Everyone knows the questions and everyone knows they are likely to be asked. Everyone prepares for them. Yet how good are most people’s answers to the interview questions:
- “What are your greatest strengths?”
- “what is your biggest weakness?”
Many people believe that they know exactly how to answer. When asked about their strengths, they extol their outstanding abilities at work. When asked about their weaknesses, they reply that either they don’t have any, or that it is something innocuous (and, gasp, positive!) such as being a perfectionist.
They also believe that the interviewer hasn’t heard cop-out replies before and never even consider the fact that the interviewer might press on for a more revealing answer!
How should you answer these questions, to satisfy the interviewer while doing nothing to jeopardise and everything to strengthen your chances of being offered the job?
The ‘Strengths’ Interview Question
The interviewer looks at you, with one eyebrow raised. “Can you tell us what your greatest strengths are?” they ask. If you worked hard at evaluating yourself before preparing your CV, you’ll have little trouble identifying a number that are already listed in your CV.
There is an art to answering this question, so that you don’t sound simply big-headed. If you are naturally modest, the opposite is true: you have to find a point at which you identify your strengths but without underselling yourself.
What counts as a strength?
In an interview, the strengths that you need to identify are those that are relevant to the job. That is, to this job and this job only. You may have picked some ‘one size fits all’ strengths for your CV, but your reply to this question must be tailored to this job alone.
A strength may be a professional skill or ability that you regularly use. It may also be a personal quality that is utilised to positive effect in the workplace. If a manager were to write a glowing reference for you, this strength would be mentioned. It may also be a transferable skill, which you have used outside the workplace as well as at work.
It is usually a quality or ability that you can feel proud of, as it has been remarked on or praised by others. However, do not let your pride in it come ahead of its relevance – your self image must come secondary to the candidate perceived by the interviewer. Many abilities will relate to specific roles and industries.
Demonstrate their relevance
Once you have identified your strengths, you need to give them greater meaning for the interviewer. This is where you are going to sell yourself by tailoring your answers. To do this, you need to identify evidence of your having used this strength at work, preferably to create a positive outcome. Ideally, this will rank as an achievement, but a clear example of your strengths in action will also be right.
You should offer this example immediately, after stating what your strength is. Bear in mind that the interviewer may pick up on this and ask further questions about it. Make sure it is something you can talk about.
How many strengths?
It is a good idea to have three prepared, as you may find that you have used up one answer when responding to an earlier question. Also, the interviewer may try to catch you out by asking you to identify a further strength after you have mentioned one. This is their attempt to weed out the phoney answers, the idea being that the second you give will not be as rehearsed.
The ‘Weakness’ Interview Question
This is a question that can demolish the unprepared candidate, as they either find themselves speechless or blurt out a weakness that is all too genuine and which the interviewer really shouldn’t know about.
What is the point of this question?
The interviewer isn’t out to get you, but they do want to know more about you. While candidates are usually prepared to show their good sides, this is not always a rounded picture. The interviewer wants to know how self-aware you are, whether you are realistic about your own shortcomings, whether you are interested in developing yourself and how well you can talk about yourself.
What you should not say
You should never say that you don’t have any weaknesses. They have all heard the standardised answer “I don’t have any weaknesses that will affect my ability to do the job” before. This is not true of anybody and is an evasive answer – the interviewer will give up on you or press harder for an answer.
Avoid dragging up workplace incidents that led to something going wrong. You’ll spend the next few minutes discussing a major problem that you caused. Don’t try to crack a joke, as it’s unprofessional and is being disrespectful by failing to answer the question.
Above all, do not reply that you have a weakness and that is (a) chocolate, (b) being a perfectionist, or (c) work longer hours than you are paid to complete work.
Answers such as these are trite and you risk irritating the interviewer. It is more than likely that they will brush it aside and ask you to identify a real weakness – and you will have nothing prepared.
Preparing for a ‘weaknesses’ interview question
As with the strengths interview question, it is best to prepare two or three responses. Hopefully you will not have to use them all, but there is always the chance that the interviewer will either urge you to name more than one, or that the interview question will come in more than one guise. You should also prepare some detail to illustrate your answer.
Finding the middle road
Be a little bit honest and you can find a weakness that is real but not very serious, so will not damage your chances of gaining the job. Your honesty will give you an air of trustworthiness, so will work in your favour. Self-awareness is a good attribute, as it means you can develop and improve yourself. By answering with integrity, you further a bond with the interviewer – it is called ‘developing rapport’.
Rather than using the word weakness, you can use an alternative phrase: ‘area that I am working on improving’. You’re thereby conferring a positive upon a negative.
A low damage response
Once again, you should use your understanding of the vacancy and the employer’s requirements to select a weakness that will do little or nothing to negate your chances of a job offer. So, select a weakness that will have no bearing on the job whatsoever, even though it may have been manifest in a previous job.
For example, getting bored very easily will not be a problem in a fast-paced, high energy, stressful position. Finding it difficult to present to large groups of people may not matter in the job you are applying for – but remember that the interviewer may ask for another weakness too.
You are working on it
If the weakness is in an area that’s relevant to this job, then your efforts to improve on the weakness can be a positive. For instance, stating that as a supervisor, you have realised that you need to work harder on delegating more work and that you are improving the way in which you do it, is actually positive.
It is especially so if you can say that your output is already increasing as a result. This may be something that is on the job’s person requirement, so you are effectively covering up for a gap in your application.
Improving a technical skill
It’s always possible to mention a weakness that is small, easy to address and of no great significance to the vacancy in question. This might be a computing skills or particular technology. If you are already addressing the learning gap, so much the better. However, bear in mind that the interviewer may push for a meatier answer.
The disguised interview question
Because so many lists of interview questions are now available online, interviewers are disguising the question or coming at it from another direction. Look out for any question that asks you about a mistake at work, a project that didn’t turn out well, set-backs of any kind, areas for improvement arising from appraisals, etc. If you have prepared well for your weaknesses question, then you should have no problem with these!
Always Prepare Your Interview Answers
Researching and preparing your answers for both these questions will help you enormously. There is nothing worse than being caught off-guard at an interview, particularly by an interviewer who thinks they are rather clever!
The two questions that are possibly listed on every single list of interview questions on the internet are: ‘what are you greatest strengths?’ and ‘what are your weaknesses?’ While these function as bear-traps for the unprepared candidate, the candidate who bothers to prepare their answers can turn them to their advantage without losing points.
You should identify three of your work-related strengths, whether these are abilities, technical skills, personal and professional attributes, or areas of knowledge. These should always be relevant to the vacancy you’re being interviewed for, whether they are on your CV or not.
The strength’s relevance needs to be demonstrated, so for each one, you need to be able to describe an instance when your strength came into play at work. If this led to a positive outcome, then so much the better.
This need for relevance means that you may be identifying different strengths for different interview situations. Having more than one confers protection in case you ‘use up’ one strength when answering another question, or if the interviewer presses you for a second answer, believing the first to have been over-rehearsed.
The weakness question is not as bad as it first seems. Avoid welching out with a denial that you have a weakness or offering a weakness that is not really a weakness (such as perfectionism). Jokes are a bad idea, as are workplace disasters that you caused, inadvertently or otherwise. Trite answers that dodge the issue are likely to irritate the interviewer.
The best idea is to prepare three responses that are based in honesty, but which do not jeopardise your chances. You will gain points for integrity and self-awareness. You can focus on an area that has no relevance to this vacancy and does not relate to the person requirements.
Or, you can focus on areas that you are improving on, thereby reassuring the interviewer that you are becoming even more skilled in a particular area. Providing evidence of improved production or results arising from your efforts also helps. Weaknesses with technical skills are easily addressed through training and are hard to criticise.
Preparation is always the answer and having more than one example will buffer you against persistent questioning.
Please let us know about your own experiences of answering interview questions about your strengths and weaknesses by leaving a comment below.
Bradley CVs Ltd.