Dear New Shrink,
I have been on several job interviews lately. I want to go on the record and say that I hate the “what are your weaknesses” question. It seems like every interviewer I have met with has asked me this question in some way or another, and every time I am at a loss as to what I should say. I have talked with others and several friends have suggested talking about things that could be viewed as a positive by the employer. For instance, I have been told to tell them I’m an overachiever or have overly high standards for my work. It seems like these are over-used cliché examples. Do you have any helpful tips to answer this question?
This common interview question tends to stump a lot of people. Interviews can be a stressful experience, especially if in the back of your mind you’re thinking about how you are going to handle the “weakness” question. Many individuals (some say 70-75 percent) try to answer this question by disguising a strength as a weakness. We have all heard the classic answer, “I’m a perfectionist.” Well that answer is simply not going to cut it in today’s job market! One of the first things that will put a potential candidate in the “no” pile is providing a canned or rehearsed answer.
Start by really considering why the employer is asking this question. While some may have pulled it out of the 101 interview questions handbook, many more are asking it for real reasons. The most common reason an employer would ask this question is because they want to evaluate the risks of hiring you. However, keep in mind that they are likely evaluating you beyond the actual words or content of your answer but rather how you handle yourself under pressure. So, if they are looking to see how you’re going to handle the question, preparing for that situation is going to help you stand out as an A+ interviewee.
To prepare for your answer reflect on the question they are asking. You should be honest about yourself, your strengths and your weaknesses. Finding something that is true to you will help you to establish a connection with the employer. Sharing an honest weakness will also help evaluate whether you are a good fit for the company and if the position would be a good fit for you. For example, if you are really a big picture person and you have a tough time managing minute details, having that data analysis job is probably not going to be a great fit for you in the long run.
While I want you to be honest with the interviewer, this is also not a time to reveal a major weakness. Be careful not to reveal anything that would make them question your professionalism or indicate that you might become a problem employee in the future. You also want to be careful not to discuss weaknesses that relate to the direct responsibilities of the position. Again, if your weaknesses are direct responsibilities of the position, you probably want to re-think the fit with your personal strengths and skills.
So now we see that it’s important to find something in the middle, share something that is true for you but not too big. Confessing to a minor weakness will allow you to answer the question without shooting yourself in the foot. For example, if you are applying for a collaborative team position, you might share that you sometimes have difficulty confronting others. However, you do not want to leave your answer hanging on a weakness. You need to tell the employer how you are working on that weakness. Take your answer to the next level.
“In the past it has been difficult for me to speak in front of large groups, so I recently enrolled in a public speaking course to better develop my presentation skills.”
As the old saying goes, practice makes perfect. But, you cannot just rehearse in your head, you need to say it aloud, ideally practicing with a friend. See how it feels and sounds to take ownership over your minor weaknesses and to talk about how you’re working to fix it. I am confident that with some thorough reflection and practice you will do great. But if worse comes to worse, you can use a humorous approach as a last resort: your greatest weakness could be chocolate, red wine, or gossip magazines!
KATRINA DAVY is a Santa Monica-based professional career counselor who holds degrees from Cornell and Columbia universities. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. All questions are kept anonymous; let us help you with your life matters! Visit us online at www.newshrink.com.