‘What is your greatest weakness?’ is a dreaded interview question which is usually sprung on candidates the moment they start to feel comfortable. Many find this question to be frustrating and unfair as no one will want to reduce their chances of getting the job by confessing their flaws. Because of this, some candidates will deny that they have any flaws at all, or panic and reveal too much to the interviewer. Others might use the ‘pretend a strength is a weakness’ technique. Unfortunately, interviewers are wise to this and saying that you’re ‘too much of a perfectionist’ is unlikely to cut it.
So, what is the right way to answer this question? With a little preparation, the following tips will help you put together a great answer that will get you through any interview. The first step, as with many interview questions, is understanding why so many recruiters insist on asking this question.
Why do interviewers ask ‘What is your greatest weakness’?
With this simple question, recruiters can find out a lot about you. They can find out how good you are at coping under pressure. They will discover how honest and self-aware you are about your own abilities. They will be able to see how pro-active you are in trying to address your own weaknesses. Your choice of weakness will also demonstrate how well you understand the skills required for the job. For example, if you talk about struggling with a skill that is essential for the role, this is a red flag for recruiters.
Bearing these things in mind, recruiters aren’t just looking at what you answer but how you answer. Ideally, they will want a self-aware employee who doesn’t have any weaknesses that will directly impact their ability to do the job but is proactive about any weaknesses they do have. They will also be very careful about employing someone they suspect has lied to them as dishonest interviewees may well become dishonest employees.
Your answer should therefore be an honest portrayal of a genuine weakness, including steps you have taken to work on it.
How to answer:
We have already established that your answer needs two components:
- A weakness
- How you are addressing that weakness
So, how do you go about choosing the right weakness to talk about? Start by asking yourself questions such as ‘have I ever made a mistake at work?’ or ‘has anyone ever commented on a skill that you could do with improving?’. Put together a list of your answers.
The next step is to cross-reference your list with the job description. You’ll want to cross off any that are listed as essential skills for the job. Now you should have a refined list of possible weaknesses for your answer.
Finally, for each of these weaknesses, write another list of the ways in which you’ve tried to address them. Once you’re done with this, we recommend you pick the strongest three to practice for your interview.
You should now have three weaknesses that are genuine, not essential for the job, and things that you can improve. Choose your favourite and put more time into practicing with this weakness. It’s good to have a couple of extra examples up your sleeve in case they ask for more than one in the question.
We always advise candidates not to memorise answers word-for-word for interviews. This tends to give your responses a robotic feel that can come across as unnatural. It is important to remember that a successful interview will be a dialogue between you and the recruiters. They need to work out if your personality is a good fit for the company and this is difficult if you’re reciting a pre-prepared speech for each answer.
Instead, we recommend that you prepare your answers as bullet points. This way you can adjust your answer to follow the flow of the conversation. This will also help your answers feel much more authentic and engaging for your interviewer.
How not to answer:
There are several traps that candidates sometimes fall into when answering this question. Here are some of the answers that you should try to avoid giving:
- Saying that you don’t have any weaknesses: There are several flaws with this strategy. First of all, it looks like you are dishonest or trying to hide something. The recruiter won’t believe you if you say this – after all, you’re only human! It also makes you look unprepared. As this is such a common interview question, they will expect you to have thought about it in advance.
- Confessing that you lack a skill essential for the job: Whatever you do, don’t raise any questions about your ability to do the job. If you go through the process of cross-referencing you answers with the job description, you can make sure this doesn’t happen.
- Using the old ‘turning a negative into a positive’ technique: This used to be a popular piece of advice for interview candidates, however, recruiters will have come across so many ‘perfectionists’ or candidates claiming to ‘work too hard’ that this tactic probably won’t work any more. Your answer will be perceived as weak and you may be asked to give another example.
- Revealing too much: A concise and simple explanation will do. Don’t ramble on and give the impression that you have lots of flaws that could compromise your ability to do your job.
A candidate for an aircraft engineering job:
I would say that my biggest weakness is my writing ability. I was always much better at technical subjects at school like maths and science but struggled with English lessons. I used to worry about filling out reports because of this but I’ve learned to allocate myself more time for paperwork and I find a quiet place to work where I can concentrate properly. This has improved the quality of my reports to the extent that my manager has commented on how much clearer they have become. It’s still not something I find easy, but I have found a way to make sure that my paperwork is of a high standard.
Why we like this answer: Writing ability wasn’t on the job description for this role so it was a good skill for the candidate to target. They have shown that they faced the issue head-on and found a solution which worked to the extent that their manager was impressed.