There are certain common questions that are almost always asked at job interviews across industries and job titles. "What are your strengths and weaknesses?" is one of them. Smart candidates should walk into every interview with a solid answer prepared.
Not only will a strong response provide the prospective employer a clearer picture of what you'll bring to the table if hired — it also offers insight into your self-awareness, confidence level and ability to communicate effectively.
To formulate an answer that puts you in the best possible light, consider the following:
What are your strengths?
Consider this question a gift. The interviewer is giving you the floor to make a sales pitch as to why you're a great candidate. Seize the opportunity.
Talk about your key strengths as they relate to the position for which you're interviewing. (Thoughtful consideration of the job posting will help you determine what the employer values and requires in an employee.)
To illustrate your point, prepare brief examples of professional success stories from your past that demonstrate key skills you want to promote, such as leadership, organizational skills, time management or outstanding customer service. These experiences serve as proof that you possess the employer's desired skills, and will increase your memorability.
Marcelle Yeager, president of Career Valet, offers this idea for furthering your case. "When answering this question, try to think about something you do intuitively. That is, not necessarily something you've learned over time. Characteristics inherent to you make you unique and help you stand out."
In many cases, soft skills, such as strong communication and empathy are characteristics that are appealing to employers because, unlike technical skills which can be learned on the job, they're difficult to teach.
Some candidates get nervous when asked about strengths for fear of coming across as a braggart. Preparation can help an applicant develop the right tone. "There's definitely a difference in being confident and being cocky," says Sarah Johnston, founder of the Briefcase Coach.
She offers the following as an example of a cocky response (or emphasizing one's own greatness above everything else) and a confident response (deftly tying your strengths to the requirements of the job) for someone who is interviewing for a sales role:
- Cocky response: "I am the best cold caller in my office. I've won every dialing competition."
- Confident response: "My greatest strength is my ability to quickly build rapport on a cold call. I've learned that you only have two seconds to make a first impression on the phone, and I've practiced enough that I really enjoy it. I know that this job involves calling on IT leadership — I've done that a lot in the past and have been able to close six-figure deals that started with just a cold call."
Pro tip: While you want to make the most of this opportunity, resist the urge to present a laundry list of strengths. Zeroing in on two traits pertinent to the position at hand paints a more vivid picture than claiming greatness at everything.
What are your weaknesses?
This question also sometimes generates fear — but for a different reason than being asked about strengths. Candidates worry that revealing a shortcoming will jeopardize their chances of landing the job.
How can you admit imperfections while still making the case that you're the one to hire? One method is to reveal a trait that once was a weakness, but explain how you overcame it and learned from it. You'll demonstrate both self-awareness and problem-solving initiative.
"The weakness you pick should be something that won't get in the way of your performing your job well, and you must tell the interviewer how you're working to improve upon your weakness," says Yeager. For example, she notes that those prone to procrastination could acknowledge the issue and talk about the system they use to ensure they produce high-quality, on-time work.
Another possibility is to present a negative that is really inconsequential and has little to do with how well you would perform the job. For instance, admit that you meticulously spell-check every document and email you write because you know you're not the world's greatest speller.
Or, use the weakness question to "address the elephant in the room" — something about your candidacy that may not match up perfectly to the requirements in the job ad. Focus on what can be done to correct it and what you have to offer that makes you a great candidate.
Johnston presents the example for someone applying as a major gift officer who doesn't have experience with the donor management software mentioned in the job description. You could say, "I noticed you guys are using Boomerang for donor management. In this role, I may have a small learning curve as I've only used Raiser's Edge. In my last role, I got proficient with Raiser's Edge, and was frequently running reports and search queries. I'm optimistic with a little training I should be doing the same with Boomerang."
While it's fairly obvious that you shouldn't draw attention to a weakness that's a major part of the job (for example, don't point out that you're not particularly good at interacting with new people if you're applying for a customer service position), also beware the opposite extreme of giving a "positive" weakness.
"Don't give the overused response, 'I'm a perfectionist and can be too detail-oriented and have a hard time doing work less than 100 percent.' If I was the hiring manager interviewing you for a job and you gave me that response, I would ask you for another weakness," says Johnston.
Remember, hiring managers realize everyone has flaws. While you needn't advertise yours in neon lights or offer a detailed list, respond courteously and concisely. You'll demonstrate the grace under pressure that employers long to see!
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