One of the most common and most challenging job interview questions is “can you tell me your strengths and weaknesses?” In some cases, they may ask you to list a certain number of each (usually two or three but I’ve heard as many as five) which means that you’ll want to put some added thought into it. But no need to panic, this question is a lot easier to answer than you may think — provided you’re ready for it.
Almost two years ago, I wrote an article about this exact topic but I figured since it’s starting to crop up more frequently in interviews during these challenging times, it might be a good time to revisit it. In most cases, this is a question asked by someone in staffing or human resources. Although it does come from potential bosses and peers from time to time, it’s rare. It does make a difference who asks it and if multiple people ask the question throughout the interview process, you’ll want to make sure that your answers are consistent. So let’s get into how to answer it.
Preparation is key:
This is such a common and textbook question that shame on you if you’re not ready for it. You should know what your key strengths are as well as your key weaknesses as this knowledge is important for you to grow. That being said, you might not want to share these strengths and weaknesses with a potential employer as they may not cast you in the light you need to be in to get the offer — especially when the job market is highly competitive.
So the first thing you must do when you finish reading this article is to sit down and write out your answer. Given that answering this question well (remember that there are no right nor wrong answers to interview questions) will keep you in the running and that a poor answer may cause the employer to not consider you, you’ll want to put a lot of thought in to this.
Listing your strengths:
Ideally, your strengths should match the key qualifications for the position. You can usually tell what’s most important to the employer by the way the job description is written, but sometimes, you’ll learn it during your interview. If during the interview the interviewer keeps emphasizing the importance of experience, then experience might be the strength you decide to go with.
So how do you prepare for this if it could change during the interview? Well start by looking at the qualifications and listing out a strength for each one. That way you have at least one strength (and a story you can tell about it) for whatever might come up in the interview. And yes, you’ll want a story to be able to share with the employer so they know you’re sincere.
The last time I was asked this question, I had learned through the interview process that good communication skills were needed for the position. So one of the things I listed as a strength was, you guessed it, my communication skills. I was President of my Toastmasters club at the time so I explained that in addition to being comfortable with giving a speech, I also work well with people from all walks of life. Now given that this was for a computer programming job, the other strength I listed was my programming experience. Had I only talked about my strength as a speaker, they might wonder how good I programmer I must be. Since they asked for my top two strengths, I was able to talk about both. If they only asked for one, I would have gone into the technical challenges that I overcame as a programmer and then snuck in the communication skills by saying “but as challenging as some technical problems are, sometimes getting people to work together can be just as difficult. There have been days where I’ve felt my skills as a communicator were as important as my skills as a programmer.”
Again, you want to read the interviewer a little bit. I had interviewed once for a contract position for programming where they just wanted you to sit at a desk and pump out code. So in that case, I would have stuck with just the technical skills. In another interview, the hiring manager told me that his team lacked someone who could be groomed for management so in that case, the communication skills are important. So keep these possibilities in mind as you prepare your list of strengths.
Listing out your weaknesses:
This is the part of the question where people have the most trouble — and it’s also the part that the person on the other side of the desk is paying most attention to. While the strengths piece is more about trying to figure out what the candidate is most proud of, the weaknesses piece is about getting a candidate to tell you things you typically don’t find out until their first day on the job. So you can see why so many employers are asking it again.
The trick here is to only list weaknesses that are actually strengths in disguise. The common textbook examples are “I’m very thorough with my work to ensure there are no mistakes” or “I tend to work long hours because I’m so dedicated.” Even the most novice interviewer can see through answers like these. The best answer I’ve ever heard for this is that “I’ve been working this field for over ten years but my major in college was in a different subject area. I’m currently taking classes at night so I can have the formal education in addition to my work experience.”
This answer is great for the following reasons:
- He slipped in a strength (his work experience).
- He’s showing that he did something about the weakness.
- He choose a weakness that’s not a significant deficiency in his skill set (in this case, it was for a technical position where work experience is much more valuable than formal education).
This is the type of weakness you want to strive for. A great tip for college students is to use their lack of real life work experience as a weakness. When I was finishing up college, I once said in an interview “Although I’ve had an internship at a software company and worked in the Computer Information Systems Department part-time, I currently don’t have the years of experience that other candidates might have.” Given that the employer knew I was still in college, this worked out to be a decent answer.
So again, make sure that each weakness you list out meets these criteria. Make sure it’s not a critical qualification for the job, show that you’re doing something to work on the weakness and slip in a strength while giving the weakness.
So now you should be armed and ready to take on this question at your next interview. Remember that preparing for this (and many other questions) ahead of time will help you feel less stressed during your interview. Take each interview seriously and prepare well — you often only get one shot.
If you’ve found this article useful, you might want to check out my new CD on Job Interviewing. It’s packed with tips like these that you can listen to over and over again.