Interviews are nerve-wracking, no matter how skilled or qualified you are. You want to make the best impression on the interviewer you can, especially if it’s a position or company you’re particularly interested in. You’ll do practice interviews with yourself in the mirror, making sure your expression is a serious, thoughtful one. You’ll script out answers to common interview questions and research the company. If the interviewer asks, “Why do you want to work at such-and-such company,” you have a perfect, ready answer. And when they ask about your strengths, you’ve memorized a list with specific examples to provide them. You’ve also thrown in some chit chat or stories from previous jobs and you feel like you have built rapport with your interviewer. You’re feeling confident you’ll get the job when, all of a sudden, she throws out that dreaded question: “What’s your greatest weakness?”
Everyone knows this is a terrible question. Your interviewer knows this is a terrible question. That’s why she’s asking it. Most hiring managers who ask this question aren’t looking for you to take a positive and make it a negative (the usual answers of “I work too hard!” or “I’m such a perfectionist, it’s such a burden!”); they want to see how quick you are on your feet, how self-aware you are, and how proactive you are. Answering with the over-used “I’m a perfectionist” line will earn you a silent stare from the interview, not a position at the company. So, what should you say? Here are a few tips so you can answer honestly and show the interviewer what a great hire you would be!
- Stick to work-related weaknesses. The interviewer doesn’t care if you have a weakness for expensive shoes or $6 frappuccinos unless that somehow affects your quality of work. You also want to stick to work-related weaknesses that wouldn’t necessarily impact the work you could do at the company you’re applying for. For example, if you are interviewing for a position where you’ll rarely be presenting work to groups of people, it’s safe to admit that public speaking isn’t your strength. It’s not likely to come up much in the position you’re applying for. If you’re applying for a position that is data-heavy and you’re expected to track and influence data, you don’t want to say your weakness is putting together Excel spreadsheets. And if spreadsheets are, in fact, your weakness, you shouldn’t be applying for a data-heavy position.
- Don’t lie or make something up. Realistically, almost all of us have lied on a resume or in a job interview at least once. Maybe nothing bad came of your dishonesty. You got the job, you liked it well enough, and no one ever found out you lied a little bit. But, besides saving yourself from a potential future disaster, honesty will come across loud and clear in an interview. And if your interviewer is experienced, she’ll know you’re lying when you say “I work too hard and that’s the only weakness I can think of.” Sticking to the truth with this question will also save you from being in over your head at the new job or having to constantly keep your story straight. If you said your biggest weakness is working too hard, but it’s actually keeping yourself organized, you’ll quickly find that you’re struggling to make important meetings on time or losing meeting notes.
- Take steps to address your weakness. If you haven’t already in your career, you should have tried to correct your work weaknesses. For example, if you’re terrible at Microsoft Office Suite, and using Excel is essential to a position in your field of interest, you should have tried to learn from a coworker, friend, or even a class at a local library. Even if you never become an Excel expert, in an interview you can bring up the fact that you’re aware of your weakness and were proactive enough to address it. This is another reason why an interviewer brings up the “greatest weakness” question. It’s a good gauge of how take charge you are. Did you wait for someone to set you up in a class so you can get better at Excel? Or did you take initiative and do it yourself?
We’re all a work in progress. You’ll never be perfect. Your interviewers will never be perfect. But being straightforward and demonstrating self-awareness will give you a chance to shine in an interview without stumbling over the most feared of all interview questions.