What should I say when a job interviewer asks me to name my weaknesses?

“Constantly I am asked by the B-School interviews what my strengths and weaknesses are. And everyone tells me I am not supposed to be honest about my weaknesses. What is the point of asking this question? To see how creatively you lie??”

The Harvard MBA Says: I’m reminded of a Wall Street Journal article I read back in the 90s about the hyper-aggressive MBAs being churned out by business schools in China. When asked, “What are your weaknesses,” the student replies, “I am too ambitious and successful.”

Hint: That’s not the right answer to give.

I blame the educational system.  From a young age, we’re taught that everyone and everything can be evaluated on a simple linear scale.  A to F.  100 to 0.  As a result, people believe that the goal of a job interview is to be flawless, to score 100% and get the job.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  The truth is that hiring is less like an SAT and more like romantic matchmaking.  There is no such thing as the perfect girlfriend, only the perfect girlfriend (or boyfriend) for you*.

* The notable exception here is Jessica Alba, who is the perfect girlfriend for everyone.  Just kidding.

Everyone instinctively knows that there’s no single unified scale of romantic attractiveness–think of how many times you’ve heard someone say “she’s not my type” about a very attractive individual.  It’s exactly the same for hiring.

Both you and the interviewer should be trying to figure out if you are the company’s type, and if the company is your type.

That’s why it’s important that interviewers ask about weaknesses, and that you provide an honest and thoughtful answer.  If you abhor math, and the sight of Excel gives you hives, it’s probably not a good idea for Goldman Sachs to hire you.  Conversely, it’s probably not a good idea for you to apply for a job there.

When asked about your weaknesses, the right answer is to truthfully mention the things that will help the interviewer figure out whether or not there’s a fit.  Answers like, “I work too hard” simply don’t help.  On the other hand, answers like “I’m lazy and dishonest” don’t help either, since no employer would be willing to hire someone with those traits.**

** With the possible exception of Congress. (rim shot)

Here are a few possible answers for you to consider:

  • Mathematical aptitude
  • Desire to work with people (especially clients)
  • Extroversion/introversion
  • Preference for structure/flexibility

For a more in-depth look at some of these issues, I recommend reading the work of Marcus Buckingham.  Here is my outline of his book, “The One Thing You Need To Know“.

14 Comments

  1. Posted April 7, 2008 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Honest to goodness, I was once asked “if you were an animal, which animal would it be?”

    I answered “I’m not going to answer this, i’ve given it no thought in my entire life” I said.

    “But just try and answer it” she said.

    “A human I suppose”. I said

    “No, but an animal” the HR person said.

    “Humans are animals, no?”

    I didn’t score well, but was offered the job anyhow. But those questions were a sign to me that the job was not for me.

    If a company asks your weaknesses say something that you’ve already said you’d like to improve upon. It will create one of those phony “aha!” moments.

    Or just be honest and say that you dislike ineffective and overpaid management like everyone else.

    Enjoy your walk to the parking lot.

  2. Posted April 7, 2008 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    I am heading out the door in an hour to a job interview, and fretting over what happens to be my greatest weakness: I don’t interview well. Unfortunately, I do write a great cover letter, so I often find myself interviewing…badly.

    Maybe I’ll go for the honest answer today, and when asked what my weakness is, just say, “Interviewing.”

  3. neha
    Posted July 20, 2009 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    hi,
    Even i have been wondering what to say when someone ask you tell about yourself and expects you to go on and on or point at my weakness..It makes me in a real uncomfortable level after a point… I don’t now what I am??
    Yes I agree to say something in weakness which wont be much of use for the interviewer like I am bad at maths. :-)

  4. mukul
    Posted July 24, 2009 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Just stepped over your post(somehow googling) ..and an interesting topic ..I decided to pour my thoughts into it

    There are companies from which I would not like the offer to be rejected, just bcoz I quoted my weaknesses which they dont like.A practical scenario wont allow my mind to do that.There cud be ‘n’ number of reasons for me to join that company.

    A safe play would be to quote a weakness which,if looked from a different perspective, indirectly turns to be your strengths.Answers such as..I trust the people easily is one of them. or sometimes engaged too much in work…such examples will make the people think who r sitting on the other side of table…r these actually weakness..and yes they are if u luk from one perspective.
    Would luv 2 see what you all think about this.

  5. Raj
    Posted August 10, 2009 at 4:30 am | Permalink

    What should I say when a job interviewer asks me to name my strengths?

    Certainly we can say lot about strengths, but is there any specific sequence that needs to be followed to avoid any trap.

    Thanks

  6. admin
    Posted September 7, 2009 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    Raj,

    The converse advice applies: Describe strengths that allow you and the company to determine the level of fit. “I love to work with numbers” is a much better answer than “I work hard.” The first is specific and its value depends on the nature of the job. The second is general and pretty much applies to any job.

    If someone asked me, I’d tell them:

    “I’m really good at understanding complex issues and explaining them in simple ways. I can read and write exceptionally fast and well. I’m very good at persuading people to do what makes sense, but not very good at fooling people.”

  7. Kirsten
    Posted November 3, 2009 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    Mukul,

    My apologies if this is an inappropriately sassy response to your post. Most of the time I ignore this type of thing; but in your case, I can’t resist my urge to address it.

    Your spelling of a shockingly large amount of words is ridiculous! Please stop.

    ‘bcoz’
    ‘cud’
    ‘r’
    ‘u’
    ‘luk’
    ‘luv 2′

    Are you kidding me? This is not English.

    I highly recommend you take a second glance at your resume and cover letter to make sure none of these atrocities are included in the first impression you are giving to potential employers.

    If they are, don’t worry about being asked what your greatest weakness is - they’ll already know.

  8. mukul
    Posted January 3, 2010 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    Kirsten,

    Thanks for the post.However, I want to clear out things here.
    What ever I have written here, doesnt mean the same ‘type’ is there in my resume as well.
    The intention was not to look at the spellings here but to know what you think, about my thoughts on the topic.Is it fine to think and quote such a way in an interview?
    I am not that bad in spellings, but I hope you got the message.Dont think that I will write my cover letter or the resume this way.

    Happy new year!

  9. Matt
    Posted February 5, 2010 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    There is no one out there that can honestly say that they “work too hard”, “get caught up into work.” The idea behind work is that you’re doing something that will make you money so you don’t have to go hunt for food. And work sucks 99% of the time (only had entry level jobs so far, haha). I need a better answer than this!

    And what do I do if I sincerely feel I don’t have any weaknesses that pertain to this job?

  10. mukul
    Posted August 22, 2010 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Kirsten - you still havent answered around my thoughts.You have just played the ball around it but the question remains still unanswered.

  11. Ro
    Posted October 9, 2011 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    A post using such wording does not deserve to be answered.

  12. Jonathan
    Posted January 28, 2012 at 5:31 am | Permalink

    Ignoring the spellings, I think what Mukul wrote makes sense. Lets be honest - whatever we speak in the interview is not 100 % correct. We tend to bend the lines to make our way through and saying something about our weakness which raises an eybrow of the interviewer, is the least I want.

  13. Steve
    Posted February 7, 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    If you don’t know your weaknesses, you are not self-aware. If you’re not self-aware, they probably won’t hire you unless you’re getting a job at the mall or something.

    So many people think that you’re supposed to tell them what you think they want to hear… that’s when things go wrong.

    You could say that it’s hard for you to focus on mundane tasks, but remember to come up with a solution for that problem. Something like, “However, I know that about myself, so I have things I do to help me keep focused. The most effective thing I’ve found is for me to stand up, stretch my back and legs, grab a water. This process resets my focus and I usually have no trouble getting back on task.”

  14. jonathan
    Posted February 13, 2012 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    Check this - you should lie ;)

    http://www.forbes.com/pictures/lml45fjgl/what-would-the-person-who-likes-you-least-in-the-world-say-about-you/

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