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How to Ace the “What’s Your Biggest Weakness?” Interview Question

Career Advice |

A common interview question across industries is about strengths and weaknesses. Answering the part about your biggest strength is easy (for most), but a lot of people trip up on the other side of the question.

When you Google how to answer this question, there are a lot of mixed opinions, but they generally fall into one of three camps:

1. Spin a negative into a positive. “Sometimes I spend too much time checking my work, because I want to make sure it’s perfect.”

2. Deny having any weaknesses. This one is the least common and pretty obviously not the way to go.

3. Give an honest answer. “An area I’m trying to work on is public speaking. It’s not naturally something I’ve been able to master.”

[Read: Your Guide to Top Job Interview Questions and Answers]

I firmly believe in option three.  Answer the question honestly, without shooting yourself in the foot.

Why?

Well, to start off, giving a canned answer makes the person on the other end feel like they’re speaking to a robot. And any good interviewer knows this is the oldest trick in the book—and has probably heard anything you’ve managed to come up with about 100 times before; it comes off as the opposite of genuine. If the interviewer is experienced—and you should expect them to be—they’ll take the question a step further to see if your answer has any depth (and if it’s canned, it probably doesn’t). The follow-up may be, “Okay, so give me an example of a time when that impacted your work negatively.” If you don’t have a real example ready to back that up, guess what—you’re probably going to be sitting there racking your brain for another weakness and maybe even falling into pitfall number two…

Which is even worse. Being unable or unwilling to come up with anything at all only means one thing: You’re not self-aware. The truth is—and everyone knows this—no one is going to be good at every single thing they do. Constantly identifying areas you can work on and then taking steps to actually improve them makes you a better employee, coworker, friend, family member—you get the point. Very few people out there are going to want to sit next to someone every day who thinks they’re 100 percent perfect.

[Read: The Top 10 Most Interesting Interview Questions]

So let’s get to the point: Why should you answer the question honestly? A few reasons:

1. As explained above, giving an honest answer makes you come across as genuine, honest, thoughtful, and self-aware, all great qualities that interviewers are looking for.

2. It actually will enable you to be in a role that you can succeed in. The person on the other end knows what the company is looking for—overall, as well as for the specific job—and is trying to make sure you’re a good fit for both. If your biggest weakness genuinely is public speaking and you’re applying for a role that requires constantly presenting to large audiences, it’s probably better that they know that upfront, and it may be better that you don’t get that role. If that’s the case, why are you applying for it anyway?

[Learn: Tell Your Story, Ace the Interview]

How to Ace the “Weakness” Question

Give a real weakness and explain what steps you’ve taken to improve.

An answer like that shows off a really great quality that’s universally important to people, which is that you can adjust to different scenarios and learn new things. A few examples of solid answers:

“When I took my first internship at Company X, I realized that I struggled with public speaking and presenting. When I found out that this wasn’t my strong suit, I signed up for a class when I got back to school all about public speaking.  Honestly, it’s something I may always need to work on, but I’m really proud of the strides I’ve made so far.”

“When I started at my current role, there were lots of competing priorities throughout the day. I definitely had trouble balancing them and needed to become more organized. Now I use a task management app to keep track of the many requests and move them around as necessary. Though I won’t always get to every single thing on the list, I now make sure I communicate what I can and can’t get done which has really helped.”

At the end of the day, interviewers appreciate honesty and effort, and this is the best way to show off those great qualities while answering this question. It goes without saying to not give a weakness that’s a deal breaker—don’t tell your future employer you have no clue how to use Excel if it’s listed as a key requirement of the job.

Believe it or not, the canned answer approach can be seen as a deal breaker in itself, so be thoughtful and give an answer with some substance and honesty—it will go a long way.

How do you answer the “what’s your biggest weakness” question? Tell us in the comments!

This post originally appeared on www.prepary.com. For more articles on answering common interview questions, click here.

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7 Comments

what if i say less of work experience is my weakness as i have never work in real life but my strength is i have theoretical skill and knowledge about the work that i have gain or develop through my studies and ability to apply them.

All comments are welcome.

2y

I think a lot of people draw a blank when asked this question, because weakness is always viewed as a negative thing. If you choose to change that perspective and see it as a way to grow, then it may help you in answering the question.

2y

An open letter to all future job interviewers:

Dear Sir or Madam:

Thank you for inviting me down to your office to meet with you for this opportunity to work for your firm. In spite of the promised recovery that is always just around the corner, it’s really tough getting a job these days, and it’s really tough to get an interview. You waded through a mountain of resumes (résumés?), and out of that mountain you saw something in my resume that made it and me, by extension, stand out. Obviously, I am indebted to your keen powers of observation.

During the course of this interview you will ask me a lot of questions. Because I've been through this procedure before, I know that there are no innocuous questions, not even “How are you feeling?” or “Did you have a hard time finding the office?” My health will always be fine, even if I feel a cold coming on, and I will always say no problem finding the office, even if the building resembles an individual pin in a pincushion full of needles.

But if you are to ask me, “What is your greatest weakness,” I’m not sure you’ll love my answer. The reason for this is that I don’t love the question, and not merely because I don’t think there’s anything great about weakness. Of course, I will somehow resist the urge to grasp at my throat and in a weakened voice croak out “Kryptonite!” because, for some reason, no one seems to find this amusing, and even if they did, it would not help my efforts to secure employment.

I want to explore with you my basic problems with this question: 1) the question presumes that I have perfect objective knowledge of every faucet of myself, 2)and that knowing exactly what my faults are, that I would want to candidly discuss them with a person who could either return me to the workforce or keep me on unemployment.

Let’s talk about the first part. I think we all have a mental picture of who we are and what we can do. Often though, that mental image is flawed. I refer to these flaws as “delusions of competence.” As an example, recently I have been recording and listening to my own voice on tape. I know what I think I sound like in my head, the voice of pure reason and sophisticated intelligence. What comes out of the tape recorder is a nasal stammering Arnold Horshak voice with the cadence of Ed Koch. (Hey, maybe that’s my greatest weakness!) “Is that me?” I ask myself. Of course it is, and I can pick my out voice out of a recording, but I always have that feeling that somehow the recording is distorted, that I don’t really speak that slowly, that I don’t really have that voice. (In my dreams, I’m thin and have a full head of hair. The mirror is lying to me somehow. That person is not me, I swear.)

Now imagine me trying to make an objective judgment regarding some facet of my personality about which I don’t have any feedback to rely on, such as getting along with others in the workplace, or writing skills, or being intuitive or being good at math, or being detail oriented. I always imagine that I’m just great at all these things, some people just don’t see the genius in my overall plan, but that’s their greatest weakness, not mine. I honestly thought I’d have no trouble at all selling advertising space in the community newspaper, until I actually tried it and nobody wanted to even discuss the matter with me, I realized that I was missing some vital component of salesmanship in this one area, at least.

The second half of the equation is that I know, and you know that the question is a trap. You have 10 applicants and one position to fill and you are hoping to eliminate some of those applicants to make your life easier. The job application process is like Survivor, only shorter and with less arduous tests: And the interviewer is the only one who can vote you off the island, but he can vote you off for any reason or no reason. The goal is not so much to choose the best candidate as it is to eliminate the bad ones until only the good ones are left. And if I even knew that I had a fatal flaw, I’d never discuss it with you because money is the life blood of our financial existence, and I’m feeling a bit anemic right now.

I’m going to tell you, without lying, what you want to hear. Think about that: The successful candidates write a resume that covers up whatever flaws exist on their resume (I’m going without the accents, how’s that for daring?) and proceeds to an interview or interviews whose goal is to avoid saying anything wrong, and disclose as little about yourself as possible for fear of making a mistake, to game the interviewer by rehearsing an “elevator speech” and cleverly marketing themselves as the best possible candidate for the job. All well and good, but what happens when the real person with all his or her flaws and baggage shows up on the job and bumps into the reality of trying to live up to the lying by omission promises his mouth and word processor made? I haven’t done a whole lot of hiring myself, but I have bought products whose slick marketing promised that they could do things they couldn’t do, and believe me, I’ve talked about it to other people, in ways that were less than flattering.

I’m not going to insult your intelligence by trying to tell you that I’m a perfectionist or a workaholic because that is just too transparent to fool much of anyone, I think. It’s a clever little gambit, to try to pass off what is really a strength as a weakness, such as “Oh, I just love working so much that I can’t tear myself away from my desk, that’s what my weakness is.”

(As a side note, the word Workaholic has always puzzled me, because it seems a word coined by replacing the “Al “in alcoholism with work. In the dictionary, I’ve found that alcohol comes to us by way of Medieval Latin, from Arabic, al-kuhl, a word meaning the fine powder of antimony. So as far as I’m concerned it is not a very descriptive word for one that has an uncontrollable urge to continue working, it would be a better description for someone who works in the cosmetic industry. In its place, I suggest the replacement word “operormania.” Maybe my greatest weakness is that I’m bad at Latin conjugation?)

So I guess if asked I’ll say that my greatest weakness is that I don’t have much ability to learn a second language. What’s that, this job requires Spanish? Shall I invite the next candidate in?

Sincerely yours,

Rusty Nail

2y

I agree with the advice to answer the question regarding something that isn't going to be a large part of the position you are applying to. For me, Large Event Planning is very stressful, but as an Executive Assistant it's not something I have to do every day so that's usually what I focus the answer on.

3y
Amrita Samant

Such a great piece! This is really a tricky question to answer at interviews and most people state contradictory weaknesses after promoting their strengths.

3y
Maxie McCoy

Your greatest strength can often cast it's biggest shadow. Having a great understanding of where you're really strong can help you understand the weakness, too. *Self Awareness*

3y
Carly Heitlinger

This is definitely THE hardest part about interviews. It may seem hard to talk about strengths (hello, self-promotion issues), but weaknesses is tricky! Balancing honesty with not wanting to hurt yourself in the interview process is a challenge.

The advice here is really great!!!

(I also recommend asking people you've worked with before to highlight a couple of things for you!)

3y
The Prepary

Jaime is the Founder of The Prepary, an online resource providing honest and accessible job search advice based on her past experience in the recruiting world. She also works with job seekers one-on-one to help them land their dream job or internship. Prior to starting The Prepary, Jaime worked as a Recruiter in both the Fashion & Finance industries and got her BA in Psychology from NYU.