The Biggest Interview Question — What’s Your Biggest Weakness? (Part 1)

Picture this: your job interview has been going great. You’ve fielded all of the questions thus far with ease, and maybe even made your interviewer laugh. You’ve had the opportunity to highlight your skills and talk about prior internship and job experiences. You’re feeling composed, self-assured and confident. Then, your interviewer asks the dreaded question: “What would you say is your biggest weakness?”

The weakness question has various iterations: What is an area in which you think you can most improve? Describe a time when you made a mistake on the job, and what you learned from it. If I spoke to your supervisor, what do you think she would say you do well, and what might she say you still need work on?

It’s a question that always stumps people. Knowing and articulating your weaknesses is always difficult, much less in the middle of an interview. When you have been trying to present yourself in the best possible light, being asked to reveal vulnerabilities to a potential employer might give you pause.

Luckily, you don’t need to be caught off-guard. This is a great question to prepare beforehand, and with some thought and practice, your “weakness” can actually make you a much stronger candidate.

It’s important to remember that this is not meant as a trap or “gotcha” question. Your interviewer isn’t trying to throw you off your game (even though it might feel that way). They want to see that you are willing to honestly address your weaknesses and work to improve; ensure that your weaknesses won’t affect your ability to perform the specific role; and test your ability to respond to difficult questions and maintain your composure under pressure.

The most important consideration for this question is authenticity. Your answer should be honest and feel genuine, because it will be unique to you and based on your own experiences in the workplace. Answering this question in a smart, thoughtful way is actually an opportunity to turn your weakness into something positive by describing how you thrive and work at your best.

Here are some tips and examples of how to begin:

1. Take a personality test. Some options include the Myers-Briggs (also known as the 16personalities) test, the Enneagram, and Strengths Finder. Gaining insight into your personality can help you identify areas of weakness in your personal life, which can also translate to your professional life. Another similar approach could be determining your learning style.

A possible answer to the weakness question, for example, might be describing how you are primarily a visual learner: “This means I sometimes have a harder time retaining information when it’s relayed in meetings or over the phone. To address this, I always make sure to take detailed notes that I can refer to later on. This practice has strengthened my attention to detail, helped me become more organized and has made me a more reliable employee.”

2. Think about what you’re good at. It may seem counterintuitive, but this can help you draw out your weaknesses. For example, if you are very adept at multitasking and juggling multiple responsibilities at once, you may notice that you have a harder time focusing on just one task for extended periods of time.

3. Reflect on past work experiences. Before your scheduled interview, take some time to jot down notes in a journal—what kinds of work were most challenging for you? Did you ever make mistakes, and if so, why? Did you ever feel overwhelmed by a certain task? When did you feel most fulfilled or energized by what you were doing?

Maybe you once missed a crucial project deadline, which forced you to develop your organizational skills and come up with solutions for better time-management. Maybe you loved the research and writing component of your job, but found public speaking and giving presentations on those findings incredibly difficult. This approach can be especially useful if the interviewer asks any follow-up questions (e.g. “How has this weakness presented challenges for you in a work-related situation?”) or prompts you to elaborate, because you can then refer to specific examples.

These suggestions offer a good starting point, as you brainstorm and think about the many different approaches you might take in conveying your weaknesses during an interview. In next week’s post, we’ll discuss what not to do when answering the “biggest weakness” question.

 

For more reading about millennials in public service, check out this weekly GovLoop series, First 5: Advice from millennial to millennial.

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Dana

I dread this question! In addition to what you’ve suggested, I try to add what I’ve been doing to address the weakness. For instance, I wouldn’t just say that I have a hard time saying no. I’d say, “I’ve found that I have a hard time saying no .I realize that means I over commit and no one gets what they need. So now, when I’m asked to help I make sure to set expectations of when I can help.”

I’ve written some posts on preparing for interviews as well. One was about another part of interviewing I used to dread – panel interviews. I thought you might like to check it out: http://fedability.com/panel-interview-tips-lasting-impression/

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Profile Photo Irene Koo

Dana, that’s definitely an important point. I think ending on a positive note, by emphasizing how you’ve been working on your weakness(es), would certainly leave a more favorable impression and show that you’re constantly thinking about how to improve.

I also really enjoyed reading your post about panel interviews!! It’s so interesting how interview dynamics are slightly different when there’s more than one interviewer—it’s something I had never really thought about before.

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Yvonne Mikalopas

Hi. I enjoyed your article and took two of the personality tests you mentioned. That was fun but I find personality tests to be a bit “horoscopey” and actually don’t take much stock in them, (which was really reflected in my results, lol.) I agree, though, being prepared for the weakness question is always a good idea and the tactics you put forth for doing so are very helpful.

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Profile Photo Larry Till

Great post, Irene. This is something that many of us fear going into a job interview. Here’s what I’ve taken to doing: I answer by saying, “I suck at math.” That gets the interviewer’s attention, especially if the job involves budget or money management, as you can imagine. I then go on to explain that having recognized this weakness in my skill set, I’ve taken concrete steps over the years to a) learn to ask the right questions, so that I can at least understand what the numbers mean; and b) as a manager, to surround myself with people whose skills complement mine. I really believe that what this question is really asking about is self-awareness.

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