“What’s your biggest weakness?” For the average college student or entry-level job seeker, this may be one of the most challenging questions that comes up during an interview. Should you answer honestly and reveal what you consider to be your biggest weakness? Should you fabricate a weakness, perhaps turning a strength into a deficiency? Or should you say that you’re the super job candidate and have no weaknesses at all?
What is the purpose of this question?
Let’s first examine what this question is really asking.
An employer asks this question primarily to determine your level of self-awareness. If you respond that you have no weaknesses, many interviewers will assume that you lack self-awareness. This is a problem, since understanding oneself (including one’s strengths and weaknesses) is key to being able to work effectively with others.
The employer also asks this question to gauge your level of honesty in the interview. If you respond by saying that you have no weaknesses, or with a standard (and annoying) line like ”My weakness is that I’m a perfectionist- I work too hard,” this could indicate you’re not being truthful. The interviewer may come to doubt your other answers if he or she thinks you’re not being honest about your weaknesses.
Another reason why an employer asks this question is to see if you drop hints of any real weakness that would impair your ability to do the job at hand. I conduct mock interviews with students in my office. When I ask the weakness question, sometimes students respond really candidly. They tell me things such as, “I have a tough time working in groups with people who aren’t as smart as I am,” or “Receiving constructive criticism is a challenge for me.” While I appreciate their honesty, these responses would be big turn-offs if I was actually hiring. In today’s global business environment, it is particularly important for employees to be able to work with a diverse range of personalities and work styles. Similarly, it’s crucial that an employee (especially in an entry level position) be able to accept feedback on his/her work. Saying that you have a hard time with group work or constructive criticism could be enough to keep you from landing your dream job or internship.
So how should you answer this question?
Try answering the question with a real weakness, but choose one that would not seriously impair your ability to do the job you are applying for. Also, frame the weakness in such a way that shows you’re actively working to improve upon it.
Here is a strong response that I once heard from a student:
“My weakness is that I am not a great public speaker. During high school I was painfully shy and had a really hard time speaking to groups of people. In college, I wanted to improve – so I took a course in public speaking to sharpen my skills. Now, I still think public speaking is my biggest weakness but I’m considerably better at it than I used to be. In the future, I’m going to join the local Toastmasters group so that I can get regular practice and hopefully someday be able to consider public speaking a strength.”
Unless he was applying for a job which involved extensive public speaking, this response really could not hurt him. In fact, many employers would be impressed by his honesty and all the hard work he had put into overcoming a genuine area of deficiency.
Another good response, which came up during one of the mock interviews I conducted:
“I’m a very creative person, so sometimes I struggle with more analytical, quantitative stuff. For instance, I had a terrible time in my statistics class during college. My weakness is numbers; I tend to like words a lot more.”
She was applying for a copywriter position at an advertising agency. Her lack of proficiency with numbers really had no bearing on her ability to effectively craft phrases and design ads. The fact that she admitted to a genuine weakness earned her my respect. At the same time, she was able to reinforce that her strength was wordsmithing — a concept she had been driving home the entire interview.
Aim for thoughtful honesty
Next time you’re asked to name your biggest weakness, aim for a truthful answer that does not directly impact your ability to perform the job you are applying for. As long as you are careful not to raise any major red flags (inability to work with others, prima donna attitude, refusal to accept negative feedback) you can open up and answer this question genuinely. You’d be surprised how far a little honesty can go in building rapport with an interviewer- it shines a favorable light on you as a candidate!