Being asked about your weaknesses in an interview is intimidating. After all, you’re there to show them how capable you are, not to talk about what you’re bad at.
But, most of the time, it’s unavoidable. It’s a very common question – and later on we’ll examine why that is.
It’s also frequently paired with the “What are your strengths?” question, so be sure to prepare for that too.
To answer it well requires walking a tightrope. If you don’t talk about anything that sounds like a plausible weakness, you come across as disingenuous or – worse – deluded as to your lack of shortcomings.
But if you are perhaps a little too honest, or if your weakness is a critical one, you risk sabotaging your own interview.
Unsurprisingly, not many candidates answer it well. That presents you with an opportunity to stand out though; if you practice and prepare well, it can work in your favour.
A good answer shows that you’re self-aware and able to critically analyse your own skills.
It also shows that you’re willing to address your weaknesses, and that you can remain calm under pressure.
Read on to find out how you can tackle this tricky question and turn your greatest weaknesses into your greatest interview strength.
Interviewers are looking to discover your weak points to see how you'll address them.
Why do Interviewers Like to Ask this Question?
It does seem a little perverse. When candidates are doing their best to put themselves across well, the interviewer asks them to talk themselves down.
But interviewers can gain a huge amount of insight from this simple question (or a variant of it).
It’s not sadism that keeps this question as one of the most popular – it’s effectiveness at getting the candidate to think deeply about themselves.
More specifically, interviewers might want to ask this question:
- To assess your character and personality
- To gauge your level of self-awareness and ability to reflect upon your own skills and gaps
- To check that you don’t have any critical flaws that might affect your ability to perform in the role
- To see if you’re willing to work on your weaknesses
- To test your ability to maintain composure under pressure
Different Ways of Asking the Weaknesses Question
While this question is often asked outright, it can also take a variety of forms. Make sure you know what they’re really asking so you don’t get caught out.
Here are a few of the ways it can be phrased:
- What would your employer or colleagues describe as your biggest weakness?
- Which of your current tasks or duties do you find most challenging?
- Which of this role’s tasks or duties would you struggle with the most?
- Have any difficulties or issues arisen in your current role?
- What is the biggest regret you’ll have on leaving your present job?
- Is there any area of your skill set that you feel still needs work?
- Tell me about a time when you let your team down.
While each of these questions (and many more) are all asking a similar question, you don’t want to come across as robotic, like you’ve prepared this answer purely by rote.
Understand that they’re asking for your weaknesses, but take note of how exactly they posed the question. Tailor your response accordingly, and it will come across as off-the-cuff, confident and fluent.
Being able to adapt like this is an important interviewing skill that you should get used to.
It demonstrates not only that you can deliver a good answer, but that you can think on your feet and have good communication skills.
How to Assess and Select a Weakness that Won’t Damage your Credibility
This is the million-dollar question – how do you pick a good weakness for this situation?
The weaknesses you choose should ideally be:
- Not fundamental to the job. You probably won’t get far if you’re applying for an accounting job and your weakness is that you’re just awful with numbers.
- Relevant. By this we mean that it should actually be a weakness relating to professional competencies. Answering with something like “I just don’t do enough exercise” sounds like you’re dodging the question.
- Easily fixable. One of the most important parts of answering this question is to get across the idea that you actively work on your weaknesses. This means that your weakness needs to be something that you could feasibly improve through personal effort.
Always Research the Role
One of the keys to this question is to always research the role thoroughly.
This is because it’s crucial to know what the employer is looking for. It’s the best way to avoid pitfalls, as well as to turn the question to your advantage.
Good research will also allow you to tailor your answer to the role, and potentially even turn your weakness into a strength.
For instance, if the position requires lots of teamwork and regular interaction with management, a good weakness to use might be that you find it difficult to stay motivated in roles where you feel isolated, or in which you can’t learn from those around you.
That’s still a genuine weakness, but it’s one that’s largely negated by the role. It also gets across the implication that you like the way their company works, and would feel motivated there.
To help get you started, here are a few example answers that demonstrate the points we’ve been talking about.
Remember, the key is to select a weakness that isn’t fundamental to your ability to perform the role, and then to demonstrate that you’re proactive about fixing that weakness.
Example: Applying for an analyst position, largely working with numbers and data
I don’t have much experience working directly with clients, and so my client-facing communication skills definitely need some work. I’m much more comfortable digging deep into the data and providing the analysis, rather than talking through that with a client.
However, I realise that experience working with clients directly would be a big help to the way I present my analysis, so I’m very keen to improve that aspect.
This is an answer that’s honest and shows a good degree of critical self-reflection.
It’s a weakness that isn’t critical to the role, but the candidate recognises the ways that fixing their weakness would help them in the areas they’re already strong in.
This answer also manages to sneak in a strength (digging deep into data and providing analysis of it).
Example: A more generic weakness that can be used for any role, with evidence of proactivity
At the beginning of my career, I found that I was overwhelmed with the level of work expected of me. Scheduling everything was a big issue for me, and I found that as a result I dropped the ball on some projects because I wasn’t able to give them my proper focus.
However, I have since attended a number of time-management seminars and have found my workload much more manageable since then, and I’m continuing to work on it.
Here, the candidate explains a weakness of theirs that could be a serious problem, but they then immediately show that they’ve already been taking significant steps towards fixing it, and that they’ve made good progress so far.
That comes across as both genuine and shows that the candidate is proactive and self-reflective.
Example: A weakness that isn’t critical and that is easily fixed
In the past, I’ve tended to want to complete one project in its entirety before moving onto another. Of course, in a real work environment that can cause problems as things don’t line up as neatly as that. I know that in the future I need to be more comfortable switching focus when it’s needed.
This is the acceptable version of the “I’m just too much of a perfectionist” answer.
It’s a problem a lot of people can relate to, as it’s only natural that we want to see our work completed and followed through before switching focus. You’ll probably have the interviewer agreeing with you.
Again, though, it shows some self-reflection by recognising the issues that that approach can cause.
Of course, any answer you give will need to be specific to both you and the role. Don’t make something up – you’ll come across as disingenuous and might not be able to handle any follow-up questions.
If you can’t figure out what your weaknesses are, then read on.
The STAR Method
The STAR method is a fantastic approach for all interview questions. It’s a technique you should definitely be familiar with and practice.
It’s basically a way of structuring any example-based response you give that ensures all the key components are there.
- 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 into 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. This should be specifically about your contribution, not the team’s.
- Result. Finally, talk about the outcome of the actions you took. If you can, slip some numbers in here to make things more concrete.
While this method would typically be used when talking about your positive traits and achievements (after all, that’s mostly what you want to be doing in an interview), it’s still useful when talking about your weaknesses.
It helps keep your examples concise and engaging. The interviewer can easily follow your scenario from start to finish, getting all the important details along the way.
You can read more about the STAR technique, including how to use it most effectively and some example answers, here.
Always keep the STAR method in mind when describing your weaknesses in an interview.
Answers you Should Definitely Seek to Avoid
It’s a minefield of a question, and there are plenty of answers that really won’t do.
Learn what these answers are like and what they have in common, so you can be sure you never commit these interview sins.
Giving a weakness that is actually a strength
I’m just such a perfectionist. I don’t like substandard effort, so I make sure all my work is perfect. This might mean that I work too hard, but it’s worth it to me, because it’s so annoying finishing work that’s less than perfect.
This candidate shows no humility and – more importantly – no evidence of self-reflection.
It will be clear to the interviewer that they are trying to dodge the question, while at the same time overselling themselves.
Giving a weakness that reflects a bad attitude
My weakness is that I just hate getting up in the morning. I snooze the alarm like ten times before finally dragging myself up. I look forward to the weekends mostly, so I can have a lie-in without worrying about getting up for work.
Almost no-one likes getting up early in the morning. It’s not a weakness that really tells us anything about you.
Moaning about it won’t earn you much sympathy, especially when it implies that you might be late to work when your penchant for snoozing gets the better of you.
Furthermore, this answer shows no willingness or proactive drive to resolve the issue.
Giving a weakness that has little or no bearing on your professional competencies
I’m scared of dogs. I got bitten by one as a child and now I can’t stand being around them. Sometimes it makes it quite awkward when I have to meet someone who I know has a dog.
Unless you’re applying for a job working with animals, this weakness is just irrelevant.
For the purposes of this question, save your childhood traumas for the therapist. It doesn’t tell the interviewer anything, and will either sound like you’re oversharing (which could become awkward) or that you’re dodging the question.
Refusing to the answer the question
I don’t really have any weaknesses, to be honest. In my last role I performed really well and couldn’t see where I could have improved.
Everyone has weaknesses. Everyone. From the fresh graduate to the most experienced CEO. That means that giving this answer either paints you as dishonest or deluded, and neither of those are positive traits.
It displays a critical lack of self-reflection and can easily come across as arrogant.
In addition, avoid very vague or general answers that don’t really give anything away. That will tell the interviewer that you can’t think on your feet.
If an answer you’re preparing sounds anything like the examples above, then you need to rethink.
Remember the key principles we’re trying to get across. You should come across as honest, self-reflective and proactive.
If your answer isn’t honest, doesn’t reflect on your skills and your gaps, and doesn’t demonstrate a willingness to improve, then it needs some work.
Stay Prepared for the Follow-up
You’ve answered the question. Phew, that’s that out of the way. Or is it?
Don’t get caught out by the follow-up question.
There are many reasons why an employer might ask a follow-up. It could be because your answer was particularly good and interesting, or it could be because it lacked something.
Or they might want to see how you think on your feet in a pressure situation.
Here are a few examples of how they might follow up on your answer.
How did that weakness set you back in previous situations?
Here, they want a concrete example.
This could be because your answer sounded more like a strength dressed up as a weakness, so they want to force your hand. Or, it could be because your weakness sounded a little vague.
Regardless, the main point is that they want to hear something more definite, and hear a little more self-reflection on how your weakness has actually affected you.
For this reason, it’s important that for each of your weaknesses that you prepare for, you also have an example ready. After all, if it’s never actually affected you, is it really a weakness?
That sounds more like a positive. Give me an actual weakness.
You’ll get a response like this if they consider your answer to be a bit fake.
If it wasn’t fake, then consider how you worded it. Did you dress it up as a strength or severely undersell it?
If so, consider clarifying your answer and explaining why it really is a weakness – ideally with a specific example to back it up.
Otherwise, this is the time to just be honest. Perhaps start by saying “fair enough, you’re right, this question is always hard to tackle in interviews,” and then follow up with a candid answer that really does reflect a weakness.
If you had to pick another weakness, what would it be?
Your answer might have sounded too rehearsed, and so they want to see if you can think on your feet.
This potential follow-up is the reason why you need to prepare more than one weakness.
If you get this and haven’t prepared a second answer, then you’d better be good at being spontaneous. Don’t risk it.
What if you Don’t Know your Weaknesses?
If you’re struggling to come up with any, it’s probably not because you’re perfect. After all, who is? But it can certainly be tricky to think of the right ones for this question.
Start by thinking back to your previous roles, projects, school and, well, everything. What did you struggle with?
Perhaps you found it difficult to manage your time. Maybe when you had to step up to lead a team, you found it more difficult than you expected.
Or you don’t understand how really good client-facing people come across so effectively.
These can be good examples if explained right.
Make a list of all your possible weaknesses. Just put down everything, big or small. We’re going to see what sticks.
Then, assess each of them by the criteria above. Is this weakness fundamental to the role I’m applying for?
Is it actually a relevant weakness, or is it just a cop-out or something very insignificant?
Are you taking steps to improve in that area, or do you think you would be able to?
If a weakness passes each of those tests, then it should be a good one.
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