What's Your Greatest Weakness? How to Answer a Job Interviewer
"What's your greatest weakness?" is one of the toughest interview questions you can face. After all, you're already nervous about trying to sell yourself to an employer, and now you're supposed to bring up something you're terrible at? Isn't that the quickest way to take yourself out of the running?
Don't panic. Here's the best way to answer this tricky interview question: Talk about a truly weak area you have that isn't fundamental to the job you're after, then explain the actions you're taking to improve upon it. (We all have things we're not good at, but if you can admit your imperfections honestly and demonstrate that you've taken charge of your professional growth, you can show an employer that you really are the right person for the position.)
This article offers examples of both good and bad answers, and it outlines five steps for preparing a response that will help you put your candidacy in the best possible light. It also explains why hiring managers ask about weaknesses in the first place, how different interviewers approach this topic, and what they're really trying to find out about you. This article even includes tips on what not to do so that you can avoid the most common mistakes that trip people up.
- Examples of what you should (and shouldn't) say
- Why interviewers ask about weaknesses
- Different forms of the question to watch for
- How to prepare an effective answer
- Common mistakes to avoid
Examples of What You Should (and Shouldn't) Say
Your answer should be tailored to your own experiences. But there are ways of responding that can either help or hinder your chances of getting hired. Here are some example answers to help you see the difference. (For more help, see our sections on how to formulate an answer and how to avoid common mistakes).
What Not to Say
Don't try to avoid the question or act like you have no weaknesses. Also, don't try to make one of your strengths look like a weakness or scare off an interviewer with something truly disturbing. For example, do not give answers like:
- "I'm excellent at what I do. I can't really think of any areas where I need to improve."
- "I'm so dedicated to my work that I spend long hours in the office obsessing over making things perfect. You could say I'm a workaholic."
- "I can't control my anger. I've been known to explode when someone criticizes my work or makes me nervous."
What You Should Say Instead
Show that you're aware of a shortcoming that could affect your professional life, but make it known that you are taking steps to minimize its impact. Also, keep your language as positive as possible. Here are a few examples of better answers:
- "Figuring out how much time it will take to complete a task is an issue for me. Sometimes I spend too long on smaller jobs and end up having to rush to get projects done. However, I've taken some time management seminars that have taught me techniques for balancing my workload better."
- "I find it challenging to delegate tasks to other people. I tend to want to control the whole project myself, and I used to think that asking for help made me look bad. But I've come to appreciate that sharing responsibilities can lead to some pretty incredible accomplishments, and I'm continuing to work on letting go."
- "I'm not very good at speaking up in meetings. Even when I have something to contribute, I'm often too timid to volunteer my input. I've been reading some books on assertiveness and effective communication, and now I prepare for every meeting by writing out at least two important details I plan to share. It's helping me learn to be less reserved."
Why Interviewers Ask About Weaknesses
Hiring managers want to know if you have a flaw that will make it hard for you to do the job effectively. They don't want to hire someone who would be a bad fit for the position, because that reflects poorly on them as well as on you. Companies can't afford to make lousy hiring decisions. Part of a human resource manager's job is to discern whether you present too much of a risk.
That said, some HR professionals consider the weakness question to be unfair and pointless. After all, few people are going to admit to their biggest faults when they know they're being evaluated. And interviewers know they are unlikely to get the complete and unvarnished truth. But many continue to ask the question because of what they can tell about you from the way you respond.
Asking about weaknesses is a way of testing your ability to be honest and self-critical. Some hiring managers also want to see how you handle being pushed off of your carefully rehearsed script. You don't want to give the impression that you're hiding something or that you are unaware of your limitations. Ideally, you want to show that you've done some soul-searching and are actively working on improving your weakest areas.
Different Forms of the Question to Watch For
Most commonly, interviewers will simply ask, "What's your greatest weakness?" But some hiring managers try to ferret out your flaws by phrasing the question in different ways, and you should be ready for any of them. Here are a few examples:
- What aspect of your work do you most want to improve? This is a less-intimidating way of asking the same thing.
- What are some of your weaknesses? By asking for multiple examples, the interviewer is trying to push you beyond the one canned answer you've likely prepared.
- What are your strengths and weaknesses? If you're asked for both, be sure to start with your weaknesses. That way, you can end your answer on a positive note.
- What would your former supervisor say you need to work on? Since it's possible that the hiring manager will contact your former boss as part of a reference check, this is a subtle way of encouraging you to be honest. The interviewer might also be hoping you'll reveal details of past performance reviews.
- We all have something in our jobs we dislike. What tasks or responsibilities do you prefer to avoid? The use of "we" is intended to establish a friendly bond with you and get you to open up. Be careful not to be too negative.
- Describe a challenging situation you've been in at work and tell me how you dealt with it. Telling a story forces you to talk more and increases the odds that you'll reveal more about yourself. This is a great opportunity to give a concrete example of how you've successfully overcome hardship or conflict.
How to Prepare an Effective Answer
The best answers have two parts: First, you mention a genuine weakness you have. Then, you explain what you're doing to address it. Preparation is key, because you don't want to be caught flat-footed in the middle of the interview. Here are five steps you can follow to boost your odds of success:
1. Identify your weaknesses.
It's important to be aware of your own shortcomings. That means taking the time to think about what weaknesses you have that could be shared with an interviewer. You need to dig deep and think about difficulties you've had in the past that you've worked to conquer. What do you wish you could improve upon?
Here are some examples of weaknesses that may apply in your situation:
- Being disorganized
- Not being detail-oriented
- Being easily distracted
- Having limited experience with a certain tool or in a certain subject area
- Not being good at delegating
- Having trouble speaking in front of large groups
- Being too controlling
- Lacking patience or being impulsive
2. Study the job description.
Hopefully, when you created your resume and cover letter, you tailored the content to match the requirements of the specific job you're after. When it comes to discussing your weaknesses, you need to do exactly the opposite: Do not mention any skill that is essential to the job in question. No hiring manager wants to hear that an aspiring accountant can't do spreadsheets, or that a would-be salesperson has questionable people skills. However, it might be acceptable for a computer programmer to have difficulties with writing, or for a copywriter to be a poor public speaker. The idea is to choose a weakness that is a relatively minor aspect of the work and that can be overcome with effort and practice.
3. Frame your answer.
It's wise to think through how you'll approach your answer before you get into the interview room. Here are three techniques you may want to try:
- Describe two opposites and state your preference for one. For instance, you might say, "Given a choice between high-level planning and detailed implementation, I prefer the former. I find it much more satisfying to focus on the big picture." This implies that concentrating on details is not your forte without you having to explicitly state as much. Contrasting your weakness with a strength enables you to frame your answer in a more palatable way.
- Make context the key. Instead of saying, "I'm impatient," talk about how the way you act in certain settings makes you come across as impatient. It's a good idea to make your answer about behavior (which can be learned) rather than personality (which is tougher to change).
- Address the elephant in the room. Bring up a troublesome issue that's obvious from your resume, such as your lack of experience with a piece of software the company uses. Acknowledge how this could be viewed in a negative light, but then explain how these apprehensions are unwarranted in your case. Maybe you are pursuing additional training or certifications, or perhaps you can demonstrate that you learn new technology easily. Face the issue head-on instead of waiting to be asked about it.
4. Choose your phrasing carefully.
When giving your answer, avoid actually using the word "weakness" or any other words with strong negative connotations. Instead, focus on more neutral terms. For instance, you could describe yourself as "persistent" rather than "stubborn," or "reserved" rather than "shy." You don't want to sound phony, but you do want to leave the interviewer with as positive of an impression as possible.
5. Focus on self-improvement.
Once you've acknowledged your weak spot, give details about what you're actively doing to address the gap in your skills. Are you taking a class, getting guidance from a mentor, or doing volunteer work? Have you discovered a tool or technique that helps you manage your issue? It's best if you have concrete examples of how the measures you're taking are making a difference. For instance, has your manager commented on your progress?
4 Common Mistakes to Avoid
Telling a potential employer what you're not good at is hard, so it's not surprising that many people make mistakes that cause them to miss out on job opportunities. Being aware of what not to do can help you avoid such a fate. Here are four common mistakes people make when answering the "What's your greatest weakness?" question:
1. Passing off a strength as a weakness
Whatever you do, don't fall back on clichéd answers like "I care too much" or "I work too hard." Hiring managers can instantly tell that you're avoiding the question, and the more skeptical ones might push you to clarify how that is really a weakness. Employers want to know that you are self-aware and can speak the truth even when it's difficult. Besides, research has shown that "humblebragging" is ultimately ineffective because it comes across as insincere.1
2. Denying you have any weaknesses
This makes you seem both arrogant and clueless. Everyone has weaknesses, and it's important to own up to yours. Acting like you have no way to improve will probably make the interviewer think you're hiding something. Plus, some hiring managers take a dim view of a candidate who has never failed. If success has always come easily, how will that person react when challenges arise?
3. Giving a joke answer
While a little humor can lighten the mood in some situations, you need to tread carefully. Being flippant and going for a laugh can signal to the interviewer that you don't respect him or her and don't take the job seriously. If you do go with the funny approach, you should be ready to follow up with a more reasoned answer to show that you have invested some time and energy in self-reflection.
4. Admitting to a deal-breaking weakness
It's not a good idea to tell a hiring manager that you have trouble taking direction or that you struggle to get to work on time in the morning. You want to admit your vulnerabilities without making it seem like you're unqualified for the job. For example, being shy is not much of a problem if you will spend your day alone in front of a computer, but it's a real issue if you're going for a customer service role. Be careful to talk about a weakness that won't impact your ability to do the work.
Strengthen Your Skills
So, what's your greatest weakness? Have you considered how you can go about improving it? A trade school, vocational college, or technical institute could be an excellent option for building up your knowledge, and important life skills. These types of schools offer skills-based training that can help you augment your abilities in a wide range of areas. And finding them is as easy as putting your zip code into the search tool below. Try it right now to generate a list of convenient, nearby programs!
1 Harvard Business School, Humblebragging: A Distinct—and Ineffective—Self-Presentation Strategy, website last visited on April 24, 2018.