There’s a whole lot of talking about yourself that goes on in an interview. One of the most stressful parts might be when a recruiter or prospective boss asks you to tell them about your strengths and weaknesses.
You’re bound to hear, “What would you say is one of your weaknesses?” or “What’s your greatest strength?” or both in virtually every hiring process you’ll ever go through. While that might be frustrating—really, every time?!—it also means that you can anticipate the questions and craft thoughtful answers that will impress the interviewer.
In other words, with just a little bit of preparation, you can master the art of selling your strengths without sounding conceited and talking about your weaknesses without undermining your candidacy.
Okay, that’s all great in theory, but what do you actually need to do to discuss your strengths and weaknesses successfully?
One of the most important things to get right when talking about your strengths and weaknesses in an interview setting is honesty. It might sound trite, but it’s also true. An answer that sounds genuine and authentic will impress, while one that sounds generic, calculated, exaggerated, or humblebraggy will do the opposite.
A boss doesn’t want to hire someone who can’t recognize and own what they bring to the table as well as what they need to work on. You’ll be a better employee if you can understand and leverage your strengths and acknowledge and learn from your weaknesses. So you want to show in the interview that you’re capable of that kind of self-reflection.
Here’s another cliche you shouldn’t discount: “Show, don’t tell.” Anyone who’s ever taken a writing class—whether in seventh grade or graduate school—has heard it. You should keep it in mind when answering just about any interview question, and it’s certainly helpful here.
“Anytime you can have a real-life example or a concrete example, it’s a good idea. It just helps to contextualize the response a little bit,” Smith says. “We just understand concepts and situations better with a story. So if you can tell a story that supports your thesis, then it’s always helpful.”
Talk about a time your strength helped you achieve something in a professional setting or when your weakness impeded you. For example, if you’re talking about how you’re calm under pressure in a fast-paced environment, you might tell the interviewer about that time you delivered a revamped client proposal after a last-minute change of plans. If you’re admitting that your weakness is presenting in front of high-level executives, you might start by briefly describing the time you got so nervous presenting your plan for a new marketing strategy that you weren’t able to effectively convey your (thorough and pretty brilliant) approach and your boss had to step in and help get the plan approved.
Not only will sharing a real example make your answer stand out, but it’ll also make it sound thoughtful and honest and highlight all those other characteristics interviewers are actually looking for.
An answer that’s genuine and includes an illustrative anecdote is a great start, but it’s not complete until you add some insight. This goes for both strengths and weaknesses but looks a little different in each case.
When you’re talking about a strength, the last beat of your answer should tie whatever skill or trait you’ve been discussing to the role and company you’re applying for. Tell the interviewer how that strength would be useful in this particular position at this particular company.
So going back to the revamped client proposal example, you might add, “Since things move quickly at [Company], this would allow me to come in and earn a new team’s confidence and foster a trusting team culture while also ensuring we’re all hitting our goals and delivering high-quality work.”
In the case of a weakness, “tell me how they’ve grown from it or what they’ve done to accommodate that or what they’ve learned from it,” Smith says. “Really showcase your growth trajectory, your learning curve, what you’ve done as a result of the awareness of that weakness,” she adds. “It gives you an idea like if I hire this person and they’re here, this is the kind of problem solving or growth that I can expect to see from them.”
So if you were the candidate with the presentation snafu, you might talk about how you sat down with your boss to make a plan to improve your public speaking skills, and how the next time you had to present to the execs you knocked it out of the park.
You don’t have to devote half the interview to these answers. You can keep your response relatively brief and focused on one or two strengths or weaknesses, depending on how the question was phrased. To add to our list of overused-but-handy phrases: Think quality, not quantity. Don’t dive in and rattle off a litany of things you think you’re good or bad at without explaining anything. Instead, narrow it down and go into detail.
While you definitely want to prepare and do your best to nail your answers, try not to stress too much. “Don’t panic,” Smith says. “I have never known an employment decision to come down to how someone answers those questions,” she adds. “It’s just one data point connected with a whole bunch of other ones. So don’t give it too much weight.”
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