Your Most Significant Accomplishment Essay

Interview Questions: What Were Your Biggest Successes and Failures?

What have you accomplished at work? What are you proudest of – and not so proud of? During a job interview, your potential employer will want to know what you have accomplished, and what you have not, in your current or last position.

A question about your accomplishments allows an employer to learn more about your work ethic, and your previous successes. A question about your failures shows an employer how you work through difficulties in the workplace.

Read below for tips for answering interview questions about both your accomplishments and failures, as well as sample answers for each type of question.

How to Answer Interview Questions About Your Accomplishments

When answering a question about your accomplishments, you don’t want to come across as arrogant, but you do want to share your successes. Take the time to explain your most important accomplishments at work.

Make a connection. The best way to respond is to give an example of something you accomplished that is directly related to the job that you are interviewing for. Review the job posting. Make a list of job qualifications and skills that match what you’ve included in your resume. Then, think of examples of accomplishments that demonstrate that you have these skills and qualifications.

This kind of answer will show that you have what it takes to achieve similar successes in the job you’re applying for.

Share examples. When you're asked about your accomplishments, give a specific example of what you did in your last position. That example should correlate closely with the job requirements listed in the posting. Be sure to provide context about the example – for example, what the task was, and what specific accomplishment you achieved.

Come to the interview with a few specific examples in mind. This will help you feel prepared for the interview.

Focus on adding value. When choosing an example of an accomplishment, pick something you accomplished that helped the company you worked for, and even added value to the company. For example, perhaps you reduced the budget for a project, or made a task more efficient. Focus on the company, rather than yourself. This will show the employer that you will be an asset to their organization.

How to Answer Questions About Failure

When answering a question about past failures at work, you want to be honest, but you also don’t want to demonstrate that you are incapable of handling the job.

Be honest. If you haven't failed at anything, say so. However, almost all of us have struggled with something at work at one time or another. You want to make sure your answer is honest, but also does not cost you the job.

Pick a minor example. If you can think of an example, be sure that it's a minor one. Do not pick an example of a time you failed at something that led to a disaster for the company. Also, do not pick an example that is directly related to the job you’re applying for. For example, if you are applying for a job in customer service, do not describe a time that you had a really negative encounter with a client.

Turn it into a positive. After describing the specific failure, explain how you learned from it and/or solved the problem. If you can share an example that turned out well in the end, despite some glitches along the way, use that. This way you won't leave the interviewer with the impression that you have failed. Rather, you’ll show how you can turn a difficult situation around.

For example, if you were working on a project that was behind deadline, explain to the interviewer how you adjusted the workload and the timeline to get back on track and ahead of schedule.

You can also discuss what you did to ensure the mistake wouldn't happen again in the future. For example, if you failed to successfully lead a team project, perhaps mention how you then worked closely with a mentor to develop your management skills and had a successful team project the next time.

This will demonstrate that you have learned from your mistakes, and have actually developed new skills.

Don’t blame others. Try to keep it positive, and don't blame others for what went wrong. Deflecting blame on someone else isn't going to make the best impression. Employers don’t want to hear that someone else is to blame for your problems.

On the same note, don’t make excuses for what went wrong. Instead, share your solutions for preventing a fail the next time around. This will show that you’re proactive, flexible and willing to move forward even when things aren’t going as planned.

Sample Answers

“What was your biggest accomplishment at work?”

  • One of my greatest accomplishments at my current job has been leading the installation and implementation of a new software program in the office. As office manager, I quickly learned the software program before it was installed, and then led a seminar to instruct all employees how to use it. Within five days, everyone felt comfortable and confident using it. My employers said this was the smoothest technological transition we have ever had at work. I know I can bring this technological knowledge and leadership ability to your office as well.
  • Last year, I made revisions to my school’s sixth-grade curriculum, particularly to the literacy curriculum. At the end of the year, we saw a 20-percent improvement in students’ literacy test scores. My ability to achieve success among students is part of why I love curriculum development.

“What was your biggest failure at work?”

  • When I first began my job over five years ago, I struggled to meet a deadline for a multi-part project. After that, I developed a new strategy for managing my time. After implementing this new strategy, I have been on time or ahead of time for every project, both individual and team projects. I think this ability to keep a group on task will make me a strong team leader in your office.
  • A cash register once broke when I had a long line of customers ahead of me. I thought I was going to have a big problem on my hands. Instead, I kept my cool and reorganized the line of customers so they went to different employees, while I quickly fixed the register. My ability to think on my feet and not become overwhelmed by stress has helped me win multiple “employee of the month” awards.
The following essay was submitted to the Harvard MBA program by our client. The client was accepted to the program.

Saving Lives

Four years of intense training led to this moment, and I knew what to do without thinking. As squad commander in the elite Air Force Commando Unit, I served my country during a war. I received notice that a platoon of 50 soldiers was under heavy attack, and my squad had to save them.

I had ten minutes to process the situation, devise a plan, assign tasks, communicate status to superiors, and make life-and-death decisions. We had exactly sixty seconds to execute the mission with complete precision. Bullets sailing overhead, my mind was completely focused on leading my brave men and saving the trapped soldiers.

I felt the full weight of the situation only after all soldiers were safe and able to return home to their families.

As a squad leader for three years, I often had to get my men out of dangerous situations. Planning a mission to save so many lives during wartime made this experience the most substantial in my military service.

Creating Synergy

Flying to Microsoft Headquarters, I couldn’t believe my luck! Selected as lead developer on the Microsoft Unified Communications Sync Server project, I convinced my manager to permit me to initiate collaboration with our American counterparts and persuaded a senior colleague in Washington that working with us would benefit his product.

When I first got the assignment, I knew that working with Americans could add significant insight to our development. A history of failed collaborations by senior marketing managers made my managers reluctant to approve the plan of a junior engineer like me. Undeterred, I reached across two continents and ten Microsoft ranks and convinced a senior software architect in Redmond that working with us would develop their product while stabilizing ours. Everyone finally agreed, and I went to lead the collaboration in December 2007.

In Redmond, I established relationships transcending this project, aligning both teams’ development processes and paving the way for future joint ventures.

This accomplishment gave me international experience and exposure to senior colleagues at an early stage in my career. That the partnership benefited both people and products makes it my most substantial contribution in a professional situation.

Validating My Vision

Leading a software development team to overcome obstacles and build a floral service website is an accomplishment that confirmed that creating state-of-the-art consumer products was what I wanted to do with my life.

After a month of work on our final computer science project at the University, we discovered we were going in the wrong direction. We were frustrated, but nothing gets me going like a challenge. I had a plan, and I knew I had to lead by example to motivate the group. I was always the first one in the lab and never the first to leave. I constantly improved my own task, the graphical user interface, demonstrating that I required the same commitment from myself I asked of them. Each time we met, I focused on one of the guys with a smile on his face and leveraged the opportunity by making him an ally to help me get the others motivated. I even stressed the fact that this project gave us experience with new technology that would be very beneficial in upcoming job interviews.

My team chose me to present the final project. We got a perfect score, but I received something even more substantial: a vision of my professional future.

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