Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Interview Time! How to answer the strengths/weaknesses question

There is nothing more awkward then being in an interview where someone answers the strengths and weaknesses question poorly. It usually goes something like this:

Interviewer: “Tell us about your top 2 strengths and top 2 weaknesses.”

Interviewee: “Well, um, I guess I am really good at math. And uhhh…I’m pretty good at customer service. And for my weaknesses I am definitely a procrastinator, I just sometimes wait ‘till the last minute. And I also can be pretty disorganized.”

[insert awkwardness here]

In any interview, whether you’re trying out for a student leadership position, a part-time job to pay your tuition, an internship, or the big-league’s, you’ll want to know how to answer this question correctly.

The key to remember in interviews is that you are selling yourself. So even if you are asked to present a weakness, you are still selling yourself for that particular job. However, selling yourself should never sound like bragging, because that doesn’t work either. It requires some finesse.

The first key is that you need to know yourself. This question is testing how well your strengths and weaknesses fit the job, as well as your level of self-awareness. Keep that in mind as you read below.

How to answer questions about your strengths
  • First, you must know yourself. Take a strengths test to learn more about your personality type and the strengths that come along with it. I highly recommend the Strengths Finder book and test by Gallup (really worth the investment - I promise). Notice what people compliment you, where you get fantastic grades, and where you shine….and why.
  • Read the job description carefully and before the interview and think about your top 2-3 strengths that fit perfectly with the most important skills/qualities the job description explains the company is looking for. You have many strengths, so get to know all of them and then pull out the most relevant 2-3 for each interview.
  • When you explain your strengths, give specific examples based on past results. Don’t just say “I’m really good with people.” Instead, say “I have highly developed interpersonal skills and have always thrived in serving and communicating with others. For example, in my college honors society I used my relationship-building skills to bring top speaker XYZ to our regional conference and helped recruit new members so that our meeting attendance doubled.” Make the examples as relevant as possible to the job itself.

How to answer questions about your weaknesses
  • Know the job description very well and do not give a weakness that is listed on the job description. Just don’t do it! For example, if it’s a job where you have to talk to people, do not say one of your weakness is shyness. (If you are really really weak in an area the job is looking for, then maybe it’s not the right job for you.)
  • Remember that when you talk about a weakness, the goal is to show that you are self-aware and that you are always working to improve yourself.
  • Choose a weakness that isn’t too weak (e.g. something that every job wants). For example, do not say you are disorganized, a procrastinator, lazy, not a team player, aggressive, that you like to water your Farmville crops all day instead of work etc. Focus on weaknesses that have more to do with personality and that are easily improved. For example, one of the weaknesses I cite is that I am not very assertive with others when it comes to stating my own opinion if it is in opposition. Since I do not want a job that is confrontational because I know it wouldn't suit my strengths (e.g. lawyer), this answer suits me well because it is based on my personality, and isn't something that would be considered a huge general flaw in the workplace. 
  • End on a positive note by using your weakness to illuminate an example of success. When you talk about a weakness, end your answer by explaining how you are already working to improve in that area and are finding success. For example, when I say one of my weakness is not being very assertive, I end by saying that I have learned a lot from my mentors in my current job and have been working on being more assertive when it comes to ideas and opinions that I know will improve the organization and help us meet its goals. And then I would give an example of when I had done just that. This shows the interviewers that you are self-aware, that you understand the importance of improving that weakness in terms of organizational success, that you are working on it, and that really you’re not that weak at all because you already have had success in that area. 
Always prepare for interviews before hand by thinking these things through and writing them down. I usually bring a small notecard or typed up sheet with my top strengths and how they relate to the job, along with my questions for the interviewers (will share those in a future post!).

Good luck on your interviews! And feel free to send any other questions you have about interviews to advice@communitycollegesuccess.com.

For more tips on preparing to enter the working world, check out Community College Success – the book – now available on Amazon.com! 

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