A favorite interview question among hiring managers asks you to tell your serious mistakes and expose your weaknesses. “Tell me about a time you made a costly mistake?” or “What is your biggest weakness?” (Check out some variations: questions 14, 17 and 18 here). These questions provide a great opportunity to demonstrate your ability to mature from your experience, take responsibility, lead, work with honesty and integrity, and communicate well about uncomfortable subjects. But not all mistakes are created equal. Here is how to deal with the difficult “mistake” question.

In general, you need to think up a mistake you  made, express it concisely, and talk about what you did to correct the mistake and the overall lesson you learned. The best response then mentions a similar example showing that you did not make the same mistake twice. But what mistake should you choose to talk about? This is the more difficult part.

The mistakes we make

Suppose you plan a key event for your club—a dinner with a major speaker. You plan for fifty guests and only fifteen show up, with the resulting great embarrassment and waste of money. Now how you frame this mistake can vary, and the honesty of your interpretation can vary too. If the event has been well-attended for ten previous years, and there was little reason to think this year would be any different, then it is an excused mistake. Don’t use excused mistakes as your example, because they are too weak. No hirer cares to hear how something bad happened in something in which you were involved, but that, really, you weren’t to blame. Unfortunately, one tendency of interviewees is to try to rationalize all their “mistakes” into this category.

Suppose instead you failed to discover a competing event posted two weeks earlier. Here you are more culpable for the mistake. If you knew about the competing event, but other obligations made you too preoccupied to deal with it effectively, then again you have a mistake to explain. These are the kinds of mistakes to talk about. Hiring managers do not want to hear you rationalize all your mistakes, evade responsibility, or point out your pernicious flaws. They want to hear how an otherwise competent worker took responsibility for a genuine mistake and matured in the process. Sometimes the mistake can even be enormous, so long as you dealt with it in an impressive way. Tell them about those times, and hirers get a great glimpse into your prospects as a capable and productive worker in their organization. On the other hand, if you present an enormous mistake poorly or expose an incorrigible character flaw–this is too strong. You want to be Goldilocks and present the mistake that is just right.

A good mistake

One manager told me the answer he would give to a “mistake” question. He has a position in public relations where the communications he and his office issue must be clear, accurate, and exceptionally well-written. Every piece of writing may be scrutinized carefully by its recipient, and any error reflects poorly on his organization. (Hint: he’s in politics.) Early in his career, he drafted a letter for public release and handed it off to his superior, who pointed out a typo and told him to be more careful. One week later, he did it again—another typo. He was reprimanded. Another week went by, and he turned in yet another flawed document. This time, his boss had a serious talk with him: a boss’s time is too valuable to spend on proofreading his work for typos. But more importantly, there was a lack of sensitivity to the importance of his work, to the gravity and seriousness with which any error reflects on his organization if it gets into public view.

The realization that his work had this importance led to a refined sensibility. It was something he should have already known—an unexcused failure to understand his job—yet he needed to make this mistake several times before learning the lesson. But the goodwill of his boss gave him the chance to learn, and he has been extremely successful since then. This is a mistake worth talking about, and one hirers would admire you for discussing.

–James Jeffries

Filming on Vocation Series: President White

In the Filming on Vocation series, members of our Wabash campus community offer their insights and advice in an interview with Career Services. We focus on their work, their professional development, and on their general advice for Wabash men. We post the interview, a synopsis, and a transcript with highlights.


We sat down with Patrick White to discuss his work as campus president. Hear his take on the work, on the values and skills necessary for the job, and how you can grow personally and professionally by being confident and remaining open to opportunities as they present themselves.

Transcript with Highlights:

James Jeffries: President White, thank you very much for meeting with Career Services.

President White: My pleasure.

James Jeffries: You have a particularly interesting job, and of course a very high profile job that we see in front of us all the time. But we don’t see everything that goes on behind the scenes; we don’t see what it took to get to your position. We don’t see the kinds of things that frustrate you sometimes, or really bring you alive to the position.  So we would like to talk to you a little bit about those kinds of things, and also what advice you really have for students who are looking into their futures. So first off could you just describe your work as a president, and what do you see as your major responsibilities.

President White: Well the interesting thing is that, why should I be laughing when I get asked that question in part because a president, particularly the president of a small college, covers an entire spectrum of activities. If you’re president of a large university you’re pretty much the head of a corporate structure, like a large company. At a small college you’re connected to students, you’re connected to faculty; you’re connected to alumni. Most people think it’s about raising money that it’s about a fundraising job. My friends who are not in the business say well Pat you must be raising money all the time.” That’s an important part of it; you have to be out there raising money and friends. But a lot of it is really running the college, with a collaboration of my direct reports, the deans and the CFO, and everybody else at the institution. So there are a lot of questions and problems and issues that come right to the president at a small college like Wabash. And that’s both a delight and would drive some people crazy.

James Jeffries: Okay so, of course you made the transition from being a professor of English, right? Into these administrative roles, and eventually into this presidency. What was the biggest surprise?

President White: I think the biggest surprise was how much you don’t have control over. One of the beautiful things about being a professor is essentially in your class you have a lot of control. I mean, students obviously shape that class, but in a large degree as a professor you have control over what happens that particular day. You set up the syllabus. In my job there is less control. One of the reasons I got into the administrative side of things, was at the same time was at the same time; you had an opportunity to influence an entire institution, or have some effect on an entire institution. And that’s very exciting, but it’s very different. It’s a question of scale. One is very focused, student centered, the other is the entire institution. Whether you’re a dean or a college president.

James Jeffries: So if you were to key in on three or four of the most vital skills for your work, what would they be and how did you go about developing them?

President White: That’s a good question. I think you have to have patience; you have to have an ability to imagine the other. That’s essentially a rhetorical position, you have to think, what is the audience going to think about? What questions people are going to have? That’s very very important. So patience, the ability to imagine. Imagine not only an audience, but also imagine solutions to the problems. And then to gain the collaboration of other people. So there is a collaborative skill that is very important in being in either being a president or a dean. Because there is very little, that one can do alone in those positions, you have to, especially small colleges; there are not a lot of resources, and you have to find people who will be able to collaborate with you and share your vision, and share your excitement. So the fourth thing I would say that you have to be able to inspire people to get excited. Not only about what you want to do, that’s kind of a good cheerleading aspect that I think all presidents should be good at, but they have to be excited about what they are doing so that they feel that their work is valuable. It’s very important.

James Jeffries: So opening this up a little bit, of course you come in contact with a lot of students who are going in all kinds of different directions. What do you say to the student who hasn’t figured it out yet? Who doesn’t know what they want to do.

President White: Be patient and recognize that they may have figured out what they want to do, they just haven’t figured out how they are going to get paid for it. And I think that is something that they should not sell themselves short about, we have a number of students as you know, at Wabash who are majoring in what they are passionate about, interested in, and the job will come, the position will come. But they have to begin to think about themselves as marketing, the skills, the passions and the habit of thought and inspiration for their thought that they have. They also have to recognize that a lot of people, they think that everybody can do what they can do. That’s not the case. Many of our students at Wabash have passions and energies and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, to quote the Superman of the 1950’s. And I think that they have to begin recognize that and they see that when they are all out in the market place, as I think you know.

James Jeffries: Okay, well let’s close with some influences, what would you point to as an influential person to look at, a model, a great book, great movie, something that you think students could get a lot from.

President White: I think for me it’s simply to be awake to the possibilities that they see around you. And don’t say oh I could never do that. Say I could do that position, I could do that work. I say to students all the time they might be president one day, if not here then somewhere else. I mean the first person who told me Pat you’d make a great dean I said are you out of your mind? Who would want to do that? When they said Pat why don’t you apply for the presidency at Wabash I said are you crazy. I’m not going to be able to that work. I think don’t sell yourself short. And I would simply say look at the movies and the books and continue to imagine yourself in the roles that inspire you.

Why Plastics?

What’s in a name?

I can imagine furrowed brows in response to a career services blog named after those pliable polymers that make up so many of our daily objects. A blog called plastics is in need of some explanation. But actually the word plastic has a much older signification. It once referred to an art form alongside painting and architecture, one of sculpting figures from pliable materials. To engage in plasticke was to bring form and purpose to something natively full of possibility.

As an emblem for what we offer at Wabash College Career Services, plastics is as apt as any. We are, after all, a part of a liberal arts institution, and we are guided by the same mission to help sculpt young men who think, lead, act, and live as free gentlemen. We help Wabash men imagine, construct, and enact the plans that bring their education and aspiration into contact with the world outside of Wabash, with their futures.

Why So Worried?

So I can’t resist another reference. In the 1967 film The Graduate, we see a young college graduate intensely worried about his future.  Just watch this. Then go watch the film.

If “plastics” wasn’t the word Ben wanted to hear, this doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right word for him. Ben gets the point that, ultimately, his life is what he makes of it and what he carves out from his possibilities. This is in part why he is so worried about his future. But what he seems to miss is the importance of building relationships that help him along the way.

Career Services is not a silver bullet—there is no silver bullet—but at a small liberal arts college, we are a potent touchstone for students and alumni who want to make the most of themselves by building a relationship with us.

This blog will run the gamut of career services. It spans from the art of seeing possibilities and making plans to that part of an art which is a science—writing a resume, polishing a cover letter, finding funding for an internship, and on and on. At once practical and educational, Plastics is here to help you make your future.

–James Jeffries