"What are your strengths?" is a classic interview question. It seems simple enough, but these four words present something of a minefield for the candidate.
That’s because it requires you to tread carefully between two paths: too humble on one side, and too arrogant on the other.
For that reason, most candidates don’t answer it well.
Too much humility, and you’ll undersell your achievements and skills, leading the employer to think you’re less competent than you are. But oversell yourself too much, and you can easily come across as self-interested and potentially unable to work well in a team.
And both of these can happen by accident if you don’t prepare properly. If you’re caught out, you can easily end up drawing a blank, or pushing too hard on the one strength you can bring to mind.
Prepare well, however, and this question can be turned into a great advantage.
It’s an open invitation to talk about your skills, your accomplishments and to show how you match the employer’s values and requirements.
You must be ready to stand out and demonstrate your unique value as a candidate.
In the rest of this article, we'll show you:
Interviewers are looking to see how you assess your strengths, and how that fits with the role.
Like its counterpart "What are your weaknesses?", this question is very likely to come up at your next job interview. In fact, they are often asked together.
There are a number of things that your prospective employer may be looking to uncover. For example, they might want to:
Because it’s a broad and open-ended question, employers will often word it in different ways.
Don’t be caught out – if they’re giving you an open opportunity to talk about why you’re a strong candidate, then it’s this question.
Learn how to recognise it and how to apply your planning, and you’ll never be thrown off.
Here are some of the question’s more common guises:
Which traits do you have that make you most suitable for the role?
Each of these phrasings (and many more) are all asking the same essential question: what are you good at, and why would we want those skills in our company?
Of course, you don’t want to come across as robotic either. Take note of how the question was put to you, and tailor your answer appropriately.
For instance, if the question is about your proudest achievement, then start by describing an example you’re very happy with, and then discuss the strengths that surround that example.
Being able to adapt on the fly in that way will not only put across your key strengths in a more engaging way, but will also demonstrate your communication abilities.
Be prepared also for this question to be followed up. Most often, you’ll be asked something like: how have you used the strengths you've just mentioned in your previous role?
This is why it’s important to prepare thoroughly and broadly. You might not get around to everything in your first answer, but the follow-up could draw on anything else.
Your aim is not necessarily to convince the interviewer that you are the world’s best employee. Instead, your aim is to show them that you are the right employee for the job at hand.
Trying to pretend that you have the traits and skills of a prodigy with 30 years in the industry isn’t going to fool anyone.
The key is to try and match the needs and abilities of the role with your skill set and personality.
We recommend that you follow these steps:
The best way to prepare for questions about your strengths is by doing as much preparation and practice as possible. JobTestPrep has an online tutorial with over 100 interview questions answered in detail, including strengths-based ones.
So, with all that in mind, which skills are the best to mention?
You can probably come up with a ton of strengths and personal qualities that you think would help, but you need to be concise, and that means selecting which ones to focus on.
When planning your answers, it's a good idea to categorise the various strengths that you wish to present and prepare a few from each category. That way, you can be sure you’re covering all the bases.
Skills gained through education and experience, such as computer skills, languages, industry knowledge, social media skills, qualifications, training and technical skills. These will often be specified in the job advert.
If it’s a required skill, then it’s probably best not to focus on it too closely, as every candidate will have that skill. But you will need an example or two to prove your proficiency.
These are skills that you carry with you from job-to-job. They can include anything from communication and planning skills, to analytical and problem-solving skills.
These are the innate qualities that sell you as a person as well as an employee. For example, dependability, flexibility, adaptability, or being a good team player.
When selecting which skills-based strengths to focus on, it might be handy to begin with concrete examples and work backwards.
For example, have you ever received an award or other recognition in a professional capacity? Or took a decision or executed a task which significantly increased a company’s profitability?
Have you received awards or recognition in your hobbies, volunteering or side projects?
Start with these and list them. Now, for each, jot down which key skills or strengths are demonstrated by those examples and achievements.
Once you have a list of strengths from this, you’ll probably have too many because that’s just the kind of successful person you are. Maybe. In any case, it’s time to start reducing it to a core list.
Bring up the job advert as well as any research you’ve done into the company and the role.
Do any of your strengths match up closely with their description of the ideal candidate? These are good ones to focus on.
Additionally, think which of your strengths you have the best examples for – the ones you could go on about for hours. These are also good choices; even better if they hit both criteria.
Once you have your five or so core strengths, practice, practice, practice. With anyone who’ll let you, practice just talking about your strengths and your examples.
It’s not the most natural thing for us to do, boasting about what’s great about us, but the more used to it you get, the more comfortably you can do it in the interview.
These competencies are all worth considering:
Think about new skills you've acquired that you can demonstrate as strengths.
The answers you use in the interview should feel natural and unscripted so that you can adapt to the wording of the question. Of course, it should also reflect your experiences and come from your own voice.
With that said, we’ve come up with a few example answers to various questions that can help you get started if you’re feeling a bit stuck, lost, or just need some inspiration.
1. “I am highly adaptable to change. During my internship a new payroll system was introduced, and other members of staff were unhappy about it. I taught myself the system in my own time and was then able to train others how to use it.”
This answer succinctly states what the strength is, before immediately following it up with an anecdotal example from a previous employer to reinforce it.
It’s an example that shows how the candidate’s strength provided concrete benefits to their employer, while also hinting at other skills indirectly, like the ability to learn a new technical system quickly, and the initiative and interpersonal skills to help colleagues.
2. “I have excellent interpersonal skills and excel in dealing with clients. In my last job, a customer was very unhappy when a delivery of a sample product was not made on time, which meant that the customer lost out on making a sale. I went out of my way to listen to the customer's concerns, apologised, and made sure that I understood everything that was wrong. I then presented a solution by calling other clients to see if they had any spare samples, which I volunteered to deliver to the customer the following day."
Again, this example begins with a skill and lays out a step-by-step example of that skill in action with a previous employer.
It demonstrates that not only is the candidate good at dealing with clients, but that they genuinely care about them, going out of their way to rectify a situation.
In addition to their interpersonal skills, this is a candidate that cares about their job, and won’t just do the bare minimum.
3. "I’ve always considered myself to have a very strong work ethic. I am committed to doing whatever it takes to meet deadlines. As part of a work placement I was working with a customer who had my team on a strict deadline. For reasons beyond my control, there was some confusion in the delivery of crucial documents, which didn’t get to our office until late on the afternoon before the deadline. Rather than go home, I volunteered to stay late and finish everything, ensuring that the deadline was met, and that the work was of a very good standard.”
With a concrete example, this candidate demonstrates that they are a hard worker who’s willing to be flexible and get on with the job if things don’t go to plan, rather than panicking or complaining.
Each of the above examples use the STAR method, and it’s a fantastic approach to learn that makes sure each of your answers is structured effectively.
The STAR method consists of the following:
Situation. Give the context of the example. What was the company and the project? Who was the client? Were you working in a team?
Task. Now move to the specifics and describe what your role in the project was, and what your goal was.
Action. Describe the actions that you took towards that goal. Be careful not to talk about the team’s contribution here – this part is your time to shine. How did you bring your team closer to that goal?
Result. Finally, talk about the outcome of the actions you took. If you can, slip some numbers in here. Saying that your boss told you ‘job well done’ is fine, but to be able to say you increased profits by 20% for that quarter is better and more concrete.
When giving answers, many candidates will leave out important parts of the scenario they’re trying to explain. For instance, they might describe their task and what they did, but with no context it doesn’t make much sense.
Or they might talk eloquently about what they did, but fail to mention whether their actions actually brought any success.
By practising using the STAR technique and ensuring all your answers follow it, you can be sure that you cover all your bases.
It also helps you stay focused and concise, rather than having to jump backwards or forwards to explain important details you forgot to mention.
You can read more about the STAR technique, including how to use it most effectively and some example answers, by reading this article.
Some common errors when talking about your strengths include:
Giving a list of strengths. Reeling off adjectives without any consideration for the job specification or without concrete examples to back them up can make your responses forgettable, and risks making you sound arrogant. Don't be scattershot.
Think of the specific strengths you have which make you a good fit for that particular role. If you're not sure what skills to pick, read on for advice in that regard.
Irrelevant answers. Any strengths you give should be related to the skills expected of the ideal candidate. For example, if you're applying for a job in accountancy, saying you're a great athlete is unlikely to enhance your application.
Irrelevant answers may also suggest to the interviewer that your weaknesses lie in areas crucial to the job.
Vague or general answers. You need to demonstrate self-awareness, so it isn't a good idea to say that you're strong in many respects but can't think of anything in particular.
Back up your answers with short examples, and make sure you know your strengths in advance, since any hesitation risks undermining your answer. This is not a time to sit on the fence or be overly modest.
If you find yourself struggling to come up with a list of strengths, you might want to try some of these approaches:
Ask someone else. Getting a fresh perspective can help to bring out an accurate reflection of what you're really good at. Try asking someone who knows you well (such as a friend or colleague) what they think your strengths are.
Look back on past praise and achievements. Try to recall any praise or feedback you received as a student, or during any internships or work placements. For this reason, it’s always a good idea to keep a personal file of any positive feedback you receive throughout your education and employment.
Similarly, review any achievements you have included on your CV, and identify what stands out.
Look at the key skills of others in a role similar to yours. Browse LinkedIn and see what skills and endorsements are most prominent in the profiles of people currently doing a similar role to the one you're looking at.
It's unlikely that you won't get asked any questions relating to your strengths.
Throughout the interview, try to stay alert for opportunities and openings to communicate the strengths which are most relevant to the role. If you are asked about your previous employment or experience, try to share an example which relates to one of your strengths.
If you can't find the opportunity, you may be asked if you have anything to add at the end of the interview, at which point you could offer a summary of your strengths, and emphasise how they make you the best candidate for the position.
Perhaps the most important piece of advice to take on board is to always be honest. Blowing your interviewers away with talk of your amazing IT skills only for them to discover one week in that you are a technophobe will not go down well. It may even have you back on your job search, so think before you speak.
Was that useful? Be sure to check out our article on how to answer the other key question, What are your weaknesses?
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