Is there a harder question to answer in a job interview than responding to: what is your biggest weakness?
It is a common one that pops up from interviewers and even though candidates are often expecting it, many find it difficult to answer.
The temptation might even be to answer: none. After all, you don’t want to come across as having a weakness in an interview for a job you want.
Difficult: Many interviewees know the question might be coming – but can often find it incredibly hard to answer coherently
However, interviewers are looking to see how you handle the pressure of this broad question – and a solid answer could help you stand out from the other candidates.
In the latest This is Money interview cheat sheet, we ask an expert for his advice on how to answer and also the right way to approach the opposite end of the question – what is your biggest strength.
James Innes, who offers CV services and has written a number of books on all aspects of the employment search, reveals all below…
THREE KEY REASONS FOR WEAKNESS QUESTION
With a question like ‘what are you weaknesses’ the interviewer wants to achieve the following three things:
Identify any weakness which might actually be detrimental to your ability to undertake the role.
See how you react when faced with a somewhat tricky question.
Assess how self-aware you are and how you define weakness.
Bear this in mind when it comes to answering – it is always handy to know what the interviewer is trying establish in order to tackle the problem head on.
ARROGANT TO SAY ‘NO’ WEAKNESSES
There is the temptation to say you quite simply don’t have any weaknesses. But this is definitely not the answer the interviewer is looking for. Therefore it is not the answer you should be giving.
If you honestly don’t think you have any weaknesses then you risk coming across as arrogant if you say so – and nobody wants a perfect candidate anyway.
Don’t let it throw you off balance: There are a number of ways to tackle this tricky question
TURN IT ROUND TO YOUR ADVANTAGE
While this is a somewhat negative question, it is in fact full of opportunities for you to turn it round to your advantage and make your answer a positive point.
Don’t be perturbed by the question or let it throw you off balance. Your answer should be right on the tip of your tongue – because we will work on it right now.
The first thing to make clear is that you should only ever discuss a ‘professional’ weakness, unless the interviewer specifically requests otherwise, which is extremely unlikely.
In a nutshell, the interviewer wants to know that you are able to look at yourself objectively and criticise yourself where appropriate.
TWO CHOICES TO TAKE WHEN ANSWERING
You don’t just want to come up with a straightforward list of what you consider your weaknesses to be. You basically have two choices:
– Talk about a weakness that’s not necessarily a weakness at all.
– Talk about a weakness that you turned (or can turn) into a strength.
The problem with the first option is that you risk running into serious cliché territory.
I’m talking about the kind of people who answer:
– I would have to say that my main weakness is that I’m a perfectionist.
– I have a reputation for working too hard; I often push myself far too hard in my work.
You risk sounding like you plucked your answer straight out of a 1990s manual on interview technique.
Personally, I prefer the second option: Talk about a weakness that you turned – or are turning – into a strength.
You are answering the interviewer’s question by highlighting a definite weakness, but you then go on to reflect positively on this by outlining the active steps you have taken or are taking to overcome it.
You are demonstrating a willingness to learn, adapt and improve and that you have the initiative required to make changes where changes are due.
Choosing a weakness that has its root in lack of experience and therefore has been (or is being) overcome by further training is ideal because it is a weakness that is relatively easily resolved.
Kryptonite: Saying none or answering something silly like kryptonite might not go down with the interviewer
MORE THAN ONE WEAKNESS? NOT KRYPTONITE!
Do be prepared for the interviewer to ask the follow-up question, ‘Okay, that’s one weakness. You must surely have more than one?’
What they’re doing with this question is trying to put you under more pressure to see how you react.
Most people attending an interview will have prepared one stock answer to the question.
They’re not expecting to have to think of a second weakness let alone talk about it.
Your answer is easy enough, though, if you’ve prepared one.
It just needs to be along the same lines as before – but you have much more leeway to cite an example that really isn’t a weakness at all.
By the way, telling the interviewer your weakness is ‘kryptonite’ – as one candidate did – is unlikely to amuse them.
STRENGTHS? DON’T RATTLE OFF A LONG LIST…
With the opposite end of the question on your strengths, the interviewer wants to identify what your key selling points are.
They want to establish whether or not these strengths are relevant to the role they are interviewing for.
Additionally, they are looking to gain some insight into your character, such as how self-confident or arrogant you are.
Everyone has their strengths. The key to answering this question is NOT to rattle off a long list of what you consider your strengths to be.
Instead you should highlight a smaller number of specific strengths which will be most appealing to the company.
Discuss each one briefly and, most importantly, identify how these strengths relate to the requirements of the job you are applying to undertake.
You can even elaborate on one of your strengths by mentioning a specific relevant achievement.
BUT CHOOSE STRENGTHS CAREFULLY
Choose your strengths carefully. It can be hard to say anything interesting, for example, about the fact that you are very meticulous and pay great attention to detail.
However, if the recruiter is looking for someone to lead a team then you can mention team leadership as one of your strengths – and cite an appropriate example or achievement.
Be warned: If you don’t give the interviewer at least one specific example to back up your statement then be prepared for them to ask you for one.