You’re in the hot seat and things are going well. You talk about your attributes, skills and strengths with ease. Just when you think it’s pretty much in the bag, the hiring manager asks that dreaded question: What’s your biggest weakness?
“This is one of the questions people have the hardest time answering,” says Amanda Abella, a career coach, writer, speaker. “[Your response] tells the interviewer a lot about your character, so it definitely holds a lot of weight.”
Andrew G. Rosen, founder and editor of the popular career advice blog Jobacle.com, agrees. “This is a go-to question for interviewers,” he says. “It’s a seemingly innocent question that has the potential to quickly expose a major flaw. It’s the Hail Mary of the interview; a final last-ditch attempt to trip you up and send you in the other direction. But with a little planning, most interviewees can easily neutralize this question; even use it to their advantage.”
It’s not a trick question and there’s no “right” answer—but interviewers are looking for something specific in your response to this challenging query.
“Hiring managers who ask about weaknesses during interviews are looking for examples of how a person faced obstacles in the past,” says Dylan Schweitzer, a group talent acquisition manager for Enterprise Rent-A-Car. “All employees have flaws, but how they deal with failure and have made steps to fix them are indicators as to how they will handle constructive criticism in the future,” he says. “Interviewers ask about weaknesses and failures because resiliency is a critical skill set which employees must have. As a manager, you expect to give constructive criticism to your employees and the ability of a person to take that and improve is important when choosing who you will manage.”
Abella concurs. “Hiring managers know that no one is perfect. However, they want to make sure of a few things.” First, she says, they want to know that you aren’t conceited and are aware that you make mistakes. “Confidence is great, but there’s a fine line between confidence and conceit.” Second, it’s also a question of character, she says. “If your weakness is that you have a bad temper, you may come off like a loose cannon who will be difficult to work with. Meanwhile, if a weakness is something like ‘I put a lot of pressure—sometimes too much pressure—on myself to succeed, but I’ve worked on this,’ then that doesn’t sound so bad.”
Interviews are designed to filter out bad candidates just as much as they are about finding the right one, Rosen says. “‘What’s your biggest weakness?’ is sort of a silly question and the interviewer is hoping they will catch you off guard, when you don’t have a scripted answer to fall back on. They think you will reveal something you didn’t want or expect to.”
To ensure this doesn’t happen to you, here are some tips for talking about your biggest weakness in a job interview:
- Know your weakness(es)
- Be honest, but don’t mention essential skills.
- Talk about how you’ve conquered the weakness.
- Don’t prepare an exact response.
- Only discuss work-related weaknesses.
- Don’t say you’re a perfectionist or you work too hard.
“Hiring managers know that people make mistakes, and they want to know how you’ve handled yours,” Abella concludes. “Being aware of your weaknesses is a good sign; it shows that you know where your boundaries are and aren’t suffering from a case of hubris.”