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How to Answer the Greatest Weakness Question

One of my neighbors, we’ll call him Bob, recently told me that he just went through a job interview and asked for some advice. He said he felt it was going smoothly and he was able to field the questions with no problem. That is until was asked this question: “What would you say is your greatest weakness?”

This is still, unfortunately, a very common question asked in interviews and Bob should have expected it. However, he freely admitted that he hadn’t prepared for that question in advance and stumbled around for an answer. He finally settled on saying something about his poor planning skills.

After that, Bob said he lost his confidence and the interview took a turn south.

I’m always surprised at how frequently this question is still asked because I never ask it. That’s right, I will never ask an applicant to tell me their greatest weakness! To me, it’s a useless question because it tells me nothing about the candidate’s skills, experience, or accomplishments. It’s designed to trick the applicant into revealing something negative about their qualifications.

But many Hiring Managers still use it and if you go on enough interviews you will encounter it for sure. Therefore, you need to know how to answer it in a way that doesn’t reflect negatively on you as a candidate.

First of all, you need to know that there is no correct answer to this question. Its only purpose is to bring out something that may disqualify you for the job and to observe how well you respond to a difficult question.

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The Right Way to Respond to The Greatest Weakness Question

I’m now going to tell you the secret to answering this question, something you will likely read nowhere else: you can give the best answer by not answering it!

You heard that right – do not answer this question as asked.

And for certain, don’t try to answer it using the worn-out approach of taking something usually considered a positive trait and exaggerating it by stating it as a negative.

For example, saying something like: “I drive myself too hard when things get tough and I can be hard on team members who aren’t as intense.” Any Hiring Manager recognizes this as a cliché answer you probably obtained from some generic interview advice site on the Web.

Here’s what I suggest you do instead. Since there is no good answer to this question, what you need to do is answer it in a way that doesn’t answer it, yet will satisfy most experienced Hiring Managers.

The way to do this is to say something similar to this:

“I’m sure we all have things we’d like to improve about ourselves. However, as I understand the job, it plays to my strengths, not my soft spots. I don’t believe anything in my experience, skills, and accomplishments would prevent me from performing well in this position. For example…” and then quote some of the most important qualifications from the job description, along with a few sentences about how your experience and accomplishments match them.

This is a great answer. It does say you have some shortcomings, as does everyone, but it takes you out of a “confession” answer by turning the question into another opportunity to promote yourself. You’ll show that you can field difficult questions gracefully and you’ll skillfully avoid the trap set by this question.

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Bear in mind that it’s important to come across as confident, not cocky, so be sure to put at least a little humility in your tone!

I promise that you’ll be the only applicant to answer such as this. As a Hiring Manager, I’d have both respect and admiration for an applicant who could pull this off. I’ve never seen it yet, but would immediately put this person in the “schedule a second interview” stack.

What if You Have to Admit to a Weakness Anyway?

You may still encounter an old-school, short-sighted Hiring Manager that won’t accept this answer and insists that you admit to a weakness (this should be a red flag – do you want to work for someone like this?).

If you’re faced with this situation, here’s my suggestion. Pick something that is not a qualification for the position you are seeking. As an example, let’s assume you’re interviewing for a web developer position. A good business skill to have is the ability to use spreadsheets but this is not a skill that would be high on the qualification list for a web developer. Here’s what you might say.

“Well, I’m not highly proficient using Excel or the Google and Apple spreadsheet programs. I know I can increase my productivity and organization skills by developing more expertise, so I’ve been taking online courses to beef up my knowledge. I see that you’re a Microsoft shop, so I’ll keep my focus on Excel.”

While this does admit to a weakness, it’s not critical to the job. You’ve also made the point that you’re already working on improving in this area. This sends a strong message that you’re aware of this ‘weakness’ and have the initiative to correct it.

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You’ll need to customize this for your interview, as each job description will be different. The important thing is to anticipate the need to admit to some sort of weakness and prepare in advance.

But try the ‘answer by not answering’ approach first. You may find that it avoids the no-win “what is your greatest weakness” question and substitutes it for something that actually makes you look good.

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