“This is one of the questions people have the hardest time answering,” says Amanda Abella, a career coach, writer, speaker, and founder of the Gen Y lifestyle blog Grad Meets World. “[Your response] tells the interviewer a lot about your character, so it definitely holds a lot of weight.”
Andrew G. Rosen, founder and editor of the popular career advice blog Jobacle.com, agrees. “This is a go-to question for interviewers,” he says. “It’s a seemingly innocent question that has the potential to quickly expose a major flaw. It’s the Hail Mary of the interview; a final last-ditch attempt to trip you up and send you in the other direction. But with a little planning, most interviewees can easily neutralize this question; even use it to their advantage.”
It’s not a trick question and there’s no “right” answer—but interviewers are looking for something specific in your response to this challenging query.
“Hiring managers who ask about weaknesses during interviews are looking for examples of how a person faced obstacles in the past,” says Dylan Schweitzer, a group talent acquisition manager for Enterprise Rent-A-Car. “All employees have flaws, but how they deal with failure and have made steps to fix them are indicators as to how they will handle constructive criticism in the future,” he says. “Interviewers ask about weaknesses and failures because resiliency is a critical skill set which employees must have. As a manager, you expect to give constructive criticism to your employees and the ability of a person to take that and improve is important when choosing who you will manage.”
Abella concurs. “Hiring managers know that no one is perfect. However, they want to make sure of a few things.” First, she says, they want to know that you aren’t conceited and are aware that you make mistakes. “Confidence is great, but there’s a fine line between confidence and conceit.” Second, it’s also a question of character, she says. “If your weakness is that you have a bad temper, you may come off like a loose cannon who will be difficult to work with. Meanwhile, if a weakness is something like ‘I put a lot of pressure—sometimes too much pressure—on myself to succeed, but I’ve worked on this,’ then that doesn’t sound so bad.”
Interviews are designed to filter out bad candidates just as much as they are about finding the right one, Rosen says. “‘What’s your biggest weakness?’ is sort of a silly question and the interviewer is hoping they will catch you off guard, when you don’t have a scripted answer to fall back on. They think you will reveal something you didn’t want or expect to.”
To ensure this doesn’t happen to you, here are some tips for talking about your biggest weakness in a job interview:
Know your weakness(es). Penelope Trunk, a career coach and author of Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success, wrote in a blog post on the topic: “If you don’t know your weakness, take a personality type quiz and the results will show you. Everyone has specific strengths and everyone has specific weaknesses. It’s pretty certain that if you are not clear on your weaknesses then you are not clear on your strengths, and your value at the office will be questionable.”
Be honest, but don’t mention essential skills. “Do not give a bullshit answer,” Trunk writes. “Saying something like, ‘I pay too much attention to detail’ is actually a terrible answer for someone who is getting hired to do detail work. It means you have a deficit in the exact area you’re tying to get hired for. The best answer to the question is when you tell a truthful answer, because it’s very unlikely you will be hired for the thing you are most weak at doing.”
For example, someone who is a production artist could say his weakness is finance, she says. “So what if he doesn’t like finance? He is not getting hired to do it.”
To avoid mentioning a weakness that can crush your chances of landing the job, review the job description to see what exactly the employer is looking for.
Talk about how you’ve conquered the weakness. “Be prepared to share an example of a previous failure or weakness that you’ve successfully turned into a strength,” Schweitzer says. “Do not discuss areas of opportunity that you are still working on and have not yet fixed.”
For example, if you say that you used to come in late to work and usually come in on time now, you can expect to not get a job offer. “The example of coming into work late needs to have a story behind it of how a manager, mentor or family member talked to you about how timeliness impacts your personal brand and ever since then you arrive early to all meetings. In fact, an example of a manager recently complimenting you on being the first one to arrive at meetings or events would be the support needed to show you fixed this issue.”
Don’t prepare an exact response. Of course you want to be prepared for every common interview question—especially tricky ones like this. Think about your weaknesses ahead of time, but don’t rehearse a response. Your answer might change slightly according to the rest of the conversation with the hiring manager, and you don’t want it to come across as unauthentic or staged.
Only discuss work-related weaknesses. “Always make sure that they are business appropriate,” Abella says. “Personal weaknesses are okay sometimes, but what these guys are really looking for are your weaknesses in the work place and how you’ve overcome them.”
You also want to avoid personal drama, she says. “Sure, everyone has got some, but companies want to ensure this won’t affect your job if you get hired. Besides, it’s considered completely inappropriate to bring personal drama into the business world.”
Don’t say you’re a perfectionist or you work too hard. Schweitzer says common responses that are immediately dismissed are: “I am a perfectionist,” and “I work so hard that I don’t allow myself to relax.” “Interviewers hear these examples all the time and often will ask for another example or just move on knowing you prepared for that question. Use the weakness question as an opportunity to share how you’ve overcome a professional challenge and how you now are better because of it.”
Trunk agrees that you should avoid the ‘perfectionist’ response. “If you are not being interviewed for detail work it’s not a believable weakness. And if you are being hired for detail work being a perfectionist will make you slow and annoying.”
“Hiring managers know that people make mistakes, and they want to know how you’ve handled yours,” Abella concludes. “Being aware of your weaknesses is a good sign; it shows that you know where your boundaries are and aren’t suffering from a case of hubris.”