How to answer weakness questions in an interview

Photo by Wade M.

Good job advertisements help people break down the necessary qualifications for the job. They can include the years of experience, skills, suitable personal characteristics and education necessary to fulfill the requirements of the position

Whether a job candidate is writing a résumé, cover letter or attending an interview, the employer is asking the candidate to expand and clarify these four important aspects of the candidate’s history. In other words, the employer is trying to identify the strengths each candidate has for the position.

The employer is also searching out the weaknesses, limitations or deficiencies that the job candidate brings to the position. This is usually done to try and narrow down the field of candidates, to make the selection process easier for the employer.

Point 1: Most job candidates try to avoid the question "what is your greatest weakness/limitation" by saying they don’t have weaknesses; others answer the question in a way that usually lands them in hot water.

Here are two different ways that people who are not very confident with answering the question might answer it:

1) I am not very reliable.

2) I struggle sometimes with my time management skills.

Most people probably wouldn’t say "I am not very reliable" in an interview. The point of the extreme example is to address an important mistake people make when they answer weakness questions.

Really, both answers in the example are saying the same thing, but one sounds a bit better than the other. Why does statement 2 sound better?

The answer is simple. In the first scenario, a personal characteristic is used, something that is internal, something that is extremely hard to fix. In the second scenario, the individual identified a specific skill. Skills can be learned, developed and changed. This is the entire secret to answering weakness questions.

Suggestion 1: Always, always answer with a skill; Never, never with a personal characteristic

The secret to answering weakness/limitation-based questions is to know the difference between your personal characteristics and your skills, which are still evolving, developing and needing improvement in your career. To make this easier, here is a simple breakdown:

Skills are things you can do. Examples would include fixing and repairing things, knowledge of computers, taking blood pressure, languages, etc.

Personal Characteristics are what you are. They answer the question “I am a. . .” Examples would include dedicated, motivated, energetic, reliable and organized.

Point 2: The second mistake job candidates make with this question is they don’t offer solutions to their perceived weaknesses. Offering solutions gives the employer confidence that you are willing to make adjustments, that you can learn from your weaknesses and that you have a level of emotional quotient that will allow you to grow in the position.

Rather than simply stating:

1) I struggle sometimes with my time management skills.

It would be better to say:

2) I struggle sometimes with my time management skills and am currently taking a workshop at the local college to address this.

Suggestion 2: Always identify for the employer how you are working at addressing the skill deficiency

Point 3: Many people answer this question with irrelevant information about themselves that gives the employer no way of properly assessing their qualifications. The question is not designed to trap people, but to reveal the deficiency between the candidate and the position. Therefore:

Suggestion 3: When deciding which skill to reveal, consider looking at the job advertisement and reviewing the skills that they consider assets

These skills are desired but not necessary to fulfill the position. An example of this might be a second language. In this scenario, you might say:

"I noticed in your advertisement that speaking Japanese is an asset for the position. I don’t have this second language, but I would welcome the opportunity to learn it."

Or maybe they are looking for specialized software knowledge that you have yet to learn. In this case, you say:

"I noticed that you are looking for someone who has experience with PowerPoint software. I have some familiarity with it, but I can’t say that I have advanced knowledge of this software. However, I would be willing to advance this knowledge by taking night classes."

Point 4: Finally, many candidates think negatively when answering this question. They already feel nervous and insecure when they go into the interview, and now they are put on the spot to say something negative about themselves. A better approach would be:

Suggestion 4: Identify what you do have and minimize the impact that the deficiency will have on the employer

Here is an answer given by one of my clients after some self-reflection:

"As a new immigrant to Canada, English is my second language. I have challenged myself over the past year to learn the numerous cultural idioms of the English language as they relate to Canada by watching Canadian television, listening to the news and going to comedy nights. Despite there being a lot to learn, I feel qualified now to enter a job with limited impact to my supervisor and co-workers."

In conclusion, the secret to answering weakness/limitation questions is to:

1) Stay away from assassinating your personal character.

2) Offer solutions for the employer when your skills are not perfect.

3) Stay relevant by providing skills relevant to the position.

4) Stay positive by identifying what you do have to offer.

About the author

Clyde Robertson holds a master’s degree in counselling psychology from Trinity Western University. His experience includes 12 years as a career counsellor; seven years as a post-secondary instructor in psychology, life skills and career counselling; seven years providing job search skills, interview skills and career planning for career colleges; five years providing employment counselling for community service agencies; and two years as an employment counselling manager. Robertson’s expertise encompasses code of ethics, counselling skills, group work skills, and career and employment counselling for immigrants and internationally trained professionals.