(Don’t) Tell Me about Your Weaknesses
By swallowing evil words unsaid, no one has ever harmed his stomach.
Every interview is different, but every interview is the same. There may
be some unusual questions, even the occasional detour into the bizarre,
but three questions are thoroughly predictable. In fact, they are so
likely to be raised that, when the conversation turns to life’s
inevitabilities, they deserve equal billing with death and taxes.
Here are the big three topics of the job interview:
· Tell me about yourself.
· Tell me about your strengths.
· Tell me about your weaknesses.
Every interviewee should see these coming. No one should be taken by
surprise, and no one should ever consider, even for a fleeting moment,
walking into an interview without well-prepared answers to the big three
You might think that interviewers bristle at answers that seem
rehearsed. Interviewers are, by and large, no fools. They know full well
that these questions are always asked. They know you know that as well.
You know, or you should know, that your interviewer knows that you know.
It’s a truth worth acknowledging. Your interviewer knows that everyone
asks these questions, and he knows that you will have anticipated them
and, if you’re serious, prepared your answers. If the questions take
you by surprise, that alone speaks volumes about your attitude. You
prove that you haven’t taken the process very seriously, and that’s
not the attitude that tends to get an applicant to the next stage of the
It should be clear, then, that you should prepare. This does not mean
that you should drone on endlessly and deliver a monotonous recitation
of a memorized script. It does mean that you should think through your
answers and practice your delivery.
All three questions are important, but one of them is especially tricky:
tell me about your weaknesses.
This question is a trap.
To avoid falling into the trap, you must remember one thing about
yourself, even though that one thing is patently false: for the purposes
of the interview, you have no weaknesses.
Obviously, this is an outright lie. We all have weaknesses. Not one of
us is perfect. Human beings are inherently flawed, some more than
others, and we are just as flawed at work as we are in any other part of
This is not breaking news. It is not something that has somehow escaped
the interviewer’s notice over the years, and it is unlikely that the
interviewer expects to spend his days evaluating a parade of superhuman
candidates. You will not be asked to turn water into wine during the
Is the right approach, then, to elaborate on your many foibles and
idiosyncrasies? No, this approach misses the point.
The interviewer knows that you are human. Therefore, he knows that you
have weaknesses. He also knows, however, that if you are a smart
candidate, you will find a way to answer the question without disclosing
those weaknesses—or, at least, those weaknesses that would be fatal to
your prospects. You, being that smart candidate, will accommodate him.
You will play the game by answering the question without actually
answering the question.
You might be tempted to throw some real weaknesses out there because
they seem trivial or innocuous. Resist. You run the risk of showcasing
exactly those weaknesses that are worrying the employer. Unless you can
read the interviewer’s mind, you are perilously close to falling into
the very trap that the question has set. You can, however, talk about
actual weaknesses if you frame them properly, and the result may be an
answer that sounds more honest and still does you some good.
The Usual Suspects
Unless your interviewer is new to the job, there are some answers that
she has heard at least a thousand times before. These are the kind of
answers that probably occurred to people who were interested in joining
the pyramid-building team being assembled by Tutankhamen, and people
still use them all too often.
The classic example is “I’m a perfectionist,” followed closely in
popularity by “I work too hard.”
There are two problems with this type of response. First, the answer is
meaningless. It is obvious that the applicant is mouthing something that
sounds like a weakness, at the same time expecting the interviewer to
recognize that it’s really a fabulously desirable strength. The answer
is disingenuous at best, but that’s not all that’s wrong. The second
problem is that it gives the interviewer clear and convincing evidence
that the applicant has not given the process much thought. If you
weren’t willing or able to take the interview seriously, how likely is
it that you will approach your job with a better attitude?
Once you have admitted to your horrible perfectionism, do not expect the
interviewer to be stunned into silence by the blinding realization that
this flaw of yours is exactly what the company needs. That will not
Your interviewer, having reviewed your paperwork and spent a few minutes
chatting, has probably noticed at least four of your unacknowledged
flaws already. Amazingly enough, perfectionism is not among those flaws,
but your interviewer is ready with more questions. She may ask for a
concrete example of the terrible consequences of your alleged flaw. She
may ask you to describe some more of your weaknesses. Whatever happens
next, be prepared, because your first answer did not get you very far.
Another option, of course, is to take the plunge and simply say that you
have no weaknesses. That choice may seem to make a certain sense in
context, since it aligns so well with the apparent goal of convincing
the interviewer that you are free of faults, but the goal is actually
slightly different. The real goal is to present yourself as a human
being complete with flaws, but one whose weaknesses need not trouble
someone who makes hiring decisions.
What Do Interviewers Want?
Bear in mind that your interviewer has heard it all before. The phony,
too-good-to-be-true answers have all been tried. They have failed, but
not only because they are inherently unconvincing. On one level, they
also show that a candidate has not given the interview much thought. An
interviewer will be tempted to extrapolate from that thoughtlessness,
wondering if the applicant has the capacity to think critically about
his own performance.
One thing that interviewers want, then, is a candidate with some level
In addition, many interviewers see the question as a way to evaluate the
applicant’s ability to think creatively and to perform under pressure.
Admittedly, this is something of a stretch, since everyone sees—or
should see—the question coming.
There is also a school of thought that sees the question as a mistake,
the equivalent of asking the candidate for reasons to choose someone
else for the job. That school holds that there is a qualitative
difference between asking for a simple statement of your weaknesses and
asking for a description of work situations that have given you trouble
in the past, along with a summary of how you dealt with them.
As a result, interviewers have learned to vary the phrasing of the
question. Instead of asking you to talk about your biggest weakness,
they try different approaches. “What would your last manager say about
ways in which your work could improve?” “What areas of your
performance are you working on?”
Sometimes, the approach is more specific. “Think of three situations
that you found difficult and tell me what you did to overcome those
difficulties.” “Tell me about a project that did not go as expected,
and describe what happened and how you responded.”
All of these are simply variations on the weakness theme, and none of
them requires a whole new approach. In fact, if you develop an effective
strategy for even the simplest version of the question, you should be
able to deal with variations without breaking a sweat.
Any strategy you use should recognize the question in its many forms and
respond to it in a way that addresses the interviewer’s concerns. As
long as your answer does those two things, you have some latitude in
choosing your specific approach.
From Out of the Past
Beginning with the proposition that you are not about to sabotage your
own interview by discoursing on your real weaknesses, all that is left
is to talk about your strengths.
You can tilt the conversation in the right direction by describing
something that seemed like a weakness when you first confronted it. You
were not sure that you were up to the task, but you learned something by
overcoming your concerns.
“Describe something that has given you trouble at your job.”
“Hmmm, great question. I really think I have the skills and experience
for this job. Perhaps early in my career I was a bit too ambitious about
taking on tasks. Back when I was with Company X, my manager came to me
after a week and asked if I could handle part of a presentation in
addition to my regular job, because someone had just left and the
company was in a bind. Well, maybe I should have turned him down because
it seemed like a daunting task, but I wanted to be helpful. And that
taught me just how much I can accomplish when I set my mind to it. It
may not have been the most perfect presentation, but it got the job
done, and I ended up learning an area that had been unfamiliar to me.”
The answer deals with a weakness that turns out to be illusory, while
emphasizing a willingness to take on new things and go the extra mile.
The particular weakness is irrelevant. What matters is that you have
dealt with the problem.
“Tell me about your weaknesses.”
“When I first started out, I had trouble sorting out a good balance
between life and work. I realized that my time management skills needed
improvement and that my unbalanced approach wasn’t best for my family,
my employer, and me. I decided to get a better handle on things, and I
devoted a lot of energy to developing better ways to manage my projects
and my time. For the past two years, I have settled on a system that
combines my calendar and all my project information. That system allows
me to break things down into discrete chunks, make reliable forecasts of
project timing, and allocate my resources realistically. At the same
time, I joined a gym and started a healthy diet. Those changes have
served me well, and I’m in much better shape, at work and at home,
because I’m more in control of all the competing demands that everyone
Not every weakness you mention in an interview has to be a thing of the
past, as long as you don’t present it as something that is currently
out of control despite your best efforts. The two keys are that you
demonstrate your awareness of a particular weakness and describe the
steps you are taking, and have taken, to get it under control. It is
perfectly acceptable to still need to take those steps. It is not
acceptable to let a weakness grow unchecked.
This is another time when the subject matter of your answer is of little
consequence unless the weakness has special relevance to the job
requirements. In other words, if the job requires someone with a
commitment to obsessive accuracy, and you have a problem with getting
details right, it may be time to look for other opportunities. It is
certainly not the time to confess your tendency to approach your work
Here, the best answers come in two parts. They require some actual
awareness of your flaws and some attempt to remedy them. Part one is
devoted to a description of the weakness. Part two is a description of
In other words, you’re talking about a real weakness that you have
worked on and that may still be something you need to watch. A weakness
then becomes a skill, even if there is still room for improvement.
“When I moved from General Stuff to Amalgamated Widgets a few years
ago, there was one part of my job that was new to me, and it was the one
part I didn’t enjoy. I tended to put that task off until the end of
the day. That meant that there were days when I hadn’t allowed myself
enough time to finish the job; and, because of that, I didn’t always
produce my best work in that one area. It also meant that the rest of my
day was impacted by the knowledge that I would need to tackle that task.
The best approach for me, I learned, was to do that kind of task first.
This meant that I had enough time to do it well and that my approach to
the rest of the day was much more positive. Even now, I occasionally
have to remind myself to tackle those tough jobs first, so I still order
my priorities with that in mind.”
Excerpted from "When Can You Start? Ace the Job Interview and Get Hired, Third Edition" by Paul Freiberger. Copyright © 2016 by Paul Freiberger. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.