Imagine that you are being interviewed for the job of your dreams. Just when you think you’ve answered all the interviewer’s questions correctly, a question comes up that completely catches you off guard: “What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?”
You stumble through this question, mumbling something about working too hard. The answer sounds so cliché that even you cringe right after you say it.
How could you have answered this critical question better?
You need to realise that most job interviewers will ask something about your own perceived strengths and weaknesses in order to better gauge your “fit” for the company. There is no use in dreading this question or in hoping that it does not get asked. So, you need to prepare yourself.
How do you start? First, you need to assess your actual strengths. Take stock of your education and experience, your transferable skills (like problem solving, multitasking, etc.), and even your personality traits (flexibility, punctuality, etc.). Create and memorise three to five situations in which your strengths worked to your advantage. For example, you could say the following, “I am very flexible when it comes to change. When I was unexpectedly assigned to do equipment returns at my last job, I quickly learned that task and then even performed equipment repairs.”
Now, the more dreaded part of this exercise will involve you assessing your weaknesses. Just remember that nobody is perfect and your interviewer will certainly not expect you to be perfect either. However, you can use the following strategy to minimise weaknesses: when you bring up a shortcoming, also state how you are dealing with it. Again, find three to five examples of your shortcomings, how you are actively reducing them, and then memorise this list. You could say something like, “One of my weaknesses is that I have trouble speaking in front of large groups. However, I have recently joined my local Toastmasters chapter to help overcome my anxiety.”
When you compile your weakness list, try emphasising minor weaknesses to which most people can relate. Fear of public speaking is a common problem with most people, as is procrastination, impatience, and ignorance of computer software programs. All these problems are relatively easy to resolve given some organisation or education. Above all else, do not bring up “irresolvable” problems like interpersonal conflicts with coworkers (unless you resolved them constructively), substance abuse, or family problems (unless you run a family business). And most certainly do not bring up any weakness that would disqualify you from getting the job.
As a general rule, all strength and weakness examples should be kept to the professional work environment. The only exception might be if you head a charity or other organisation as a hobby, and have found that your work skills have been utilised or improved there.
Strengths need to be above and beyond the normal “call of duty.” For example, stating that you have a positive attitude is not going to be thought of as a strength since all employees are expected to have a positive attitude. However, stating that you were able to imbibe all the employees of your department with a positive attitude will certainly win points with your interviewer.
Weaknesses should be definable traits, meaning that you should not be vague about your qualities. For example, the statement, “I become frustrated when tasks fall behind schedule because someone does not do his or her share of the work,” is not a definable weakness, since everyone becomes frustrated by delays. This would only be a good weakness to talk about if there was something you did to put that task back on schedule.
When thinking about your skills and strengths, be sure to not only memorise them but to list them in your CV and cover letter. After all, an interviewer may forget your stories and examples, but words on paper are forever etched in his or her mind.
Sometimes, you can combine your strengths and weaknesses into a combination package, so to speak. This works best for character traits which can become bad when carried to the extreme. For example, you could say, “My strength is that I see the big picture of a particular project long before the other project participants do. This is good because I am able to form an action plan ahead of anyone else. The bad part is that this often leads to friction and frustration among the other group members.”
Finally, keep your answers honest. Do not make up false examples in order to look more impressive to the interviewer. Many company recruiters are specially trained to spot lies and evasions and will call you out on a fabrication, sometimes during the actual interview! But even if you do not get caught, do you really want a job that is not suited to your qualifications? If you are not comfortable using the phone, for example, are you going to be happy working long-term in a technical support department? Always remember that, in any productive interview, not only is the company interviewing you, but you are likewise interviewing the company for a good fit.
On that note, good luck in your job search!