Job Search Tip of the Week #16 (2018)


How to Ace Your First-Round (or Really, Just About Any) Interview

Think Like an Interviewer – Q10

Forget everything you thought you knew about how to answer the common interview question, “What are your weaknesses?”

Your old standbys “I’m a perfectionist” and “I’m a workaholic” aren’t going to cut it anymore; they’ve lost their magic because interviewers know that job seekers prepare these default answers to use throughout multiple interviews with various companies. Don’t let this question remain a mutually wasted opportunity!

When hiring managers ask about your weaknesses, they’re trying to gauge your authenticity, self-awareness, and resiliency, and determine whether you’d be a good cultural fit. So, when you give a canned response like “perfectionist” or “workaholic”, your interviewer will either push you for another one or move onto the next question — and you miss out on a chance to talk about what obstacles you’ve overcome, how you’re better now for them, and how you’ll continue to grow once you get the job.

Pick a weakness (but not just any weakness)

Hiring managers are looking for signs of humility, not hubris. If you can’t say what your weaknesses are, they’ll start to question the qualifications you claim to have and why they should hire you.

You can avoid interview paralysis with some preparation. Do some self-reflection and be honest, but cautious. For example, you don’t want to admit a deficit in a skill set that’s essential to the position you’re interviewing for, because that’s a surefire way not to get the job. To avoid this, review the job description and do your research to learn exactly what your prospective employer’s looking for.

Talking about inappropriate personal drama is another way to ensure you won’t get called back for another interview. Interviewers just want to hear about your weaknesses in the workplace and how you’ve conquered them. They don’t need to know about your quarrelsome family and how it’s always bordering WWIII, and all you’re doing (besides treating your interviewer like your therapist) is inadvertently suggesting that your personal life may interfere with your job performance and your interactions with coworkers, supervisors, and clients. Speaking of, it’s also dangerous to mention a weakness that’s related to your interpersonal skills like how well you work with others or take direction because it indicates you may not be coachable/manageable or a team player. You also don’t want to say something that’s dependent on a person/situation (like how you get stressed out when someone isn’t producing to your standards) because it suggests you can’t take responsibility and find fault in yourself.

So instead, share your career ambitions and show you have plenty of room to grow. Talk about areas where you can improve that are relevant to what you do but not vital to what you’d be hired to do. For example, if you’re a Java Developer, you could say, “I’d like to work on my PHP and Ruby programming skills. I studied it in school so I know the fundamentals, but I haven’t had much of an opportunity to use it hands-on since then as I’ve been focused on using Java in my current job, and I’d like to become more well-rounded and tech-agnostic.”

But don’t just stop there!

Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk

It’s not enough to name weaknesses and say you’re working on them. Be prepared to share your story and specific steps you’ve taken to eliminate those shortcomings or turn them into strengths.

We’ve mentioned it before when we talked about how to answer behavioral and situational interview questions, and the approach works in this case too. Think “PS CAR” (fun fact for the car non-aficionados: Pferdestärke (PS) refers to the horsepower of a car):

  • People: Who was involved
  • Situation: What was it and why was it particularly problematic
  • Cause: What led to the problem / How did the situation arise
  • Address: What specific actions did you take, and why did you choose that particular course of action over the alternatives
  • Result: What was the end-result, and what did you learn from it (Was it what you’d expected? If so, why? If not, why not? What would you do differently the next time you face a similar situation?)

Applying “PS CAR” to our previous example of you as the Java Developer looking to brush up on PHP and Ruby, you could say, “I realized this was a goal of mine during a work hackathon. My team had to build a web application and after thorough discussion, we decided due to our limited development time and resources, it’d be best built using PHP. Although my strong Java background helped, I had to look up a lot of things and ‘phone a friend’ while writing our code. It took a lot longer than we thought it would but we finished the task, and the process made me realize that learning other languages would help strengthen my understanding of my core one and improve my problem-solving skills. So since then, I’ve been taking an online course for PHP on Codecademy and plan on going to Boston PHP’s next monthly meetup. That way next time I’ll be better prepared to use the right language for the problem at hand!”

Be positive

Note that we didn’t use “weakness” in our sample answer, but instead “I’d like to work on” — you want to put the focus on your self-awareness and positive growth. Use phrases like “I used to…but now I’ve learned,” “I feel that my… skills could be stronger, so I’m working to improve them by,” “Sometimes I find it challenging to…To get past this, I’ve been,” “I’ve made progress on,” and “I want to be…” And whenever you can speak to your strengths, do so (in the above example, you underscored your expertise in Java as well as your ability to know where to go/ask for help).

Avoid leading with negativity like “I hate how,” “One of the mistakes I tend to make,” or “Sometimes I fail to” because they emphasize the weakness you’re pointing out. You also want to avoid using vague terms like “Maybe I could be more” and “I could probably improve” because they make it sound like you’re not very self-aware and not putting much thought into answering the question.

Remember, the goal is to show your interviewer that you can take criticism whether it’s from yourself — or someone else — and make it constructive.

Remember: At this point, saying you’re too detail-oriented or focused on work is just cliché. This interview question is your opportunity to demonstrate your capacity for self-introspection and self-improvement. Have an honest discussion with your prospective employer about your character and cultural fit, and whether the role you’re interviewing for can help you both grow professionally.

Sound Off: What are your weaknesses?

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