Strong Suits and Weak Links
If there are two questions I can almost guarantee you’ll be asked in every interview, it’s the ones asking you to describe your greatest strengths and weaknesses. If you’re actively interviewing, you shouldn’t even have to think about your answers; they should roll off the tongue as readily as your own name. That said, there are ways to answer these questions that are better than others.
As a starting point, be sure when you’re answering these questions that your responses agree with what you’ve already told me in your resume and cover letter. If you’ve specifically highlighted a skill or capability you possess, you may want to consider at least mentioning that as a ‘by the way’ in your answer. Even more importantly, don’t contradict yourself. I remember one instance where a candidate I was interviewing fessed up to needing improvement in an area they’d named in their cover letter as one of their skills.
Besides the content of the answers, there are two other things I want to hear when I’m listening to a candidate answer these questions: honesty and thoughtfulness.
It should go without saying that every question in an interview should be answered honestly. If you lie – or even stretch the truth – I promise it will come back to haunt you. This is especially true when you speak to your strengths and weaknesses. If a candidate lies about their strengths, I’ll figure it out. It might come up when they don’t have a good story to tell in response to a behavioral interview question, or if they don’t clearly understand some technical aspects of a job. Lying about weaknesses is different. Some people lie by misdirection, naming an entirely innocuous shortcoming which doesn’t really have an impact on their life and career. (I can tell when this is happening, and I have other questions to ask which will bring out what I’m really looking for.) A few candidates have actually told me that they don’t have any weaknesses that they know of. Even if it were true (psst: it’s not), that answer telegraphs a complete lack of self-awareness.
Thoughtfulness is the other aspect I’m listening for when you tell me about your strengths and weaknesses. When I ask you these questions, I don’t want to just hear a ‘shopping list’ of things you’re good and not-so-good at. I want to hear that you’ve invested in some self-reflection, and maybe even asked previous supervisors and colleagues for feedback. If you’re talking about your strengths, I want to hear why you consider them strengths. How have they helped you in your career, how do you use them, how have they benefited you and your employer? If you’re still refining and developing them, how? When you’re addressing your weaknesses, how have they manifested in your work, and how serious is the impact they’ve had? If the weakness is one that can’t be overcome quickly or easily, have you developed strategies to mitigate the effect they have on your work? If the weakness is one that can be ‘fixed’, what steps have you taken already to do that, and what else are you planning to do?
One final note. Whatever you do, do not play the ‘my weakness is really a strength’ game. You wouldn’t be the first or last to try it, and recruiters can see right through it every time. I’ve had candidates tell me that their greatest weakness is that they’re ‘too much of a perfectionist’, that they ‘expect too much of themselves’, and that they sometimes ‘don’t know when to quit, they commit to their work to too high a degree’. True stories. Don’t make me call you out on it, like I did with them. It’s awkward for everyone.