"What's your greatest weakness?" is the question that no one ever quite knows how to prepare to answer.
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!
Today, many HR professionals consider this question old-fashioned and pointless. Who would admit to a genuine weakness in a job interview? But interviewers who do ask this question often see it as a test of the candidate's interest and preparation. So, being ready for this question is the best strategy.
[Related: What Is Your Greatest Strength?]
Basically, employers have two concerns behind this question:
Your qualifications appear to be acceptable, or they wouldn't be interviewing you. This question is to help dig out aspects of working with you that don't usually show up in a resume or LinkedIn Profile.
The absolute worst answer to this question is:
"I don't have any weaknesses." or "I can't think of any relevant weaknesses."
That shows a complete lack of self-awareness or dishonesty. You may have only one weakness -- if you are very lucky (or delusional or not paying attention) -- but you do have a weakness. At least one!
Focus! Think about the weaknesses you know you have had in the past and have overcome.
You will find examples of weaknesses below. Use these examples as guides to help you describe your own weaknesses in effective answers to this question.
When you are considering which weaknesses to share, be sure to focus on your behaviors, which can be changed, rather than your personality, which is much more difficult to change.
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:
Be sure that this weakness does not hinder your ability to do the job or to fit in with the employer.
Notice in the example answers below, each answer has two parts:
Be sure to present these weaknesses in terms of how they impact the employer. Stay positive. Avoid trashing anyone, particularly a former employer.
See the examples below. Adapt them to your situation and the employer.
After you answer this question, you may be asked for additional weaknesses, so be prepared. Prepare a list of potential weaknesses to share in your interview.
Carefully consider the weaknesses you know you have had and have overcome:
Don't pick a weakness that would disqualify you for the job, even if you have overcome it. For example, an accountant who doesn't know how to use spreadsheets or a business attorney who isn't a good negotiator would not impress a potential employer.
The list below includes 40+ examples of weaknesses that have been used successfully in job interviews by both men and women, so, in general, they are gender neutral.
Be cautious about choosing a weakness that might reinforce a negative gender stereotype, like emotional for women and arrogant or thoughtless for men.
Note that several of these may be considered strengths. They become weaknesses when carried to an extreme.
Consider selecting one or two of these, or use them as starting points to develop your own list of possible weaknesses. Remember, this weakness is (or was) a frequent behavior you have changed, not a part of your personality that is very difficult to change:
Note the recommendations to be "careful!" if you select some of the weaknesses above. Those weaknesses tend to be viewed very difficult to overcome or very harmful to a work environment. If you choose one of them, you will need solid proof that you no longer have that weakness.
When you have your list of possible weaknesses, consider how to present them as done in the sample answers below.
These are weaknesses that you DO NOT want to use, even if you have overcome them:
Perhaps you can overcome those weaknesses, but it will be hard to convince someone that you have completely recovered.
Choose one from each category or focus on one type. But, do be prepared with more than one weakness in case you are asked. Often, if your job search is focused on one type of job, one set of weaknesses will be sufficient.
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. These will give you an idea of the kinds of weaknesses you can confess to and the way you have overcome it.
Notice the two part answers: (1) the Confession, and (2) the Recovery:
(Confession) "Some people would consider the fact that I have never worked in this field before as a weakness. However, being fast learner and open minded, I have no pre-conceived notions on how to perform my job."
(Recovery) "With this new work, I will have the opportunity to learn the job the way you want it done, not the way a different organization does it. I am never bored because there is always something new to learn. In addition, although I have no former on-the-job experience with this work, I do bring my love of learning new things, which can only enhance my ability to learn this process very quickly. And, I've always been commended by my managers for my commitment to work hard. I'm always on-time and not a slacker."
If you do have experience or skills relevant to the job, be sure to mention them in your recovery.
(Confession) "As a child, I was identified as an introvert, and I have considered that a weakness. I tend to prefer to work alone or with a very small group of people whom I know I can trust. I prefer working in a very quiet environment which is not always possible in a busy office with people working and talking in cubicles all around me."
(Recovery) "I realized as an adult that being an introvert definitely has advantages. I am motivated to work based more on thought and reason than on emotion. Typically, I don't usually require close management -- give me a project, and I'll dig into it. I'll ask questions to be sure I understand what is needed and when I need more information, but I will get the job done, on-time, and without a lot of fuss. I do make an effort to reach out to my co-workers, to be friendly and cooperative, and to have a good relationship with everyone I work with, but I'm happiest when I have work to do. If the office is too noisy for me, I have earplugs that block background noise so I can focus on my work when the noise is too great, which doesn't usually happen very often."
Naturally, if the job required you to be a good listener in some way (customer service, for example), you wouldn't mention how noisy environments bother you or that you use earplugs to block that noise.
(Confession) "I've been told by both managers and co-workers that I can be very impatient. When something has been identified as important to do, I want to work on it NOW and finish it as soon as possible. I expect that of myself, and I expect it of my co-workers and subordinates."
(Recovery) "I have learned to recognize that there are always more things to be done than any of us have time to do, and that we all often have different priorities. So I've learned to focus on prioritizing my own work -- either by myself or with my manager or team. I actually keep a list, and share the top 5 items on that list with my boss and my team. I find I can get more done this way, am focused on what is most important to my manager, and also have a better relationship with my co-workers and subordinates."
Consider how or why you developed a particular strength or achieved an accomplishment? Tell that narrative (in two parts, as usual) about how you converted a weakness into something positive.
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 confession (and recovery):
(Confession) "In my last job, we used the same medical transcription software for many years. It 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) "Then I learned that we were converting to the new version of our medical transcription, and I learned it is based on current Microsoft Office products. So, over a 6-month period, I took 100 hours of training in the relevant Microsoft Office products -- Excel, Word, and Outlook -- practicing on my own time. As a result, I became 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 may eliminate one of your answers to the greatest-strengths question.
If one of your strengths is expert knowledge in the use of current technology, like smart phones and computers, you could use this (again, in two parts: confession and recovery):
(Confession) "I have had a hard time disconnecting from technology. I always have my smart phone with me and, of course, I have both a Mac and a PC at home. So, I was constantly checking in with my work email, visiting the company website, checking competitor's apps, and industry news. I didn't use technology, except my GPS, while driving, but I did spend too much time outside of working hours and even on weekends looking at some sort of smart phone or computer screen related to work."
(Recovery) "I promised myself that I would stop being so obsessed with technology, and pay more attention to real life -- to my family, my friends, and what's happening around me. Detaching from technology is restful, good for my eyes (I'm told), and keeps me better-connected with the real world. I'm even reading a book, printed on paper, currently. So, I think I'm a more balanced person, now. But, I do still always have my smart phone with me, even when I'm sleeping."
Obviously, this would not be the weakness to choose if the position being sought required being "on duty" by your phone twenty-four by seven. And some organizations want and expect this kind of "obsession" by employees. So, if you want to work for one of those employers, you might want to find a different, more irrelevant weakness.
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.
Perhaps you would prefer to use the harmless weakness strategy. This can signal that you think the question is absurd or that you don't take it seriously, so be careful when you use this.
These weaknesses can be very personal -- like a hobby or a favorite type of book, music, movie, or video -- or less personal like a love of travel or a specific model of car. If possible, find an irrelevant weakness that shows you are a good choice for the job.
This could be a good "weakness" for someone interviewing for a job that requires creativity, or it might be completely irrelevant to the job. As usual, we have a (1) confession and a slight (2) recovery:
(Confession) "I love to knit and crochet, and I spend too much time and effort doing that. I also find I spend too much money on special yarns, needles, and other tools. I even traveled to Ireland to spend a few days on a sheep farm, learning about how the best wool yarn is made and also learning how to create those amazing Irish fisherman's sweaters."
(Recovery) "I know that I will never make my living with my knitting and crocheting. But I enjoy being creative, and I love giving family and friends gifts that I have created for them myself. I've even sold some of my creations online. The work also very relaxing for me, and I've learned to budget the amount of money I spend on yarn and the time I spend knitting and crocheting."
Some interviewers may appreciate how you dodged the question. Others may not, so use caution with this type of answer.
Regardless of what strategy you use, your ultimate goal is to present an answer that doesn't damage your potential for the position.
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.
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? questions. For more, check out How to Answer the Common Job Interview Questions and Smart Answers to Interview Questions.
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, Resumes for Dummies,and Job Search Bloopers. Follow Laura on Google+ and Twitter at @careerhero.