This is a textbook interview question and is mainly asked because people who interview infrequently research questions to ask and this one always pops up with “where do you want to be in 5 years.” Some human resource professionals ask it because they believe the answer provides special insight to as to what the candidate thinks of him/herself.
The question has some variations such as asking for the top three or five strengths and/or weaknesses or the questions asked separately during different parts of the interview.
How to answer it:
For the strengths part, you want to highlight your strengths which are most in line with the company and the position. If the company values leadership, then cite your leadership experience. If the position is in marketing or advertising, choose “creativity.” If you’re in a technical field, state something along the lines of adapting to new technologies quickly.
What’s most important is that you can provide examples to show that what you mentioned is in fact a strength. So if you’re in sales and you list your persuasion skills as a strength, be sure you have a few stories about getting tough prospects to buy your goods.
Weaknesses are a little tougher. Many sources recommend taking a strength and disguising it as a weakness — the most common examples are “I’m a workaholic” or “I’m a stickler for detail.” Avoid these answers as they sound as ridiculous as answering “where will you be in 3 & 5 years?” with “in three years I’ll have your job and in five years I’ll have your boss’s job.” It’s corny and you’ll instantly lose credibility.
Instead, find something that won’t hurt you as a candidate for the job, but most importantly, is something you’re working to improve. You could state that you’re weak in a skill that’s not required for the job but would benefit the company. But again, the key here is to show that you’re taking action towards improving it such as doing research or taking a course. And like with your strengths, make sure you can cite examples of what you’re doing to improve.
Author Harvey Mackay provides some interesting advice on when you’re asked to provide an exact number of weaknesses such as three or five. He suggests you not provide all three (or five) because doing so tells the interviewer that if they asked you for ten or more, you’d be able to provide more. Personally, I see nothing wrong with providing three weaknesses if they ask you for three, but if they do ask for five or more, you may want to consider Harvey’s advice.
Overall, this is a standard question that is asked for a variety of reasons. Just keep in mind that you want to provide strengths that are in line with the business and position and weaknesses that won’t hurt you. Also remember to be able to provide examples.
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.