In the work world, your company will likely assess your strengths and weaknesses on a regular basis.
Annual performance reviews, fast feedback, and 360 reviews are all mechanisms that companies use to give you kudos for what you’re doing well and correct course on where you’re falling short.
Before now, however, you may not have ever sat down and really said: “What are my strengths?” or “What are my weaknesses?”
But if you’re job hunting, the time is quickly approaching when you’ll sit across from an interviewer and that person will ask these questions of you.
So to help you prepare for that moment, in this article we’ll explore how to answer these two popular interview questions:
“What is your greatest strength?” and “What is your greatest weakness?”
Let’s start off with your greatest strength.
Why Do Interviewers Ask This?
The point of asking this question isn’t to make you uncomfortable!
At its heart, this question is a measure of your self-awareness.
Having to sift through thousands of resumes and sit through hundreds of interviews, interviewers want to know what you think your greatest selling point is. What can they learn about you beyond what you’ve put on paper in your resume and cover letter?
Interviewers want to know how your strengths translate to the job you’ve applied for. It’s now your job to demonstrate this connection.
How to Structure an “A+” Answer
Here’s the deal:
You probably have many strengths.
The key here is to respond with strengths that prove how you will be a good fit for the job you’re interviewing for.
Try this rule of thumb:
Choose three strengths and back up your claims about these strengths using the four A’s:
- Awards: prizes you have won that emphasize your strengths
- Accolades: privileges or special honors you’ve gotten because of your strengths
- Anecdotes: a story you can tell that demonstrates your strengths in action
- Acknowledgments: special recognition you have received for your areas of strength
Interviews can be difficult to score.
We know this, you know this, and the candidates you’re competing against know it too. There’s no time to wax poetic about wonderful strengths that have no legs to stand on.
Leave your interviewer with clear talking points for after the interview about why you’re the best candidate.
Once the interviewer launches into any variation of the “What are your strengths?” question, don’t hesitate to start selling yourself.
Choose three strengths, and, immediately after outlining what these strengths are, use any (or all) of your four A’s to give credibility to your response.
Go the extra mile. That means not waiting for the interviewer to ask you to elaborate on your strengths. Many times they won’t.
After all, how would you feel if you had to sit in a room all day listening to people blow hot air about all their strengths with nothing substantial to support their claims?
So many people do this. Be the candidate who stands out.
Connect the dots, back up your claims with tangible support, and show the interviewer why your skills make you the best fit for the job.
How Do You Choose the Right Strengths?
The right strengths will demonstrate to your interviewer that you’re a viable candidate for the position.
You want to choose strengths that:
- Are directly related to the job you’re interviewing for, and
- Demonstrate your ability to settle into the job faster and perform better than other candidates.
Choose strengths that you can demonstrate using any (or all) of the four A’s. Take your industry into account and do your research to see what traits or skill areas are essential to success on the job, then base your answers around these.
Common Mistakes in Talking About Strengths
Pitfall #1 – Not Backing up Claims with Tangible Facts
If something is a strength, then you should be able to demonstrate why it’s a strength.
Too often, though, recent graduates and even seasoned professionals don’t keep track of the things they’re good at with tangible evidence of why they’re good at them.
If you’re reading this now and you can’t use any of the four A’s to back up your strength claims, please pause and take a moment to address this!
Pitfall #2 – Talking About Achievements and Not Actual Strengths
Let’s take a minute to separate achievements from strengths.
Strengths are things you’re good at.
Achievements are often evidence of those strengths, but not the strengths themselves.
Don’t just rattle off a list of achievements and leave it up to the interviewer to connect the dots between the two.
List the strength first and then state the associated achievement(s) to support your strength, not as standalone items.
Pitfall #3 – Keeping Strengths Static
Even if you’re good at something, that doesn’t mean it should stop there.
What are you doing to make yourself better? How are you trying to build and expound upon your current skillset?
Outdated accolades, awards, and other demonstrations of strength raise question marks as to the sustainability of your strengths and the shelf life that can be placed on any value that you might add.
Use continuous self-improvement to mitigate against this.
Sample Answers for “What Is Your Greatest Strength?”
Let’s now turn to some examples to put it all together.
A. Best answer:
I’m a really good communicator. Whether it be over the phone, in person, or via a written medium, I can express myself clearly and concisely. I was awarded “Captain Communicator” at my most recent internship. I received several shout-outs from my manager for diffusing difficult situations with my strong communication skills, and I even got an acknowledgment in the company newsletter for just being really good at talking to clients. I think this strength will help me to do well on the job since being a receptionist requires interfacing with individuals from different backgrounds. I’ll be able to make each person feel welcome and that their business is valued.
B. Good answer:
I’m a really good communicator. I think this strength will help me to do well on the job since being a receptionist requires interfacing with individuals from different backgrounds.
C. Poor answer:
I’m really good with numbers.
Let’s dissect the answers above in the context of a receptionist role:
Answer C is vague. It doesn’t relate to the job functions you will be required to perform, and there is no evidence that you’re actually good with numbers. For all your interviewer knows, you could have simply pulled this strength out of thin air. It does nothing for you.
Response B, though slightly better, doesn’t represent you in the best light. You’ve identified a strength that would make you a good fit for the job, but where are your credentials?
Answer A – Need we say more? Get to the point. State your strengths and confidently back up your claims. This is the kind of response that will make an interviewer step back and say “Wow – I need this person on my team!”
No Experience, No Problem!
It’s no secret:
Experience trumps all in the hiring game.
But this doesn’t mean that recent grads automatically lose out.
What it means, instead, is that you have to find creative ways of linking your off-the-job experience with real-life, on-the-job situations.
Volunteerism and academic experience are great ways to demonstrate relevant skills and experience. The key here, again, is to provide strengths from your volunteer and academic experience that directly relate to the job you’re interviewing for.
You want to show the interviewer that although you may not have corporate experience, you have worked before. And that you gained valuable skills and knowledge that can translate into value on the job.
The fact is:
For many entry-level jobs, you most likely can learn to do the job with or without experience. We didn’t all start off as professionals, right?
Interviewers, however, can’t afford to take the risk of hiring you without some demonstrated ability to perform. Structure your limited experience in a manner that makes it easy for them to consider you.
How to Answer If You’re Changing Industries
Use your strengths to impress upon the interviewer that your previous experiences will translate to you doing a good job and being a good fit for this new role.
This works to signal to the interviewer that you have done your research. And that you know the value you have to add to the position and to the company.
Once you also take the time to put these together for the interviewer, you set yourself apart as a knowledgeable and thorough candidate. This places you in the same league as candidates who are natives to the industry, and perhaps even lightyears above any competitors who are leaving it for the interviewer to connect the dots.
How to Answer “What Is Your Greatest Weakness?”
Okay, you’ve sold yourself to the interviewer on some pretty awesome strengths. You’ve used your four A’s to back up your responses.
You should have this job in the bag.
Wait for it:
Now the interviewer asks, “So what is your greatest weakness?”
How do you even begin to answer this one?
After all, today you’re perfect! And while it seems counterintuitive to ask someone who is trying to enter an organization what their weaknesses are, providing a well thought out answer to this question will work out in your favor.
Why Do Interviewers Ask About Your Weaknesses?
The fact is:
It’s expensive to hire, onboard and train employees. If it doesn’t work out, that’s a huge drain on company resources.
Your response to this question will give them insight into your personality and consequently how good of a fit you are for the position at hand. We’ve already established that interviews can be stressful, so mitigate against this by planning an answer to this question so that you’re not caught off guard.
How to Talk about Your Weaknesses
When answering questions about your weaknesses, provide a response that shows you have done some introspection. Demonstrate that you’re aware of what your areas for development are and…
The most important part:
That you’re actually taking steps to address and correct your indicated weaknesses.
This is not an invitation to use the interview as a therapy session. Rather, it’s an opportunity to show that you’re proactive in tackling your problem areas.
We recommend the following:
Speak briefly on the specific weakness that you have identified. Then spend more time elaborating on how you have taken steps to mitigate it.
Choosing the Right Weakness
Use these criteria to help you decide what to say.
The right weakness:
- Doesn’t diminish you in the eyes of the interviewer.
- Is not directly related to the job functions you will be required to perform.
- Is not a true personal deficiency that you struggle with.
Choose a weakness instead that you’re actively working on that can stand up to probing.
If you’re not working on addressing any weaknesses right now, then either:
A. You’re perfect—congratulations! (not likely)
B. This is the perfect opportunity to stop, do some introspection, and start taking steps in the direction of growth and development.
We all know that talking about a weakness is not the most pleasant topic. Especially when you’re looking to score a job and want to maintain the guise of being a perfect human being.
Let’s put it out there though:
Your interviewer knows you’re not perfect. Period.
But by answering this question well, you can use your weakness to make you an even stronger candidate.
Just ensure that you avoid these common pitfalls when it comes to answering this question.
Common Mistakes in Talking About Weaknesses
Pitfall #1 – Choosing a Weakness That’s Detrimental to Performing Job Functions
The question did ask for your greatest weakness, and you want to be an honest, upstanding candidate. But don’t do this at the expense of actually getting the job.
While you want to include a true weakness, choose one that cannot be construed as preventing you from effectively performing your job functions.
Here’s an obvious example:
If you’re interviewing for a post of receptionist, don’t say your weakness is a fear of talking to new people!
Pitfall #2 – Disguising a Strength as a Weakness
You want the job, so you try to be sly.
You may think to yourself:
What’s a great way of answering this question without actually admitting to having a weakness?
Interviewers see right through this and immediately you lose credibility.
But what many graduates do, and what we will advise you not to do, is try to “disguise” a strength as a weakness.
Answers such as “I’m too much of a perfectionist” or “I’m sometimes too helpful” are not really fooling anyone.
We all have weaknesses. Choose one that’s not detrimental to the position that you’re trying to get and run with that one.
Pitfall #3 – Passing Yourself Off as Perfect
Perhaps the most detrimental of all mistakes that candidates can make is to say anything along the lines of:
“I don’t really have any weaknesses,” or “I can’t think of any weaknesses right now.”
What this screams to the interviewer is “I AM NOT SELF-AWARE.”
Your very status as a human being indicates that you have flaws. This can’t be any different in the work arena.
Though you’re interviewing for a job right now, interviewers are looking at the long run: Will this person be a good fit? Will this person actually stay with the organization?
Chances are, in the mind of the interviewer, if you’re not self-aware enough to even provide a well thought out weakness, you probably won’t survive the work world.
Now that you know how to talk about your weakness and what pitfalls to avoid when talking about them, here are a few examples to help drive the point home.
Sample Answers for “What Is Your Greatest Weakness?”
Kelly, a recent graduate, is interviewing for the post of Programmer/Analyst.
Interviewer: So, Kelly, what would you say is your greatest weakness?
“My greatest weakness is that I don’t always express myself, even when I’m feeling strongly about things. I’ve recognized this, though, and it’s something that I’m working actively to change. I’ve joined my local Toastmasters Society and have been actively participating. It’s helping me to feel comfortable saying what’s on my mind and with feeling more comfortable expressing myself to others.”
“I don’t always express myself, even when there is something that I feel strongly about. I’m working to address this though.”
“Well, I find that I don’t pay a lot of attention to details. This is a real weakness for me.”
How would you rate each of the responses above?
If you chose A as being the best answer and C as being the worst – then congrats! You’re definitely on point! B is a decent answer, but we’re here to land a job, so we want nothing less than the best.
What makes each of these answers what they are?
A is the best answer because it outlines a weakness that is not detrimental to your job function. At the same time, it speaks to ways that you have been actively working to overcome this weakness.
B is a good answer, too. It outlines a weakness that is not critical to the job function and it does outline that you’re working to address the issue. However, its deficiency is in the fact that it doesn’t give the concrete steps that you’re taking.
Anyone can say that they’re working on something without actually doing anything. Show the interviewer tangible facts to back up your responses.
Don’t worry about talking too much either. If you’re answering the question without straying too far from major points, take your time to explain. This is your chance to score the job of your dreams or just the job that you want. Take your time and do it right.
C is clearly the worst answer that you could give in this context. The weakness provided is one that will affect your ability to perform your job functions. Further, it does not elaborate for the interviewer what steps you’re taking to address the problem.
It does a poor job of displaying self-awareness and intelligence because, clearly, an intelligent person would not shoot themselves in the foot like that.
Be smart. Don’t go with an answer like C.
How to Answer If You Have No Experience
You may not have work experience, but you certainly have life experience.
Pinpoint specific things you’ve noticed about yourself in academic or volunteer settings that may need attention or, even better, things that you’ve actually started making steps toward addressing.
I find that I don’t know enough about current events, so what I’ve done is to subscribe to newsletters and YouTube channels that focus on these issues, and also read relevant material online daily to help keep me up to date.
Show the interviewer that you’re not just at home in your PJ’s scrolling through Facebook, uploading pics to Instagram, and watching vlogs on YouTube. You’re actually a self-aware young person who is seeking to grow and develop as an individual.
What to Do If You’re Changing Industries
If you’re interviewing for a job outside of your current field, don’t despair.
Use weaknesses that demonstrate insight into your new industry and use this as an opportunity to show off all the research that you’re no doubt doing.
If you’re an HR practitioner moving into marketing, you can choose a weakness along the lines of your creative writing skills needing improvement and mention what you’ve been doing to address this.
The fine line here is that creative writing is not so critical a skill for marketing that it would prevent you from getting the position. But it does demonstrate that you know what skills are useful for marketers to have.
So, what is your greatest strength and weakness?
How can they set you apart from the competition?
Don’t wait to be in a room full of interviewers before you start thinking through it!