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"What are your strengths and weaknesses?": How to answer this common interview question

By Marc Burrage, Managing Director, Hays Poland

During my career I’ve seen many candidates struggle with a common interview question when they shouldn’t. It’s a line of conversation that provides them with a great opportunity to impress the person leading the interview. Instead, I’ve often found that they mistakenly believe that the reply is an easy one and gives an unsatisfactory answer without stopping to think. That’s why I want to talk about the best way for interviewees to answer: “What are your strengths and weaknesses?”

To be clear, there’s no correct answer to this question. A good, or even great, answer will depend on your skills and experiences. There is, though, a correct way to answer it. Your approach and structure in the answer will determine how you come across as a person and whether you can offer the hiring party what they’re after.

To give the best answer possible, it’s easier if we look at each part of the question separately.

“What are your strengths?”

This is a common interview question and should be an exciting moment for you, as it gives you the chance to show off the attributes and skills that you might not have been able to get across at another point in the conversation. You can also reinforce the positive image of yourself in the mind of the interviewer.

However, that doesn’t mean that you should simply reel off a list of the qualities you feel make you look good. Despite the positive connotations, there is still a wrong way to answer this question, and it’s important that you’re not caught up in the moment.

Make sure that anything you say is relevant to the company and, more specifically, the role itself. Use the job specification as a reference for what you’ll need to carry out the role successfully and make sure you’re ticking off the skills/experience mentioned in it. If you haven’t already, take time to research the company and its culture, either through their website or social media channels. As well as helping you to understand whether they will be the right fit for you, it will further your understanding of what they’re looking for.

Include a mix of technical skills, transferable skills and traits. The former should have been made apparent in your CV or cover letter, but bear in mind that the person interviewing you may not have read these thoroughly, so it’s worth reminding them of what you can offer.

If you are applying for a role that demands hard skills you are lacking in, it’s best to focus on traits and soft skills, and demonstrate that you can apply these here. You could also say that one of your strengths is the speed at which you pick up new technical skills and use past examples to prove this.

This interview is an opportunity for you to stand out from the other applicants, so make sure that your listed strengths set you apart from the rest. Don’t say anything obvious that any candidate could claim. One of the worst so-called strengths that candidates give, in my opinion, is: “I work hard” – believe me, this has the opposite effect to the one the speaker hopes to have. Everybody should feel this about themselves, and what is the alternative? I highly doubt that any of the other applicants will have said, “I don’t work hard”, so think about what makes you unique and the best fit for the role.

That leads me to my last point: be specific. As I’ve said, it’s good to describe the traits and soft skills that make you an ideal employee, but, even if you’re being honest, any vague descriptions could appear insincere. Choose a relevant area to which you can apply these with success and, ideally, again use examples.

“What are your weaknesses?”

This is the aspect of the question where I imagine people are more likely to struggle. The most important thing for anybody who finds this question intimidating is to view it as an opportunity to impress, rather than a trap to catch you out.

For many of us, there’s the temptation to “um” and “ah” as you struggle to think of anything that could possibly be conceived as a weakness, almost as though the thought had never occurred to you. Please do not make this mistake, as this is a common interview question and you’ll seem unprepared. Furthermore, you’ll come across as lacking self-awareness.

Self-awareness is often a desirable trait for employers and shows that you can work well with others. It highlights that you are able to assess your own performance and build on it, as well as take lessons from constructive criticism and move forward. Therefore, honesty will come across well too. Blaming others for the weaknesses you mention, or making excuses for them, will suggest that you are less willing to work on yourself and therefore will not be as attractive to potential employers.

Of course, there is also the risk of going too far in the other direction. If anything, it’s possible to be too honest and list too many shortcomings, in which case the person hiring for the role might think that you lack the skills or traits required. Finding that balance is crucial.

The best way to do this is to firstly consider what the interviewer actually wants to find out. It is inevitable that you will struggle with some challenges in your new role, so it’s important to explain how you have reacted to other problems in the past and prove that you have learned from this and made improvements as a result.

Before we go on, I want to avoid any confusion. This does NOT mean that you should try and spin your weaknesses by trying to imply that they are a strength: “I’m a perfectionist”, or “I need to be busy”. The interviewer’s not going to fall for it. Instead, use these as a starting point to explain how you’re gaining news skills, or why you want the job for which you’re applying. For example, you can replace “I’m a perfectionist”, with “sometimes I spend too much time focusing on details. I’d like this role because it would allow me to develop my ability to look at the bigger picture”.

Alternatively, discuss any weaknesses you’re working on, or any previous problems you’ve had and how you went about learning or upskilling as a result. Ideally, you’ll use a story from your previous work or academic experience to demonstrate your journey. This is what the interviewer wants to know. However, I do have a couple of suggestions for how you should go about doing this.

Firstly, make an attempt to avoid using words that can be seen as too negative, or have those connotations (for example, “failed”, “unsuccessful” or “poor”). It won’t help the interviewer’s perception of you, even if it’s happening subconsciously. Instead, explain that a project or task “didn’t go as well as I’d hoped” or that “results could have been better” – this will show that you hold high standards and are always looking to do the best job possible. After this, let them know why you believe this happened and what you did/would do better the next time.

Another important tip is to choose weaknesses that aren’t necessarily relevant to the role. For example:

  • Is this a role in recruitment or sales, or one that will require you to interact with new people on a regular basis? If not, then maybe mention that you used to/can still be shy at times.
  • Will you have to speak on stage or to camera often? If not, you could say that you can be nervous before public speaking.
  • Will you need to use a particular piece of software or hardware? If not, you can admit your inexperience with that. In this instance, just make sure that it’s somewhat relevant to the conversation (i.e. it was required in a previous or similar role) or else it will seem strange to mention it in the first place.

This is another case of where your research around the company and the role will come in use. The more you know about what you’ll need to succeed, the more you’ll also know is irrelevant. These can be your listed weaknesses.

It's a common interview question for a reason

When hiring for a role, interviewers choose this question because they can learn a lot about your personality, skills and application. Taking time to ensure that there is a structure to each of your responses and that the desired outcome is positive will help you give off the best impression possible and stand out from the other candidates.

About this author

Leading nearly 400 hundred employees across six offices, Marc Burrage was appointed as Managing Director for Hays Poland in September 2019.

Marc joined Hays at the beginning of 2012 as Regional Director for Hong Kong. In 2014 he was asked to head up the Hays Talent Solutions business in Asia, before being appointed Managing Director for Hays Japan in 2015. In this role, Marc was responsible for the day-to-day operations and growth of the Japanese business across all specialisms, supplying permanent, executive search, temporary, contract and onsite solutions.

Marc has broad industry and functional expertise, with a proven track record of continued success and has led and grown businesses in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Asia. Prior to working in the recruitment industry Marc held various sales and marketing management positions in the automotive industry. He has extensive business transformation and change management experience and is adept at building, developing and leading cross functional teams. Marc was a board member for the Leadership Institute of New Zealand and studied strategy at Ashridge International Business School.

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