How to answer the job interview question: What are your strengths and weaknesses?
5 mins | Travis O'Rourke | Article | Interview advice
"What are your strengths and weaknesses?" If you've ever had a job interview, you've probably heard this question before.
Marc Burrage, Managing Director of Hays Poland, tells us that throughout his career, where he currently manages nearly 400 employees spread across six offices, he's seen many candidates struggle with the above question when they shouldn't.
In his opinion, highlighting strengths and weaknesses gives candidates a great opportunity to impress the interviewer. Marc explains that often he has noticed candidates with the mistaken belief that the answer to this question is easy, and ended up giving an unsatisfactory answer without stopping to think about what was being said. In this blog, Marc shares his best tips for candidates to know how to answer: "What are your strengths and weaknesses?".
In Marc's opinion, there is no right answer to this question. A good answer, or even a great answer, will depend on your skills and experience. However, there is a right way to answer it. Your approach and structure in the answer will determine how you see yourself as a person and whether you can offer the hiring manager or committee what they are looking for.
To give the best possible answer, Marc recommends looking at each part of the question separately.
“What are your strengths?”
This should be an exciting moment as it gives you the opportunity to showcase attributes and skills that you may not have been able to convey at another point in the conversation.
"Stating your strengths is a great way to reinforce a positive image of yourself in the interviewer's mind," says Marc.
However, he explains that this doesn't mean the candidate should simply list the qualities that they think make him or her look good. Despite the positive connotations, there is still a wrong way to answer this question, and it's important that the candidate doesn't get caught up in the moment.
"Make sure everything you say is relevant to the company and, more specifically, to the role itself. Use the job description as it relates to your strengths. If you haven't already done so, take time to research the company and its culture, either through their website or social media. Not only will it help you understand if you will be a good fit, but it will also increase your understanding of what they are looking for."
Marc also encourages candidates to also mention technical skills, transferable skills and characteristics.
What are hard aka technical skills?
Hard skills, or technical skills, are learned through education or hands-on experience. These are concrete, technical abilities that are often specific to a job. You can demonstrate your proficiency in hard skills through relevant certifications, portfolios, skill assessment tests, and completed work.
"Technical skills should be on your resume or cover letter, but bear in mind that the person interviewing you may not have read it in full, so it's worth reminding them of what you can offer. But, if you are applying for a role that requires hard skills that you don't have, it's best to focus on soft skills, traits and demonstrate that you can apply them here. You can also say that one of your strengths is the speed with which you acquire new technical skills and use examples from past experience to showcase that." E.g. If you work in Marketing a hard skill would be Google Analytics, if you’re a graphic designer, it would be knowledge of Adobe Suite or if you work in tech, it would be programming relevant to your tech expertise.
Another point that Marc highlights is the fact that this part of the interview is an opportunity for you to stand out from other candidates. Make sure that the strengths chosen set you apart from the rest.
"Don't say anything obvious that any candidate can claim. One of the worst strengths candidates give, in my opinion, is 'hard work' - believe me, this has the opposite effect that you hope to have. Everyone should feel this for themselves, and what is the alternative? I doubt very much that any of the other candidates would have said, 'I don't work very hard,' so think about what makes you unique and more suited to the role."
The last point that Marc believes is fundamental to highlighting our strengths: being specific.
Describing the traits and soft skills that make you the ideal employee is great but even if it’s honest, any vague description can come across as false. Therefore, he recommends that the candidate chooses a relevant area in which they can successfully apply their traits and skills, preferably using examples.
"What are your weaknesses?"
When asked how best to highlight weaknesses, the most important thing for anyone who finds this question intimidating is to see it as an opportunity to impress, rather than a trap to get you.
"For many of us, there is the temptation to 'um' and 'ah' when struggling to think of anything that could be considered a weakness, almost as if the thought never occurred to you. Don't make this mistake, as it is a common interview question, and you will come across as unprepared. In addition, it will also come across as a lack of self-awareness.
Self-awareness is often a desirable trait for employers and proves that you can work well with others. It highlights that you can evaluate your own performance and build on it, as well as learn from constructive criticism and move on. Honesty will also be well regarded. Blaming others for the weaknesses you’ve mentioned, or making excuses for them, suggests that you are less willing to work on yourself, and therefore you will not be as attractive to potential employers."
Balance is key
Marc also points out the importance of knowing how to strike a balance between strengths and weaknesses, so that there is no risk of the candidate not meeting the hiring manager’s desired expectations.
"There is a risk that the candidate ends up going too far in the other direction. Either way, it's possible to be too honest and list too many shortcomings, in which case the person hiring for the position might not think they have the necessary skills or characteristics. Finding that balance is critical. The best way to do this is to first consider what the interviewer really wants to know," says Marc.
Your weaknesses as a sign of development, a growth mindset
It is inevitable that we will face some challenges when starting a new role. Therefore, Marc considers it important for the candidate to explain how they reacted to problems in the past, proving that they learned from this and made improvements as a result.
"That doesn't mean you should try to distort your weaknesses by trying to imply they're a strength: 'I'm a perfectionist' or 'I need to be busy.' The interviewer won't be fooled," Marc warns.
"Instead, use your weaknesses as a starting point to explain how you're gaining skills or why you want the job you're applying for. For example, you could replace 'I'm a perfectionist' with 'I sometimes spend a lot of time focusing on details.' I would like this role because it would allow me to develop my ability to see the big picture,'" Marc continues.
Another tip is to talk about the weaknesses you are working on, or any previous problems you’ve had and how you learned or retrained as a result.
"Ideally, you'll use a history of your previous work or academic experience to demonstrate your journey. That's what the interviewer wants to know."
How to word your answer
First of all, Marc advises candidates to avoid using words that can be seen as very negative or have these connotations (e.g., "failed," "unsuccessful," or "poor"). This will not help the interviewer's perception of you, even if it happens unconsciously.
Instead, explain that a project or task "didn't go as well as you had hoped" or that "the results could have been better"; this will show that you maintain high standards and always work to improve Then, let them know why you think this happened and what you did or would do better next time.
Another important tip is to choose weaknesses that are not necessarily relevant to the position. For example:
- Is this a hiring position, a sales position, or one that will require you to interact with new people on a regular basis? If not, then maybe mention that you used to be shy or may still be shy at times.
- Will I have to speak on stage or in front of the camera often? If not, you could say that you might get nervous before public speaking.
- Will you need to use certain software or hardware? If not, you can admit your inexperience with it. In that case, just make sure it's relevant to the conversation or you'll feel uncomfortable bringing it up in the first place.
"What are your strengths and weaknesses", why is this question so common?
By asking this question, interviewers can learn a lot about your personality, skills and application.
"Taking the time to ensure structure in each of the answers and that the desired outcome is positive, will help you make the best possible impression and stand out from other candidates," mentions the CEO.
About this author
President of Hays Canada & CCO, Hays Americas
Travis is a Marketing graduate from Fanshawe College and was the 2023 recipient of their Distinguished Alumni Award. He joined Hays after holding various leadership roles elsewhere in the Canadian staffing industry. Travis setup and established Hays' outsourced talent solutions business and played an integral role in building Hays’ temporary and contract divisions throughout Canada. Initially joining Hays with a deep background in Technology, he holds extensive cross functional knowledge to provide clients with talent solutions in Financial Services, Energy, Mining, Manufacturing, Retail, and the Public Sector.