Updated 24 May 2020
"What are your strengths?" is a classic interview question. It seems simple enough, but these four words present something of a minefield for candidates.
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 used to your 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.
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 several 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 your strengths, 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:
Each of these phrasings (and many more) are 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 answer all of these questions in the same way and come across as robotic. 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, start by describing an example you’re happy with and then discuss the strengths that surround that example.
Being able to adapt your answer to whatever question is thrown at you will not only put across your key strengths in a more engaging way, but will also demonstrate your communication abilities.
Be prepared for follow-up questions to be asked.
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 mentioning everything in your first answer, but the follow-up should draw on anything else.
Your aim is not to convince the interviewer that you are the world’s best employee. Instead, you need to show them that you are the right employee for the job at hand.
You can probably come up with a ton of strengths and personal qualities that you think would help, but you need to choose the best ones to focus on.
Here are some useful tips on shortlisting them:
When planning your answers, it's a good idea to categorise the various strengths that you wish to present and prepare a few examples from each category:
Hard skills are learnt; they may be skills acquired during your education or within the workplace. They might include:
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 competencies are all worth considering:
Make sure to read the job description thoroughly and identify the key strengths required for the role. Once you have done this, go back to your shortlist of strengths and choose the ones that fit best.
If the role requires working on your own with clients a lot of the time, they'll be looking for someone who can take the initiative, be independent and be calm.
Focus on a few key strengths and explain these succinctly. That will be much more memorable than a scatter-gun approach. Aim to strike a balance between over-confidence and underselling yourself.
If you list too many strengths, you risk sounding arrogant. Too few implies a lack of confidence or – worse still – a lack of skills.
Always have an example ready for each strength. A skill without a concrete example means little to someone who doesn’t know you.
For example, if you mention excellent communication skills, you could follow this up with how this helped you run multiple social media platforms during your work experience.
The best way to prepare for questions about your strengths is by doing as much practice as possible. Click here to learn more about InterviewGold, the easy online interview training system. You get real questions, winning answers and expert advice – all specific to your target job. Start today for only £59.95; 100% guaranteed.
The answers you use in the interview should feel natural and unscripted, so that you can adapt to the wording of the question and use your own experiences.
With that said, we’ve come up with a few example answers below to various questions that can help you get started if you need some inspiration.
“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 how to use the system in my own time and was then able to train others how to use it.”
This answer states concisely 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.
“I excel when dealing with clients. In my last job, a customer was very unhappy when the delivery of a sample product was not made on time, which meant that they lost out on making a major sale. I went out of my way to listen to the customer's concerns and understand everything that was wrong. I apologised and 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.
"I’ve always considered myself to have a strong work ethic; I always aim 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 in 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 high 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 uses the STAR technique. This is a fantastic way to make sure that each of your answers is structured effectively.
The STAR method consists of the following:
When giving answers, candidates will often leave out important parts of the scenario they’re trying to explain. For instance, they might describe their task and what they did but add no context. Or they might talk eloquently about what they did but fail to mention whether their actions brought any success.
By practising using the STAR technique and ensuring all your answers follow it, you can be sure that you cover all 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 learn more about the STAR technique, including how to use it most effectively and some example answers, by reading this comprehensive article.
Some common errors when talking about your strengths include:
If you find yourself struggling to come up with a list of strengths, you might want to try some of these approaches:
It's highly likely that you will be asked questions about your strengths during the recruitment process.
Throughout the interview, try to look out for opportunities to communicate the strengths that 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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