Find a job that works for you
When it comes to job interview questions, the classic “What are your greatest strengths?” is a softball. It’s an invitation to shine a spotlight on all the skills and experiences that make you a great candidate for the job. The curveball comes when you’re asked about weaknesses in a job interview.
“Tell me about your greatest weaknesses,” trips up many job interviewees, and it’s no wonder: How do you tell an interviewer about your shortcomings without sounding like you’d be hopeless on the job?
It’s tricky, but it can be done.
How to approach the weakness question
Ultimately, you want to discuss your weaknesses in a job interview in a way that helps you gain ground rather than lose it. Keep in mind that what hiring managers really want to know is how you handle adversity on the job.
To start, think about the limitations that have challenged you at work. It’s a good exercise to make a list of your known shortcomings, and one way to gather material is from past performance evaluations and notes from supervisors about areas for improvement.
You also want to make sure to research the employer and the open position. Thoroughly review the job posting before the interview so you don’t identify something as a deficiency that’s essential to the job. Reread the job description so you know what attributes and abilities are critical to the performance of the job. Those hard or soft skills shouldn’t be on your weakness list. Everything else is fair game. If you're working with a recruiter in your job search, ask for some help in preparing for this potentially awkward question.
Examples of weaknesses on the job
Do any of these weaknesses ring a bell? Note that these aren’t good choices for your answer if the job requires specific skills in these areas.
- Inexperience with specific software or a non-essential skill
- Tendency to take on too much responsibility
- Nervousness about public speaking
- Hesitancy about delegating tasks
- Discomfort taking big risks
- Impatience with bureaucracies
What to avoid in your answer
Your first reaction may be to say, “I have no weaknesses, and nothing will keep me from doing a great job.” But no one’s perfect, and hiring managers know that. If you respond to this question with an enthusiastic denial, the interviewer will probably write you off as someone with a lack of self-awareness or someone who is overconfident or unable to understand and learn from their mistakes.
Hiring managers are also wise to responses that attempt to frame a positive trait as weaknesses in a job interview. Classic examples include “I’m a perfectionist,” “I’m competitive,” and “I just work too hard.” Interviewers are on to these stock answers, but they can still be effective if you add details relevant to the job to show you’ve put real thought into it.
For instance, you could say something like, “I hold myself to very high standards and sometimes put too much pressure on myself. I’ve learned to recognize when I’m starting to do this, such as spending a little too much time on bigger projects like quarterly reports, and I’m usually able to keep myself in check.”
Put your weaknesses in a positive light
Once you’ve established your weakness, craft a response to put it in the most positive light. How do you do that? Here are three suggestions:
- Emphasize the positive, avoiding negative words like failure or inept.
- Talk about how you’ve transformed your weakness into a strength.
- Show how you recognize where you need to improve and take steps to better yourself.
What are ways you can improve yourself to address a weakness?
- Take a class or get training.
- Discover tools, such as apps, to track your time, schedule breaks or collaborate more smoothly.
- Work with a mentor.
- Engage in volunteer work to build a skill.
- Join professional groups or industry associations.
Sample responses to ‘What are your weaknesses?’
The question gives you the opportunity to set yourself apart. How so? You can show the hiring manager you recognize the areas where you need to upgrade yourself and how you're taking 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 took classes on project management and time management. I learned how to organize my days and attack bigger projects in manageable chunks. Now, I put together a plan as soon as I get a new assignment, and I often beat my deadlines.”
Another example illustrates how to use the requirements of the job to drive your answer. Let’s say you’re not a strong writer, and you’re applying for a job as a graphic designer. The job description emphasizes the need for production design skills and specific software experience but doesn’t mention anything about content creation. In this scenario, you could answer the question about weaknesses in an interview like this:
- “I’ve always been on the design side of things and haven’t had much experience with content development, so I’d say that’s a weakness for me. However, I’m a quick learner, and I believe I could improve my writing skills if I ever needed to for my job.”
Alternatively, if you’re applying for a position as a financial analyst and one of the requirements of the job is to give regular reports to upper management, you won’t want to emphasize to the hiring manager that you struggle with communication issues.
Why is the weakness question important?
Like most common job 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 employer how you can learn from constructive criticism, how you’re willing to make changes when you face challenges, and how you can pick yourself up and dust yourself off when you falter. Any employer would count those things as strengths.