How do you answer the interview question,
"What's your Greatest Weakness?"

what are your weaknesses blog.jpgTackling the Toughest Question First

Three Ways to Answer the Interview Question "What's Your Greatest Weakness?" Some interviewers may change the wording a bit, such as asking about whether there's anything you feel that you need to improve, or the hardest part of your last job, but however they choose to word the question, the bottom line is figuring out how to answer without causing them to drop you from consideration. Who wants to share their worst traits with someone they're trying to impress? And yet, this is one question you should definitely be prepared to answer without coming across as stumped or evasive. Interviewers ask this question because they want to know whether you're self-aware of your own limitations, honest, a reasonably good fit for the job, and capable of improving when necessary.

Tried-and-true, but not terribly authentic:

You may have heard the classic advice to answer this question with a positive in disguise. "I'm a perfectionist (who will never make a mistake at work)." "I tend to be a work-a-holic (who will put in extra unpaid hours at this salaried job)."

Unfortunately, while that advice may have been clever the first time someone discovered how to turn around the negativity of this question, your interviewer has probably heard these kinds of rehearsed answers so many times, they no longer have any meaning. Rather than being impressed, your interviewer is more likely thinking, "Do you even know what the real downside is to perfectionism? Is your "work-a-holic" tendency going to magically disappear the first time I ask you to work 45hrs?

If you have a unique weakness that you can paint in a positive light, such as telling the interviewer that being legally blind has taught you to listen very closely, in a job that requires excellent auditory skills, you might cautiously consider this strategy. But for most people, you'll make a far better impression by choosing one of the strategies below.

Remember: Everyone has weaknesses. Be positive, but failing to admit a real weakness could come across as dishonest or arrogant.

Personal weaknesses that you work hard to overcome:

At first, this strategy doesn't sound too different than the first one...pick a weakness and find something positive about it. The key, however, is that you're not picking a pseudo-weakness from a list of canned responses. You're picking a real weakness of your own, and the positive aspect is how you've successfully worked to compensate for that weakness.

For inspiration, you may want to try a personal weakness that your interviewer is already likely to come across through personality testing, calling your references, or just observing you. Once you've identified an obvious weakness,think about what you've done to minimize its effects on you and your job.


---Is your personality type known for never arriving on time? You probably learned quickly not to be the last one in place for roll call during boot camp. What strategies do you still practice to make sure that you are reliably punctual, such as laying out everything you need to be prepared the night before and setting alarms on your cell phone with extra time allotted?

---Did your last boss kindly (or not so kindly) suggest that you find a job that didn't require driving a company vehicle through rush hour, after your second fender-bender on the job? Perhaps you followed up with a defensive driving course to become a better driver. Has your record improved due to your increased awareness? Did you wisely heed that advice to seek out a job where that weakness will be mostly irrelevant?

---Are you tapping your fingers on the desk as you read this, and likely to find yourself fidgeting with nervous energy at the interview if you aren't careful to hold yourself at attention? Now is a good time to express your enthusiasm for channeling your energy into getting your work done, particularly if this job contains physical tasks that other candidates may not enjoy. Do you have an after-work outlet for your energy? Go ahead and mention such a hobby as an example of being able to compartmentalize your time, and to make yourself more human.

You may find it helpful to work backwards when formulating an answer for this strategy, by asking yourself what you've spent the most time working to improve on since you started your career. If you have a great story of your perseverance and dedication to improving yourself, what weakness did that correct? In what ways are you still working on it? You may choose to mention the positives of your flaw if you carefully acknowledge the real downsides--former procrastinators might be excellent at handling last-minute changes and rushed deadlines in high-stress environments, but only if they've learned how to force themselves to start early enough to be the ones managing emergencies rather than creating them.

Remember: Your future boss wants to know that if a personal flaw interferes with your work, you'll be responsive to constructive criticism and capable of making changes for the better. Highlight the ways in which you are dedicated to overcoming your weaknesses, and your successes thus far.

Choosing a work-related weakness that can be remedied:

If discussing your least favorite traits seems too personal, you may have an easier time discussing the ways in which you are perhaps less qualified than you would like to be, or even fail to meet one of the minimum qualifications listed in the original job posting. If you've made it as far as the interview stage with a work-related weakness, chances are the interviewer has already noted any obvious lack and is keeping an open mind due to your other qualifications. Now is a good time to formulate a proactive response as to how you would improve this deficiency, rather than finding yourself on the defensive later in the interview. Don't neglect preparing a more personal answer in case the interviewer presses for one, but consider using this strategy to keep the discussion focused on work-related tasks. Even if you are fully qualified, perhaps you can express your enthusiasm for the area in which you look forward to gaining the most new experience at this job.

You might, for example, excel at the majority of the tasks required but lack a skill mentioned in the job posting or have minimal experience in that skill. Describing your relative weakness in that skill gives you a chance to contrast it with the other skills in which you are strong. Do you have general talent with a specific lack, such as good computer skills in everything but the specific program mentioned? For something easily quantifiable, you may want to mention how long it took you to learn similar items. Have you already started to familiarize yourself with the area in which you are weak or inexperienced? To what extent? Do you have resources identified/on hand in order to study it more thoroughly between now and your start date? Have you ever had a similar experience in which you learned a new skill on the job? Filling in these types of details helps the interviewer develop a realistic picture as to whether you'll be able to do the job while getting up to speed, rather than worrying that you might be in over your head if hired. Do your best to demonstrate that you are willing and able to learn the skills necessary to do the job well, and able to compensate in the meanwhile by using your strengths.

Perhaps you already have the skills necessary to do the job, but are simply weak on paper. You may lack a particular certification, but have already researched or filed the paperwork necessary to obtain it. You may be working on a higher degree part-time for a field that requires one, or have technical training from the military in lieu of the college experience that the interviewer is used to seeing from civilians. Be honest with the interviewer about the ways in which your strengths are not adequately reflected on paper, and what you're doing to improve that, or in what ways you hope that your current skill set will enable you to do the job without these formal prerequisites.

Remember: Even in a tight job market, perfect candidates are rare. Everyone has to start somewhere in order to gain experience. If you have confidence in your ability to do the job and enthusiasm about learning new skills, your interviewer may prefer to give you a chance to prove yourself instead of trusting someone who won't describe themselves accurately.

Don't be afraid of the Weakness Question. Take some time to reflect upon a few weaknesses that genuinely describe yourself, using the strategies above to help you develop your possible answers. Decide which weakness is the easiest to discuss humbly, without coming across too arrogantly nor too harshly. You don't have to convince the interviewer that you're a terrible person! The main goal is still to promote your strengths. You do, however, need to be human. That may be the very strength that makes you stand out enough to get the job in this imperfect, often insincere world.

By Theresa Emms

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