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4/10/16 - How to answer: What is your greatest weakness?

by Jack Leeming
http://blogs.nature.com/naturejobs/2016/03/02/how-to-answer-what-is-your-greatest-weakness/ 

This classic question has been tripping prospective employees up for years – whether they’re applying for jobs at the local greengrocers or at Apple. There’s no 100% guaranteed-to-land-you-the-job answer to this question, but there are certainly wrong ways to answer, and ways that will maximise your chances. The first step, as with many interview questions, is to understand why you’re being asked the question – what is the interviewer looking for? After that, we’ll examine how you shouldn’t answer, and end on how you should.

Why?

Generally, an interviewer is looking to see a few things when they ask you about your weaknesses – first, they’re looking for self-awareness. Are you knowledgeable enough about yourself to understand and appreciate where you’ll fit well within a role, and where you might need to develop? And are you comfortable enough with yourself to admit those areas?

This is one of the most well-known interview questions out there, so an interviewer may also be looking to make sure you care enough to have prepared to answer this question. If you don’t have something ready for them, that could be taken as a red flag.

How shouldn’t you answer?

First of all, you certainly do have a weakness – so never say “I don’t have any weaknesses.” It’s not bold or confident; and will be exactly what an interviewer is looking for to eliminate someone from the process. Part of the strength of your answer will be your honesty – having the guts to admit that you may not have every single skill you need to dive into the job straight away. Employers aren’t looking for someone to do the job perfectly immediately – they’re looking for people who are able and willing to learn and grow into the role.

You also shouldn’t be blunt – lines like “I’m not very good at keeping the lab clean,” or “I’m not very organised” without further justification are not going to do you any favours. Keep your answer honest, but make sure to explain it well and lead into how you’re going to combat it.

Finally, don’t pick a weakness that is obviously a strength. Working too hard or giving too much attention to detail aren’t weaknesses unless you explain why – because, for example, you find it hard to switch off when the time comes, or because you find it difficult to see the bigger picture.

How should you answer?

The best answer to this question has two parts. First, the admission – state your weakness, explain why it’s a weakness, and keep it realistic and surmountable. After that, you have to explain how you plan to overcome that weakness, if you haven’t already. Use the question as an opportunity to explain how you hope to grow and develop in this new role.

Here’s an example:

“I tend to focus too much on the details, which means I sometimes get curious and distracted by the finer points of a project – I can end up spending three hours reading something that’s only very slightly relevant to the project.

I think one of the best ways to combat this, though, is to be aware of it in the first place – when I notice myself getting dragged away from what I should be doing, it becomes a lot easier to pull back. In a job like this, I think it’s very important to be organised and prioritise and I think that’s something I’ll be doing a lot of, so that will help with making sure I only focus on the finer points when I’m able to.”

 

There you have it – an honest admission that’s swiftly overcome by a solid plan that ends up demonstrating further value. This doesn’t have to be a question that might trip you up – think about it as an opportunity to explain how you’re hoping to learn and grow in a new role.

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