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When it comes to job interview questions, the classic “What are your greatest strengths?” is a gentle pitch. It’s an invitation to shine a spotlight on all the skills and experiences that make you a good fit for the job.

By contrast, its typical companion question, “What are your weaknesses,” is a high-speed curveball.

It trips up many job candidates - How do you tell an interviewer about the things you do badly without making them think you’d be hopeless on the job?

It’s certainly tricky, but it can be done.

Related: Common interview questions and how to answer them

To answer this interview question well, you first have to know what your weaknesses are. Then, you have to craft a response that puts those weaknesses in the best possible light.

How to prepare your interview response

No one’s perfect, and hiring managers know that.

If you respond to this question with an enthusiastic “I have no weaknesses and nothing will keep me from doing a great job,” the interviewer will probably write you off as overconfident and unable to understand and learn from your mistakes.

That’s why it’s important to respond to this interview question honestly, with a real limitation that’s challenged you at work.

  • So, before you start practicing your answer, review your past performance review evaluations — chances are they include notes from your supervisor about areas for improvement.
  • Stick to work-related weaknesses. Hiring managers aren’t interested in the challenges you deal with in your personal life; they really want to know how you handle adversity on the job.
  • Make sure to thoroughly review the job posting before the interview so you don’t identify something that’s essential to the job as your weakness.

For example, if you’re applying for a position as a financial analyst, and one of the requirements is to give regular reports to upper management, don’t tell the hiring manager that you struggle with presentations.

Related: Behavioural interview questions to prepare for

Here are three effective ways to frame your response to this interview question:

1. Talk about a weakness you’ve transformed into a strength.

This is probably the best way to approach the question, as it gives you an opportunity to show the hiring manager that you can not only recognise the areas where you need to improve but also take steps to address them.

Here’s a sample answer that takes this approach:

“Although I always met my deadlines, I used to have a problem with procrastination, and I’d end up working really long days as a deadline approached. I decided that I needed to deal with the issue, so I enrolled in a class on time management. I learned how to organise my days and attack an assignment in manageable chunks. Now, I put together a plan as soon as I get a new assignment, and I often beat my deadlines.”

2. Pick a skill that’s not essential to the position.

You’ve re-read the job description, and you know which skills to avoid citing if you're asked "What are your weaknesses?"

Related: Top 7 interview questions to ask

That means you also know which attributes and abilities aren’t critical to the performance of the job — and you can cite one of those skills as a weakness without losing ground with the hiring manager.

For instance, if you’re applying for a job as a graphic designer, there’s a good chance you won’t be involved in the financial side of the company’s or department’s operations. That means you can answer the question like this: “I’ve always been on the creative side of things, so I haven’t had much experience working with finance or budgets, so I’d say that’s a weakness for me. However, I’m a quick learner, and I believe I could pick up the basics of budgeting if I ever needed to for my job.”

3. Try a spin on the ‘classic response.’

Hiring managers these days have already heard responses that attempt to frame a positive trait as a weakness.

Related: How to read body language in an interview

Classic examples include “I’m a perfectionist” and “I work too hard.” Interviewers are on to these common answers, so be more creative by adding details relevant to the job to show you’ve put real thought into it.

For example, you could say something like “I hold myself to very high standards and sometimes put too much pressure on myself. I’ve learned to recognise when I’m starting to do this, such as spending a little too much time on bigger projects like quarterly reports, and I’m able to keep myself in check.”

Why is the weakness question important?

As with every job interview question, knowing and preparing what to say in a job interview before you walk through the door can make all the difference.

Related: Second interview questions to expect

Like most interview questions, “What are your weaknesses” can be challenging to answer.

But it’s not just an obstacle to clear or a pitfall to avoid: It’s an opportunity to show the hiring manager that you can learn from constructive criticism, that you’re willing to make changes when you face challenges, and that you can pick yourself up and dust yourself off when you fail.

And any employer would count those things as strengths.