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Interviews: What's Your Greatest Weakness?

How to answer everyone's least favorite interview question

By Jennifer Burns

The interview is going well. You researched, practiced and prepared. Your suit was dry-cleaned, shoes polished, and you even made it through all the traffic lights on green. You aced the small talk, flew through the resume questions, and now you’re sitting pretty, waiting for the wrap-up and the handshake. Until. The moment you’ve been dreading finally arrives. The employer leans forward and asks: “What is your greatest weakness?”

There are few interview questions that fill job seekers with as much dread as the “weakness” question. How can you handle such a difficult challenge? No matter how confident you feel, that one tricky question can throw your entire interview off-course. You want to sound genuine and self-aware, but not jeopardize yourself or draw attention to an overtly negative quality. So, when dealing with this question and other similar doozies, what are you supposed to do?

According to Ben Dattner, Ph.D., a psychologist who heads Dattner Consulting in New York, there are two ways to look at a weakness. “A weakness is either a deficiency to remedy or an area of unfulfilled potential,” he says. In either case, it is a chance to demonstrate that you’ve made the most of an opportunity to grow.

There are several different approaches to handling even the toughest interview questions. Read on to find the tactic that will work best for you, if and when the weakness question rears its ugly head.

Answer With a Strength

Every cloud has a silver lining. And within every negative trait, there is also a component that can be seen as a positive. For example, if you find that you get frustrated with people who don’t work as quickly or as thoroughly as you do, it demonstrates that you have high standards, are efficient, and pay close attention to detail. Offer both sides of the coin, by mentioning how your weakness can be helpful at times and how you are learning to deal with it.

Offer a Former Weakness

Nothing says maturity like a little self-awareness. Being able to demonstrate how you’ve improved on a less desirable trait can make you eminently hirable. When you first began college, did public speaking make you nervous? However, after taking Com 101 where you were forced to make a speech each week, did you hone your communication skills and become more comfortable speaking in front of groups? Acknowledging how you’ve learned from the past shows that you are constantly looking to polish your performance.

Consider a Less Important Weakness

Not all weaknesses put you in equal jeopardy for not being hired. While you don’t want to come up with something out of left field (such as “I don’t speak a foreign language” for a job at a small local company), you can focus on an area that you are working to overcome, but is not part of the core skill set needed for the job. For a computer programming position, admitting that you’ve been working on your writing skills can be seen as less of a threat for the position, but as a sign of self-improvement.

Working With What You Have

No matter what you choose to say, focusing on what you’ve done to work on your shortcomings always puts a positive spin on your answer. In asking the “weakness” question, sometimes employers just want to see how you handle stress and how well prepared you are. Although there is no single right way to answer the question, there are several wrong ways. Here are some things not to do:

  • Provide an answer that is only a strength
    Your interviewer wants to see that you are self-aware and how you are working to improve yourself; so you should probably avoid the word “perfectionist.” Employers can see this response coming a mile away. (And might assume that you are exaggerating to get the job.) Then you will be stuck scrambling for another answer at the last minute, and chances are, you won’t be happy with what you blurt out.
  • Say you don’t have any weaknesses
    An attempt to be funny or glib will likely backfire. Nobody is perfect, especially current students or recent college graduates going on job interviews! Employers would not ask this question if they didn’t expect you to come up with an answer.
  • Offer an answer that shows lack of motivation or ambition
    If you answer by saying you are a procrastinator or lazy, these are definite red flags to someone who is looking to hire you. This shows employers that you are not ready to make the transition from student to professional. The job interview isn’t the time to present your biggest character flaws or air your dirty laundry.

Other Difficult Questions

So now do you feel prepared to ace the weakness question? Remember, confidence is more than half the battle. But what about some of the other questions that make your heart pound and palms sweat during the interview? These questions, like the weakness question, expect you to address something negative, but still manage to leave a positive impression.

“Tell me about a difficult situation you faced and how you resolved it.”
Behavioral interview questions such as this one focus on examining past behavior as an indicator of future performance. The question above is less about the actual situation and more about your approach to problem solving and handling stress. When thinking of an example, consider challenges you faced in work and academic settings, rather than personal ones. Were you ever the leader of a group project when one student didn’t pull his or her weight? Did you get a lengthy assignment during your summer internship that you were expected to complete on very short notice?

As you formulate your answer, break it down by explaining first the situation, then your approach and thought process when handling it, then the plan you implemented, and finally how it was resolved. By choosing a situation that ended in success, you demonstrate your ability to troubleshoot and create a positive outcome from a negative situation.

“Tell me about a time you failed.”
How can you make a failure seem like a good thing? By treating it as a learning experience. Showing personal growth says a lot about your character, as well as your ability to learn from your mistakes.

With this question, you don’t have to come up with a huge personal crisis. Think about academic or work situations that didn’t go as planned. Did you get a poor grade in a course your freshman year? If so, don’t apologize or make excuses, but rather, discuss what you learned about study skills and time management. Follow it up by mentioning how applying those lessons helped you ace a similar class the following semester. This will demonstrate your resilience and capacity for growth.

“Tell me about a time you had to work with a difficult person.”
This may be a common question for positions that require extensive teamwork, customer service or client interaction. Employers want to make sure you are flexible and can work well with different types of people. Again, you always want to consider situations that have positive outcomes. Your ability to step back from a situation objectively and not let emotions cloud your judgment is also helpful. Demonstrating that you are able to see two sides to an issue shows that you can pitch in to get the job done even when disagreements occur.

Let’s face it. Tough questions are part of the interview process. But if you remember your strengths and how you can use each question to showcase your capacity to learn, grow and develop your skills, you’ll be prepared for anything that comes your way.

Jennifer Burns is a career counselor and free-lance writer in Connecticut. She is the author of Career Opportunities in the Nonprofit Sector.


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