How to Answer ‘What is Your Greatest Weakness’

The job interview is going great as you discuss your skills, strengths and successes. But then your interviewer dumps cold water on the whole thing by asking what the Harvard Business Review calls the “worst interview question.”

What are your weaknesses?

If the question makes you squirm, rest assured that it’s supposed to. According to HBR it’s a throwback to the “aversive” approach to interviews developed in the 1950s and 60s to see how a job candidate deals with pressure.

“The all-time champion of useless interview questions is ‘What is your greatest weakness?'” speaker and consultant Barry Maher says.

Despite being held in disdain by many career experts and job candidates alike, the weakness question is still a staple for job interviews. And, in asking it, interviewers are actually trying to get some important information, according to human resources expert Mikaela Kiner.

“First, they want to know if you are humble and self-aware,” she says. “Every person, no matter how senior or how accomplished, has areas for improvement and should have professional development goals.”

Second, she adds, the interviewer really wants to learn where you could improve to determine whether you’re a fit for the job: “Is it an area that can be learned on the job, or something a new hire is going to need to hit the ground running? If the company writes you off and is unwilling to invest, then it probably wasn’t the right fit to begin with.”

 

Strategies for Answering the Weakness Question

As you begin to think about how you’ll answer all those questions that will be asked of you at your upcoming job interview, be sure to come up with some answer for: What are your weaknesses? (While you’re at it, don’t forget to come up with some questions of your own.)

First, it’s good to know how not to answer the weakness question. According to the experts we talked to, these are some things you should steer clear of.

“Avoid the trite,” HR consultant Tim Toterhi says. “For example, if you say, ‘Sometimes I work too hard,’ even a senior level recruiter may be unable to resist the eye roll.”

Blogger Leah Thurber suggests keeping your answer short and avoiding sounding defensive or negative. And, says HR manager Tiffany Brown, “If one of your weaknesses is a main responsibility of the job, I would avoid stating that specific weakness.”

So how should you answer what is your weakness? career coach Mashaal Ahmed offers these guidelines:

Keep it real: “Think about what challenges you in getting your tasks done. Do you have to work to stay organized? Or do you find yourself saying yes to every request that comes your way? Perhaps there are specific skills you would like to work on like public speaking or Microsoft Access.”

Keep it safe: “You may already be thinking about one or more genuine areas of improvement for yourself. Be sure to focus on areas that are not deal breakers, based on the job description and common work expectations. If you are interviewing for a job that requires strong writing skills, you may want to avoid mentioning your poor spelling.”

Keep it under control: “Now that you have laid out a genuine area of improvement that is not a deal breaker, it’s time to reassure the interviewer that it’s nothing to worry about by explaining how you have worked on or are working on improving upon this weakness. If you say you find prioritizing your tasks challenging, talk about how you map out your deadlines in Excel to help you work through the challenge.”

Another approach, according to career coach Michelle Merritt, is to cite something that can be both strength and a weakness. She provides this example:

“Most of my team members really value how direct I am with them because they always no where I stand and what I expect. However, I’ve learned that some people struggle with someone speaking so direct with them so I’ve learned to soften what I say in certain conversations to help valuable team members be successful.”

As you prepare to answer what are your weaknesses? Bear in mind that there are many variations of the question that interviewers might use. But no matter how the question is asked, your goal should be to identify a true area for improvement, and then show how you have (or are) working to improve. Here are just a handful of different ways the weakness question may be formulated:

  • If I talked to your last manager, what would they say you could improve on?
  • What are you trying to get better at?
  • What is the biggest challenge you face in your current position?
  • Tell me about a time you failed?

Remember, at the end of the day, the weakness question is just one among many during a job interview. Don’t dwell on it. Do your best to provide an honest (though appropriate) response and move on.

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