INTERVIEW TIPS - The Best Ways to Talk About Your Strengths and Weaknesses in a Job Interview
There’s a whole lot of talking about yourself that goes on in an interview. It’s a barrage of “I”s and “me”s that would be inappropriate in so many other contexts. And one of the most stressful spotlights on you might come when a recruiter or prospective boss asks you to tell them about your strengths and especially when they ask about your 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.
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.
Why do interviewers ask about your strengths and weaknesses?
Interviews are fundamentally about getting to know you, says Muse career coach Angela Smith, founder of Angela Smith Consulting. “I know some people feel like the interview is trying to trip them up or put them in an awkward position, but at the end of the day it’s really about getting to know the person so that you can make the best decision that you can,” she adds. “When I ask those questions, that’s where I’m coming from.”
The actual strengths and weaknesses you bring up probably matter less than how you talk about them. “I’ve done a ton of interviews over the years and when pressed for it, I can’t really remember the answers,” Smith says. That doesn’t mean the questions aren’t important at all, it’s just that what an interviewer is evaluating likely goes deeper. They’re trying to understand what kind of employee you’d be and how you’d carry yourself in the role.
“For me it’s: Are they honest? Do they have self-awareness? Can they own their stuff in a professional and mature way? Is this someone that we can have growth and development conversations with? Are they going to hit a wall [when] it comes to giving them feedback?” Smith says. “How they answer that question really tells me the answer to all of those other things—and those are the things that matter.”
5 tips for talking about strengths and weaknesses in an interview
OK, that’s all great in theory, but what do you actually need to do to discuss your strengths and weaknesses successfully?
1. Be honest.
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 and 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.
2. Tell a story.
Here’s another cliché 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.
3. Remember to get to the insight.
An answer that’s genuine and includes an illustrative anecdote is a great start, but it’s not complete until you address the “so what?”
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 job at this 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, “Really showcase your growth trajectory, your learning curve, what you’ve done as a result of the awareness of that weakness,” Smith says. It’ll help the interviewer understand how you’d approach problem-solving and professional growth in this new job. 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.
4. Keep it short.
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 and/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.
5. Don’t sweat it so much.
While you definitely want to prepare and do your best to nail your answers, try not to stress too much. “I have never known an employment decision to come down to how someone answers those questions,” Smith says. “It’s just one data point connected with a whole bunch of other ones. So don’t give it too much weight.”
Here are some possible strengths and weaknesses you can use as the basis of your answers for these questions.
Example strengths for job interviews
- Being adaptable
- Being proactive
- Building relationships
- Being willing to go above and beyond to help others
- Coming up with innovative solutions
- Communicating in writing
- Displaying emotional intelligence
- Having experience with a problem that the company is currently facing
- Figuring out how to effectively use a piece of software
- Giving or receiving constructive feedback
- Handling conflicts
- Interpreting data and/or results
- Managing projects
- Motivating employees
- Noticing small details
- Public speaking
- Recognizing patterns
- Setting deadlines
- Switching between different tasks quickly
- Thinking critically
- Working well under pressure
Example weaknesses for job interviews
- Being a perfectionist
- Being too hard on yourself
- Getting too caught up in small details
- Getting nervous about speaking to groups or on the phone
- Ignoring or rationalizing away constructive feedback
- Locking in on a certain idea or way of doing things
- Losing track of deadlines, tasks, or work products
- Making basic math errors or not being able to do math in your head
- Making frequent grammar errors when writing
- Maintaining work-life balance
- Not being comfortable with vague instructions
- Not being confident
- Not being willing to change your mind
- Not knowing when to ask for clarification
- Not picking up on nonverbal cues
- Missing deadlines
- Overlooking small details
- Struggling with time management
- Taking on too much work rather than delegating or saying no
- Writing unclearly
How to answer “What are your strengths?” in an interview
Use this opportunity to emphasize the most important qualities you’d bring to the role, team, and company.
Smith recommends reading carefully through the job description and learning as much as you can about what the company is up to and what the culture is like. Read various pages on the organization’s website, take a look at its social media accounts, and catch up on some recent announcements and news coverage if applicable. Use what you’ve learned to identify which of your strengths is most relevant and how it will allow you to contribute. Then make the connection inescapable. “Every answer should position you to help them see how you can solve a problem” and help the company achieve its goals, Smith says.
At the same time, you don’t want to go overboard. “It’s such a fine line. I always tell people not to worry about bragging, but you also don’t want to come across as cocky or too full of yourself,” Smith says. Give a confident and honest assessment that does your skills justice, but don’t let yourself veer into hyperbole.