A Unique and Effective Way to Answer the Interview Question, “What Is Your Biggest Weakness?”

How to answer "What is your biggest weakness?" during your job interview

This article is a guest post by Mary Ryan, Associate Director of Career & Leadership Services for Working Professionals, MBA@UNC

Your dream job is within reach. You nailed the phone interview and are now sitting across from your potential new boss. Then you are hit with everyone’s least favorite interview question, “What is your biggest weakness?” Ugh.

Why are interviewers so fond of this awkward question? Because your answer can be a quick way to assess if you are self-aware and can thoughtfully articulate your areas of opportunity. Your answer is also an easy way to determine if you can give a genuine answer to an uncomfortable question or have a weakness that would be a deal-breaker for the job at hand.

Now that you know why the question is asked, how do you effectively answer it? Here are a few do’s and don’ts to take into consideration when fine-tuning your response.

Don’ts

  1. Don’t say a negative that is actually a positive — “I work too hard.” “I am a perfectionist.” Interviewers easily spot this tactic and it makes you seem like you are avoiding the question and lack depth.
  2. Don’t say a weakness that is a core competency of a job. I once interviewed someone to be a call-center rep who told me his biggest weakness was that he hated talking to people on the phone. You do not want your interviewer wondering why you are wasting their time interviewing for the job.
  3. Don’t say a weakness that is irrelevant to the job, or is too personal — “I am terrified of sharks.” “I have major abandonment issues.” This is not what the interviewer was going for, and answering this way will make everyone present uncomfortable.
  4. Don’t say, “I don’t know.” This makes you seem unprepared for the interview and like you lack introspection.

Do’s

  1. Do discuss a genuine weakness, and how you have already started working on it.
  2. Do explain why you would rock out this job, but not that job based on your strengths and weaknesses.

Here are two examples of how you can use these approaches in your next interview.

Good Approach #1

The most common way I’ve seen this question answered well is by giving a genuine weakness and explaining how you have started working on it.

For example, one of my students gave this as her answer, and it worked perfectly for her.

“I have always been uncomfortable with public speaking, but as I’ve moved up in my career it has become a more necessary skill. I recently enrolled in a public speaking course to force myself to practice and gain confidence in this arena. I don’t think I’ll ever go on tour delivering speeches worldwide or anything, but I believe I’ll get to the point where I don’t hate it anymore.”

Good! She showed that she is self-aware and genuine, and assuming public speaking is not vital to this role, she did nothing to hurt herself.

Good Approach #2

While I think the weakness and improvement answer works just fine, there is another strategy worth trying out as well. I refer to it as, “Why I would rock out this job, but not that job.”

There are three steps to this approach:

  1. Brainstorm why you are excited about this particular job, and why you are well suited for it, and compare that to jobs you think you would hate and/or not be well suited for.
  2. Take the contrast between the two and phrase them as strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Answer the question in the form of a story, if you can, to illustrate your point.

I was on an interview panel for a crisis hotline data analytics role, and I loved the answer that one of our candidates gave.

“I am not a gregarious person. I’m kind of awkward actually, and I know I’d do terribly at leading and motivating the team of volunteers, or fundraising. But, that’s why I didn’t apply for the program director or PR roles. In the logistics role I can use my background as a statistician to dive into the data to make sure all of the volunteers are in an optimal shift based on their needs and preferences, and we’ll be serving the community even more by having more people in the shifts with the highest call volume. I believe deeply in the mission of this crisis hotline, and I am passionate about helping serve our community in the best way I can.”

This type of an answer feels genuine and well thought out. It is almost impossible to give a “canned” or “cliché” response if you answer in this way. When you are competing against many people for the same job, presenting yourself as original and thoughtful can make all the difference.

Make an Assessment and Get Started

If you are struggling to articulate your strengths and weaknesses, using an assessment tool can be helpful (such as, StrengthsFinder, MBTI, or the Hogan’s Derailers). Any strength taken too far can be a weakness, so the results from one of these assessments may provide you with a jumping off point to better articulate your weaknesses.

If you are interviewing for a job, you should expect to be asked about your weaknesses. Before your interview, take the time to craft a genuine and original answer that makes sense for this particular role, and you will be good to go.