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On this page: How to turn the infamous greatest-weakness question into a positive for you.

Answer This Job Interview Question: What's Your Greatest Weakness?

By Laura DeCarlo

"What's your greatest weakness?" is the question that no one ever quite knows how to prepare to answer.

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This single question has the power to determine in one swift blow whether you are a potential asset or a liability to a prospective employer.

Luckily, there is a solution – prepare in advance for this dreaded question, and you will tame the monster!

[Related: What Is Your Greatest Strength?]

The Smart Two-Part Answer

Notice in the example answers below, each answer has two parts:

  1. The confession of the weakness, and...

  2. The recovery that has happened, or the plan you have for recovery.

Be sure to present these weaknesses in terms of how they impact the employer. See the examples below.

Picking Your Best Weakness

You want to position yourself effectively within the interview and need to match positive answers with positive tone of voice and body language.

When you prepare for this question, you will want to pick a weakness that does one of three things:

  1. Is a strength in disguise, or...
  2. Represents an irrelevant weakness, or...
  3. Describes how you developed one of your strengths.

Be sure that this weakness does not hinder your ability to do the job or to fit in with the employer.

1. The "Strength in Disguise" Weakness

What do I mean by a "weakness that is really a strength in disguise"? The weakness is really a good characteristic that has been taken a bit too far.

Notice that each answer has two parts -- (1) the Confession, and (2) the Recovery:

Weakness: Self Critic -- Strength: Meticulous/Careful

(Confession)"I feel that my greatest weakness is that I am very critical of my own work. I have always prided myself on producing excellent and error-free work. While this is beneficial to my job performance, it is possible to go to extremes.

(Recovery)"I have also found that I can easily waste time checking and rechecking. Now I am aware of what to look for in being such a stickler, so I am always making a conscious effort to trust myself and my quality focus more and not be so incredibly critical of my work. I know that there is a limit to proofreading."

Weakness: People Pleaser -- Strength: Easy to Work With

(Confession)"It's important to me that everyone gets along in the workplace. In the past I have always gone the extra mile to help out whenever it is necessary in trying not to disappoint or let anyone down.

(Recovery)"I'm not saying I no longer help others out. However, I've learned to be more assertive, to better recognize and prioritize projects, to know whether I can bail others out without jeopardizing my existing work."

Weakness: Workaholic -- Strength: Hard Worker

(Confession)"I knew on the first day in my last job that I was officially a workaholic when I came out of my office to discover everyone else had left and locked the door, leaving me with no key to get out! That pretty much classifies my career.

(Recovery)"However, in taking things to extremes, I have found that it is easy to get burned out by not balancing my time very well. I have worked with a success coach and implemented calendar management to better organize and schedule my time, making sure I achieve a balance so that I can still be a valuable player."

Weakness: New Graduate, Entry-Level, or Career Changer without Relevant Experience -- Strength: Fast Learner

(Confession)"Some people would consider the fact that I have never worked in this field before as a weakness. However, being highly trainable and open minded, I have no pre-conceived notions on how to perform my job.

(Recovery)"Working with your organization will give me the opportunity to learn the job the way you want it done, not the way I believe it is done. In addition, although I have no former on-the-job experience, I do bring with me extensive hands-on training and experience which can only enhance my ability to learn extremely quickly."

2. The "Irrelevant" Weakness

Perhaps you would prefer to use the harmless weakness strategy. Here is an example of how one of those might look.

Again, we have a (1) confession and a (2) recovery:

(Confession)"I once read in a survey that most people ranked public speaking above snakes and death as their worst fears. I'd have to say that my greatest fear is speaking in front of a large group.

"Please don't get me wrong, I am not afraid of speaking in front of others, even to small groups. It's just the idea of having to address a large audience that makes me nervous. I know that right now this isn't a critical issue to my career growth.

(Recovery)"However, I think it would be an important skill to have. I recently heard of a group called Toastmasters that assists its members in learning to gain professional speaking skills. I'm considering joining one, unless your company actually has a chapter that I could get involved in."

Obviously, this would not be the weakness to choose if the position being sought required frequently speaking to large groups

3. Flipping a Strength into Weakness (then Recover!)

If you are still stumped, consider how you would convert your answers to the Why should we hire you? and What is your greatest strength?

How or why those you developed those strengths or achieved those accomplishments? Tell that narrative (in two parts, as usual) about how you converted a weakness into something positive.

Weakness: Microsoft Office experience -- Strength: Initiative

Frame this description as how you have overcome a weakness you have. For example, if one of your strengths is expert usage of Microsoft Office (and that is relevant to this job), you could confess a weakness like this (again, in two parts: confession and recovery):

(Confession)"In my last job, we used the same medical transcription software for many years that ran on the old technology we used, so my software skills became out of date. Other than Microsoft Outlook and personal use of Word and Excel, I had no experience using Microsoft Office software.

(Recovery)"I learned about new medical transcription software -- from XYZ Company -- which is based on Microsoft Office. So, over a 6-moth period, I took 100 hours of training in the Microsoft Office products, practicing on my own time. As a result, I becme proficient enough to help when we finally made the transition to the new software.

"In helping my colleagues learn the new software, I realized that I must continue to pay attention to what is happening with technology in this field and keep my skills up-to-date, even if my employer isn't staying current."

When you use this "greatest weakness" it probably eliminates one of your answers to the greathest-strengths question.

So, save one of your related -- but not critical -- strengths to use for your greatest weakness if necessary, and be ready to describe it as above: confession and recovery.

Choosing Your Best Weakness

Regardless of what strategy you use, your ultimate goal is to present a real weakness that does not damage your potential for the position, but also does not come across as unrealistic or staged.

If you are not sure if you are picking a negative weakness, review the criteria for the position, and put yourself in the shoes of the employer to consider what you would like to hear and what you would think was negative.

Take time to practice difficult answers like this with a partner until you feel comfortable so that you will sound natural and confident in the interview.

Answering the Common Job Interview Questions:

For laughs -- and some insight -- read 30 Bad Answers to Job Interview Questions.

For more about handling behavioral interviews, panel interviews, and telephone interviews, as well as preparing for job interviews, see the article list on the right.

About this author...

Laura DeCarlo is recognized as the career industry’s ‘career hero’ making a difference to both job seekers and career professionals as the founder of Career Directors International. She possesses 11 top-level certifications in resume writing, career coaching, and career management; 7 first place resume and job placement awards; and has written three books on interviewing and job search including Interview Pocket RX, Interviewing: The Gold Standard, and Job Search Bloopers. Follow Laura on Google+ and Twitter at @careerhero.