Interview Questions – What is your biggest weakness?
Posted by James M on November 28, 2008
This is one of the most difficult questions for entry-level job candidates during the interview. There are some helpful tips about what makes a “good weakness” and an important structural framework that will help you ace this question on the interview.
We’ll work our way backwards on this one. First, I’ll give an example and analysis of how to answer this question correctly, then I’ll delve more into what a bad answer looks like and how to get yourself to a place where you can respond to this question in a way that will impress the recruiter.
So let’s talk about an actual response to this question and what it might look like. Let’s imagine that my lack of leadership skills is my weakness of choice and I read a leadership book and did some basic volunteer work to help shore up my weakness.
“What is your biggest weakness?”
“Well, after being assigned a group project in a film production and editing class, I was tasked with leading our group of 5 students to make a short 45-second commercial. Although we completed the assignment on time, I noticed my leadership skills were lacking. The group continually looked to me to lead them and I had trouble striking a balance between delegating the work evenly and wanting to do it all myself. Some sections of the project I spent 12 hours a day doing while other times I delegated so much work I had nothing to do. In addition, when disputes arose between team members about the direction of the film or a particular type of editing style, I didn’t know how to handle the disagreements and because of the constant fights one person dropped out of our group.
I knew if I wanted to be a successful television editor, a job that involves delegating a lot of tasks, I would need to learn how to lead a team more effectively. I remembered hearing about a book called The One Minute Manager on a business talk show I was watching a while back so purchased that book and was able to read it in about two weeks. It gave a lot of great advice, particularly about delegation and giving constructive criticism.
In addition, last month I sought out an opportunity to lead a group of 25 volunteers during a day long park clean up project. I inspected the park before the event to see what areas might need the most cleanup and talked to the local chapter of the parent organization about useful tips based on past clean up projects. This helped me get a good sense of the delegation needed before the event even started. This was an item the book recommended—having a plan for the distribution of work before it comes time to actually parse the project into small tasks.
The day of the event several volunteers didn’t show up so I had to re-delegate a few tasks. I used the strategies I read about in the book to help motivate the team as well as worked very hard myself to show the team I was committed. When there were disputes about who wanted to do what job I was able to talk to several volunteers to find a balance of work. In particular no one wanted to do the “boring job” of pulling weeds so I decided to assign every volunteer a few minutes doing it. Because the volunteers spent most of the time doing other tasks that they had chosen and each volunteer felt the system was fair, they didn’t mind pulling weeds for a short time.
I have already started reading another book entitled Leadership 101 to continue to learn about the art and science of leadership. In addition, I signed up to lead another park rejuvenation project early next month. This project involves 40 people and I’m excited to challenge myself and continue to improve my leadership skills.”
Example Response Analysis
Notice that this answer uses a modified form of the STAR framework I talked about in my Behavioral Interview Questions post.
- First, I talked about the initial situation that led me to realize that leadership, the weakness I choose for my response, was a problem. I mentioned the task or project I was assigned and what went wrong. Notice that I was very specific about the particular elements of leadership I was weak on—delegation and resolving disputes. The more specifically you answer this part of the question the easier the entire question will be to answer. For example, depending on who you talk to, leadership might involve dozens of different components. Improving one or two elements of my leadership skills at a time is much easier than improving every the entire continuum of leadership itself.
- Second, I formulated a realization of career success that involved improving upon the weakness. Using one of my long term goals of being successful in the film industry I framed an “improvement space” that existed to achieve that success. It is good to have some motivation for the improvement you have chosen. There are hundreds of different attributes in a professional career and no one person is strong at all of them. You should pick and choose the attributes you want to be strong at based on your career goals and interpersonal strengths.
- Third, I talked about my plan—how was I going to improve on this weakness? In my case I read a leadership book and then decided to sign up for short leadership position with a local non-profit organization. Actually doing something about my weakness shows tremendous initiative and gets past the “fluff” that the typical candidate uses in their response.
- Forth, I talked about the situation where I led more successfully. What happened this time when those same issues of delegation and resolving disputes came up? How did I handle them differently and achieve success this time around? In particular I cited a strategy shift that was informed largely by the information I acquired in the leadership book I referenced earlier.
- Fifth, I talked about future plans for improvement. This is really a great way to wrap up the question. Show the interviewer that although you’ve made some improvements to date, you are taking the initiative to get to a state of excellence with regard to your current weakness. It also shows a very positive attitude. Showing a track record of initiative and a positive attitude will get you much further than you can imagine in an interview.
A poor response to this question
Now let’s look at a response to this question from a slightly humors angle.
“What would you say is your biggest weakness?”
“My biggest weakness is that sometimes girls are jealous of me because I’m just too pretty.”
Yes, that is a bad answer, but maybe not for the reasons you think. Yes, it is bad because it is conceded and uninspiring (albeit a joke in this context), but, even worse, being exceptionally pretty is not a weakness. Neither is being a perfectionist. Let me repeat that. Being a perfectionist is NOT a weakness. If the average HR representative had a dollar for every time someone said their biggest weakness was being a perfectionist or their biggest strength is working with people, they’d have enough money to retire and take up sailing.
Answering “weakness” questions this way is insulting—to yourself. It shows that you have very little, if any, self-awareness. That’s right I said it! We all have enough actual weaknesses without needing to take a positive characteristic and put a negative spin on it. Moreover, these answers are cliche, overused, and boring.
What makes a “good weakness”?
Ok, so now let’s look at the constituents that make up what you might call a “good weakness”. In other words a weakness that actually challenges you in your life and passes muster with a recruiter during an interview.
- First, it should be a weakness that has actually given you problems in the past. You need to be able to tell a story (as we saw in our example response) about how this weakness has inhibited you, so having a vague sense about what you would like to improve isn’t enough. You need concrete examples, so spend some time thinking about group projects, internships, volunteer experience, etc. and try to think of some situations where you didn’t perform up to par and what characteristics of yourself contributed to that.
- Second, it should be a weakness that you have actively worked to improve. This is really the key part of your response. If you can really delve into this “improvement space” if you will, you’ll hit the ball out of the park on this question and leave a fantastic impression with the recruiter.
- Third, you’ll need an example of how things worked the next time you were put in the same situation. There is sort of a before-and-after type dichotomy at play here.
- Lastly, if you are a non-traditional applicant to a position you may want to consider mentioning your lack of experience in a particular area as your weakness and describe how you’ve mitigated that gap. For example, say you are an art major applying for an investment banking job. The obvious weakness would be your lack of a rigorous financial background. So you can talk about how you took some finance and accounting classes, how you joined the finance club, how you read the Wall Street Journal regularly, etc. Doing so will help to kill the “elephant in the room”, namely why in the world an art major is cut out for investment banking. It is better to tackle these non-traditional applicant situations head on rather than assuming you are on equal footing as more traditional candidates.
How to mitigate and improve a weakness
To really set your response apart, you’ll need to show that you’ve actively tried to mitigate the weakness you described. First, you should think hard about the conscious and subconscious steps you’ve already taken in the mitigation process. Perhaps you did some soul searching and concentrated extra hard on a particular characteristic the next time you did a group project or sought a different position with your volunteer club to help fill a knowledge gap.
If you haven’t begun to work on your weakness yet, no need to worry. It is never too late to start working on self-discovery and self-improvement. After spending some time thinking hard about what some of your key weaknesses may be it is time to start improving upon them. Depending on how much time before your job search commences you may be able to do any one of the following:
- Take additional university classes to cover any knowledge gaps you may have.
- Join a club at school or in the community that focuses on a particular area of study or soft skill.
- Consider volunteer opportunities. They are likely the fastest and most efficient ways to shore up key weaknesses such as leadership and teamwork.
- Do some independent research. Depending on your school, major, and available professors, undergraduate research can often be set up on short notice and tailored to cover specific gaps in your knowledge or skill sets.
- Consider simple things such as subscribing to publications, newspapers, reading online journals etc. Sometimes it is the simple initiatives we take that set us apart.
- Take community classes. Public speaking, organization, leadership and many other courses are often available at community colleges in the evening or from various community organizations.
- Consider student government. Many school’s student government and other school sponsored organizations offer really great chances to quickly gain valuable soft skill experience.
Note that you don’t need to be 100% complete with this process by the time of your interview. If your weakness is public speaking a simple story about how you have enrolled in a public speaking class offered by Toast Masters, given your first intermediate length speech and received positive reviews will do wonders. Because we are allowed to be somewhere in the process of improvement, I wouldn’t worry too much about having a short time line. All you need is to show the initiative to improve yourself and one simple example of your improvement thus far and you have competed the ingredients needed to do fantastically well in your response.
Also note that you need to walk a thin line—after a certain amount of improvement a weakness ceases to be considered such and can actually be thought of as a strength. That is not the type of situation we are looking for here. We are looking for you to be somewhere in the process of shoring up the weakness.
Well there you have it, everything you need to do to hit the ball out of the park on this question in the interview. You really only need a couple of weeks to get from square one to a completed series of story points for this question. Just spend a little bit of time thinking about your weaknesses and take a few steps to mitigate it either on your own, by getting involved with your university, or seeking out a community organization. Along the way you’ll gain a lot of insight and experience that you can use elsewhere in your interview.
If you have any questions about any aspect of your job hunt or would like a free in-depth resume consultation, I invite you to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.