No matter whether you’re interviewing for a position in investment banking or pizza delivery, potential employers are bound to ask the dependable, go-to interview question: What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?
It’s a simple question, but requires a complex answer. What employers are really asking is, “Prove to me that you’d bring value to this organization, and show me you’re aware of and can learn from your mistakes.” Follow the advice below, and you’ll be answering with ease.
Many job applicants confuse strengths with skills. Skills are abilities that can be cultivated with a certain amount of training, such as facility with a software application. Strengths are personal attributes that you may have been born with and cultivated over the course of many years and life experiences—perseverance in the face of adversity, for example, or a natural friendliness that makes meeting new people easy for you.
If you lack skill with a certain software program, you may be able to learn it in a few months—but a personal strength is not so easily acquired in a six-month training course. As a result, interviewers are usually much more interested in candidates who have all the strengths needed to do the job well than in interviewees who can only bring skills to the table, even if some of those skills look mighty impressive on paper.
Instead of racking your brain to come up with a long list of strengths you have to offer, spend an hour or two on the following exercise:
1. Looking over the job description, make a list of the personal strengths that will probably be required for this job. Is this a position that requires handling large sums of money? Then the right candidate will be someone who’s responsible, reliable, and ethical. If it’s a customer care position, they’ll be looking for someone who is personable, patient, and empathetic.
2. Ponder what personal strengths could be considered a plus for the job, and list those too. If the job description includes budget management, a thrifty nature could be a competitive advantage for a candidate.
3. For each of the personal strengths necessary for this position, think of an anecdote that illustrates your strength in this regard. Let’s say you can recall a time when you caught an oversight on the annual report, and from then on were entrusted with double-checking the financial numbers on all investor communications. That anecdote would help show you’re thorough and responsible enough to handle fiscal responsibilities.
4. Look over your list of personal strengths that might prove helpful in this job, and identify those you possess. Can you think of a story that demonstrates each of these personal strengths? Maybe your thriftiness led you to track down a reliable small accounting firm in Virginia to handle an audit, instead of going with that expensive Big Four firm that was later charged with fraudulent accounting methods.
Nothing is more suspicious or less impressive than a flawless candidate. Either you’re hiding some truly terrible flaw that will become apparent after you’ve been hired or your abilities have come so easily to you that you have no idea what it’s like to really work at developing a skill.
Show that you’ve already learned a few important life lessons, and you’ll sound more experienced, wise, hard-working, and human. Hiring managers want candidates who have demonstrated an ability to learn and recover from mistakes. What’s crucial is the ability to bounce back and not repeat the same ones. It’s an interviewer’s job to probe for possible shortcomings, and many won’t quit until you ‘fess up to some weakness—so you’d be wise to have a “lesson learned” story ready as an answer rather than admitting a character flaw under duress.
So how do you tell a story about making a mistake without losing your credibility, or leading your interviewer to wonder whether you’ll make the same mistake again? Here are four key tips:
Beware of TMI (too much information) syndrome
Such stories may be standard fare on reality TV shows, but does your prospective employer really want to know about how you learned the hard way not to date your coworkers or the dangers of cocktails before board meetings? Save these stories for your friends— they’ll only make your interviewer worry about your judgment.
Keep it work-related
You may have learned a lot when your grandmother passed away recently, but do you really want your interviewer to remember you as the person whose grandmother died? It would be much better to tell the story to a financial planning firm of how you discovered how much more you enjoyed the client problem-solving aspects of website design than the actual coding. Then you’ll be remembered as the multi-talented applicant who’d be a natural at helping clients find workable solutions.
Make your interviewer your ally
If you’re in the same line of work as your interviewer, chances are your interviewer has experienced some of the same trials you have and will appreciate your graceful handling of a familiar situation.
Explain how the lesson learned relates to this position
If you say you learned that you really don’t like elephants and the job you’re applying for is in carpentry, that story seems like a bizarre non sequitur. But if you learned that you didn’t like working with elephants as much as you enjoyed building sets at the circus, this may actually be a helpful story to get you the job. In other words, be sure that lesson learned is relevant to the position you’re interviewing for.
By preparing your answers in advance, you’ll have a much easier time articulately responding and not coming across as pompous or inadequate when employers ask the inevitable question. Just remember, employers know you’re human, and by being honest about your strengths and weaknesses, you’ll come off more wise and experienced.