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HOW TO ANSWER: What are your weaknesses?

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HOW TO ANSWER: What are your weaknesses?

Bad job interview advice is everywhere and you’ve probably heard this one:

NEVER admit to a weakness, just find a positive and try to frame it as a weakness. So when your interviewer asks you to name a professional weakness, you go with “I work too hard” or “I care too much” or “I’m just so awesome that it can be distracting to others.”

This is a common mistake, mostly because the advice seems to make sense. Why would you ever want to mention a weakness in a job interview? You want them to think you’re perfect in every way.

The problem with this approach is that most interviewers aren’t idiots. They will see this kind of answer for what it probably is — an attempt to trick them, or perhaps even hide something.

For example, I recently interviewed a candidate on behalf of a corporate client. His first answer to the weakness question: “I’m a workaholic.” When I asked how this had been a weakness for him, he stumbled and fumbled.

When I asked a follow-up question about another weakness, in an attempt to help him get past the bad interview advice and provide a more genuine answer, he couldn’t or wouldn’t name one. Although he was qualified for the job and answered many other questions well, he was not selected for the position, partly because the hiring managers felt he didn’t seem sincere.

Many interviewers ask the weakness question — in all industries, at all levels. They ask it because they want to get a sense of the real you. They know that every candidate comes with strengths and weaknesses and they want to know yours.

They also want to try to get past that smiley interview facade and understand what you’d really be like to work with if they hired you.  The way you respond to an uncomfortable question can say a lot about your personality and communication skills.

Your interviewer is also probing for reasons NOT to hire you. Are you hiding something? Are you being honest about your qualifications? Every hire is a risk and it’s part of your interviewer’s job to assess the risks involved in bringing you on board.

Naturally, as a candidate, you don’t want to volunteer any reasons to pass you over and hire someone else. That’s why the weakness question is so challenging. You must find a balance — you must show that you are candid and genuine without screwing up and saying something that will freak your interviewer out and ruin your chances.

So while you’re preparing for your job interviews, it’s important to take the time to think about how you will approach the dreaded weakness question.

Here are some tips to help you handle it with finesse:

1. Choose a real weakness…

…but not one that could be viewed as a potential dealbreaker for the job at hand. Think about the job that you’re interviewing for and the skills and expertise emphasized in the job description.

If “writing skills” are mentioned eight times in three paragraphs, avoid confessing that you hate writing and have always been terrible at it (and perhaps rethink if this is the job for you). Yes, this means that you must think about the weakness question separately for every interview opportunity, so it may be a good idea to have a few to choose from.

In all cases, avoid weaknesses that could raise concerns about your motivation, reliability, basic people skills, or sanity. For example, it may be true that you have trouble waking up early, but now is not the time to chat about it.  You’ll just make your interviewer wonder if you’ll show up on time. Even worse, don’t confess that you hate working with idiots (big hint of an attitude problem) or that you hear voices during the full moon (this hopefully does not require explanation).

Pick a skill that is not central to the job, then make sure you describe the weakness in a way that makes it clear that it’s a minor challenge and NOT a constant and futile struggle.

For example, if the position at hand doesn’t require a lot of public speaking, it’s fine to say that you don’t have much experience with public speaking. Just be sure to position it as an area for improvement and not a fatal flaw.

This is okay: “I don’t have a lot of experience speaking in front of a large group and I still get a bit nervous when asked to present.”

This is not so great: “I am petrified of speaking in front of people. I totally freeze up or I start twitching and speaking gibberish. It is NOT pretty. I think that’s why I got fired from my last job.”


2. Describe how you are already working to improve.

Everybody has weaknesses. Good candidates are self-aware enough to know their weaknesses — and proactive enough to find ways to address them.  So for the example above, you might confess that you have little experience in public speaking and then go on to say:

“Although my current job doesn’t require public speaking, I know it’s an important job skill, so I recently started attending Toastmasters meetings and I am already starting to feel much more comfortable speaking in front of a group.”

Other ways you may be working on your weakness: taking a class, reading books, volunteering for projects, getting advice/feedback from a mentor, doing volunteer work.


3. Move on!

Once you have addressed your weakness and how you’re working on it, wrap it up. Don’t give in to the temptation to keep talking to fill the awkward silence. State your weakness concisely and end on a positive note by describing those positive steps you’re taking to better yourself. Then move on to discussing your strengths and accomplishments.

Let’s face it, even if you follow our advice, the weakness question can be awkward. You don’t want to drag it out, apologize, or offer endless excuses or explanations. Whatever you do, don’t volunteer additional weaknesses. Keep it short and keep the interview moving.

If you follow this advice, you can avoid making a mess out of the weakness question during your next job interview. Embrace your weakness and you’ll make a much stronger impression.

Here is one of our Big Interview examples answers:

NOTE TO READERS: When have updated this article with information, sample answers and more resources. You can read the updated article here: Answering “What Is Your Greatest Weakness?

About the Author

Pamela Skillings is co-founder of Big Interview. As an interview coach, she has helped her clients land dream jobs at companies including Google, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan Chase.She also has more than 15 years of experience training and advising managers at organizations from American Express to the City of New York.She is an adjunct professor at New York University and an instructor at the American Management Association.

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