often unacceptable. Many will simply limit the question to their professional life. It's still their life, and it's the only life the interviewer and business should concern itself about.

"When I was in charge of serial numbers, I became aware of an overlap in numbers that would have caused some products to go out with duplicate serial numbers. I first identified which products were affected, and whether they were still in the factory. They were shown as not, but I checked shipping, and they were still in their boxes ready to be shipped. I relabeled them, then I went back and analyzed the reason it happened. If I had been more attentive I would have not allocated a series of numbers badly, and I changed the procedures so this error couldn't happen again regardless of my, or anyone else's, attentiveness."

A second choice would be to examine the question in a non-confrontational way. While some may say it's impolite to answer a question with a question, it is actually a reasonable choice when you don't feel that you can answer the initial question. It is probably better than outright declaring that their question was terrible. Ask them a question that will give them an opportunity to reframe their question, and try to do it in a way that suggests you are asking for clarification, rather than accusing them, or refusing them.

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"What is your weakness/mistake" is pretty standard interviewing question. IMHO it cannot even be considered tricky question. They made you a favor by reminding you they want to hear how you deal with it - how you are capable of learning by overcoming adversity.

Not sure if your negativity ("bad question") was observable. Unlikely it will affect the results.

Regardless if you will get this job or not, spend some time preparing for next interviews in your life. Asking behavioral question is becoming more popular. There are many blogs about hiring and what questions are being asked. Read them, prepare good answer (which shows your capacity to learn and solve problems - that's what employers are looking for) so you avoid feeling tricked or trapped next time.

Related question: how should you respond to behavioral questions to which you have no good answers?

Answer is: do your research, and prepare honest answers.

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No, it's not too personal a question. You chose to interpret it as one. It would have probably been sufficient for you to answer it as if they had asked "What was your biggest mistake at school?" because they were not looking to gauge how "big" your biggest mistake was; they were seeking to examine your problem-solving skills and thought process.

Whether it cost you the job is anyone's guess. Even though you "kept a pretty friendly tone and said it like I was just trying to help make the question better", it could be perceived as a bit disrespectful to critique their methodology, particularly when they had a distinct purpose in mind for the question.

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It was a terrible question and completely recruiters fault. To suggest otherwise is pretty insane, IMO. –  Davor Apr 12 at 6:08
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@Davor You do realize that if you take out "life", you'd be left with a question which seems very similar to "what is your biggest weakness", which is one of the best-known interview questions. Whether the slight misphrasing was accidental or intentional (to see if you have a bit of logic and problem solving to figure out what was intended to be asked, and a bit of professionalism and communication skills to clarify appropriately), that surely can't make it 'terrible'. –  Dukeling Apr 12 at 14:48
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@Davor Referring to it as "insane" leads me to believe that you have scarcely little experience on either side of the table, but thank you for expressing your opinion. –  jonsca Apr 13 at 1:01
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@Davor And how exactly do you think that last comment makes you look? –  Jim Clay Apr 13 at 22:54

No, the question is not too personal.
But a real answer would be too personal.

The question is not intended to find out about your life in the first place, it's more about seeing you handle a question which you are not willing to answer.
And more generally to see you handle unexpected situations.

Not sure how the interviewer would interpret the result. Certainly not like "Did he give a correct answer or not".
But possibly not about the question at all!
Could be "Did he handle the awkward situation professionally? How did he get out of it? And what did we learn - positive and negative - during this time, about his soft skills and personality?"

"Can you think out of the box, when you were pushed you out of it?"

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I'd say it is a stupid question to ask but I suggest you to look at it from a different angel to make it easier for you to respond.

Think about it this way. There are always people in real life and work place who ask stupid questions. How do you deal with these people?

I believe the point is to keep your calm and deal with these situation professionally. Rather than trying to answer the question try to deal with the situation.

In this case as long as you respond to the interviewer by describing a reasonably challenging mistake you made and convince him/her on how you resolved it, it should be fine.

Make sure you don't go down the road of correcting the interviewer. That's a big NO NO!

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I did not downvote (can't anyway), but I was turned off by the "stupid question" talk. I have never asked an interviewee a question like that, but it seems to me it was rather effective, in that OP's response would have given me the information I needed to not hire him. –  Jim Clay Apr 13 at 22:58

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