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How to answer tricky interview questions: what is your greatest weakness?

Jaymes Carr

Careers Commentator
5 tips on how to navigate tricky interview questions: consider what the interviewer is really asking and how to craft a strong response.

If you’ve gotten as far as an interview for a competitive graduate job, you probably haven’t been drawing too much attention to any personal weaknesses. Instead, you’ll have been emphasising what makes you a better choice than other candidates: whether that’s your past academic performance, soft skills, work experience, or passion for the role. As a result, during an interview, it’s often jarring to be asked to discuss any areas in which you might not be up to scratch.

Imagine yourself in that situation: how do you respond? It’s trickier than it might seem. First, we can rule out the many predictable answers that will, at best, elicit an incredulous yawn from your interviewer. In other words, don’t be the fiftieth candidate to claim that their biggest weakness is “perfectionism” or “a degree of attention to detail that can slow me down”. It may seem like a clever evasive maneuver, but it’s also about as original as a beauty pageant contestant expressing a desire for world peace.

So what should you say? To figure that out, it’s helpful to consider what you’re really being asked. It’s then a lot easier to develop an answer that’s convincing, self-aware, and impressive: all qualities that will help you shine in your interview.

What is the interviewer really asking?

Here’s the good news: most interviewers aren’t actually all that interested in your greatest weakness, which, for many people, it wouldn’t be appropriate to bring up in a professional setting anyway. So no: you don’t have to admit that you’re still scared of the dark, or addicted to social media, or convinced that we’re all being poisoned by chemtrails. None of those would address what the interviewer really wants to know, which is a question with three parts.

First, how self-aware are you? After all, everybody has professional weaknesses, or, at the very least, areas where they could stand to improve. This, in itself, is not a problem, because, with self-awareness, it’s possible to compensate for any weaknesses or seek out the support of colleagues with complementary skills. (By contrast, the gifted but disorganised programmer who refuses to use a diary or respond to meeting invites will probably, despite his technical brilliance, cause headaches as an employee).

Second, what is your response to evidence of a professional shortcoming? This is the unspoken part of the interviewer’s question: he will want to know not just what your biggest weakness is, but what you’ve done about it.

Third, how do you perform under pressure? Nobody likes being asked about their weaknesses, but that’s the point: are you level-headed in the face of thorny questions or easily flustered? And what might that mean in the future if, say, a client at the law firm you’re trying to join questions a tough call you’ve made on their case? Can you stay cool and give a good explanation?  

Crafting a strong response

Let’s quickly recap the things you shouldn’t do:

  1. Don’t be non-specific. Saying that you’re ‘a perfectionist’ isn’t just lame, it’s vague too.
  2. Don’t try to avoid the question with a bad joke. The fact that you have a weakness for Tim-Tams isn’t relevant or particularly revealing. Besides, who doesn’t?
  3. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot. This is not the right time to bring up your weakness for watching Vine compilations at work (although that’s probably something you need to address at some point).

Here are two ways to respond instead:

  1. Pick a weakness that arises from a strength. For example, you might say: “I really enjoy working in teams, which means that I get frustrated by interpersonal conflict” or “Because I’m motivated by deadlines and targets, my enthusiasm can flag a little when I don’t have concrete goals to meet.”
  2. Highlight a skill that you’ve improved. For example, you could respond by saying: “As a salesperson, I used to feel a bit lost when the software developers would start discussing the ins and outs of the work they do. I knew I’d never be asked to write code in an emergency, but I still enrolled in an online programming course and made a list of questions to ask a colleague in the development team. After a few weeks, I felt like I could participate more thoughtfully in staff meetings, and answer customer queries with confidence.”

Whichever approach you choose, your goal should always be to admit a genuine weakness and then demonstrate how you’ve mitigated it, or how it might actually be a positive. Yes, you have a strong sense of urgency, but that means you’ll always get your work done on time. Yes, you dislike interpersonal conflict, but, after enrolling in a leadership course, you’ve become a lot better at resolving disagreements and maintaining strong professional relationships.

‘What is your greatest weakness?’ is a common enough question that you should prepare an answer before your interview and also familiarise yourself with other ways the question might be asked (e.g. “What do you think you’ll find most challenging in this role?”). If you do this, then you can be confident that, when the time comes, you’ll be able to knock any ‘weakness’ questions out of the park.